Satan’s Rock

Part Forty-One

Audience with a Prince

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway, where the killers Yahedi and Bourta had bowed to superiority and 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 large, subtly under-lit  kidney-shaped pool tenanted by ornamental fish occupied all space, save for a surrounding walkway paved in mosaic of blue and gold. At about two-thirds of the pool’s length away from the visitors a low bridge formed a crossing to a central island where seating and cushions offered luxurious rest beneath lighting that was softly tinted and discreet.    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 crystal clear water cascaded or sprayed.  To either side  salons and apartments, 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 courtyard in warm, gently humid air.      The glazing was layered for soundproofing, with gas between the layers which would cloud when charged with electricity, so when the rooms’ occupants wished it, privacy could be provided at a button’s touch.

            Persuaded forward by two armed escorts, Bourta and Yahedi took in all these testaments to the fabulous wealth of the villa’s owner, but their focus of attention quickly fell upon the sole occupant of the island, whose eyes had watched them from the moment they crossed the threshold. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst a mountain of silk cushions the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though the figure beckoning them to approach was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it was not of the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features exuded arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crooked Prince Shumal, but his older brother, and the rightful heir to the throne of Khubar.

 This was El Saada.

 “Two fine heroes!  Welcome!”   The Crown Prince’s voice was sing-song and cracked.  “Join me, please.   We will take tea.”

 “Discourse upon some matters is difficult.”  Said the Prince in his brittle voice, after the escorts had withdrawn and his visitors settled, hesitantly, each upon a chair.  “We must know whom we trust.   That is why I have had you intercepted on your journey to meet my brother.  That is why I brought you directly to me”

Yahedi and Bourta exchanged glances.  Neither man spoke.  Their allegiance to Shumal, the crooked Prince, would be known to Saada, as would Shumal’s implacable hatred for his brother.   Only Saada’s heavy security, with perhaps a little diplomatic expedience, kept him alive.   What force of necessity had led him to meet two of Shumal’s most dangerous assassins face to face?

“And is this ‘interception’,” Mahennis Bourta’s voice cut the air like the stroke of a scimitar:  “Wise, Highness?”

El Saada could not fail to sense so fatal a chill:  “I see I have chosen well. Touch me, my dear, and you will not live another breath.”

Salaiman Yahedi smiled a steel smile, his fingers feeling out the end of a cheese wire garrotte he kept sewn into the undersleeve of his jacket;  “But if this one breath is so sweet, El Saada:  why should it not be the last?”

The heir to the throne of Khubar was not a nerveless man; he needed all his royal breeding, all his belief in his own infallibility, not to fail at this moment.  If he had not known he was holding two tigers by their tails, the glint in Yahedi’s eye would convince him.  

The Crown Prince went on huriedly:  “Let me make an explanation.  When my spies inform me you are returning to our land, I see an opportunity.  Yes, I do!   I see you as my messengers, my ambassadors, even.”

Bourta interrupted dourly.  “You want us to give a message to who?  Your brother?”

“Exactly him!  My brother yes.”  The Crown Prince confirmed enthusiastically.  “More than a message, in the matter of a fact:  I want you to tell him we must put our differences aside and be working together, pretty damn soon, too.”

“Why do you need us, Your Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi permitted himself use of the accepted royal address,  “ A simple message, surely?  An email, a text?”

“Yes, yes, that might be fine.  That might suffice, yes.”  The Prince sat for a moment, his jaw clenched, staring at the koi carp in the pool.  They stared back.  “This thing I am thinking,”  He said at last,  “Is that we should all the time be working together, but he will not hear me.  My own brother disrespects me, he will not listen.  He trusts you; you are his friends.  To you he will listen.”

“Does this have any bearing on the nation’s finances, Your Highness?”  Yahedi asked quietly, “Because…”

“No, no.  Worse.  Far worse.”

“How, then?”

Saada leaned forward, dropping his voice.  “Our father the King is well enough to travel.   It is a great mystery!  He claims he was woken from his sleep by a seabird of marvellous white plumage, I ask you!  The bird has told him he will travel to England, of all places.  And the next day – the very next – he is invited to some godforsaken place to meet with the English Crown Prince and – well, how should I tell you?   The American Senator, Mr bloody Goodridge!”

Yahedi frowned, waiting for the information to make sense.  It didn’t.   The name ‘Goodridge’ struck a chord, though.  That man had already dodged his bullet once, and he was fairly sure Shumal would not want him to miss a second time:  or had the  priorities altered?

