Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-One

A visitor of Distinction

There was no inaccuracy on Peter’s part:  he relayed Melanie’s message to the gathering in his parents’ living room exactly as she sent it; she was, indeed, learning.  Her day, which began by climbing a perilous flight of cliff-side steps without suspecting supernatural assistance had altered the balance of her relationship with Agnes, her host, quite profoundly. Agnes who knew, (and explained with some reverence) that many of those steps had crumbled and collapsed into the sea almost a century ago, drove her the miles of winding road she would have had to walk, had she reached the headland where she was found by any natural means.  But they did not return to Agnes’s villa by the sea; instead, they drove on to the local town, and Melanie suffered the unique experience of changing her clothes into ‘something more suitable’ which Agnes had the forethought to bring, in the back of a Land Rover

The hotel appointed for the meeting Agnes had arranged was uniquely Scottish: a high-fronted building of severe grey stone with windows glowering defiantly over a town square in which small businesses rippled around like eddies in a wind-stirred pond.  Within its doors there was a feeling of warmth and oak, mellowed by voices in highland tune.  Agnes was recognised by the desk-clerk who nodded towards the lounge, wherein, beneath a slightly moth-compromised stag’s head, sat a man of distinction.

Melanie knew, immediately, that this man was important to her.   Rising to his feet with effortless grace, the man took her hand and raised it to his lips in a perfunctory kiss.  She was taken so completely by surprise by this that she almost snatched the hand away:  no-one had ever greeted her so before.

“Lady Agnes” He said in a voice which trickled like honey; “You bring me a jewel of exquisite beauty.   Welcome, my dear Miss Fenton.”

Such a greeting should have caused Melanie to recoil: from any other man it would have seemed insincere, sleazy, almost.  Not from this man.  His dress was immaculate; the dark suit of finest cloth, the shirt radiantly white, his tie tastefully blue. When she looked up into his face, his olive skin taut with muscle and remembered pain, she saw the scars which traced a pale lattice there, and caught the magic of his deep brown eyes, her Lawrence, her Arabian Knight, her saviour from herself.  She was speechless: she shook, but not with fear.  No, even though his face was the face of a devil, she could not feel fear from him.

“Let me introduce myself.  I am Marak.  This will be a strange name to you, because I am from a far-off land.  Please, let us sit?  Would you like something to drink, some wine, perhaps?”

Melanie tried to speak but no words came out.  So she just nodded assent.

“This, I think.”   Marak selected one of several bottles from a table beside his chair, pouring into a sparkling glass.  “You see, I am prepared.   I, myself, do not drink: you must forgive me.   Lady Agnes?   A fine peat-cured malt, I believe?”  – Another bottle, another glass.

Dazed, Melanie tried to take in her situation. 

“You are asking yourself why you are here.”   Marak said.   “So I must tell you.”

And he did.

Her meeting at the hotel was not a long one, yet in its space Melanie grew by several years.  She felt she fully understood, now, her place in the universe.  Although until this precise hour she had never heard of a society called ‘The Toa’, still less had an appreciation of the mystical universe it believed to exist, Marak’s depiction of it was so enticing, so sympathetic to her own interpretation of her ‘gift’ as to convince her utterly.

 There was nothing in Marak’s account of his beliefs, of his assertion that a bridge between life and death existed, that seemed less credible than Peter’s chosen path.   It was much more acceptable to her that she might be a prophetess whose powers would lend substance to spiritual contact, to bring comfort to the grieving.   She little knew that the bereft people of Marak’s philosophy were nations not individuals, or that the Toa’s spiritual gateway to a paradise world was most frequently opened by a bomb.   How would she?  After all, Bianca, her own mother’s sister, was a believer.   How could her aunt’s straightened middle-class morality be even suspected of seeking such a devious route to salvation?

