Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-Six

Seekers in Darkness

The year in Al Khubar reaches its nadir in December.   Which is not to say that the sun ceases to burn, or the day grows too short: but a southern wind, merciful to some as a respite from desert heat, blows strongly enough to trouble the placidity of the gulf, and sand devils, whipped up by this wind, scour the beaches.   A few ardent surfers, a scattering of sail-boarders, maybe some low-season travellers might brave the gale:  for the most part, though, the sea-front is deserted and the markets are quiet:   the hotels fall back on their business traffic, and the tiny Kingdom is rested from one facet of its great wealth for a while.

Marak looked down upon the ribbon of white sand which bordered the bay and reflected.   The fuselage-like capsule wherein he stood, atop Al Khubar’s expensive King Abur Clinic gave a feeling of flight, as though, on the thirty-second floor, one was not attached to the ground at all; but rather in some palatial zeppelin which moved, or at least swayed a little, in the wind.   He sighed.   For all of the comfort the Royal Suite provided, he was not a man accustomed to idleness.   He had attended this place every day for two months and that was too long for a man of his disposition.    However important his role here, he would wish it to be done with.   Mohammed Al Fait, the man known as Marak, was unquestioning of this city state.   If he disapproved of its vast coffers of oil-generated gold, he did not speak of it, or allow the diplomatic glove to slip from his hand.  He moved carefully here.

Jordanian son of a wealthy family of importers Marak had travelled many leagues, both politically and geographically, from his childhood home:  this even though, on a clear day, he might almost descry his father’s warehouses from such a high window.   The Gulf was not so large, after all.    His father had sent him to Oxford for a first class degree, expecting the travels of his rather quiet and deferential child to end there, and carrying the expectation that he would return to take up his family’s business interests.   But the maelstrom of university life offered another perspective to the keen-brained Marak.  Upon the banks of the Isis he met a beautiful and idealistic sociology student called Ydala, and it was in the spell of her challenging intellect that he learned to ask questions of his privileged life.  After his graduation he went, not back to the family firm, but to America with Ydala to train as a soldier.   His first career steps were through cloying assault course mud in backwoods Montana.   His philosophical metamorphosis occurred in the chrysalis of Ydala’s sleeping bag.   The emergent butterfly dried its wings and flew to Iran with her to sip at the nectar of fundamentalism, but did not find what it wanted.   Marak understood his place in the universe the first time he took up an assault rifle, and, although this was something of which Ydala was less certain, she followed him to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, and to Syria to attack the demons of Zion.

Ydala died in Southern Lebanon, her flashing black eyes dimmed by the absolute obliteration of an Israeli rocket.   Something of Marak died there too.   He never fully recovered from Ydala’s death.   For a while he became a machine; a total mercenary without conscience or creed.  If guns were to be hired Marak’s meter was always running, be it in Palestine or Georgia, in Ethiopia or Ecuador.  Then, when that aspect of his grief was satisfied, he turned to terrorism for his revenge.  He learned the clandestine art of the bomb-maker, the steady aim of the assassin.  He became, to some extent, what Salaiman Yahedi already was.   In that at least, Yahedi had been wrong about Marak in his characterisation of him for the Crown Prince, but correct in discerning that killing of itself was not to Marak’s taste.   For all of his action-filled life, Marak remained quintessentially rather above the blunt end of struggle.  He venerated the symbolism of the gun rather than the fell justice of the bullet.   Very westernised and scarcely a practising Moslem, he was, despite his history, in all things a charmer:  a gentleman with a revolutionary fire in the thing that passed for his soul.

This morning it was important to conceal that fire.   A visit by Prince Shumal was due. 

His royal personage would enter the building by a private access, travel up to the suite in his own private lift.  In a few moments the doors behind Marak would open and he must be facing them when they did.    It was etiquette: it was expected.

Beside Marak stood a doctor whose input to this meeting would be as important as his own.    To their right was a critical care unit: a tented bed surrounded by electronics and machinery dedicated to the preservation of life at the edge of extinction.   Occupying this bed, amid a tangled waft of tubes and wires, was Melanie Fenton.   There was little to remind Marak of the brittle, vibrant young woman who warmed the damp air of a Scottish morning for him, now some eight weeks since.   Melanie, pitifully thin and pale as death, lay crumpled before him, a discarded snakeskin.  She made no movement, no sound save the regular rhythm of her assisted breathing.   A monitor bleeped out each tortured beat of her heart.

There were approaching footsteps, murmurs of deferential conversation.   The doors to the suite were thrust aside by an irruption of white-suited security men, who peeled back like the petals of a rather vulgar lily to reveal the Crown Prince, a stamen in a yellow robe, in their midst.

