Satan’s Rock

Part 35

Cabbages and Kings

Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”

“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said;  “Come and take him off my hands, will you?  I have to go to work.   Oh, and don’t let him in…”

#

“I’ve found someone.”

Lesley regarded Roderick blearily:  “How sweet!   But I thought you were a monk?”

“No.  Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”

“Come in.”  Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm.  “You do know what time it is?”

“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”

“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.”  Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee   “Go away.”   Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle.  “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”

“I just do.  I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find.  You have to trust me.  And you have to put water in that kettle.”  

After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.  

“Logical, really.  Only one place he could have gone.  You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”

Lesley opened her eyes:  “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it?   You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already!  It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”

“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult.  We won’t force you to do it.”

“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”

“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose.  Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”

“What for?”

“For helping me through – for being right.  For being wise…”   She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee.  Stuff’s  in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”

Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs,   “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that.  Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”

Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white.   It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’.   It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.

“Hallo, lass!”   Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles.    “So you’m my cargo, eh?”

Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo?  Oh, Cyril, you old romantic!  You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”

Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then?  You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”

“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!”   With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.  

“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”

Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter.   Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods.   Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.

“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,”  Cyril said.  “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”

Roderick gave a supporting hand.  “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”

Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril.   Everyone knew him.   A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed.   His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.

“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick.  “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”

The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks.    She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves.   The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose.  There was a pause, then the engine revved and  the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.

Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil.   An apple dropped on her neck.   Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking.  Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another.  Outraged hooting broke out on  one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes.   In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.

 It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock.  If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.  

Then – anxiety.  The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt.   Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.

“Sorry about this.”   It was a woman’s voice.    “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room.   We’ll have it clear in a jiff.      You don’t have any oranges in there, do you?  I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”

Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges.  “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”

“Onions, then?  Some greens, maybe?   Can I have a look?”

Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter.  Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg.   She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.

“Don’t you go opening my van!”   Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.

“I’m sorry!  I only wanted a look!”   Charlie’s voice was all innocence.  Her face was set in steel.

“’Tis my property.   ‘Tis private, right?”

Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes.  A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her.  She was obviously a professional. 

Cyril had joined Charlie at the back.    “See?  You have got some oranges!   What else have you got down behind there?”  She made to climb into the display.  Cyril was equally resolute.  He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.

“I dissent sell from the van, missus,”   Cyril said severely.  “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”

Charlie’s voice had an edge:  “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”

“Twice weekly.  What of it?”

“Where?  Which houses?”

Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied.  “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.”   He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down.  Charlie’s hand stopped him.

“Now look!   I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!”  Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down.   From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured:  from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind.   Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van.  Backing off gave her great pain.  No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.

From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.

“Anything?”   Klas asked.

“I couldn’t see anything.   The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”

“You could have made it official.”

“We could follow it, too, but no.   Low profile, remember?   Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more.  This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation!  He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”

Klas glanced apprehensively skyward.  “Do we include seagulls in that?”  The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock.  “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.”  He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”

“Possibly.  It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though:  the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”

“How should we deal with the van?”

“Wait for it to come back.   Then follow it.”

#

Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen.   Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her.   They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come.  He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his.  He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind:  saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him.   He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.

What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door?   Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of  furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.

The intruder was near, approaching.   Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.  

“Hi.” Lesley said.

He could not respond.   He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.

She said:  “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”

“Yeah.”    Peter could hear his own heart beating.  It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too.  But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.

“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now.  I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”

#

The office window overlooked  the River Thames.   Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move.  Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed.  Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window.  They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three.   Jeremy felt at home among their cushions.  Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.

“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?”  Jeremy accused his operatives,  “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”

Charlie said:  “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”

“Not that late!   Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie.   You lost him.  Too casual, way too casual!”

“The rain, the birds…it was dark.  Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours.  Now he can’t remember it…”

Klas said:  “I think I must have read it.  It will come back to me…”

“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.

Klas shrugged.  “It will.  One cannot predict these things, but it will.  The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.”  he murmured.

“What is?”

“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion.  I have never known such a thing.”