Taking tea with Agnes that evening, back at the old lady’s seaside retreat, Melanie felt she was about to take a seven-league stride in her life.  She wished for it, even relished it.   She had met with someone who could be a big part of her future:  if she could only just bear the next twelve hours – then she would be with him again!

In early evening with the sun still bright, Melanie left Agnes to her book and took a walk along the shore of the little bay.  She did not want, particularly, to return to the chill, blighted harbour beyond the tunnel, but her steps seemed to draw her there.    It was as if the two adjacent arms of the sea were connected in some way other than the physical – as though the tunnel somehow formed a link between the present and the past. Was this how she had performed her small ‘miracle of the steps’ that morning?   But if she hoped, emerging from dark tunnel to scant light on the harbour side, that she might see the little place as it had been in happier times – bustling with fisher folk, landing boxes crammed with the sea’s rich pickings, she was to be disappointed.  The tiny harbour was cold and deserted.

At the foot of the flight of steps she paused, half-expecting to be able to repeat her morning’s climb, but they were as she had seen them the day before, eroded and insurmountable; so she turned her attention seaward where, far off, a lonely boat bobbed, so tiny that it dipped from view often and again in the folds of ocean.  

“Where are you, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was at once distant and near; inside her head and yet as far away as that little boat.  She was neither surprised nor scared by it – it was Peter’s voice.  It came with a warm music she had heard before, and it was like a cup she might raise or put aside as she chose.  “Hello, Peter!”  Her mind replied.   She told him where she was, knowing it did not matter, for tomorrow she would be gone.   She did this because, through it all, her mum remained a tiny hook upon reality, an anchor she could draw in if she had to go back to all that one day.   And, after all, Karen was her mum.   She should not worry – her daughter was in charge of her world.  

Melanie scanned the tiny harbour one last time.   She would never, ever forget this place.   Shuddering, she turned away from that little piece of hell with honour in her heart for those had toiled there, but gladness that she would not return.

#

In the dusk high above Levenport a white gull wheeled and drifted with the freshening wind.   At any time in any day there might be a hundred such gulls in just this patch of heaven, but this day it was almost alone, for a couple of trawlers had discarded waste from their catch out in the bay, gathering its brethren in a screeching host.   Enjoying the wind, proud of its skill in riding it, the great bird seemed to dance to its own private music.  Over a town like Levenport there were wind eddies and thermals:  baffles provided by high buildings, warm, rising air from commercial flues, cold tunnels rushing in from the sea.   Swerving upward on a draught, almost stalling at the peak of the lift, delicately twitching the angle of its flight feathers into a dive before turning tail to a gust, hurtling forward like a graceful arrow and round again, this gull was simply playing: having fun.   Yet the bird’s eyes never rested.  It watched everything.

The gull seemed fascinated by the way the waste of human occupation was taken by the wind.  How it, too, swirled and turned, twisted and tumbled.  Paper, plastic cartons, detritus and dust all formed their separate patterns: they were like another tide, a different sea.   The gull was professorial in its study of these movements:  it knew them minutely, predicted them to perfection.

An attentive onlooker might have noticed the creature’s flight pattern was not, in fact, random at all:  they might have seen how its earlier separation from the predatory host in the bay had led it first to circle above St. Benedict’s House for long enough to witness the House owner’s Ferrari bringing him home on a visit he had not intended to make; or observed that the gull’s navigation took it close to one street, and at last to one particular roof.  It watched the lights from inside the house beneath, and the van with two humans inside parked just a little down the road.  After a while, it descended to rest, perching upon the high, narrow stack of the Cartwrights’ household chimney.  Preening itself, combing rebellious feathers delicately with its viciously hooked beak, the gull seemed to be waiting for something.             

The warning found Vincent in his bathroom.  Vincent was covered in soap.    “Why?”   He complained out loud.   “Why does this always bloody happen just when I’m having a shower?”

