Satan’s Rock

Part Forty

El Hacienda

Around a bend in the desert road, and still practically within sight of Al Khubar’s  South City business district, a white-walled hacienda-style estate lay sprawled upon rising ground against a backcloth of illuminated gardens.    Bourta and Yahedi  were chauffeured alongside its least elevated boundary wall, which was yet high enough to obstruct their vision of the villa at its heart.   They would not pursue this parallel path for long.   Two pillars crowned by sculptures of rampant lions framed bronzed double gates which parted expectantly as their limousine approached.  Closed windows, bullet-proof and sound-proof, stifled Yahedi’s vocal outrage at this lurid display from the hearing of the armed guards, who waved them through.

 Beyond, a driveway affecting to be made of crazy pavement led between cypress trees for some two hundred metres before it swept onto the forecourt area of the house. Blank stucco walls, interspersed with little windows of one-way glass stared out upon two other limousines, already drawn up before theirs..  A small group of figures, maybe four or five, were gathered in the luminescence of an open portico which admitted visitors to the inner courtyard.    The driveway ran with a thin film of water just deep enough to splash almost musically up into the wheel arches of the Mercedes as it passed.   To either side, huge fountains of irrigating water thrashed to and fro, symbolic of wealth the owner of this house must possess to defend himself and all that was his against the ravages of the desert sun.    In the Kingdom, water was as negotiable, and as valuable, as gold.   You had to have money to get it, you had to have connections and power in order to keep it.

At the margin of the forecourt, Bourta commanded: “Stop!”  

Unspeaking, their driver drew the Mercedes to a halt, as, of one accord, Yahedi and Bourta opened their respective doors to slide out of the car, whilst keeping the bullet-proofed metal of the doors between them and their welcoming committee.  Instantly the night chill of the desert caught them.  Feet braced upon the stone of the driveway, handmade leather shoes gently moistened by the water on the driveway, they waited.

For what seemed like minutes, nothing happened.   The decanted passengers from the other limousines, men expensively tailored, women glistening in very western fashion, idled through pools of conversation as they filtered into the belly of the villa and their transports moved away; until the few who remained, clearly staff, were free to focus entirely upon the hardened assassins.  Neither Bourta nor Yahedi showed any intention of leaving the protection of their shielding doors, and their driver sat impassively waiting.   A protocol long understood by those who guard and those who are guarded was being meticulously observed.  At what seemed to be an agreed moment, one member of the welcoming party, a rotund figure of cummerbund and shining face, spread his hands to show he was unarmed, and kept them spread as he walked carefully forward.  His voice had an almost febrile pitch:  “We should have insisted you leave your arms at the gate, yes?”

“Far enough!”   Yahedi said quietly.

The approaching man nodded, standing still.   “Salaiman Yahedi, Mahennis Bourta.   Welcome, my brothers:  advance in peace.”

“Abu Khubis.”   Yahedi had recognised the voice.  “Why are we brought here?”

“To meet with the Crown Prince, Salaiman.   He rests here tonight.”

At this, the tensions in the air seemed to disperse.   Mahennis Bourta’s wide slit of a mouth broke into a demonic grin.   “Khubis, you will never know how close you were to losing your manhood then.”

Abu Khubis nodded towards the villa roof, at its extreme eastern and western points where the moonlight reflected softly from the two AK 47s which were trained upon them.    “Nor you to yours.”  He said brightly.  “Come, my friends.  You are awaited.”

As Salaiman and Mahennis moved to join Khubis, their limousine whispered away from behind them to be parked in twilight with the other cars.   Inside, its driver allowed himself to exhale for the first time in what seemed like an hour.   Just once in a while in his drudge of a job, there were moments. This was one.  Light of heart, he sampled the exquisite pleasure of a breath he thought he might never take.

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway.  Here, Yahedi and Bourta mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A blue, subtly under-lit pool occupied almost all space, sloped at its front edge, inviting easy access to its central depths.  As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of liquid gold cascaded or sprayed. Around the margin of the pool there was laid a wide apron in a continuous mosaic of mythic sea creatures in blue and gold,  from which the level rose in six even stages into those salons and apartments which surrounded it.  At this hour these rooms, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole space in warm, gently humid air.      Although the glazing might have been layered for soundproofing its principle function was privacy, for gas between its layers would cloud if the rooms’ occupants so wished, veiling them from prying eyes.

            On the pool’s eastern side a mosaic walkway joined a bridge to a central island where was set a table, some upholstered chairs, and a mountain of casually scattered silk cushions.   At the sight of the figure reclining amongst these the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though this was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it had not the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features bore arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company.  This was not the Crown Prince Shumal:  this was his older brother, and the heir to the throne of Khubar.  This was El Saada. 

#

In late afternoon an oppressive silence clung to the cloister’s grey stones, only broken once and again by a door slam as some cathedral servant or other emerged unwillingly into its icy precincts.    They would pass through with a spatter of chill-hastened footsteps, to be quickly snapped up by a further door. Sagging gutters dripped steadily, their issue tracing ice-fringed paths to interlace among the grey flags.    It was too late in the year to draw tourists to this sombre shade: too cold for the middle-aged woman with her rubbings, or contemplative strolls of the residing clergy.   Notwithstanding the view the cloister offered of the South Tower, now glowing a gentle pink in late afternoon sun, or the filtered wafts of choral plainsong from the cathedral school, its walks were deserted, its sculpted tombs and memorials unremarked.   The two men seated upon a grey stone settle there were alone in the most absolute sense; their words, hushed with conspiracy, sinking without echo in the damp air.

