Satan’s Rock

Part 37

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.

“Dyspepsia?”

“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.”

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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.

“No.  Wait!”

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 whom?”

“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.

But then….

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.

Image Credits:
Featured Image: Yang shuo on Unsplash
Cabin: Elsa Marie De leeuw on Unsplash
Helicopter: Rainer Bleek on UnNsplash
Nurses Needle: Anon, Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-two

Encounter at Maslingham

At about the time of Jeremy and Maurice Shelley’s meeting in a Surrey garden, Peter Cartwright was alighting from a car in the market place of a small northern town.   Since his unusual exit from the Manchester fast food restaurant he had been transported in the back of a plain white van to a large house in Willenshaw.   Here he was met by Hal, a portly northern businessman, in whose BMW he rode for another one- and-a-half hours to Maslingham, the town with the market place.

Although he had asked, Peter had been unable to elicit any information concerning either his destination, or with whom he was supposed to finally meet.    The wiry little man in overalls had stayed with him no further than a carpark below the restaurant, where the van’s driver had concealed him politely, but without comment.   Hal, though talkative, seemed reluctant to answer questions.

“Furniture, lad.  That’s all I know.  Been a remover all me life, me father before me.”  Said Hal, who looked as if he hadn’t moved a piano in years.  “When I took over the firm it were dying on its feet: not worth a snuffed candle.   I built that firm, lad, with’t sweat of me brow.  Worth two million now.  Two million!”

This and similar jewels, interspersed with long, considered silences, made the hour- and-a-half in the car pass slowly.  As this was also Peter’s first intimate acquaintance with cigar smoke (Hal puffed regularly on a fairly generous Havana) he came close to travel sickness.   All in all, he was grateful to finally be decanted in Maslingham.

Having parted with Hal: (“You’ll be waiting a bit.  We can’t afford a direct link up, y’see; too easy to trace us back through the vehicles.  Good luck lad – you’re in‘t badlands up here, mind!”) Peter found himself completely alone.    Maslingham had one of those town centres you could encompass at a glance: a market building stood in the centre of the flagged whinstone square, supporting a rectangular tower with a clock face on each side.  Each face told a different time.   Along two sides of the square were functional shops, a Chinese takeaway, a couple of touristy cafes.   The third side was lined with town houses.   All the buildings were of green sandstone. One or two were still possibly in private hands, the rest given over to office accommodation, except for ‘Luigi’s Italian Pizza Takeaway’.  Luigi’s disported a fading yellow menu in the downstairs front window, and emitted a heavy aroma of stale fat.

On its fourth side the square was cut by a road, busy with traffic en route to somewhere else.   A ‘bus pull-in with a shelter of black wrought iron and glass stood beside this artery: a small group, scarcely a gang, of youths draped around it, like gibbons on a climbing frame.   They regarded Peter with more than casual interest: he was probably the first new face they had seen in a week.

“Are yer lost, ma-ate?”   Asked one; a question which, though innocent enough, initiated sniggers from the others.

“Fook all to find.”   Another commented.   Again, the giggling.

The first questioner was a lanky lad with a shock of black hair and a long, pinched face.  He swung himself down from the bus shelter:   “Can we ‘elp you, like?  Where are you lookin’ fer?”

“I don’t know.”   Peter replied, truthfully.  “Someone’s supposed to meet me here.”

The shock-headed boy was clearly the group leader.   He approached, the rest of his gaggle grouping dutifully around and behind him:  three other boys, two girls.

“No-one ever cooms ‘ere, ma-ate.  Yer must be in the wrong place.”

“I think he’s swank.”    A second lad said.

“He coom in a swank car.”   One of the girls piped.   “Have yer got any money, like?”

“Not much.”   Peter was becoming uncomfortable, although he tried not to show it.  The youths sidled around him, like sniffing dogs. 

“Reckon he ‘as.”  The first boy said.  “Reckon he’s got cash!    Buy us some chips, ma-ate?”    Everyone laughed.

“Chinky’s closed.”   The third boy said.

“Oh aye!”   The leader looked regretful.  “Still, he can give us the money so we can get ‘em later can’t he?”   He looked to Peter for confirmation.  “Can’t yer, ma-ate?”

“I’m not giving you any money.”  Peter replied, as steadily as he could.

“Why, that’s not very gen’rous, is it?”