Melanie had just returned from her contemplative walk along the shore deep in melancholy, to sit on one of the wooden seats which graced Agnes’ veranda.  She was resisting the first evening chill, reluctant to go indoors to Agnes’ well-meaning but drab conversation, and unprepared for the image of a naked middle-aged man which suddenly blasted across her brain.   She shrank instinctively from the image of a follically impoverished head with a pair of mighty ears, a wrinkled, gaunt body, and what other features she tried not to envision!   Yet however it  repulsed her with its nudity this figure was familiar to her in some way.   It went almost as rapidly as it arrived.  A Wrong number?   Was that a feature of telepathy she might encounter again? Squirming afresh at the recollection: she returned to her thoughts.

#

As thoughts go, among the gathering in the Cartwright household Lesley’s may perhaps have been the most challenging to read.   When Peter had related the nature of his gift had she convinced herself that it did not matter if the guy she was with was a little eccentric, a bit harmlessly loopy, as long as it felt so good to be with him? This was merely an aspect of his personality she could compartmentalise, set aside from the person she had discovered:  the person who, however inappropriately, she knew she might actually love.  But now?   Well, now there was no point in denial:  if the other simple little tests of the day had not been enough she had felt the mad heat of sheer power that shot through their clasped hands as he made contact. It had torn into her body – she had seen Melanie as clearly, perhaps, as he.  There was no denying that Peter was everything he claimed to be.   So how might she go on, knowing that truth?  Knowing all that she knew?.

“We don’t have very much longer;” Howard’s words intruded:  “We have to move you, son, and we have to do it soon.”

Peter made no reply, for Lesley’s face betrayed those same doubts he had seen long ago in the features of someone else he held dear.  His world was collapsing.

“Peter?”  His mother’s voice drew him from his thoughts.   Lena’s own comprehension had been stretched in the past few minutes.  Although she had seen changes taking place in her son, maybe even known something a little more than natural was happening to him, she could not, would not, accept what she had just witnessed.  Worse, she could see how completely Karen was taken in, the unjustifiable relief her dear friend took from this – this adolescent fantasy!   Karen was already preparing to leave with body language that made clear she would not stop until she reached this Scottish cove.  

Karen believed; Lena didn’t.   Yet everything had begun to drop into place: the urgency of the duplicitous Howard, the manner of Melanie’s disappearance.   Married to a clergyman, Lena’s life was moulded around her propensity for rationalisation, for finding a truth behind the lie.  But who was telling the truth this time? 

Peter understood his mother’s torment.   “Mum,” he said,   “Go to the window in the front room.  Keep back from the glass, look down the street and you’ll see a van parked on the other side of the road, about fifty meters away.  Howard’s ‘people’, a man and a woman, are inside it.  They‘re watching this house.”    His mother hesitated.  “Please?”

At first Howard did not take the bait, but after  Lena had exited, he asked:  “How do you know there’s a woman in there?  Is that a guess?”   Charlie never showed herself on surveillance:  she always stayed behind the driver, out of sight.

Peter replied:  “You mean Charlie?  I can see her.”

“My god you are real, aren’t you?  In that case you’ll see we have to get out.  Now!”  Howard sprang into action, proudly unboxing skills that had lain unused for many years.  “We’ll need a diversion….”

“It’s all arranged.”  Peter cut in.  “Howard, I won’t be going with you.”   His tone was detached, his eyes on Lesley, who had wandered away and now stood with her back to him, looking  through the small window into Lena’s studio.  He knew she was close to tears.

Lena returned: if she had left the room with any purpose, that purpose had deserted her.  She looked smaller somehow, and not a little confused.    “It’s there.”  She said simply.  “You can see that?”

“Peter,”  Tom Cartwright reasoned:  “I would say that Sullivan here does have a point, you know.  Mightn’t it be better to keep out of these people’s way for a while?”

“I will dad.   But I’ll do it….”  Peter hesitated, concentrating still upon Lesley’s back; “…..on my own, I guess.   I’ll leave in a while, Mr. Sullivan, but not with you.    You have to help to find Melanie.”