“Apparently there is to be a meeting.”  Bishop Harkness said, his hawk nose at real risk of frostbite despite swathes of scarf and his huge overcoat:   “Between King Assan of Al Khubar, the American Senator, Goodridge, and some other personage whose identity we have not established yet, but of sufficient worth to lend credibility.”

The monk studied his feet.   A  Chaffinch feeding in the frost-tipped grass regarded him warily.  “So, a political bun-fight?  Which is of what significance to us/”

“The venue will be St. Benedict’s Rock.  It cannot be coincidence.  There is an agenda here.”  The Bishop’s sharp gaze did not miss a twitch of his companion’s eyebrow, “You smile, Brother?  Does this amuse you?”

“No, no!”  The monk demurred; “Although the choice of venue is certainly surprising.  I merely thought of the irony:  we have always seen preferential access to the Holy Stones as culmination of our mission to convert the Moslem to the true faith;  what if the Moslems got there first?  I digress; agenda for whom, I wonder?  King Assan’s well-being is a somewhat temporary thing, is it not?”

“Something of a miracle.”  Bishop Harkness agreed heavily.   “In remission, conveniently pre-empting a forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election.  I am deeply, deeply suspicious of it:  the powers in his administration are aware of The Stones, I’m certain.  How much more do they know, is what we have to ask.”

“One suspects very little,”   The monk raised that sardonic eyebrow again:  “As agency to avert one of their professional assassination attempts, perhaps:  not much more.  Although, if this specific  Middle Eastern presence on The Rock constitutes itself as I predict, it might attract the attention of the Egyptian Portal sect.”

“Their devotion is not dissimilar to our own,”  Agreed the Bishop levelly; “I would be better content if this were not a political gathering of such obvious sensitivity.  Again, I ask, to fit with whose agenda?   If it’s one of those blessed Ethereals driving this, what possible motive can it have?  We may be missing something – this might be the precise reason the stones are awake.”

“Senator Goodridge is a Republican, is he not?”  The monk smiled indulgently,  “Surely, Bishop, our God is a Democrat?”

Harkness’s features were insufficiently exposed for the monk to tell if his companion had taken his bait.   When the Bishop made no reply, he went on:  “The girl – have we found her yet?”

“No, we have not.”  Muttered the Bishop; “I am not discouraged.  Whoever has her, she must surface soon.”

#

As had recently become his custom, Marak stayed late at the King Abur Hospital.  On this particular night Lindemann, the doctor in charge of Melanie Fenton’s care, made a point of  expressing his concern.

“The poor child has gone. There is no sign of mental activity.  Yes, there are anomalies, but of brain-death I am certain.  What we do here is ethically wrong. I assume she will still be a juvenile, with a family somewhere?  They should be informed, Marak, and soon.”

Later that evening, those remarks had formed the substance of a telephone conversation with Prince Shumal.  The Prince’s response was predictable. 

“If the girl is dead, then she is dead.  But she is not dead, Marak.  While she still breathes while there is hope, would you have me sanction her death?”

“This is medical opinion, Highness.   I fear there is no prospect of recovery in even the smallest measure. Her family must be inormed.”

Shumal did not reply for a moment.  At length he said:  “Did we expect too much?”

It was a curious, almost fatalistic question; was it merely rhetorical?   Marak thought not.  There was something in Shumal’s voice.   “Okay.  Like this, she is of no use to us.  

 Twenty-four hours then, Marak.”

“In which case, her family must certainly be informed forthwith.”

“That would be problematic for us all.”

“Your Highness, Lindemann will not be complicit in withholding such information.  He will see it as tantamount to murder!”

“Marak, Marak!  We have not murdered her!  We have done all we can to save her!  In her country she is listed as missing, is she not?  No-one knows where she is; or whether she is alive or dead?  Is it not essential to us all she remains that way?   Police, Press, politocians – awkward explanations?  At this critical time?   Pull the damn plug, man! Allow her the dignity of death.”

“If that is your wish, Highness.”   Marak stared at the lifeless figure amidst its bulrush cradle of tubes and lines, listened to the shallow, assisted breaths as they pumped out their rhythm, for what he felt would be a final time.  He could scarcely recognise in this dried husk the vital girl with the hungry eyes of just three months ago.  He sought in vain some tiny sign, some memory of movement., but found none.  Very well; he would call Lindemann tonight with the Prince’s verdict, and no doubt LIndemann would take his protest back to the Prince, but when Shumal reached a decision there was no possibility of change.   Melanie’s family would never know what became of their daughter.   For himself, his vigil ended here:  he would not return to this sad room, but when, tomorrow, the time came, he would pray for her.   Filled with a deep sense of failure, he turned and walked away.

Word was handed down from Lindemann’s high office.   This would be the last night.   Nurses drew screens around the inert creature in the bed to bathe it, then, finally, because there was really so little to be done, withdrew.  A pair of administering angels remained in accordance with their superiors’ command.   For a while, with the screens back, they sat each side of  their patient;  they would do this for a day if their Prince commanded.   But they seemed unable to stay long in such proximity: soon, irresolute, they each stood, walked away, returned to their charge for a moment or two, then retreated once more.  There was a time when it might appear they, the nurses, might all be planets in orbit around the cold, dark sun which occupied the bed;  attracted yet repulsed, fearing to be too close, unable to leave.  But after all, it no longer really mattered.   At last one nurse made her excuses: her feet clacked briskly away across the shining floor and the doors digested her.  The remaining nurse hesitated in the middle of the room, then walked slowly to a couch upon its further side.   Here she sat, watchful.   The hours passed.

