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

Continuum – Episode Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

Alanee has met Hasuga, the man-child so revered by the High Council f the City, and been warned by Ellar the Mediant never to divulge what passes between them.   Sala discovers Alanee in the wake of that meeting, sitting out in the snow, and angry rather than afraid of what has passed.

Meanwhile Dag Swenner and his rescuer Ripero struggle to find their way back to civilization after the devastation caused by the mysterious ‘wall’ of cold fire.  Out on the scorched earth of the plains they see a bunch of survivors heading towards them, only to have their hopes dashed as a flight of aerotrans savagely gun the survivors down…

With unsteady hands, Dag turns his new friend away from the dreadful scene and edges him down into a crevasse where he hopes they will both escape notice, if the aerotrans have not already sought them out.  As they press their bodies into the rock the only word Ripero can manage is:  “Why?”

Dag shakes his head.  “I can’t tell you.  I wish I knew.”

In his heart the grief is deeper, because in all his life he has never seen violent death.  Yes, he has known it happen:  in the meaningless, motiveless, so futile wars that drop from a capricious heaven once and again, wars that cripple, and kill, and pass for no reason.  Thousands, he knows, have died.  But now he has seen it.  Now he knows how it looks, how it feels to see a life extinguished.  He knows the next life must be his, because there will be no rescue, and the future in this one is a void.

#

Sala’s summoner chimes as she is making breakfast.  It is Alanee.

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

“What, in this?” Beyond her window a gentle snow still falls.

“I want to see the City from the outside.  I want to breathe real air.”

“Aye, well!”  Sala sighs resignedly.  “We’d better go, then.  I shall bring you boots and furs, lots of furs!”

After her previous day’s ordeal, Alanee had been too exhausted to want for anything but a bath and sleep.  Eventually she had accepted Sala’s vehement protestations that she had no part in her abduction.  Seil’s actions had been as much a shock to her as to Alanee herself.  Alanee wanted to believe Sala, how she had struggled with Seil in trying to follow Alanee through that impossible door.  So, conditionally forgiven, Sala had tempted her to a drink at Toccata’s.

Back in her apartment, having wished her friend goodnight, Alanee – she did not know why- had checked her summoner to see if Celeris had called her (and been piqued to discover he had not) before running herself the hottest, deepest bath and sleeping in it until it was cold enough to wake her, at which time she had crawled into her bed and slept again.  There her alarm found her in the morning.

“Your wrists!”  Sala exclaims, as she assists Alanee into a fur coat which is large and generous enough to make her apprehensive, lest she find the animal still inside:  “Who could damage you so brutally?”

Sala has not asked what happened to Alanee after she was pushed by Seil through that door, though she berated Seil afterwards:  “She’s on my unspeak list.  I never did like the woman.” – and Alanee is thankful, for she does not want her friend to be subject to Ellar’s threats.

“Come on!” She urges:  “Show me the way out of here!”

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

Sala continues this gentle complaint along the length of two corridors.  At the end of the second she stops before a silver hemispherical door, a feature Alanee has seen and wondered at on her previous adventures.  “You press here, see?”

The door slides upwards, revealing a spherical pod with seats around its inner sides.  Straps hang from a rail above their heads.

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

In a single operation the sphere closes and turns through ninety degrees, then descends, not with the slow grace of an open elevator, but with the speed and fervour of a racing aerotran.  Alanee feels herself physically lifted from her seat by the rush.   Almost as soon as it has started it is over.   With a hiss of compressed air they are slowed, the doors slide open.

“There!  Five hundred feet in sixteen seconds!  Impressive, huh?”  Sala laughs at Alanee’s open-mouthed expression.  “Oh Alanee!  You aren’t going to be sick, I hope?”