Howard’s frustration was evident:  “But it’s like throwing you to the lions!”

Everyone was standing now.   Karen said, more in an expression of reverence than anything else: “Total self-belief.   He has it, don’t you think?”   And, making to gather her coat and handbag, she added:  “Peter, I believe in you.   Thank you. Howard darling, can we go?”

“It seems I’m robbed of choice,”   Howard said, defeated.

Each left the room in their turn; Karen and Howard by the back gate, which led out into an alley behind the street.  This was accepted by Howard, knowing it would fool no-one: without Peter, though, he was not a target yet.  He might be followed, if his colleagues had extra man-power to do it, but they had been briefed to abduct Peter, not him.   Sensing Peter’s need to be alone with Lesley, his father spoke softly to his wife and they, also withdrew, although Lena couldn’t resist mentioning she was “Going to clear up in the kitchen.”

Lesley’s expression was inscrutable.  “Well, that put a damper on the mood,” she said quietly.  “I think I should go too.”  She headed for the door.   Peter held her arm.

“Les?   Please don’t?”

“Why not?   I mean, you don’t need me to keep these bastards away.  You’re bloody superman, or something.”

“It isn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”

“Yeah, I know.   Look mate, I’ve got something to sort out, Okay?”

“What?  I can explain everything – I haven’t hidden anything from you.  Don’t, break us up, please?”   Peter pleaded.  “I need you!   All this, this stuff; I can’t handle it on my own.”   Lesley gave him a rueful grin.  “You should.  You’re good at it.  You’re scary, you know that?  Really scary!”

“And you don’t – like – me enough?”

“Oh, hey!”  She came to him then, stroked his cheek fondly:  “What’s the cliché?  It isn’t you, it’s me?  You’ve been telling me everything, but s’pose there are things I haven’t told you, yeah?  Stuff of my own?”

“What ‘stuff’?” 

“Oh, just ‘stuff’.  It’s like I took a path I thought was sweet, and calm, and sunny, and after a few steps I realised it wasn’t.  I was seeking one thing, and I found something else.  Something just as fabulous, maybe:  I dunno.  I can’t work that out.  Like I said; ‘stuff’.”

“So you’re parting with me?” 

“Yeah, for a bit.   You’ll be alright.  With – all that – how couldn’t you be?  I need a bit of space, Pete, that’s all.”

Lesley turned on her heel and walked from the room, just as he remembered Melanie’s parting with him one not so distant morning on the road to St. Benedict’s Rock.  Moments later, Peter heard the front door close behind her.

© 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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

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

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

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

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

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

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

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

 “I am the same.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, Mel!”

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

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

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

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satan’s Rock

Part Five: Exploration and Discovery

The sounds emanating from Mountsell Park’s music room spoke of fingers engaged in a titanic struggle.  Abel Montcleif, too polite to refer to the discordant sounds directly, punctuated his conversation with barely concealed winces and, once, an audible groan.

Arthur Herritt’s business manager shared his employer’s appreciation of good music.   Physically, however, he  contrasted less favourably.  Whereas Arthur surpassed six feet in height, Montcleif fell short of it by four inches,  Where Arthur’s nose was prominent and his chin sufficiently determined to support the chin-strap of a cavalryman, Montcleif’s nose would have been inadequate for the oversight of such a jaw as his master’s.  Thankfully, his lower features tapered gracefully into the rest of his rather full profile, so there was no need, and if his voice had a flutish pitch about it which might have made him unremarkable upon first acquaintance, the force of his relentless personal drive more than compensated after a little time passed in his company.  As a manager of Arthur’s affairs, and those of David Hart-Witterington before him, he was irreproachable.  Arthur, so recently succeeded to the Hart-Witterington Estate, had loved him as a friend for years.