It was the afternoon of Melanie’s appointed day.   Lindemann had dropped into the intensive care ward, made a few necessary checks and departed with a promise to return at 5:30pm.  Only the nurse remained, idly browsing a magazine.  Periodically she would move to Melanie’s bedside, confirm the readings on the machines, examine the integrity of the tubing and its connections.  Once, an adrenaline bottle needed changing.   Behind the bed the picture window was full of dust-blue sky, darkening.    Afternoon sun cast a ribbon of light onto its occupant, light which flowed in a softly-defined river over the floor to make a shadow upon the opposing wall.  It projected a complex profile of bed and tubes, stems of long reeds which seemed to move, slightly, with the flexing of their lens.    Gradually these, in the dwindling light, began to fade until only the river of sun-glow remained.   The nurse looked up, slightly impatient that she could no longer read.   Then, like the throw of a switch, the sunlight was gone.

Lightning split the air.    A jagged saw-blade of blue light photographed the room.

A thunder bomb crashed against the window.   Startled, the nurse leapt to her feet, afraid its force might shatter the stalwart glass.   It did not.     A second lightning bolt followed the first, a second thunder-shock, as violent as the first.   And, when the lightning went, when the room was completely dark to human sight, there came the voice:

“Al-yannnn!  Aneyah!    Anye-caaaaa!”

Remembering her duty, the nurse rushed to ensure her patient was safe.   She got only halfway to the bed.

“Aateh!   Aateh!”

Rising from the sheets as though levitated by some invisible force, tubes radiating from her like snakes of Gorgon hair, Melanie Fenton stood erect.   The starved girl’s body seemed to crackle with static charge.  Her eyes were wide and unblinking, and her mouth was a yawning chasm from which the chant was pouring:    “Aa-aateh!  Aa-aateh!   Aa-aateh!”

The nurse stood rooted to the spot.   Like some terrible angel, refulgent in its own light, Melanie’s wasted form floated towards her.   In the middle of the royal floor, all professionalism forgotten, though she was one among the elite of nurses in the land, she gave way to abject fear.

© Frederick Anderson 2022.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Nine

Out of Dreams…

Could Peter reconcile himself to the extraordinary peace that came over him whenever Lesley was close by?  Maybe not.  Maybe his experience of love was not so deep he could harvest contentment there, although his reluctance to slip from  beside her already slumbering form in his bed generated a sweet longing which could not be in the least disturbed by an unmistakeable odour of root vegetables.  Nevertheless he had slept enough when she had not, so he left her to her rest.  There was much to do. 

There were so many questions to ask.   Once he had closed the door on the room Vincent had allocated to him it was easy to become intimidated and lost, for Crowley House’s interior, which upon his first visit had seemed a paragon of modern luxury, now tormented him with its maze of carpeted corridors, twisting past door after featureless door, cheaply reproduced plaster mouldings on granite plinths, and reproduction light fittings that conspired to throw him from his purpose.   The things about the house that had meaning for him were all nineteenth century features a contemporary architect had seen fit to bury:  he sought the honesty of that original regency chamber which had framed his vision of the lady who had called him Arthur.  The cavernous candle-lit space from which she had hailed him, even though he had only seen it in a mirror, had greater significance than this modern frippery.  He somehow guessed that if Simeon and Vincent succeeded in convening their ‘summit’ within these walls that would be their guests’ desire too; but for their own reasons.  Those who knew of the Truth Stone’s existence must surely hope it had suffered the minimum disturbance? 

 In Peter’s opinion if their hosts thought they could somehow control access to the ‘Stones’ they were deluded, although he had to admit Simeon seemed unlikely to fall victim to delusions. 

Once he had extricated himself from the temptations of his room, for reasons he might have found difficult to explain Peter headed not for the courtyard garden with its allure of exotic butterflies and mind-altering rock, but for the roof.  It was the right choice.  Emerging from narrow stairs into a chaotic acre of high chimneys and low lead guttering, the random pitches of a score of roofs made instant sense.  This was the glorious incompetence of Lord Crowley’s design made manifest, evidence of Quimple the architect’s genius in bringing it to fruition.   Yes, Matthew Ballantine’s efforts had resurrected the place from the ravages of the storm, but the handwriting of both the mad old general and his draughtsman’s masterwork was plain.

Beneath low grey cloud the winter air from the bay had a keen edge.  Peter sheltered from its worst afflictions by hunkering down on the landward side of one of the main chimneys and finding some warmth there, almost as if a fire burned in a grate somewhere below.  It was still too cold for comfort; too cold, almost, to think.  But he had much to think about.

