Bourta, Peter, and nurse Aneesha
“This ‘Peter’,” Arthur Herritt said, tensing his back against the jolt of the carriage, “Could he be someone you have known before?”
Francine had been moody and silent since they left Levenport for their return journey to Mountsel Park. Watching the slow passage of the world beyond the window, she seemed ill-disposed to revisit the embarrassment of that morning; “Indeed I have no knowledge of any such person, nor do I remember invoking their name.”
Samuel, her son, had a contribution to make. “Mama, was Peter not the name of that ostler fellow who used to trouble our guardian so? He could be most persistent.”
“Indeed he could, my sweet, the reason being our guardian’s unwillingness to pay him for his services. No, I cannot imagine calling out to him in my sleep!” Francine allowed herself to smile a little.
“It was dyspepsia then!” Samuel declared.
“From something you ate, Mama. Troubles of the digestion can make you say things in your sleep, and precious loudly too – as you must have been to wake Uncle Arthur upon that couch. He was some distance away, you know.”
“I’m sure that was the crux of the matter!” Arthur was enjoying his elevation to the honorary status of ‘Uncle’; “Yet I remain unconvinced of this Peter’s significance, just as I am sure you are troubled, Francine. Will you not share with me?”
“I wish I could,” Francine rejoined truthfully, “I cannot because I do not know. It seems the further the distance between myself and that stone in Mr Ballentine’s house, the more despondent I become. It calls to me, Arthur: it is like some fatal drug. I simply cannot dismiss it!”
“Then I hope the closer we draw to Mountsel Park, the more your mood will improve. We have our own access to the warm stone, remember, and unlike the stone you discovered at St. Benedict’s House, that which was exposed by the roots of our noble tree does not reject you!”
“I wouldn’t deny it. Perhaps you are right.” Francine was silent for several minutes, watching the boats that plied the river Leven next to their road. “Such is the perversity of my sex, is it not, that those things which reject us attract us the most? Arthur, I shall not be able to explain this to you, but in my dream of last night it was you I sought and your name I called, not because I was lost or frightened, no. Because I was where I was meant to be and you had not come to join me there.”
With October, winter had come to the Northern Land. From a brief, glorious Autumn a gale had risen, sweeping unhindered over the endless plains and growing colder as it blew. Soon it would bring the first real snows, frigid lances fierce enough to still the heart of the land, icy enough to freeze blood in the vein. Then, in the little villages which now and again cling like limpets to this vast expanse of country, life would be suspended until the thaw and the spring rains. Villagers whose whole lives revolved around the changing of the seasons would burrow into their high-roofed wooden houses like moles, waiting for the year to turn, for once the snows came anything but the bare minimum of social intercourse became impossible.
So it was when December came in amidst wind which had blown, it seemed, for weeks. A persistent demon, it thrust wave upon blizzard wave against the little peasant settlement of Sradneik, until a crust many feet deep had reduced the profiles of its roofs to mere humps in a blanket of white. And so it was with the house of the woman Lyudmila. Each morning a fresh path had to be dug from its buried door to reach fuel which was stored in an equally snow-bound outhouse. Hating the snow and the wind, Mahennis Bourta made the woman do this.
Bourta was the woman’s “house guest”. In this tightly-knit community, no-one knew who Bourta was, or wanted to. The more you knew, the more you were likely to be asked what you knew: and when it was likely that the military would be doing the asking, it was better not to be asked. The woman did not know who he was, either. Lyudmila was only certain he must have reason to be with her, just as the only reason he kept her alive was so she would cook, satisfy his carnal needs in the night, and fetch the wood for the stove the next morning. So she would grit her teeth when he came to her bed, even when he cut her, which was deep and often. And, in her way, she accepted this. In her world there were worse fates.
Bourta, had visited twice before, each time in the lea of a killing. Unlike the invisible man, Salaiman Yahedi, his identity was known to police forces in every part of the world. Alice Forbes-Harrison’s body carried his ‘signature’. The moment it was found, the identity of her murderer would be known, or at least suspected strongly enough to make him a fugitive. Bourta’s violent nature was distrusted everywhere, so, even though he worked in the name of the Amadhi, he would find no friends among his own people. Now, even the Amadhi had forsaken him; his report of his last commission had gone unanswered. He had displeased Shumal, the Crown Prince. Alice had taken the secret his employer had wanted to her grave, and the fault was his. The Amadhi’s displeasure could prove fatal.
One morning Bourta was awakened by silence. After weeks of shrieking gale, absolute soundlessness becomes a sound in itself, and Bourta heard it. The woman grunted and shifted beside him in the small bed, wafting him with fish-foul breath. Cursing her, thrusting her away from him, he slid from the filthy covers. It was cold: colder than he could ever remember. This cold was a tangible thing: it had substance, it flowed, it trickled, it was a creeping plague. During the night the stove had slowly relinquished its grip, and now the insidious icy advance had reached its iron buttresses. It gripped Mahennis’ feet as he lowered them to the stone floor; attempted to hold him fast as he stoked at the glowing ashes, feeding a last meal of wood and peat into the stove’s gaping mouth.