“I have seen very little of the lady,”   Montcleif piped, referring to Francine Delisle,  “In the last several months – since before Lord Hart’s sad passing.  If, as you say, her guardian has been keeping her indoors for fear of some danger, real or imagined, that would not surprise me.  Jebediah Fletcher is an ungenerous and frightened little man.”   

Arthur grimaced as he recalled the name,  “I know him!   Of Fletcher and Green, the grocers’ emporium.   Yet he is always out in Society,  whereas I cannot recall encountering Francine in the City at all.  Is she habitually so retiring, d’ye think?”

“Francine!”  Montcleif raised an eyebrow.  “That rather suggests you have been making up for lost time, doesn’t it?  Are we enamoured of the young lady?”

“She…interests me.  The manner of her appearance at Fletcher’s door, in a Moses Basket, as it were, the absence of any other information concerning her or her son, and now this visit from a crazed Dervish who is clearly far more interested than I?  How does it all hinge together, Abel?”

Montcleif nodded,  “I shall endeavour to find out.  As to your assailant, I would think he is three counties away by now.”

“Truly?  Would you?  If his message had any honesty, I would say he is close by, waiting for a gap in our defences.  It might be worthwhile remembering he used a plural:  he said ‘the woman is ours’.  I rather fancy he will not be waiting alone.  I am not Jebediah Fletcher, yet I can see how the poor man could have been affrighted.”

“In the meantime may I take it Francine has become a guest of Mountsell Park?”

“Do you think it inappropriate?”

“A woman with a child, both in need of protection?  A single man of marriageable age?  Very, but one does what one must.  Perhaps you can help her with her Pianoforte tuition?” 

Much of the afternoon had passed when Arthur discovered Francine walking in the walled garden.  Finding her had not been difficult, for Robinson the Ostler and one of his stable hands, returned from their pursuit of the trespassing horseman, were under instructions to keep watch upon her whenever she strayed from the House.  

“I detain these gentlemen,”    She greeted Arthur, nodding to the pair, who stood like sentries at the garden’s single door;   “I intended to take the air.  Am I a serious inconvenience?”

“Not in the least,”  He assured her;  “There must be other diversions than music.”

“You heard!  You heard and you suffered,  I am so sorry!  My fingers seem eager to find a tune, yet I can make nothing pleasing come from the instrument.  I have taken a decade striving to discover just one accomplishment that survives from the teaching of my past life, but I have found none.  I cannot embroider, I cannot paint, and now I have a whole music room to myself I have no escape from my inability to play!   I am truly worthless!”

“Please pardon my imposition of an escort upon you.  I have no wish to limit your freedom, only to keep you safe.  After this morning…”

“I know; I heard.  And I do understand.  Arthur, will you walk with me?”

“Gladly.  Is Samuel not with you?”

“He is within doors.  He is much taken with Peggy, the maid you so kindly provided for me.  She has a repertoire of grisly tales that are entirely to his taste.  He is rapt!”

With this and like subject matter to sustain them, the pair made their way from the garden, Francine treating her two heavily-built bodyguards to a nervous look and enquiring whether the fowling pieces they carried were strictly necessary?

Arthur apologised,  “Scatter-guns are cumbersome, I know.  Unfortunately, my noble predecessor had quite individual views on the subject of firearms, so we are woefully lacking.  Other than a pair of duelling pistols, gamekeeping weaponry is all we possess.  I’m working to correct that.”

“You have so much to defend here, Sir!”  Almost without thought, Francine had taken Arthur’s arm and she gave it a hint of a squeeze;  “After my privations in the City, this is very close to Paradise.”   

They strolled at first by the carriage way which cut through the park, Francine buoyed up by the first bite of evening air, Arthur absorbed by her company.  Behind them, the ostler and his stable hand kept watch at what they perceived to be a respectful distance.  At a place where the way reached a depression Arthur guided Francine onto a far narrower defile, where they found their way beside high banks of rhododendron. A birch copse framed the path in ragged discipline, their history of leaf-mould soft to the tread.  The estate gardeners had cleared this gully and made of it a forest path, full of the rustles and songs of evening, though an hour had passed since it was last touched by the sun.  Francine shivered prettily in the chill, he offered his coat and she, adjusting the garment about her shoulders, expressed her gratitude with a ghost of a smile.