 The Prince went on:  “Next year, Senator Goodridge will become President Goodridge.  For once my crooked brother and I are in agreement, or would be if I could damn well speak to him:  this must not happen! But this meeting, this cozy little chatty- chat with my father on an English rock, is almost upon us!  For my father, an alliance with this soon-to-be POTUS person would be so fine – a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished service for his country; for us, though, bloody disaster!  It will be my father’s last great act of statesmanship.  He signs a contract with Goodridge to allow the American’s GAM Oil Corporation drilling rights for three new sites in Al Khubar.  Mr oh-so-ambitious Goodrige will gain an interest in the City State’s existing wells and refineries.  In return, Al Khubar will offer Goodridge the land at Dhobattli Point for an American military base.  By this we would gain western protection, the  premium US market for our oil and endless opportunities for trade.  It is all too bloody marvellous, and it is to happen next bloody week!”

Intuitive needles were shooting through Yahedi’s mind:  “But Highness, we had thought – even your brother thought – you fully supported your father’s marriage of Khubar to the interests of the United States?  We cannot have been mistaken.  Surely, if this has altered, Shumal would welcome your change of heart with open arms?”

The Prince’s mouth acquired a bitter twist, “You would be expecting so, would you not?  But no; he thinks I am plotting, he thinks I am tricking!  And I cannot say, openly, what must be said, because no word must reach our father.  If I had time, perhaps, I could weedle-deedle him, I could talk him round, but there is no time!  Our destiny is upon us!”

Bourta grunted,  “So you persuade us to persuade him.   Why, are we so much easier to convince?  Or is this your device for turning our true Prince upon us, causing him doubt?  You mention trust, Your Highness:  why should we trust you?”

El Saada nodded gravely, returning his attention to the fish that still waited in a small shoal in the water, anticipating leavings from the Royal table.  “If your offices can bring myself and my brother together you will be rewarded:  emissaries and contracted assassins now, you will be given Offices of State, serving the true successor to my father.  When you hear the message I must send my brother I am sure you will be as convinced as I of its veracity:  it is too bloody serious to be making up of the fake news, you see.  Too serious.”

“And what is it, Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi prompted gently,  “What is this serious news?”

El Saada’s whole demeanour had darkened.  His reply was sombre.  “While our father is ill, I have overseen much of the affairs of state; my brother, some, but mostly myself.  Since his coma, I may have allowed certain things to slide.  The worry, you see?   The worry.

His audience, putting aside the rumours they had heard of wild parties and drug abuse, both nodded.   Satisfied, apparently, with so small a gesture of empathy, El Saada braced himself:  “The oilfields, my dears.  Employing our best estimates, they will become unviable on the fourth month of next year.”

Bourta hissed through his teeth.  

Yahedi, kept his voice level.   “Is that for all of the wells, your Highness, or just “Mahadeni?”   He named the largest of the Al Khubar oil fields, the original discovery, sixty years ago, and the mother-load, so to speak, from which all of the wealth of Al Khubar had been generated.

“Mahadeni.    The others will follow within eighteen months.”

“No oil!”  Bourta’s face split into a smile.

“Not a bloody damn pint for my car, even!”   The Prince confirmed.  “Can you even try to imagine what will happen then, my darlings?” 

 “The State will collapse.”   Yahedi acknowledged.   “It must.   Your Highness, who else knows of this?”

“Less than a few, beside ourselves.  It is a dangerous thing to know.   Millions of dollars in debts unpaid, millions more promised.  Not only our dear, beloved nation in meltdown, but confidence in all the Middle East shattered.   Should this privy knowledge get out into the world, my dears, the price of oil will hit the ruddy roof, I tell you!  The King my father does not know:  in his illness it was easy to keep from him.  Engineers whose lives have, unfortunately, ended prematurely, and we three.  Until you tell my brother, no-one else.”

Salaiman remembered the headline: ‘Plane Missing.   Khubali Oil Executives Lives feared Lost’.   “So His Majesty is about to sign away oil resources he does not have?”

“To an American President-in-waiting whose expansionist policies are targeted on our glorioius Kingdm!”   Bourta exclaimed.  “Now there is irony!”

“Tell my brother!”   The Crown Prince’s voice did not rise by as much as a decibel but its intensity drove his message home like a nail:  “This agreement can never be signed,.  Whoever is present at this meeting, whoever can become a signatory to it, even our own dear father, must be prevented.  Our secret must remain a secret for as long as we can fortify ourselves against the future; not a whisper must leak out, you see?”