Shumal paused in the doorway as he took in the room; Marak and the doctor, Melanie’s comatose form.  As though aware of the incongruous picture this made, his own truncated form little more than waist high to the tallest of his guards, he gestured to his aide, an earnest, darker-suited young man who waited behind him:   “Where are nurses?   This is our guest:  she is precious to us.  She should be attended constantly.”

Then, bowling into the room with arms outstretched, he greeted Marak and the doctor warmly.

“My friend!   And Doctor Schulmann!   Thank you for coming!”

Each man bowed slightly and smiled.   Shumal’s diminutive stature belied his power, yet he commanded respect.

“This is the girl?”   Shumal moved to Melanie’s bedside, brushing aside enough tubing to gain a full view of her face.   “Ah, so young!”

“Her name is Fenton, your Highness.”   Marak murmured.  “She is the one we spoke of.”

“And resourceful of you it was to find her, my dear Mar- ak.”   The Crown Prince emphasised the second syllable of Marak’s name in the ancient tradition.  “But then when you told me of her illness….”  He sighed:   “I did not dream of such as this!”

He brushed aside the film of the tent, taking Melanie’s hand and lifting it, with its attendant catheters, from the bed.  “She has fine skin – a beautiful child, no doubt.   Doctor, does she make progress?”

Schulmann pursed his lips, allowing Shumal to see a diplomatic reply coming before it left them.  “Do not hold anything back from me, Doctor:  I want your honesty, you understand?”

Schulmann nodded sagely.  “Frankly, your Highness, no.  Her vital signs are weak, she does not breathe without assistance, as you can see, and she has support for all her physical functions.  There is no obvious evidence of brain activity beyond that which you might expect in a deep coma patient.”

“And will she recover?  How long does this take?”

“Who can say?   She is stable.   Sometimes such a patient may regain consciousness, sometimes not; but as to when?   It might be in a day, a week, a year.  Or never.”

“She is in a vegetative state.”  Marak explained.   “She lives because we do not let her die.  That is all.”

“Were she less important to Your Highness;” Schulmann said, “We would have discussed her prognosis before now.”

The Crown Prince regarded the girl in the bed solemnly.  “How did this come about?  You say she was well when you found her?  Can she have been poisoned?”

Marak could only repeat aloud the story he had turned over in his head for many weeks now.   “She was in robust health on the plane until about thirty minutes after we took off.   She appeared to suffer some form of stroke, or perhaps an epileptic fit.   After a few minutes of spasm this subsided, so that all seemed normal; though she complained of head pain. She collapsed a half-hour later.   She had to be defibrillated twice in the plane.”   

Marak left his original plan unsaid, which had been to recruit Melanie into the service of ‘The Portal’ in Cairo – to turn her great gifts as a seer to his cause’s use.   A plan that had to quickly change in mid-flight when he realized there was no hope for his prophetess without the best medical help, which within his circle of influence only the Crown Prince could provide; Al Khubar was the one conceivable destination.  So he had telephoned Shumal with his tale of an opportunist kidnapping and a hostage useful to the Amadhi cause.

He shrugged:  “As for poison, Your Highness, I think not. My crew are trusted.”

“We made all necessary tests for poisons, Highness,”   Schulmann said.  “Nothing was discovered.   The symptoms are more consistent with some episode of a neurological nature.   Yet there are things there which do not fit.”

The diminutive prince cocked an eyebrow:   “How so?”

“I say she does not respond to our treatments, Highness.  That is not quite accurate.   It might be more precise to say she is impervious to them.  There seems nothing we can use which will register any affect – nutrients, stimulants….her body remains in absolute stasis whatever we attempt.   This is odd:  I might even say unique.”

“So perhaps if you took away these machines….”

“Maybe so.”   The Doctor secretly thought that such a measure would be more than his career was worth, but he did not say so.

The Crown Prince nodded.   “You will do your best, Schulmann, I am sure.   She is in the most capable hands.”    He turned to Marak:   “We must meet soon.  My aide will call you.”

After Shumal had left, Schulmann and Marak exchanged glances.

“You did not elaborate.”  Marak accused.

“No, I did not.”  Schulmann spoke almost as if he did not want Marak to hear him.  “Because I am a medical man, Marak, and what I see here is unnatural.  If I am asked to explain it…”  He left the sentence unfinished, “I am not sure I believe it myself.”

Schulmann could not explain; not even to himself, how it was that the tiny almond of the Amygdala, an inch or so of simplicity in that great unknown which is the human brain, should be so active in a coma patient:  how it was that the pulses from that one region of Melanie Fenton’s torpid intellect should be so strong.  It was, indeed, unnatural.  To the more susceptible of his superstitious proclivities it smacked of witchcraft.