“Come,”  he encouraged her.  “We shall be done with the valley and back among the hills in no time!”  As he promised, the lower portion of the path was immediately followed by an ascent which revealed a vista of the parkland to their right side, and Mountsell House to their left.   The climb was steep enough for his support to be required, engendering a sensation which, as he clasped the cool submission of her hand, affected him more profoundly than he might have wished.

“That poor tree!”  She declared as she found space to regain her balance,  “Whatever happened to it?”

The smooth sloping grass beside their path had been massively disrupted by the toppling of a venerable old oak which, torn from the ground by its roots yet supported by its most stalwart branches, lay like a wounded soldier across the hillbrow, as though trying with its gnarled limbs to drag itself to safety.   

Arthur nodded solemnly.  “A sad casualty of the great gale that occurred on Christmas Night,”  he said.  “It proved the demise of several trees, but this one remains to be cleared.  The work of a summer at least, for our woodcutters.   It reduced our Head Gardener to tears.”

“I remember the storm well,”  Francine acknowledged,  “Nonetheless, I am surprised.  One would have thought such a doughty presence capable of withstanding Armageddon, should it occur!   What forces must have been needed to do that deed!”

“A fine old tree too – of some five hundred years standing, Mr Maple, our head gardener, asserts.   He offered an explanation.  Let us look.”  Arthur took Francine’s hand again, which, he had to admit, he rather liked doing, and led her to an advantage from which she might see down into the pit left by the tree’s roots.  “Do you see how shallow the root bole is?  The tree could never grip the soil deeply because rock lies close to the surface here.  With the years of growth those ancient boughs were gradually exceeding the effort of its roots.”

Francine looked as she was bidden, and she saw the base of the depression as Arthur described it – and yet more.  How smooth, how clean, how extraordinary the surface of the rock appeared, as though freshly washed by rain, although there had been none in recent hours; and quite unreasonably she found herself wondering if somehow Arthur had conspired to lead her here, so she had to tell herself it had been her idea to walk with him, and why would he want, anyway, to impress her with this rock’s unaccountable magnificence or become aware of the warmth that seemed to radiate from it?

“It’s quite beautiful!”  She may have spoken aloud.

A thunderous explosion rent the curtains of this illusion in twain and startled her so much she squealed in alarm, and instinctively threw herself into the arms of the Master of Mountsell Park!   For a few fleeting moments she succumbed to his embrace before he could explain that the stable hand had accidentally discharged his gun, having jammed its stock heavily on his foot.   When she felt able to look elsewhere than the folds of Arthur’s waistcoat she was gratified by the prospect of the culprit dancing on his painful toes.  She sensed the gentle touch of Arthur’s fingers as they brushed the hair back from her cheek, and stepped away hurriedly.  In seconds the moment was passed; she regained her composure, called out to their chastened escorts to enquire if anyone had been injured, even managed to laugh at the whole affair, but the beating of her heart took far longer to recover, and the vision of that rock would pursue her into dreams that night.   

#

Vincent Harper might have appeared to be somewhat dwarfed by the vast proportions of his mansion.  He was not as tall as his picture, nor was he as young.  But as he bounded forward to greet Peter it was certain that his stellar presence had not diminished.  His flaxen hair straggled forward just as it did on his album covers, draping over his narrow shoulders in wavy strings; and if most of these festoons started from a point lower on his cranium than once they did, it would have been unkind to notice.  His wiry frame was so spare of flesh that, though the leather jeans and the white tee-shirt he wore were obviously made to be tight, they slipped freely over his body.  Only his face, lined heavily by the years and by the harder side of living, gave away a man comfortably into his fifties.  Peter was completely overawed.