“And by prevented,” Yahedi said,  “You mean killed.”

“I mean killed.  No Plan B!”

#

“I am determined to marry the lady,”  Arthur Herrit affirmed, playing the last brandy in his glass idly against a beam of sunlight that had penetrated the salon window.   At Montcleif’s startled response he added;  “Nay, Abel, forebear!  You shall not continue to remind me I know nothing of her past, for no-one does!”

The two men, one the legitimate heir to the Mountsel Park Estate, the other the manager of his businesses had in past years been accustomed, with the coming of winter, to hold their more convivial meetings at their Mountchester club.  With the arrival of Francine Delisle at the Park this arrangement had altered, for although the Estate had staff enough to offer a doughty defence to most forms of trespass, the threat to Miss Delisle seemed to Arthur serious enough to warrant his personal presence at all possible times.   Therefore, Montcleif proving willing enough to make the ride to the great house, his business affairs travelled to him, rather than the other way around.  The changed venue did nothing to detract from the pleasantness of those afternoons that ensued, especially with the year’s turning and spring being announced by all in the park that could sing, or hop, or thrust above the tilth in their greeting for the sun.

 “I should be condemned to wait forever if investigations in those quarters proceed at their present pace,”  Arthur continued,  “So we shall take the initiative.  Unless some person from the congregation stands up to proclaim just cause, we shall be married forthwith.  I’ve consulted with Parson Pettigrew, who is, I’ll grant, somewhat concerned about the Parish Records, but not sufficiently so to put his Living at risk.  The banns are to be read – is that not splendid?”

Montcleif gave one of those barely perceptible shrugs he practised when he was forced to concede a point without necessarily agreeing with it.  “Then I wish you the greatest happiness!”  He said.   “Miss Francine is a very fortunate lady.”

Arthur’s tone lowered to a more serious timbre.  “Suppose I were to question you, Abel, upon another matter – not unrelated, but where answers would put my mind at rest?  You knew my father well?

“I did, of course. We worked together for many years.  Arthur, he was a very careful man.”

“Yes, yes:  one who would not be so hot-headed as to sweep a girl off to his marital bed without knowing a great deal about her, I take your point.  You worked for him, I never knew him; you have the advantage on me there.  Yet he built our fleet of merchantmen, he discovered markets all over the world – there must have been some entrepreneurial flare in him, surely?”

Montcleif gestured his agreement.  “Indeed, he and Amelia did the travelling, the negotiation:  the leg-work, as it were;  they were aboard the ‘Derry Lad’ for no other reason when the Frenchies sunk her with all hands off Cape Finisterre.”  Montcleif contemplated his glass.  “Utterly tragic!   Yet I cannot help but feel it was a way they would have preferred.  So intrepid a couple would ill befit old age.”

Arthur nodded.  “But you will know how tightly the documents and deeds are arranged, Abel?”

“Does this relate to your entitlement?  Of course, Sirrah!  Sir David was your father’s legal partner and his closest friend.  He became your Ward upon your parents’ death, and with no issue of his own he also made you his sole heir.  The will has yet to be finally read but for the sake of the business Sir David discussed the matter openly with me.  Fear not; there will be no dissenting voices raised from your side of the congregation!” 

“And I was born the year before my parents went to India…”

“They left you here, in Nanny Freecombe’s care.  You played in this very room!  They were afraid of exposing you to the heat and disease of that journey when you were so new.  ‘Twas as well they did, Arthur; or we wouldn’t be talking here now.”

The master of Mountsel Park considered his next question carefully:  “You’ll think this a rum thing to ask of you, Abel, but tell me; have you ever heard of a religious organisation that goes by the name of ‘The Brotherhood’, or anyone refer to me as ‘The Pilgrim’?”

Montcleif stared, and Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling he was suppressing laughter.  “The Brotherhood?  One supposes that could refer to almost any radically inclined cult, but ‘Pilgrim’?  Heavens no, Arthur.  Where on Earth could that come from?  What would it mean?”

Arthur closed his shoulders, suddenly smaller,  “I wish I knew,”  He said.  “Very droll, or so it would seem.  Yet my wife-to-be insists I am the very spit of the fellow.  What does a ‘Pilgrim’ do to prove his identity, I wonder?”