In poor winter daylight the lights of the Lord Crowley Inn across the Causewaytwinkled like apologetic stars.  The ‘Lord Crowley’, one-time  ‘Roper’s Hotel’, where the old campaigner had pitched his tent for his assault upon the dignity of the rock.  There had been the ruins of a monasteryhere then – long abandoned, but once a source of powerful rumours – tales of Devil worship, even human sacrifice.     In a cave somewhere far beneath him the bones of Toqus, Crowley’s manservant, knelt in eternal atonement.  He knew how to find his way back to it, and so did Melanie, his erstwhile friend.  What made him think of that?  At this precise moment…

With nothing but the intimacy of an offshore breeze to punctuate his personal silence, Peter could feel at last as though some pieces of his jigsaw were falling into place. 

In his understanding those who, by living here, comprised some sort of guard around The Truth Stone were placed in two camps:  Toby and the dancing female figure in the  hill cottage were true residents and in the person of Toby, at least, well versed in the Rock’s history, though otherwise free of any active part in events, whereas  Vincent and Estelle had a more active role, close to Simeon and ready to follow his spiritual lead.

Peter’s father would have been gratified that his son had remembered ‘Simeon’ as a recurring presence in The Bible – mentioned in Genesis, present when Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem, a relation of the Christ child, and a church member in Antioch.  All individual people, of course, but Peter was reasonably convinced ‘Simeon’ had chosen the name as a nod towards his self-described entity as an ‘Ethereal’, one without a physical form and therefore impervious to the passage of time.   He could adopt various identities that would appear differently to different people: to Peter who needed his leadership he was the brilliant and misunderstood seagull, to Estelle just ‘Simon’,a messy, quarrelsome inconvenience, because that was all she needed.  

Vincent was the intermediary:  he had the wealth, the ways and means to make profound changes possible.  Vincent must understand the mission Simeon had given Peter – to read the lost messages of the Truth Stone and reset instinctive forces that had become drowned by the tidal waves of time.  Estelle should be his able lieutenant, although (so far) she seemed to share no such high ideals.  She was politically motivated, a missionary, whose ambitious ideas were helping to steer Vincent towards Simeon’s ‘summit’ meeting.  From all that had been said, Simeon would appear to go along with this idea, even favour it, and there Peter’s understanding hit a wall.  Why?  What was Simeon’s interest in bringing together these heads of states?  Did they have some function in the performance of communicating with the stones?   The timing was astute and there was every likelihood their summit would happen, but how did that benefit the grand plan?

“I’m a puppet!”  Peter shouted at the sky, “A passenger!  You’re using me, Simeon, and I want your reasons!  Come if you dare!  Come and answer!”

The sky made no reply.  There were few gulls about, and none with a tell-tale orange diamond on its neck.   Simeon was elsewhere.

At some point Peter must have closed his eyes, or conceded to the struggle in his brain.   He began to see himself as a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the wind; finding how little effort was needed to to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: he might even attune to the thoughts of his family inside.   Yet there were things he still could not do, answers down there he might not yet find:  and, although the wires of his soul glowed hot with all they had to watch and store, there was more room to learn:  there was a flame of frustration too.

That which followed did so with such subtlety he could not have said, exactly, when a change occurred.   One moment he was flying with the mad freedom of a bird in a gale, the next he was closeted inside a car again, just as he had been on the stormy night of his escape from Charlie and Klas, the denizens of the unmarked van.  He was seated with Toby at his side, squinting ahead into darkness.   He had just enough light to see they had safely clerared the Causeway and gained the road that climbed St. Benedict’s Rock, yet somehow the vivid glare of car headlights had reduced to a sorrowful glow which did little but throw vague shadows on the cliffside to the left, leaving the way in front mysteriously shrouded by night and rain.   Progress was much slower, also, as the wheels bumped and banged with metallic irritability over rough stone, tossing him less like an ocean swell than an unmade, mudded track.  Steadying himself against this gut-churning motion he pressed against the seat, which was hard leather, reaching for a grab-handle:  he found, instead, a heavy sash.

“What’s happened to the lights?”  He asked of Toby.   He was becoming aware of a pervasive smell of camphor.

“Lights?  What lights?”   The reply, unsteady with age, was not Toby’s voice.

“The headlights…..”   Peter’s words tailed away, acknowledging his foolishness.  For his eyes were becoming accustomed to the blackness; enough to see the outline of a swathed, sickly figure beside him.  This was not Toby: this was not the estate car with which he had just braved the wrath of Ocean.   This was a carriage, with a pair of horses to draw it, and headlights were oil-fed affairs in eighteen twenty-six.

“Don’t know what ye mean.   Head lights?  Have ye seen to me chair?   Is it at the gates?”  demanded Lord Crowley.

“Yes m’lord, it will be there.”   Peter knew that it would.   All accounts spoke of the old man being chair-born into his new house.  Lord Crowley fell silent.  Only his stentorian breaths could be heard above the grinding of wheels, the steady clack of hooves.   He seemed barely conscious, though whether comatose or merely dozing it was hard to tell.    After a while he emitted a tiny cry of distress.   This he repeated, as though talking in his sleep: soon recognisable words began to form.

“Don’t understand.  How could the mare do it to me, dammit?   How?”   Crowley’s wavering old voice asked of the wind and darkness.   “How can a woman….how can she?”

Rain beat against the glass of the carriage window, seeped around its wooden frame. The carriage dropped into a pothole with a sickening lurch.   The coachman cursed.   Peter reached out quickly to prevent his companion’s fragile form from toppling sideways.  There was so little weight in Crowley’s spare carcass he might have re-balanced him with a finger!   He settled the old man into a better position, tucking his rugs and blankets around him and.   Crowley seemed to recover himself for a moment, opening his tiny, almost sightless eyes.