“Wood!” He shouted at the woman. They communicated as little as was necessary: a mixture of signs and shared words. “You get wood. Now!”
Lyudmila grumbled from bed, swaddling herself in layers of coat and shawl. She took the poker from the stove to lever open the frozen door: it gave with a rifle-crack. For once, there was little snow piled against its protective porch; she had only to pick up the cloth sling she used for carrying the wood, and a little axe to prise the wood pile apart, and venture out.
The woman Lyudmila looked back at him, protesting with a stream of complaint in her own language which Bourta could not understand.
“Be still, woman!”
Now the door was open, there was a sound. A rapid, rhythmic disturbance of air. It was faint, very distant, but growing in volume.
“Inside. Quickly!” He did not wait for the woman to comply, but grabbed her and threw her inside, slamming the door shut behind her. Lyudmila, too, had heard the sound. As Bourta retrieved his automatic rifle from beneath the bed she unplugged a spy-hole which he had cut through her wall, clearing it with the poker. He cleared a second aperture, lower down, large enough to shoot through.
The helicopter’s approach was purposeful. Its navigator clearly knew exactly which house he wanted. Bourta had hardly time to prepare his defences before it was hovering, ready to land and less than fifty meters away. This was a moment when, maybe, a well-aimed volley of shots might end the threat: but Bourta knew a village with a crashed helicopter in the middle of it would only be a signpost for more; and in this cold there was nowhere he could run. No, if he were to survive this at all, he would need the aircraft intact. So he waited.
For a few moments the frozen crust of snow resisted the turbulence handed down to it by whirling rotors from above: then it gave way, smothering everything in a crystal fog of whiteness through which it was impossible to see further than a few centimetres. All Bourta could do was stare into this cloak, knowing the helicopter was landing, had landed, and looking for a first sign of movement, anything at which he might shoot. Behind him in the hut, the woman Lyudmila keened and whined in terror.
“Mahennis, my friend.” Shouted a voice from right beside him. “I come in peace, brother.”
Bourta knew the voice, just as he knew he would not get a shot at its owner, even if he wanted to. Of course! Only one man could know where he had hidden. The intruder was braced against the wall outside, just to the left of his spy-hole and beyond reach of his gun.
“Salaiman Yahedi. What brings you to this place?”
Bourta’s suspicion had to be satisfied. Yahedi had been scathing in reporting his, Bourta’s, conduct at the Forbes-Harrison elimination, and Bourta had supposed their association was at an end. Yahedi had made it clear that he did not want their friendship to continue. So what had changed? Yahedi was three times the shot Mahennis was; had he come to complete a contract?
“You are needed.” Salaiman’s voice was placatory. “We both are.”
“By the Prince – by the Amadhi. Mahennis, it is all right, my friend. I have not come to kill you. Look, here is my trust: I will come to the door. Have your woman open it. I will come inside and you can keep your weapon trained upon me. Be merciful!”
Outside, the mist of disturbed snow had settled. Bourta saw that the helicopter’s pilot was still in his cockpit: it was a small craft, incapable of carrying more than four.
After a moment’s thought, Bourta nodded the woman to do as Yahedi suggested. Then he retreated to sit upon the bed, rifle trained at the door as Lyudmila opened it. Very slowly, his arms outspread, Salaiman Yahedi crossed the threshold.
“Remove your coats.” Bourta instructed.
“Ah, but not for long, brother. It is extremely cold!”
“By the fire, then.”
There was still friendship: still that slender thread of camaraderie that a war-zone brings. Both men felt the onset of mutual trust as unavoidably as they felt the frigid cold in their bones.
“Allah forfend, Mahennis! Come with me from this awful place.”
When he was content that Yahedi was unarmed, Bourta said: “Shumal asks it?”
“He has work: work for us both. You are away from the world too long, my old friend!”
“I am reprieved, then?”
Yahedi’s face clouded. “Ah. The woman Forbes-Harrison. Well, it is true I wanted from her more than you left her to give. I must believe you had needs of your own, Mahennis. Yes. I must believe that. And I must always bow to the greater need. Shumal was greatly disappointed, too. However, he has supplied his needs by other means. Shumal needs us, now. We have a window in this weather which may not last for long….so, if you are disposed to come, now is the time, brother.”
Staring through the door onto the white wastes beyond, Bourta thought wistfully of the heat of Khubar: this was not a difficult choice. He nodded.
“Allah be praised! Now get your things together and let us please just leave?”