It is not the rapid descent that has stupefied Alanee.  It is the view before her.   She has expected a hall of some kind, a foyer:  instead she is gazing out at the unfettered world beyond the City walls.  They have only to take a few steps to be walking in snow.  And such snow!  It drifts about them, soft, caressing flakes that idle in an irresolute breeze.  It crunches underfoot: it loads the trees that flank them as they walk; it clothes the entire world in bridal white.  A child of the Hakaani Plains has never seen this transformation, this sheer weight of nature.

Alanee is moved to skip:  Sala giggles fluffily from behind the concealment of her furs.  She takes Alanee’s first snowball in good part, her second as a call to battle.  Soon they are so smothered with the stuff they look like a pair of burst pillows and helpless with laughter, and Sala, hands clutched to her sides, begs for a truce.  Arm in arm the pair walk down terraces, using paths kept open by the drabs:  and drabs are the only life they meet:  two solemn men in habitual flannel grey, seemingly impervious to the cold, pushing snow-boards mechanically, repeatedly.  Neither young or old, happy or sad.

As she passes, Alanee sighs to see them so.  “Don’t they have something warmer to wear?  They must be frozen stiff!”

Sala shakes her head:  “Theirs is a punishment detail:  they will have done something wrong, like creating a blasphemy, or slacking in their normal work.  A punishment for them, and a punishment for me, Alanee, haven’t you had enough air yet?”

“You can’t be cold under all those furs!  I want to see the river.”

“The river?  Habmenach, that’s miles!”

It is perhaps half a mile.  As they walk, they speak of general things, of Sala’s life in the City, how she came to be a mediator for the High Council.

“I have always been here.  I am a city child.  I was educated at the Porstron, learned the classics – picked for higher office when I was sixteen.  Then university, some time as a probationer, and…”  Sala spreads her arms.  “Here I am!”

“So your parents – they live here, in the City?”

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

“When the elders want to fill a position in the City, they pick the best from the whole of the land; in the case of mediators, for example, they want good social skills, intelligence, beauty…”  She rattles off the attributes like a list, without conceit.  “So they select from all the population.  I was brought in from Oceana Levels, a Mansuvine child from some village or other, I don’t know which, when I was three or four years old.  I have no memory of my parents.”

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No.  But your sympathy is sweet.  You have parents of course.”

Alanee tries to remember her parents; to recall a time so long ago now, and so far away.

“I had parents once.”  She turns so she may see the Consensual City from the outside for the first time.  Not for nothing does it stand upon a mighty spear of rock, high walls tinted by the pink of a weak winter sun:  they do not a prison make, yet now she knows it is a prison:  sumptuous, luxurious, well-padded, but a prison nonetheless.

Something she has wanted to ask for some days now.  She has wondered – where, in this vast place, are the children?  Sala provides her answer:

“In the Children’s Village.  There is a suburb to the north of the city where the children are taken.  I grew up in the Academy there, The Porstron for gifted ones.”

“We never see them; the children, I mean?”

“Oh, of course!  They are brought to us for socialisation.  It is quite an event, once every fourth cycle.  I think they are adorable, the little ones.”

“You’re talking about them as though they were separate from you, though:  almost as if you never mixed with them.”

Sala’s brow furrows:  “That’s true, we (the seminals) were always kept apart.  I suppose because we had to learn faster than they – we never questioned it.”

Alanee thinks to herself it might be time to ask a lot more questions, but she sees that Sala does not have all the answers.  She changes tack.

“Now, Sala ba, do you never wish that you had….?”

“Oh, Habbach!  Had a child of my own?  No, never!  Habbach!”

“You have never made a couple with anyone?  Never wanted to?”

Through these dribbles of conversation they stroll, kicking through the snow until  they reach the Balna River.  Here they lean upon a rail, gazing out over the wide, ice-locked water, listening to the silence.

“I have wanted to.”  Sala says:  “Yes, I have that.  Don’t please believe of me that I do not get on with men.  But it is not consistent with my work to couple.  My career, you see?”  She snaps a twig from a frozen branch and throws it so it slithers across the ice.  “Please, Alanee, can we go back now?  I think my toes are dropping off!”