“Thank ye.  That’ll do well.  Thank ye.”   Then he lapsed back into whatever chasm of his mind he called home.   He said nothing more, even when his carriage turned a final bend and the eccentric vista of his Great House opened out before it:  a grotesque shadow silhouetted by intermittent flickerings and glare from the troubled sky.   It is doubtful if he saw it.   Three servants greeted them as they drew up by the main door; their bodies huddled around a wicker wheelchair.  Between them they manoeuvred their master from the carriage, battling with its heavy door as it slammed back and forth in the storm.  Once, at least, this loosened beast escaped attention for long enough to deal the old Lord a heavy blow.   Peter felt this as if it was his own back that was smitten.  He was, for a brief while, inside Crowley’s body.   He felt everything:  the age, the pain, the hopeless despair of a man who has loved someone and lost them.

The grip of a  hand on his shoulder brought him to himself.  Lesley’s bright face was all the more illuminating against a grey winter sky.   “Hey, Pete, you alright mate?”

“Good, I guess!”  He said.

“You don’t look it.  You look like a dropped Raspberry Ripple!”  Better get you inside…”

#

At moon-rise over the Gulf the Khubali royal family’s helicopter chuttered homeward, its silhouette a little black wasp in the silver reflections on the sea.   The pilot did not disguise his relief at seeing the towers of the Hyatt and the King Abur Hospital, with their red navigation lights pass beneath him. He was, of necessity, a quiet, respectful man:  the seats behind him had supported many a crowned head, and conversation was not a strong suit in the Khubali Royal family.   Rarely, though, had he felt afraid of his passengers.   There was some quality, some undeniable menace, in the two figures seated at his back:  a malign presence which made the hair on the back of his neck prickle, made the sweat bead coldly on his forehead.   The creature to his left, a granite tower of a man, whose scars etched out the story of his life, sat in silence, hands clenching and unclenching to a secret inner rhythm.   To his right a slender, urbane figure, who might be a businessman on his way to a conference, a gunrunner or a common thief.   His unassuming appearance did nothing to betray his calling in life; nothing until, as the pilot had done, you looked into his eyes and saw the ice of death within.   Neither had spoken since he met them from the Prince’s private jet at Tehran.   The Prince’s army was small, select, and usually unspeaking.   Yet wordless as they were, the emanations of threat from these two killers were the most dreadful he had met.

They landed upon the helipad of a wealthy landowner a dozen miles north of the city, on the desert fringe.   Here, a quiet Mercedes glided to meet them.   Bourta and Yahedi slipped easily from the helicopter, to be whisked away.     The pilot saw them go without regret.  They had not thanked him, or exchanged a word; but they had not shot him either.  For this, he extended his own unspoken gratitude.   He had no doubt, if the covert nature of this journey were important enough, that he would be dead by now.

In the car, Salaiman Yahedi threw Bourta a questioning glance.  Few would venture to judge the granite man, at least within his earshot, but the marksman wondered, not for the first time, why he had permitted a witness to live.

“We leave a trail.”  Bourta said quietly.   “I know this.”

“The woman, the pilots?”

“I think, brother, it is meant to be so.   It is the will of Allah.”

Yahedi thought, privately, that he had no wish of his own to join Bourta in his quest for paradise.   “You seek this, then?”

“The royal pilots?  You would have us eliminate them?   Do we not have troubles enough?  No, I do not seek my martyrdom;  but I accept it if my master demands.”

The limousine whispered over the midnight sand.   Salaiman sighed.    “Ah, if only we knew:  who are our masters, Mahennis?  Tell me that.”

“Maybe not the ones we supposed?”   Bourta said quietly.   He was leaning forward as he spoke, his fingers running over the lower extremities of the partition which separated them from their driver, a sullen, moustachioed man of uncertain race or age.

“It will be armoured”.   Yahedi confirmed, speaking of the glass.  “Have we changed our route?”

Bourta nodded.   “The road to the West Town passed by us a kilometre since.   This is not a road I know.”

“We do not go to the Palace, then.”  The pair exchanged glances.  Salaiman reached down to the case at his feet, opening the latch with extreme care.  One by one he extracted the sections of the weapon it contained, passing them below the level of his knees to Bourta, who methodically assembled each piece.   In a matter of seconds, the big Algerian had a fully-primed sub-machine gun on his lap.   Two grenades lay on the seat to Yahedi’s left:  an automatic pistol rested beneath his hand.

There was an intercom.   Mahennis Bourta switched it on.   “Where are you taking us?”   He asked the driver, quietly.

If the moustachioed man had noticed the unsubtle change of atmosphere in the passenger compartment behind him, he did not show any sign of it.   His glance in the mirror was perfunctory, his answer non-committal.   “Not far.   Two minutes, that is all.”

Bourta smiled:  the slow, glittering ice-smile many had seen, few lived to remember.  “Drive carefully, friend.   Drive very carefully.”

The driver made no answer.

“Look in your mirror.”

When he did as he was bidden, he saw Bourta’s big hands clasping the black shadows of the two grenades.   Their message was unavoidable.

“Stop when we tell you to stop, O.K?    Or we all will meet in Paradise.”

The driver seemed unperturbed.    He merely nodded.