Charlie asked:   “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt?  Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper?   Ah!  It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”

“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”

“They were really determined, the birds!”   Klas mused.  “A methodical attack, almost.   It was as if they knew…..”

“Is he quite with us?”   Piggott asked Charlie crudely.   “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”

“They did assist in his escape.  Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”

“Oh, very odd!”   Jeremy seethed.   “Anyway he’s gone.  Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.”   Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”

“Unlikely.  There was a big storm and the tide was running high.  No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north.  The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”

  “And your reasoning?”

 “We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?”  Charlie said;  “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days:  only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”

“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?”  Klas asked.

“It’s possible.”  Charlie nodded.  “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it?   Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”

“The boy went north, too.”  Jeremy said.  “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours.   That could have put him in Scotland, too.  Two separate trips, one shared destination?   So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”

“I don’t know!”  Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice!  Anyway, this is pure conjecture.  For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”

Piggott grunted;  “Where’s our Howard now?”

“He’s dropped from sight.   The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”

“Seriously?  We didn’t actually lose them, did we?” 

Charlie ignored the sarcasm.  “We can’t be everywhere, chief.  I had to put local lads on it.   It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know, now.  Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”

“So what do we do, drop this?   Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”

Jeremy Piggott shook his head.   “I would.  I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed.   Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get.  With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into.  He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic?  Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”

“Al Khubar?”  Charlie asked. 

“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously.   “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead.  They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.”  Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge.  “He’s a man with a mission.  Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs  can reach.   Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better.   He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”

“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”

“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate:  but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway.  We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process.  And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”

“Ah!”   Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted.  Very intriguing!”

Jeremy smiled grimly:  “Can you imagine?   Look, our people are working on this, OK?  Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be.  For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath,  find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down  – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”

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

Image credits:

Featured Image: Inigo de La-Maza from Unsplash

River Thames: Kevin Greive on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty Seven

The Inquisitors

Beyond Hemlington, Peter’s train was much emptier than before.   Walking back through the aisles toward his own carriage, Peter’s eyes met those of Howard.  There was no mistaking the surprise on the big man’s face, however quickly he attempted to disguise it.   Both knew, in that moment of encounter, the gloves were off.

“Well done!”    Howard murmured.

Peter may have smiled.

#

” So does my mother know?”  Melanie asked.

“Karen?   Bless her, not yet.    Not at this moment.  And she will be afraid, I do not doubt.”

“But Bianca?”

“Bianca.   Ah yes.   She knows.  My dear, she has always known.”

“Always?”

“Since you were very young.”   Agnes replied.  The rain still beat upon the window.   The bay, furious now with the intrusion of the North Sea  gale, was a race of white horses, galloping to shore.   “She recognised the signs in you – told us of them many years ago, my dear.   You were marked with your gift, even then.   When we heard you were going to leave Levenport, we almost jumped at the chance, you might say.  We had to persuade your aunt, rather, I’m afraid. She didn’t want to be placed in the invidious position of telling her sister you were missing – as doubtless she will have done by now.   We couldn’t divulge where we were taking you, you see.  She had to feign ignorance and contact the police to protect her own position.”

This was evening.   Agnes had returned in the Land Rover, after a protracted absence, amidst a flurry of protest and coughing and smoky blueness.  The day was far gone, but there was still no sign of the weather abating.   They sat facing one another amid the clutter of Agnes’ life, each vaguely discernable to the other in gathering twilight.

“I wish I had recognised the signs, whatever they were.”  Melanie mused.    “It might have changed some things.”

“The knowledge would have been of little use to you.  Without the innocent years we are incomplete:  you deserved to grow up somewhat before you took this burden upon yourself.”

“But I don’t want this – what:  burden – gift – whatever it is?  I’m not taking it upon myself at all.  I’m not accepting it.”

“The choice isn’t yours.   You have it inside you.  The decision, if there ever was one, is made.”

Melanie sighed resignedly.  “Okay, then.   How long am I to stay here?   Since my life is pre-ordained and you seem to have my schedule, you must know that.”