As they departed, some minutes later, Bourta with his rucksack hastily packed, Yahedi looked enquiringly towards the woman Lyudmila. “Is she to remain?”
Mahennis Bourta considered this for a moment. “She knows nothing,” He said after a pause. “Let her remain.”
“I am impressed by your charity, brother, but is this really wise?”
Bourta nodded. “Yes. She is ignorant of our cause. Let her live.”
Back inside her home, Lyudmila counted the money left to her by the man-monster whose bed she had shared, seemingly impervious to the threat his parting held for her. It would not be the first time her life might have hung by so slender a thread, maybe not the last. She picked up the log sling, and, as the white cloud left by the departing helicopter cleared, went out into the yard to fetch fuel for the stove. As the chopping beat of rotors receded; the first strands of the next gale ruffled her shawl. It would be a long, solitary winter.
The helicopter was fast: a military model bought from the army and converted to private use. As mile upon mile of featureless, snow-laden plains passed beneath, Bourta could not quell his unease.
“So what has changed?” he asked.
“Ah, you mean in our quest for this seer Shumal spoke of? Well, we have found him – or her, as it appears. There may be others.”
“So Shumal has what he wants?”
“Shumal?” Yahedi smiled – an expression not often seen to cross his face. “Shumal wants so much, my friend. The young woman we found, this seer, she is very sick, she may not live. We do not understand why. But Shumal has other interests now.”
“And they are?”
“You will see.”
Bourta shrugged, settling himself into the corner of his seat. At least, for the first time in weeks, he was warm. In Al Khubar it was afternoon, and the time of the Asr prayer. The King Abur Hospital was quiet. Senior nurse Aneesha Vaal was sitting beside the critical care bed in the Royal suite, which was at the very highest point of the very top floor of the building. Outside, a desert wind was blowing. Within the sound-proofed room there was silence, save for the steady bleep of monitors which kept watch over Aneesha’s patient, who lay very still.
Aneesha had been alone with her charge for two minutes now. This was unusual, for this patient was subject to special rules, issued by no lesser personage than the Crown Prince himself: and one of those rules stipulated that two critical care nurses must be present to look after this bed at all times. Under no circumstances was it to be left unattended.
It was Aneesha’s colleague who had opened this breech. Naima had been feeling progressively worse throughout the afternoon. When she had started her shift at ten-thirty that morning she had seemed fine – no evidence of the stomach cramps which assailed her with increasing frequency as Dhuhr, the time of midday prayer, passed . The onset of her illness seemed to coincide with a drink Aneesha offered from her own flask; although of course the two things could not be in any way related. And Aneesha could not have been more solicitous, observing her friend’s deterioration and obvious discomfort.
“You should go early.” Aneesha urged. “We have only twenty minutes left, after all.”
Naima’s face was grey with pain. “No, no, I must not. I can stay a little longer.”
“Foolish person! You will make yourself seriously ill! I can cover for you for twenty minutes, for heaven’s sake! Let’s be honest, she is not going to go anywhere, is she?”
They had both looked at the patient in the bed – a coma victim who had remained in a vegetative state for some months now.
“It would be my luck.” Naima murmured; but then a fresh spasm of pain attacked her: “Oh! Aneesha!”
“Go!” Aneesha insisted. “Go home you silly child!”
And so it was that Aneesha and the patient came to be by themselves. This was convenient for the senior nurse, who did not wish anyone to see what happened next. From beneath her uniform she produced a tiny phial, a fragile thing she had taken care all day not to break. She held it to the light, as though to ensure the contents were genuine and that nothing had been lost, but in fact to check that a tiny barb on the corked end was intact: satisfied, she reached for the full adrenaline bag which waited on the stand to take over the patient’s drip when the present one had drained.
It was a simple matter: the barb had only to be inserted into the plastic, then its other end pushed through the corked top of the phial. The flow of pinkish liquid through the little thorn’s hollow interior was barely detectable, no more than a slight clouding which dispersed as it joined with the mass of fluid within the bag. There was plenty of time – the tainted fluid would not be used for some hours yet, not until the existing bag was exhausted – not until Aneesha had boarded her flight.
As Aneesha stood to replace the tampered bag upon its hook, she looked down. Maybe she planned a final word, a few sympathetic wishes for a speedy journey to the after-life, for the patient in the bed. No words came.
Two eyes – two wide awake and staring eyes – two eyes with a fire of damnation in them and a curse no mortal could break – met her own. A scream froze in Aneesha’s throat. She felt the poisoned bag split in her hands. Her knees gave way beneath her, her fingers lost their grip and the polythene wallet of poisoned fluid fell, spreading its contents across the floor.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Featured Image: Yang shuo on Unsplash
Cabin: Elsa Marie De leeuw on Unsplash
Helicopter: Rainer Bleek on UnNsplash
Nurses Needle: Anon, Pixabay