© Frederick Anderson 2022.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Four

Candle in the Window

Morning discovered Peter Cartwright at the window of his room in St. Benedict’s House, staring back across the water at Levenport Esplanade’s bleary late autumn awakening.   Tenuous rays of sun washed the hills above the town a limpid glow, while familiar landmarks on the waterfront, the Causeway Café and the Lord Crowley Inn, still languished in grey pre-dawn anonymity.  His eyes had struggled to focus for a minute or two, as the indistinct outline of one window on the first floor of the Inn fuelled his curiosity.  Was there the faintest reflexion from behind the glass; a glow that at once seemed dim and warm – a candle, perhaps??

He needed no extra diversions of this kind:  his mind was full enough, what with his worry for his parents, who in his mind’s eye languished in a cell awaiting MI5  interrogation, Lesley, his girlfriend, and a vividly curious dream of a child found abandoned in a box, afloat on the lake at Crowley House.  Melanie would have divined the meaning of the dream, had she been close by.   That was her part of the ‘gift’ that held them both in its grasp –  unravelling the nonsense of his visions, finding the simple message at their heart.  In his dream Melanie HAD been there, holding the spyglass in the trees across the lake, she had seen all that he saw.  She would know, and if he could only open his mind he was sure she would tell him what it all meant.  Could the foundling answer the mystery of that unmarked coffin in the Crowley family crypt; a coffin that contained only rocks?  Melanie would know.  Last night the communication between them had been as clear as if she had been standing at his side, yet today she was silent.  It was early morning, still.  He told himself the only barrier between them was sleep.

With the encroaching sun the far-off candle-glow in the Inn window faded to nothing.  Whose hand had held it?    Was there a message there for him?  As the profile of the old Inn became more distinct,  Peter dug into his mental archives.  Although in its current manifestation it was styled ‘The Lord Crowley’ the building’s history predated His Lordship by a few centuries; back, in fact, to Carolingian days when it was known fashionably as ‘Roper’s Hotel’.  Lord Crowley himself had stayed there while St. Benedict’s House was being built which, Peter supposed, inspired the Inn’s eventual change of name, although it was still ‘Roper’s’ until after the Crimean War.  So was the bearer of that extinguished light the same lady who, in this very room the previous night, he had hear  cry out the name of ‘Arthur’ in such despair?  There were more questions than answers, Peter decided, but at least some sort of cohesion was beginning to emerge.  He had expected no less:  the rock. The Truth Stone which Simeon believed held all of the answers may have seemed to be inert, but it lay waiting for him, right beneath his feet.

When had he slept again?  When had he returned to bed; or had he only witnessed the flickering candle in another dream?   The hand shaking his shoulder was Estelle’s.   She was wearing the same, gentle, self-conscious smile.

“Hey, Peter?  ‘Morning, hon.   “I brought you tea. Come down and join us when you’re ready, huh?   No rush.”

Vincent and Estelle were waiting in the room where Peter had first met Alice the spider-woman, news of whose subsequent brutal fate Howard had broken.    For Peter it made breakfast a sombre affair. 

 “Back again, then mate?”  Vincent’s greeting had real warmth.  His left hand was bandaged.

“He just about got himself struck by lightning last night.”  Estelle explained.

Vincent grinned:    “Took a Stratocaster up on the roof.  Silly bugger, aren’t I?”  

A big television screen on the far wall unobtrusively fed the room with a background of incessant ‘news’.    In Crowley’s time, Peter had to remind himself, the opiate of the people had been gin.

For a while they ate together in silence:  then Vince said:  “Have a look at this, Peter.”

He turned up the volume.  The screen showed a vast stadium in the United States jammed to the doors with cheering people.  

“It’s the Republican Convention,”  Estelle said.  “See if you can see a familiar face or two, huh?”

The actor dominating the stage at that moment was certainly familiar.   He was introducing a Presidential candidate, in an acclamation which, without newsroom cutting, would have lasted ten minutes.   At its close a band struck up enthusiastically, the crowd surged forward, cheering rose to an organised crescendo.   JD, as Senator Goodridge liked to be known, emerged from a throng of distinguished well-wishers, pumping hands, exchanging greetings, smiling and waving his way along an expertly choreographed path to the microphones.   

“Recognise him, Peter?”   Vincent asked.

“I know who he is.”  Peter acknowledged.   “He’s the bloke the bullet missed.”

“And our bastion of freedom for the next eight years.”   Estelle commented, with just a hint at irony.

“There’s a Democratic candidate though, isn’t there?” Peter asked.

“Sure.  Senator Wilmott, the man from Illinois.  A real turned-on guy.  If he doesn’t trip over something before November fourth, he might just have an outside chance.”   Estelle shook her head.  “The man makes massive mistakes and the media know it.  If he don’t make one by himself they’ll trap him some way.   And they’re right, of course.  Wilmott shouldn’t be President.”

“Should Goodridge?”  Peter asked.

The news programme had meandered away from American politics to a local news item about a stolen hearse, which had been recovered, complete with coffin, from a service area on the motorway north of Levenport.  Vince turned the television down. “Prob’ly not, Pete.”

“Better or worse, Goodridge’s kind of a big change of direction in US foreign policy.”  Estelle said.   “He heads a gang of politicos, most of who seem to be either driven by extreme self-interest or religious fervour.   When that guy gets the reins, he’s going to shift American power eastward.   JD’s Crusade, they’re calling it, but that’s boloney.  He’s after the rich oil states of the Gulf: of course he is – he owns half of GAM  Oil.  