“Until tomorrow.”   Agnes said.  “And no, I don’t know what is to become of you, my dear.    I would that I did.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Someone is coming to see you; someone very important.  They will have a much better idea of your future than I.   My part in this is very small, believe me.  I have a secluded lifestyle, that is the sum of my worth.  I offer a safe resting place.  You will have few enough of those, I think.”

“Is that who you went into town to meet?   Is this ‘someone’ here already?”

“No, he comes from far away.”   Getting to her feet, Agnes moved towards the kitchen.   “It’s time for you to sleep.   I would guess you got very little rest last night, hmm?”

At this the spell, the mist of perfect tranquillity in which their conversation wafted around them, was lost.   Melanie felt that all peace, all contentment, all of her childhood, was taken away in that moment.   The storm in the bay was finding a silent, stealthy way in, through the fastened windows, under and over and around the battened doors.   It gathered in rage behind her as she went up the stairs.  White horses in a demonic race, a hunt to the death.   And she, Melanie the gifted, was their helpless, hopeless prey.

There were nine text messages on Peter’s phone.   They were all from Lesley.   The last one said simply: “Y won’t U answer Yr feckg fone?”

When he called her number she didn’t answer.  He knew she was there, holding the little red and green mobile in her hand, looking at his name on the display.   Lesley went nowhere without her ‘phone.

It was a difficult afternoon.   Peter’s parents were hanging close, taxing him with questions:  what was his friend’s house like, who else was at the party, had Manchester changed much?  He excused the absence of his bag and jacket by saying he had absent-mindedly left then unattended at the railway station in Manchester.  Otherwise, he answered all of their questions  as truthfully as he could, describing Vincent’s cottage in a way which made it sound like a house in the city suburbs, adding Simeon himself to the picture using Vince’s modified version of his name (Simon) as a ‘really nice guy from somewhere out on the moors’ with whom he had met and formed a friendship at ‘the party’.   Somehow, though, he knew he was not believed.    In fact, his father’s disbelief tingled in his spine like a pincushion full of needles: as soon as he could, he escaped through the kitchen door and headed for the seafront.

The incident at Framlington had gone unmentioned.   When Peter’s train pulled into the station at Levenport Howard Sullivan failed to emerge, and Peter liked to imagine him cowering down in his seat until he had gone, before sneaking from the station by some devious route.  There seemed no good reason for panicking his parents with tales of attempted abduction, yet there were many pressing reasons for doubting his safety.  Whoever it was, if they wanted him badly enough it could only be a matter of time before they got him.   On the seafront, at least, it was open enough to see them coming.

Lesley was still refusing to reply to his calls.   He sent a text.    “Pleze Lesley. Hennik’s.   Now.”

It was twenty minutes before she appeared, running across the street to the coffee shop, a magazine shielding her head from the rain.  She sat down opposite him, fixing him with an angry look.

“I don’t know why I came here.”  She said.

“I forgot to take my ‘phone:  left it behind.”

“Oh, right!   And you couldn’t be arsed to use a landline – just call me?”

“I’ve only been away two days!”   Peter sipped miserably at his coffee.  “I just – didn’t – that’s all.  I wanted to.  I missed you.”

“Yeah?   Well, shall I tell you the crack from round here those two days?   Melanie Fenton’s gone missing.   She left her aunt’s on Friday morning and hasn’t been seen since.”

“What?”  Peter was genuinely shocked.

 “And shall I tell you what else?  When Peter Cartwright went missing on Saturday morning too, word got out that he was with Melanie Fenton:  that you two buggered off together!    Even Mel’s mum thinks that’s what happened.”

Peter was trying to absorb the news that Melanie had disappeared.

“I thought you’d dumped me, you bastard.  I thought you’d gone.  I warned you, didn’t I?   Don’t dump me.”  Lesley felt all the insecurities of the last few days welling up in her eyes.  “Oh shit!”

Groping through the confusion in his head, Peter tried to find words of consolation, but nothing came.   “I’m not with Melanie.  I’m here.”   Was all he could come up with.

“Yeah?   And for how long?”