© 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 Eight

Maud’s Obsession and Melanie’s Dream

Although the décor of Mountsell Park’s Venetian Salon seemed, in general, too lavish for Francine’s tastes, she enjoyed a particular large south-facing window at which, in her enforced idleness, she would spend sometimes hours of her mornings dreaming up her ideas for formal gardens that could so enhance Arthur’s well-kept, but somewhat masculine landscape.  This morning, however, though her eyes beheld they scarcely saw.  She was seriously troubled.

Upon arriving home from their excursion to St. Benedict’s Rock, she had tucked an already slumbering Samuel into his bed before taking a late supper wih Arthur from trays in the withdrawing room.   It was a restrained affair, far from the tète-a-tète either had anticipated, each hesitating, though much wanting to pursue their passion of the previous night.  In the end they took to their individual rooms with the sweetness of one kiss as compensation.  Alone, Francine had scribbled the letter which now waited concealed within her escritoire, for urgent dispatch to Maud Reybath, at Bleanstead, though by what means she had no clue.  She had slept late.

The mantel clock had struck the half-afterr-eleven when Arthur discovered her, her slippered feet up upon the sofa as she dozed lightly, a book unregarded in her lap.   He came to stand behind her, his powerful, gently determined hands finding the bare flesh at her shoulders.  She stemmed their advance with restraining fingers:  “Desist, sir!”

He obeyed immediately, “Because you fear discovery, my love, or for other reasons?”

She rested her cheek against his forearm; “Oh, Arthur! There are a thousand reasons!  If I were ever free of all that boils inside me, of all my confusion.  You are right.  I shall always feel in danger of discovery here.”

“Confusion?  Inner torment?  This bodes ill!”  He said seriously, coming to sit beside her; “A thousand reasons you  could never be persuaded to become the mistress of this house?”

Francine smiled; “If when all is known, that were still your wish?”

“Most certainly!  I have sent for a goldsmith this very morning.   He will be here before nightfall, I guarantee.”

“Ah!”  Francine sensed an opportunity, “Then if I have good news may I also send a messenger?   Why are you laughing, sir?”

“Because you said ‘if I have good news’ – that implies a certain consent, does it not?  Madame, you may send as many messengers as you want!”

“Nay, I need only one.”   As the humour left her, Francine rose from the settle and crossed to her favourite window, head bowed to avoid her lover’s discriminating eyes.  She was silent for a while, allowing Arthur, who sensed her need for time, to wait pensively.  At last she murmured, only half aloud:   “No, I may not do this.”

“Do what?”  Arthur prompte her gently.

“Deceive you.”

“Ah.  Was that your intent?”

“I need to get a letter to Maud Reybath…”

“She of Bleanstead?  Samuel’s aunt?  No deception is necessary there, surely?”

“We both know that ‘Aunt’ is a courtesy title, for my dearest boy and I have no relations in this world.  Oh, how to begin?   Arthur, I must forewarn you concerning Maud Reybath.”

“I have not had the pleasure of this woman’s acquaintance.  Does she pose some threat to you?”

“No, Arthur, no.   We have always been – were, are- friends!   Maud first made herself known to me in my very early days in the care of Mr Fletcher, my former guardian, while Samuel was still a baby.  We met at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Mountchester; I was seeking answers to my situation and she seemed to single me out.   She too, as it transpired, was new to Mountchester and in need of friends.   She perceived my shyness in society to be a characteristic she shared; so we revealed as much of our histories as either of us knew – which, in my case was barely a minute of explanation – and discovered we had this much in common: we were both foundlings, Arthur!”

“When you say ‘foundlings’, d’ye mean Miss Reybath was abandoned on a doorstep too?”

“As she explained it, yes!  Yes indeed, exactly that!  Although she was a matter of months old when she was found and in a location in common with some few others – before the gates of a monastery!   The monks took her in, educated her and raised her in their faith until, upon a certain day that was claimed as her eighteenth birthday they received an allowance that was sufficient to provide for her independence.”

Arthur pursed his lips, “A pretty story.  An anonymous benefactor.”

“When we met she was living in her own rooms.  We were close for years, and she seemed inclined to marry a young solicitor’s clerk for a while, but as it transpired there was a higher mission  – in the end Mountchester proved too much for Maud.  She had saved enough from her allowance to purchase the property in Bleanstead and this she did.  I was visiting her for the first time in her new home when I met you.”