And to speak of witchcraft…

“Beloved?”   Francine’s lips whispered in Arthur’s ear;  “Have I found you?”

“Francine,”  opening one eye Arthur turned his head to hers, inhaling the rose scent of her morning.  “When could you have lost me?  We have been no further than a breath apart tonight.”

“I did.  In my dreams I could not find you and I was afraid.   The darkness is filled with shadows – yet here I am.”

“So, all is well…”

“Indeed, sir?  How can all be well?  I am a fallen woman!” 

At this more spirited response Arthur stretched, revelling in the nakedness of the feminine flesh that pressed to his.  He gently bit Francine’s nose.  “We have certainly travelled many a mile, you and I, but not one yard of it felt like a descent to me.  I love you, foolish child.  If you fret so about your reputation, it takes no more than a mere proposal of marriage from me to make of you a Lady as high as any in the land (should you do me the honour of accepting it, of course).  Don’t tell me you didn’t consider that?”

“Oh!  I am a fortune-seeker now, am I?”  Arthur suffered a playful blow from a cushion to his head for this insinuation.  “And I suppose all the blame for this liaison must lie with me?”  She leapt from the bed, treating him to the perfect curves of her hips and back as she half-strode, half-danced to the window, gesturing theatrically at towards St. Benedict’s Island;  “And not with this monster of an ugly rock?”

Arthur was delighted, but concerned.  “Francine, my darling.  You can be seen from the street?”

The effect of his remark was far greater than he intended.  Francine squealed, genuinely shocked enough to jump back from the glass, clutching her arms to herself.  “My nightdress!  Arthur, my nightdress!  Did you take it from me?”

“My dear, you never wore it!  Do you have one?”

“How do you dare?  How… Of course!  Of course I have one!  What must you think of me?”

“I think you must be in danger of freezing.  Come back to bed.”

“Nay, sir!”  Francine would not, but snatched her valise from the settle before retreating behind her screen.  A minute of fumbling and foolishness so intense Arthur could almost read the confusions in her mind followed.  When she emerged she was respectably gowned, and measurably calmer.   “I feel weird!”   She said, in a voice not quite her own; “This is just mad!”

Arthur enunciated a thought that had been long in growing:  “At times of great stress…”

The hotel room door opened enough for Francine’s son, Samuel, to peer in.  He had heard his mother’s cry of alarm.  In an instant his eyes had taken in the bed, and Arthur lying upon it.

“Mama?  Is all well?”

Did the child miss, as Arthur certainly did not miss, the few seconds of complete estrangement in his mother’s eyes – an expression which nearly found a voice:  “Who…?”

Francine recovered herself quickly, “Yes, yes.  Go and dress yourself, my sweet.  We shall take breakfast shortly,”

Samuel had already interpreted the scene:  “Mama?  Is this…”

“Yes, Sam.  There are things here you do not understand, but trust me, I beg you?   Go and ready yourself.   We must journey back very soon.”

Reluctantly, the child’s head withdrew and the door was gently closed.   As soon as she was certain he had gone, Francine sat by Arthur’s side of the bed and he would have held her hand but she snatched it away.  

“You  had no idea who he was,”  Arthur said gently;  “There was an instant there when you and he were strangers.  There are times you and I are strangers, are there not?”

“Aye.”  Francine stared at her lap,  “Yet there are times too when I am closer to you than anyone I ever met or could imagine meeting.  Those times are such that I cannot feel shame for the things we have done together here.  Shameful as I know they should be,  I cannot!”   She stood, no longer afraid for her modesty, to cross to the window once more.  “Nevertheless there was a time I was alone last night, and I cannot explain it.   I had lost you.  It was dark and there was some one far off I thought might be you.  I called out to you, but you made no answer.  Oh, Arthur, am I mad?  Have you fallen into the clutches of a madwoman?”

Arthur rose from the bed, pulling his shirt about himself and preparing to dress.  “No, Francine, you have fears perhaps, but you are not mad.   Even if you were, I could not deny you.   I can console you by this much, that the strange utterances you make are clues to your hidden past, and we shall discover their meaning.  For myself I only have one fear, that we shall find as the skein unravels that you were – and therefore haply are – wedded to another.  My dear one, last night you were never further than a whisker from my side and in sleep, with such contentment on your face as I could wish to be writ for me, you uttered a name.   You said, ‘Peter’.”

© 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 Adam Borkowski from Unsplash
Darkened Hall Rui Silvestri from Unsplash

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 Thirty-Four

Candle in the Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recognise him, Peter?”   Vincent asked.

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

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

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

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

“Should Goodridge?”  Peter asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Simeon would know,”  Peter thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter nodded dumbly.

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

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

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

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

“Why?  I don’t get it!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well then nothing can be done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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