Sala’s face is hidden, smothered by her furs:  Alanee cannot see, yet she can hear the break in Sala’s voice, as if somewhere beneath that sophisticated front a tear is waiting.

With a sigh, for she is happy here, in the freedom of this sharp air, Alanee turns away from the wide black water and the mystery of its further side, trying to imagine how life will spring from those frozen banks when spring comes.  She links arms with Sala, and together they begin the climb back to the immensity of the City.

#

It is early afternoon.  Alanee and Sala have lunched together at one of Sala’s favourite haunts, then walked and talked amid the flowers and trees of the indoor Grand Park.  Since they returned from the Balna their conversation has been stilted, bitty, conspicuous in the subjects it has avoided, rather than those it has embraced.  When at last they are ready to rest weary feet Sala invites Alanee to her apartment.  This is the first time.  Alanee has never seen Sala’s home.

Sala lives on the east side of the City, in a small two-roomed flat with outside windows that overlook the bend in the valley where the Balna stretches down to Farland Bridge, and the way to the river is rocky and steep.  This gives the view an added loftiness, a cliff-edge feeling Alanee imagines she could find uncomfortable, if she were reminded of it every morning.

Sala’s taste in décor is as close to perfect as Alanee could have expected, although there are touches of quirkiness, like the Arbaal tribal masks that adorn her bedroom wall.  There are deep, comfortable cushions everywhere, so many that a visitor might feel they could fall in any direction and always land softly:  colours are dark and warm.  There is a delicate scent of spice.

They lounge together in the declining winter light from the window – they take Absient, savour its peppery taste on their tongues, let its hot blessing warm their throats.  They say little.

In the long minutes between droplets of conversation Alanee wonders at their friendship.  She still knows so little, really, of Sala’s past and that she does know only confirms how different they are.

“What was it like, being one of a couple?”  Sala asks.

The question drops suddenly into the still pool, so that Alanee barely hears it until the ripples start to spread.

“Fine.  I mean, more than fine: wonderful, I suppose.”  From understatement to overstatement;  what does she really mean?  The question crosses the lines of difference, breeches Sala’s defence; she is unready for it, the subtle note of envy.  An image of the man from her library shelf of closed memories falls open: who was he, in fact, that person who came into her life for so short a time, who left so unexpectedly?  And what can she say that will possibly encompass such a space?

“He was moody once in a while.  He had a way of making life seem pointless sometimes, then other times he was the only thing that made it worth living.  He was funny, he was loud, he was…”  She tails off; she sees the futility of what she is trying to say.  It isn’t working: it isn’t a description.  Nothing could be, really.  “Then he died.  He just died.”

They stare through the window, watching long shadows as they creep across the valley.  Soon there will be only darkness beyond the glass.

Alanee asks:  “Have you ever….been with a man?”  Then she says quickly:  “Oh, I know; that’s a foolish question – I mean, with your job you must, I mean, sometimes…”  She would stumble on, but Sala’s touch on her arm stops her.

“Yes.  Not just because of my work, either:  sometimes through companionship, once even, I believe, because of love.”  Sala sighs. “Ah, the best stories are never told.”

“What happened to him?”

“He’s still here, in the City.  It wasn’t possible, you see?  Not possible.”

“And you still see him.  Are you friends?”

“We try to avoid each other when we can, but we are bound to meet sometimes.  This is not a large community.”

Sala’s fingers stroke Alanee’s arm and Alanee takes them between her own so they interlock.  Sala turns her hand to draw their arms together, flesh on flesh.

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

She turns so she may look at Sala, her free hand brushing long hair back from her face.  Sala’s eyes are far off, gripped by something, and she is shaking, gently shaking.  She says in a tremulous voice, barely more than a whisper:

“No, Alanee my ba.  Oh, no.  When we first met, perhaps, but no longer.  No.”

Alanee tilts her friend’s head to see the real tears there, and kisses each one.  Then she takes her lips and kisses them too, in a joining that is deep and long.