Arthur frowned;  “I see this journey has a destination, though I cannot hazard as yet what it may be.  So far you have revealed no deception, unless you intend to depart by the light of the moon and live with your friend Maud?  When you first arrived here, did you not fear putting her in danger by leading your pursuers to her?”

“I did, very much.”  Francine’s eyes were distant, even lost, letting her train of thought move freely.  “No sooner had I returned to Mountchester after that visit than the pursuit, the menace that drew me to your door began.  I was being watched; my guardian threatened.”

“And you believed that whatever endangered you might implicate your friend as well.”  Arthur raised a quizzical eyebrow, “Perhaps in some manner more particular than the mere risk of damage:  what is it you share with this woman, Francine?  Would the same villains we despatched at the fallen oak have an equal interest in her?”

Sighing resignedly, Francine turned to meet Arthur’s eye.  “You must know this, although the story is not really mine to tell, and I pray the knowledge will not cause you pain.

“When Maud’s time came  to leave  the monastery the Father Abbott told her that those she believed to have abandoned her were a conclave of a church he referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’.  This close band of monks had told him she was the child of a seer who died at the hands of their enemies, so they left her to be raised, hidden in the anonymity of his monastery.   Now of age, she must continue her mother’s dangerous mission, which was to lead them to the one they called ‘The Pilgrim’.  They believed ‘The Pilgrim’ alone could read a Holy Scripture they kept in a secret place, and with his guidance they might re-write all the evils of history”   Francine took a deep breath.  “Their judgement of Maud was justified, because she saw something in me that would lead her to you.  It is you, Arthur.  I am certain, as is she.  You are the one they seek with great urgency.  You are The Pilgrim.”

His eyes were kindly when he laughed, she thought; a humour turned in upon himself with no hint of mockery.  He did not believe her; she scarcely expected him to, but neither did he scoff or ridicule.  Instead he came to her as she loved him to do, and closed her explanation with a kiss.

#

  Melanie Fenton was beginning a dream.  The dream opened with a brief, almost subliminal image of a frightened woman, a woman in a nurse’s uniform staring at her.  It seemed, although for sure she could not tell, the cause of this woman’s fear was none other than herself, but the scene flashed by so quickly it was gone almost as soon as it came.

Then there was sunlight; the weak, struggling sunlight of an English morning, and there was a scent of rosewater.  There were warm sheets enfolding her, a soft pillow of duck-down cushioning her cheek.  Behind heavy brocade curtains (which her maid had drawn when she brought her tea) and beyond the open lattice windows a blackbird announced its entitlement in song, with a choir of garden birds as witnesses.   She loved their music, was loath to rise when she might spend the hours here, just on the borders of sleep, listening.

She was thirsty.  Lazily, she rolled to her other side, taking in as she did so the soft, warm colours, the hangings and the rich furnishings of the room.   There was no doubting its tranquil beauty, yet, although in a part of her mind she had never seen this place before, another part of her barely noticed its charm; was even slightly disapproving of a tall oriental vase which stood upon a what-not in the corner.  And there was a passing of time, how much she did not know, or care.  When she reached for her tea it was still warm: the maid had not yet brought the ewer of hot water she needed to wash, something which struck her as faintly unusual, for she was certain the hour was already late.   But then, there was an expectation, a frisson of excitement, too.   She could not account for this, though she felt she should have a reason.

The tea roused her a little.  She slipped her feet over the side of the bed, sat up. Her nightgown rode up over her knees and she sat, for some minutes it seemed, inspecting them.   They were, she thought, quite passable knees.

Satisfied as to the acceptability of these particular joints she stood and walked across the floor with them, her bare feet tingling at the chill of the boards.   At  the furthest of the windows she paused in her night attire to take in the colours of the day, quite uncaring that the gardeners would be at work outside, aware how the thin cloth which was all she had to cover her might fail to entirely do so in some respects.   It would amuse her, this particular morning, to attract the percipient upward glance of a young face, see how she might captivate its owner, and then how hastily it turned away when it realised who it looked upon.

Her way took her past the cheval mirror, her dressing mirror. She was surprised by her own face:  the delicate features, the swan-like neck.  So poised, so assured, so refined.   And so old!   In the unforgiving light of day, she saw herself as only a woman of advancing years might see.   Mirror, mirror…..

“You are thirty-six;” the mirror said.

“Five.  I’m thirty-five.”   Was she?

“You will be thirty-six soon, my dear.   You are no longer in the bloom of youth, you know.”