“Khubar’s the obvious first move – the old King is seriously ill, mostly only a figurehead.   El Saada, his eldest son, well, he is just so not the son of his father.   Very pro-American, lots of US connections, very ready to open the door to a big US deal.   The king is almost certain to die in the next year, and when he does….”

“When he does, Goodridge will move in on El Saada.”  Vince took up the thread.  “He has to, mate, ‘cause if he doesn’t, El Saada’s own brother will, within the year.  Prince Shumal is twice the leader Saada could be, and his politics are the exact opposite of his brother.   It was Shumal’s operative who missed J.D. in London – he hates America and everything she stands for.  Goodridge’s implacable enemy.”

Peter was listening carefully, trying to absorb the substance of the argument:   “Are you saying maybe saving Senator Goodridge wasn’t such a good thing after all?”

Vince shook his head. “I wish I knew.”

“Simeon would know,”  Peter thought.

Estelle laughed.  “Simon?  You only met that goddam human jelly once, and already you’re a Believer?  What’s that creature got the rest of the world doesn’t know about?”

Vincent was less scathing.  Peter could see he had posed a question that was troubling him.   “Simon?  Let’s leave out the Biblical references and call him that.”

“Mabe we shouldn’t?”  Peter interrupted.  His father had not entirely failed in instilling some religious knowledge into his pre-college years.  Sometimes there was special significance to be found in  a name. 

Vincent caught his look; “Right!  Sure, man.  See, the thing about Simeon and his cabal is their ineffable bloody rightness.   They – you, I suppose – know exactly which side to pick.”

“Or think they do,”  Estelle chipped in, with a hint of warning in her voice.  “And there’s nothing Biblical about that jelloid.  He’s just plain obscene!”

“Or think they do,” Vince repeated.  “The rest of us poor eejits stumble along in the dark.”

“If it’s any consolation,”  Peter said miserably.   “It all seems as much a mystery to me as it does to you.”

Estelle began gathering the breakfast things:  “The way I heard it tell,” she said, “You’re supposed to have the gift of sight.   A lot of lives are gonna hinge on our hope that you do.”  

“You think Goodridge is about to start a war?”  Peter wanted to respond in more depth, yet there seemed no point in attempting to explain:  the sounds and pictures in his head, the voices, had nothing to do with Middle Eastern politics or the US Republican Convention; they had to do with the ancient Lord Crowley, and a deeply religious farmer of his time who raised a foundling child.

“Here’s the thing, Pete:” It was Vince’s voice, in there with the others.   “Shumal knows the score.    Assassinate JD on the eve of his Presidency he’ll get his war anyway, whether he wants it or not.  But if he doesn’t and El Saada becomes King, Goodridge gets control of his country, and he’ll never get him out.   Shumal will make a move.   We have to find out what, how and when, and try to stop it happening.   Only this time we don’t have anyone on the ‘inside’, no idea what he is going to try, how or when.   We just don’t have a clue.  We needed your help before, but the stakes are a lot higher now.  You’re the front line, if you see what I mean?”

Peter nodded dumbly.

“And that;”  Said Vincent in a way that demanded Peter’s undivided attention;  “Is why I’m back here and not cowering in the frozen North.”

 “Now see, this is Simon’s idea.”   Estelle chipped in, and, again with her unique gift of irony:  “It always is.  Suppose we could set up a meeting of all the principals?   Here, on the rock?  If Goodridge and the old King got a chance to tie things up with a quiet agreement, before Saada becomes ruler or the Presidency gets in the way?  A nice, peaceful, under the table solution!    Seems to be that the rock is in the middle of all this, though what a lump of granite on the south coast of chilly old UK has to do with a Middle Eastern implosion I don’t know, but it’s for sure the reason Simon and his old ‘stone librarians’ are interested.   Bring ‘em to the rock!   Draw the vermin out into the open.”  

Vincent said:  “It’s a pie in the sky idea, Pete.  But for some reason Simeon – Simon – whatever you call him thinks it’ll work.  I’m to try to convene a meeting between Goodridge and the King of Khubar, with their advisors, right here in St. Benedict’s House.  Simeon thinks we need to bring matters to a head, and, if we can, do it on our terms.  That’s the best way.  He’s solidly behind it, I think he’s mad.”

“He’s not mad,”  Peter said grimly,  “He’s right.   Khubar ‘ll come.”

“Why?  I don’t get it!”

“Because if Saada has Melanie, and I’m almost sure he does, Saada already knows about the Truth Stone  – why else would he want her? .  And he’ll work it out – if I’m here, if this is where I made the first connection to Godrfidge’s assassination attempt, he’ll put two and two together and he’ll come, and Goodridge will follow where he leads, full security and sackloads of guns on both sides.  You could even involve the dear old Rock in a full-scale war!  But if you think you can control the agenda – if you think power-broking will be the reason El Saada, particularly, comes – you’ll be wrong, Vince.   A deal with Goodridge is neither one way or the other to him; that isn’t what he wants.”

“Worth a go!”  Vince said cheerfully.  Then, after a pause,  “Alright mate, what d’you think he wants?”

“He wants access to the warm rock – The Truth Stone.   But I thought the authorities were after you for aiding my ‘escape’?  How are you going to organise something like that with the police chasing you?”