“Come on, man, we’ve got some serious work to do:”  Vincent took Peter by the shoulder.  “Never been here before, have you?   You’d like some grub, right?  Come and have something to eat and I’ll show you round.”

Feeling a little shaky at the knees and not in the least hungry, Peter nevertheless allowed himself to be guided.   The great hallway, with its school-corridor echoes and hard stone outlines, reduced him to awe-stricken silence.  The walls were hung with pictures – some original oil paintings, some photographs and prints of y eastern origin – some of Vincent the artist and his band, some of women in states of undress, a few obvious family album pictures, too.  a panelled oak door beneath the right hand flight of the glass staircase opened to admit him.

“Welcome to my pad, mate.  This is the bit I actually live in, right?”

Beyond the door was a room from another world; for, as the great hall had been built to impress, so the salon was furnished to pamper.  His feet wrapped by a deep crimson carpet, Peter breathed in a faintly familiar, exotic scent, gazing upon long, deeply cushioned settees and white-curtained walls which were hung, (where they were revealed), with very expensive paintings and prints – A Warhol, certainly, what appeared to be a Lucian Freud, something very like a late Augustus John with many others he couldn’t identify. Six pillars of satin aluminium supported a low padded ceiling dotted with starry lights, from which two womb chairs were suspended.   Framed perfectly in one of these sat a svelte, languorous woman in a bright green silk robe, whose straight raven hair sparked from her head like an electric shock.  Vincent introduced her.

“Peter, this is Alice.”

“Hi Pete.” Alice’s voice had a slow, dialect drawl.  “Want some nosh?  Something to drink?  Drinkies, yeah?”   Her long slender hand gestured at a low table laden with the stuff of luncheon: salad greens, fruit, bread. The hand, with its fine wrist and impossibly thin fingers, should have seemed beautiful to Peter, because Alice was a model who was used to having the finer points of her beauty dissected and admired, but it did not.   She seemed formless, like a squid.

“Hullo Alice.”  Peter responded shyly.

Vincent gave his shoulder a brief hug. “Have what you like, man.  Make yourself at home.  Plant your arse somewhere and we’ll tell you what comes next.”

A drink and two sandwiches later, Peter found it easier to talk.  Where did he live, what was he studying?  All the time he had the impression they knew what his answers would be.  He found himself half-accepting this, just as for some reason he seemed to find his hosts’ expectation of his visit unsurprising – it was the most natural thing in the world to issue invitations via a wild bird.   Nor did he pronounce himself unwilling when Vincent told him how he absolutely must see the rest of the house that very day. He did try vaguely to protest that he had lectures to attend that afternoon, but already the world outside lacked importance – had faded, almost, into mist.   Besides, the rockstar legend was manifestly proud of his ‘pad’ and it would have been rude to deny him.  The air in the room felt thick and heavy, the yielding cushions beneath his weight too softly inviting.   He began to wash in and out on a tide of sleep. Present gently merged into past, words in his head were befogged by music so he was only able to pick up snatches of conversation.   Alice’s voice, quite sharp, was one of these bites.

“Better get him moving now, or he won’t be going anywhere.  Once he drops off, it’ll take hours to get him back.”

Vincent’s hand was grasping his shoulder:  “Come and have a look around, mate.”  He said.

Now, with an odd sensation of floating, he was being steered back into the great hall,   Alice following on spidery legs, her slippers shuffling unaccountably loudly over the marble as though they were treading sand.   Here, with the fresher air clearing his head, he was ready to be told about the history of the pictures on the wall, the architecture, or maybe even some stuff about Crowley or Ballentine.  Could one of the portraits depict Lady Elizabeth herself?   But Vincent did not seem to know – or if he did, he gave very little information.

“Truth is, Peter, I’m not too clued up about the past of this place.   You probably know more than me.  And you’re going to tell me everything you do know, mate; aren’t you?”

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

Featured Image: Kevin Wenning from Unsplash