“Is not my skin still smooth; my hair still fair; my figure neat?”

“Not as neat as once it was.  Turn to the side.”

This was a silent conversation, but real enough, nonetheless.  She stood critically examining her body this way and that, making certain she was sufficiently far from the window before she shrugged her nightgown from her shoulders – there were things that even a young gardener should not be allowed to see.  She scarcely recognised her own body.   Where had the time gone?

Hurriedly, she reached down to retrieve the pool of filmy cloth around her feet.  She should not be here in this vulnerable state, in the middle of her room, knowing what was going to happen.   What?   What was going to happen?

Only as she straightened, drawing the gown back over her breasts, did she catch sight of the figure in the open doorway.  The dark figure of one who had entered silently – who had been watching her for – oh, how long?

She felt the blood rushing to her neck, her cheeks.  

“You have discovered me, sir!”  But despite her instinct to blush, she did not move to cover herself further.

“I apologise.”   The figure said in a dark voice.  “Should I withdraw?”

She did not answer.  She moved back towards her bed, sitting primly upon it.

The figure came further into the room, closing the door behind him.  “You think I should have let him die.”

At this she shook her head: not emphatically, but with sorrow.   “I could not possibly wish that.   He is my husband.”

“Even having seen him?   Last night I thought…”

“Last night I was…confused.   He is so, so very ill.  How soon may this pass?”

“If by pass you mean recover?”  The dark intruder drew closer to her.   “He will not.   I restarted a heart that wished to beat no longer.  I could not restart the man.”

“Then…”

“Then with time he will die.  We both must seek new masters.   I think you already have yours.”

Ah, mine!   Why did a faint rancour come into her mouth when she thought of that ‘new master’?  Why was there a disappointment, a feeling of betrayal?  Oh, she knew why.   A fateful conversation of a January afternoon here, upon this very bed.  So soon after their first meeting, so soon after she had committed herself completely to his care:  but so late, far, far too late to climb back from the mire of discredit she had willingly entered in return for his attentions.

Matthew Ballantine had no wish for there ever to be an heir. He abhorred the thought of children.  She had gone so far for him, down the road to disreputability.   And now the years would slip by without hope, without the consolation, ever a chance at motherhood!   She took a sip of tea, a moment to reflect and measure what she was about to say.  What she was about to do!

“You are very perceptive.”  She said.  “And a little familiar.”

“I am honest.  We both know this.   He is your lover, and soon he will be my master.  But he is less your lover than you would wish, and not the lover you need.”

The dark man stood right over her now, his shirt open so she could see the sweat glistening on his ebony skin.

“Have a care!”   She tore her eyes away from the brazenness of his manhood to meet the hunger in his stare.  “We both must serve him.”

He was not to be diverted.  “You bade me come.”

“That was last night.  I was,,.”

“Confused?”

“Yes.”

He placed his hands upon her shoulders.  They were gentle, but strength pulsated from them.   “Then should I go?”

She did not answer; could not.   Once their eyes had met there was no turning, no going back.  There was such a heat within her, a desperation which only this man might fill.   And so she stood, and took him to her, and the dream faded, and stillness returned.

There were three people by the bed.  One, a technician, turned and adjusted the monitors, his concentrated expression lit by their glow.  The second person present wore the uniform of nurse in charge, the third was a doctor.   He was speaking.

“There is absolutely nothing irregular.  I can find no changes in the girl’s condition and I take it there isn’t anything wrong with the equipment?”

The technician shook his head.  “No. All fine here.”

“So just run this by me again,”  said the clinician.  “What did the nurse say?”

The nurse in charge shrugged helplessly.  “She screamed.  That’s what brought me in here.  She said the patient’s eyes had opened and stared at her.  That’s why she knocked the drip over, she said.   Then she said the monitors went wild…those were her words.  They were throwing up peaks consistent with violent activity.”

“And when you came in?”

“Everything was normal.  As you see it now.  Except for the nurse – she was in hysterics.”

“And on her own.”   The Doctor said.

“Yes.  Her partner seems to have taken it on herself to go home because she was “ill”.  She did not trouble to report to me first, unfortunately.”

“Very well.”  The clinician nodded.  “Let the new team come in.   Make certain this Aneesha woman is transferred to less demanding duties.  She should never be allowed near this patient again – you understand?”

He need not have been concerned.  Aneesha was already in the air, on a flight to England.

© 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.