The friends linger together at a threshold; in a stillness of time, touching and touching – cheeks, foreheads, fingers, lips.  Neither wants to make the step, but Sala must.  When she pushes back Alanee’s robe Alanee does not resist, and holds her hungry eyes until the moment Sala bends to take her nipple in her mouth.  She cradles Sala’s dark head against her breast as though she were a suckling child, feeling her own hunger rising in spite of herself, and at this moment is ready to accept the hand that slips so softly down:  but though she waits, and though she tries, there is no wild awakening, there in the twilight.  No fire, no insanity of need.  She reaches for her own desire and finds none.  Yet she would help her friend, ritualise a feeling she does not share, if Sala should wish it.  But Sala knows the truth.

After a while of futility, when the heat has subdued and they sit side by side once more, Alanee simply says:  “I’m sorry, ba.”

And Sala sighs with a fathomless sadness:  “It’s all right, my dear.  It’s all right.”

#

Any night in any city there will be those who cannot sleep:  those whose thoughts are troubled, who cannot fill the hours until morning.  Alanee, who has parted with Sala, wanders home with heavy heart.  The hours will be long before she rests.

Sala, meticulously tidying her little apartment, struggles to find the equilibrium she lost not an hour since. 

Sire Cassix, in the watchtower, gazes at the further sky, alone until Lady Ellar comes to interrupt his peace with her concerns

“He wants more screens; more screens all the time.”

Cassix would be taciturn.  “Then he must have them.”

Ellar demurs.  “The Nursery Apartments are full of them – screens on the walls, on the tables; there’s even one…”  She adds emphasis; “In the bedroom over his bed.  He’s obsessed.”

Cassix shakes his head:  “Twenty-four hours does not make an obsession.  This is normal; to be expected.”

“Normal ?  Well possibly, but desirable?  Can you imagine the sort of auto-suggestion that would have been transmitted today if we had not filtered it?  Can you countenance the behaviour of the populace if his emanations get too strong for us to contain?  Incidentally, he has tried to link with our young lady; tried quite hard, and I don’t believe she as much as noticed.  It is incredible.”  Ellar pauses.  “You look ill.  You must take more rest, Sire.”

Cassix’s features are drawn and pale.  His voice has lost a little of its edge.  He shrugs. “It will pass.  Ellar, Hasuga is monitoring his body’s changes far better than you or I could do.  It is just curiosity.  Again, though, let me remind you who is arbiter of what is considered normal?”

“Originally we weren’t going to let him have screens of her.”

“He would have demanded them.  The crux of the matter is whether we should have spied on her at all.  If Portis had not insisted… But I still think you are over-reacting.  We are seeing a passing phase, nothing more.”

Ellar’s shrug seems to say:  ‘Very well.  If you cannot see the dangers I see…’  But then, Cassix is the Seer – she should accept his analysis; and would, if he was not so impossibly benign at times.

“Can I at least address the issue of Mother’s concerns?  She is frantic.”

“I imagine she is.”  Cassix has turned his head and his mind back to the skies.  He knows there is something he should understand; that the upheaval in the heavens is telling him something, but he cannot grasp what it is.

Ellar follows his eyes, although she cannot see anything tonight.  Her skies are dark and unremarkable.  She sighs; murmurs: “I begin to sympathise with our honoured Domo’s distaste for this.  I do not have your gifts, Cassix, but with my untutored eye I foresee chaos.”

Cassix does not answer for a long time.  Perhaps his thoughts lie out among the stars.   At last he says, equally quietly:  “Deal with it, Ellar.  In our deliberations you are very much a part of the equation – the balance.  We stand often in your capable shadow.  But in dealing with it remember if you can:  maybe chaos is part of the equation too.”

   Mother, awake at the habbarn as her baby sleeps, exhausted at last.  Above his head the flickering mayhem of a screen, upon it Alanee’s prostrate figure, gazing down on him.  Any night in the Consensual City:  or anywhere – in any world.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.