Vince tapped the side of his nose.  “Haven’t called yet, have they?   Not battering the door down.  I’ve got friends, mate. Guys a couple of steps up the ladder:  oh, not the sort you call in favours from, but friends nonetheless.  There’s one hell of an attraction to brokering a meeting like that, even if it’s low key: getting a percentage, yeah?   And this guy’s a specialist.  I reckon I can do it.  No-one’s going to pull me if I’m working on a nice big earner for the State, especially with him.   One problem, though.”

He sat on the edge of the breakfast table, rubbing his chin with those long, artistic fingers of his.  “The old geyser, His Majesty.   Will he be too ill to travel?  And if we’re going for the kind of agreement that gets these guys interested, Saada won’t do as a substitute. (unless they crown him first, of course).”

“Well then nothing can be done.”

“No?”   Vincent engaged Peter with one of his deeper looks:   “I sort of maybe think there can….

“In the meantime,” he went on; “We have to keep you out of the hands of the spooks for a while.   We reckon here, mate – we’ll have to shift you up the back and out the way, but this place’s big enough to hide anyone.  Like I said, they won’t break the door down, but they might try something by a back way, if you see what I mean.  Do you mind stayin’ with us for a while?”

“Mind?”  Peter could not resist a weary smile.  “No, I think I’ll manage”

It was late afternoon.    Peter was ensconced in a small suite beneath the Great House’s western tower, on the third floor and overlooking the sea.  Vincent had left for some meeting or other, Estelle was busy in the kitchen, and he was already feeling trapped.   Having at last forfeited any pretence at independence: Peter’s fate now lay, he knew, in the hands of others and he must wait to see what that meant.   He had made his choice.

He stared from the window, his gaze elevated to a vast, unclouded sky of the softest blue.   Up there, birds flocked in undistinguishable thousands, up there was freedom; limitless, untrammelled liberty from the weight he bore.   Scything across the void, a tiny, pencil-thin sliver of an aircraft, thousands of feet overhead, glowed rose pink in the sunlight.

Peter’s eyes were drawn to it, and as he watched he felt his head suddenly clear. A picture, a scene, a succession of images entered his brain.   There was no doubting what he saw.   There was no disputing the answers it provided.    The need to share them gathered in tiny shimmers in a deep dark corner of his mind.  They grew there, feeding from each other, spinning together, forming threads.  First they were just a few, a few coincidences of space and time; but soon they became thousands, then tens of thousands.   Had he more experience, he would have recognised the warp that was forming; he might have tidied it, given it shape, allowed the weft that he knew he held to bind it together.  He did not.   Instead, he gave way to his need to share, not to be alone with this immensity anymore.    So he wrapped the unwoven turmoil up within his head then propelled it like a ball into the ether.  Only as the burden left him did he fully understand its size, the fearful power he had emitted, so that at once he tried to regain it, draw it back to him, but it was too late.   The rock beneath his feet , the Truth Stone that he had come to read, had found him.  Peter sank back onto his bed, exhausted and full of dread for what he had done.

Melanie sat couched in luxurious calf-skin leather.   She raised her wineglass to her lips, aware that Marak, who sat facing her, was speaking, but not really hearing him.  Melanie had not tasted many wines as rich as this, her second that afternoon, so she felt a little fuzzy, and the background drone of the aircraft’s engines were mesmeric when blended with good wine.   She found fascination in the movement of the Arab’s mouth as he spoke, one moment wide and thin, the next pouting and sensual:  his voice was intense with emotion as he expounded the true questions as he saw them;  western capitalist evil, the infection of materialism, the rape of his Moslem world.   His stare was stern and keen, a-glint with profundity, but the wisdom of The Toa seemed forgotten; a new, more insidious philosophy stood in its place.

‘Why me?’ Her inner thoughts persisted.  ‘Why am I here with this magnificent man?” And:  ‘Does he really believe I can do anything without Peter beside me?’

“Why do you look at me that way?”   She surprised herself with the boldness of her question, but his diatribe had become unpleasant to her, and she had to break into it.  She had already acknowledged that Marak was something other than he pretended.

At her question, Marak ceased speaking and broke into a smile.   “I am boring you.  I can be – how would you express it? – overpowering.”   He leant forward, elbows resting upon the table which separated their seats.  “Do I look at you in a ‘way’?   In what ‘’way’?”

“Sort of – sadly; a little cynically, perhaps.”

“Ah.  And you really want to know the answer to this?”

“Please.”

Marak drew her gaze, reaching forward to lift her chin with the fingers of his right hand.   He said:   “Because you are beautiful, Melanie Fenton.   And because your eyes recall someone I once loved.”

Her heart beat wildly.  She drew back, foraged for her self-possession among the ruins he had just made.   Quick to interpret her discomfiture, Marak rose from his seat.

“I shall leave you for a while.  Look down, if it pleases you; I have instructed the pilot to follow a certain course.  Try to rest.”

Melanie looked through her window to a sun-jewelled sea far below, a shoreline at the sight of which her heart filled, because she knew it was Levenport – there, the town, and somewhere there, too small for the naked eye, her home; her mum, all she remembered and loved.   There, too, the rock of Old Ben with St. Benedict’s House at its summit, surprisingly meek and small from her lofty perch.  For some reason there was a light there she felt she must focus on, one tiny dot, one window among the hundreds.    And as she complied; as she did that, her mind exploded.

© 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.