“What do you mean?”   Lesley who, behind her spectacular appearance was always uncertain of herself, had a penchant for self-destruction.  Peter was seeing this process eating at her now, and he wanted so badly to put it right, but its logic defeated him.  Why should she be so furious with him, when all he had done was drop out of sight for a day or so?

“Peter, you never forget your phone.  You’re so bloody methodical you never forget anything!   You just didn’t take it with you, wherever you went.   And you didn’t call me to tell me where you were, or what you were doing, because you didn’t want to.  You didn’t bloody want to!”

Lesley got up and stormed out, back into the evening rain.   Peter hurrying to pay for his coffee, followed.   She ran as though she did not want to be caught.   He was breathless when he finally drew up with her.

“Les, don’t do this, please?”

She stopped.   He said:   “I’m sorry – really sorry.  Don’t break us up over this?”

Her eyes still brimmed with anger, but her voice had calmed.   “Peter, I can’t handle it.  I really can’t.”

“Handle what?  I don’t understand.”

“Handle you!.   There’s something about you, something secret inside I can’t get to, and its just doing my head in, like, totally.   You’ve a whole part of your life I have nothing to do with, something you won’t, or can’t share.  Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Melanie has something to do with it.”    He started to protest but she held her fingers up to his lips.   “No, mate- don’t say anything.  I know it’s true.  I know whatever it is kept you from calling me these last two days:  I know that I can’t fight it.  I love you, Peter.   I – love – you; understand?   I mean, really.   But I’d rather back off now, you see?   It hurts too much, otherwise.   I deserve all of you, Petey.  I can’t have that, so I’m gone.  Leave me alone now, yeah?  Let me get my life back.”   Lesley turned and walked away.   As she rounded a corner of the street that led up into the town she called over her shoulder:   “Hey, maybe I should move to fecking Seaborough!”

Peter did not go home.   Instead, uncaring that he should be pounced upon by the menthol-breath man or any of his associates, he did something in the best tradition of all the great romantic novels:  he went for a long walk in the rain.   As he kicked at the reflections of streetlights on the pavement he tried to weigh Vincent’s email with its dire warnings about secrecy against his sense of love and honour towards Lesley, and, of course, Lesley came out on top.   Lesley, he knew, was more important to him, more immediate than any of the surreal events of the last few days.  Despair in her eyes had told him what he must do.    If he did it, he might not have to lose her.  Yet was it fair to embroil her in his haphazard fortunes?   Would she, like Melanie, choose to walk away?   Melanie was missing, though, and he felt certain that it had something to do with her connection with the stones.  She would never really be able to deny the thing she was.  Had the people who shepherded him to Simeon taken her, or was she in the hands of someone else?

Finally, there was Karen, Melanie’s mother.   What would Howard Sullivan do?   There were too many questions, too many people whose lives were turning, unstoppably, around them.   Desperate for some answers Peter returned to his favourite haunt on the Esplanade.

The short summer season was dying, so there were few tourists:  those there were ran with clacking heels between the pinball stations of pub and club, amusement hall and hotel lobby, their voices raised in lyrical protest at the rain.   It was a hard rain, driving in off a distant tide, battering his face with all of Lesley’s scorn and fury.   He paused to lean against the railings for a while, oblivious to his saturated clothes, staring across at the black mass of St. Benedict’s Rock as if to do so might apprise him of its ancient secrets:  but nothing came.  Although gulls wheeled silently as ghosts in and out of the lamplight above him, none perched or seemed inclined to talk in any language but their own quarrelsome tongue.   Their intermittent cries were just seagull insults, nothing more.

The brisk sound of approaching male footsteps drew Peter’s attention.  Two men, heavily-built and obviously not made for speed, had appeared on the Esplanade to his right, coming towards him more quickly than was comfortable for them.   Were they simply holiday-makers eager to get out of the weather?  Peter felt instantly wary.   All at once the wide, featureless expanse of the seafront seemed to harbour a thousand concealing opportunities for those who pursued him to lie in wait.   What was he doing here?   Was he mad?   Only ten hours earlier he had come within an inch of being kidnapped!    He took off, squelching wetly back across the road towards the East Mount and home.  Once among the early evening revellers on the hill, he broke into a run.

The evening meal was an interrogative affair.   His mother:   “Peter, if you’ve heard anything about Melanie, you really should tell us.  Poor Karen is beside herself with worry.”

“Why should I know anything?  Mel hasn’t called me for weeks.”   Then, mischievously,  “Why doesn’t she ask Howard?”

His father, suddenly attentive:    “Howard?  You mean Mr. Sullivan?    What makes you think he would know?”

Peter shrugged.   “He just seems like the kind of blokey who would, that’s all.   I mean, he’s like some heavy Secret Service agent or something, isn’t he?”

Lena Cartwright snorted.   “Just a big soft armchair, darling, that’s what he is.   But he did go straight up to Seaborough to try and do something, I’ll admit.   Poor Karen, she hasn’t heard anything from him all day, either.”  She stood, stretching to reach Peter’s plate.

Peter said with deliberation:   “Why, hasn’t he gone home yet?”

His mother’s face was a foot or so from his own:   “What do you mean, Peter?”

“Well, he was on my train today.  So he’s definitely come back.”

Lena said:  “I spoke to Karen just an hour ago.”

 “I wonder how he got on my train,”  Peter mused;  “I mean, if he was coming back from Seaborough, I should have thought he would have gone through London, wouldn’t he?”

“I think you must have been mistaken.”   His father said, slowly.

Peter waited, allowing his parents time to exchange worried looks.  Should he be doing this?   “No. It was definitely him.  We talked for a minute.  Funny, though.  He didn’t say anything about Mel disappearing.  He told me he went north for a job interview.”   He shrugged, adding brightly:  “D’you suppose he got it?”

There was a pregnant pause.   Bob Cartwright murmured:  “Maybe.   Peter, old chap, where were you this weekend?”

“I told you, Dad.   Went to a party.   Good party, too!  Lots of eats!”

“Then tell me why we, who have known you these many years, don’t believe you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re a bad liar, darling.”  His mother said flatly.   “Where were you tonight?”

“I said where I was.   I went to meet Lesley!  What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”   There was nothing Spanish about the process or religious either, come to that:  it was just the first protest that came into Peter’s head and he was no longer being careful about what he said.   “After I left her, I went for a walk, okay?  Dad, is that okay?”

“Now don’t get angry, dear.”

“You don’t believe me!  You don’t believe anything I say, so what’s the point of asking me questions?    I told you I went to a party; you don’t believe me.   If I tell you I went for a walk because Lesley and I broke up tonight, you won’t believe that, either!   I went for a walk, mum, all right?  A bloody walk!”

“Peter!”    His father’s voice menaced; but Peter met Bob Cartwright’s warning stare with a stare of his own.   Their relationship had passed beyond the point when the father could discipline the child.   The son stood taller and probably stronger now than the self-effacing cleric who had never, in all of his erratic ministry, been a man of authority, within his family or without.  His father’s look emitted worry rather than anger, anyway; it spoke of a man struggling to understand, trying vainly to re-enter the mysterious world of youth from a place too far off.

“I’m sorry you have had a tiff with Lesley;” Bob said gently;   “She’s a sweet girl and you go well together.   Peter, when you’re ready – or when you’re able, I’m not sure which it is, please share the burden you are carrying?   We only want to help?”

Peter sighed.   After all, they had a right to know.   The pursuit would not end and sooner rather than later it would reach their door – a door he knew could not be his for much longer, though he tried to deny the thought.   Not tonight, though.  He couldn’t tell them tonight, and if he did they would not believe him.   His father, a man of God?

“I will, dad.   I promise.”

As he walked out of the room, he heard his mother say: “So there is something!”

Later, in his room, Peter sent an email to Lesley. ‘Dearest Les, I need you too much.  I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.   Please meet me at the Causeway Café?  I’ll be there at 10.’  Then he sent a longer email to Vincent, relating the events of the day, and his fears for Melanie.

 Neither replied.

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

Image Credits:

Featured image: Molly Rosalee from Pixabay

Street at Night: Jack Finnegan from Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

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