There comes a moment in such encounters when the inevitable must be faced.   Peter was not unversed in gang culture.  It was as prevalent in Levenport as anywhere else.  There had been groups like this around his school, even at college:  rarely students themselves, these skulks of vulpine sub-humans with shifting, cunning eyes huddled in dark covens around the perimeter walls, at the amusements in the town, by the corner shop with cheap lager to sell.   These were not the sophisticates, the Ross Copelands with scams and wit, of a kind:  they were an altogether a more primitive, and by definition a more dangerous species.   Peter usually managed to avoid them.

            A rapid scan of the group revealed that, of the girls, the taller black-haired one who had asked him about money was likely to be a problem.  Her arms and hands were a picture gallery of bad tattoos, her cat-like features set in a cadaverous half-smile, eyes thirsting for violence.  Of the boys, who had the knives?  Two were his own age or possibly less, one a convinced introvert with downcast eyes and no opinion to share, the other eager but too generously-built to be a threat.  The older, shock-headed boy who had first challenged him, though rangy in stature had the self-confident face of a fighter.  Yes, he would be one.   His immediate companion,  stockier, heavier,  and less assured?  Maybe he was also carrying some sort of weapon.  The second girl, his girlfriend obviously, draped gothically over his shoulder.

“Berrer tak it off ‘im then;” intoned the stocky lad.  “Gan ter ‘elp yer find yer wallet, swank.”

Some instinct drove Peter forward, singling out the shock-headed lad.  He did not know how he had detected the blade in that right sleeve, or how his stare had become so icily cold it could induce the fingers reaching for it to fumble and fail to grip?   Neither had the shock-headed boy time to understand how the roles had altered, how the stranger was his intended victim no longer, and instead he had become the prey.  Those eyes fixed unblinking upon his were as hypnotic and as binding as a cobra’s.   Peter the vicar’s son was hunting. 

To Peter one point and one point only mattered, the shock-headed lad’s chest closest to his heart.  Inside  he was a spring, coiled to its tightest; a whip, primed to crack.  Vaguely, he felt the group jostling around him.  Felt it, but ignored.    Peter’s first blow lifted the shock-headed boy head and shoulders above the would-be plunderers, the second launched him through and beyond them, its impetus carrying him backwards several meters before slumping to the pavement, where he lay without moving.   Immediately, Peter sensed the second threat.  That spring rewound itself instantly, the trigger primed once more.   He cast about him for the source, found the stocky young man was reaching into his jacket, drove his hand like a wedge into the flesh of the young man’s neck and gripped.    A screech of pain echoed in the empty square, a knife clattered to the stones of the pavement.   Now there was space around him, room to move.   Those who remained were backing off, worsted and frightened, horror in their faces   Far away in the back of his consciousness Peter could hear the Goth girl screaming as he raised her boyfriend clear of the ground and dangling him from the end of one extended arm turned slowly, like the second hand of a clock until he had aligned him with his shock-headed friend.   Then he let him fall.  His two most dangerous adversaries lay crumpled beside one another on the paving, while the traumatized remainder of their group backed well away, whining obscenities.

“Come on son; better get you out of here.”  

His shoulder was being held by a restraining hand, a hand that was large and kind.    Sensing this instantly, Peter felt the tensions inside himself release and he allowed the hand to draw him back.  A car had parked behind him with its door opened.  Unquestioning, and with as yet no clear sight of the owner of the hand, he got in.

As he was driven away in a flurry of tyre-smoke three images printed themselves onto his cerebral cortex:   two slumped bodies, lying very still, and the form of the raven-haired girl in a foetal crouch.   Her eyes followed his departure: they were the terrified eyes of one addicted to terror – mirrors of insatiable hunger.

“By god, lad, they weren’t joking when they said you might be dangerous!”    Chortled the big man who was the owner of the hand:  “Still, at least I know I’ve got the right one!”

He was clean-shaven and muscular, this latest of Peter’s drivers; dark of skin and casually dressed in an Arran jumper and he was driving fast, but with precision.  The narrow back-streets of Maslingham were quickly behind them and they were climbing a steep, winding hill overshadowed by trees.   The little town glimmered in late afternoon sun to the right of them as they ascended. Although dusk was still some hours away other vehicles sharing this shady road glowered behind angry headlights while the big man’s car remained unlit, a grey ghost in flight towards the hills.

“Just in time.   Looks like someone called the fuzz.”

Further down on the valley road Peter could see the blue lights of two police cars flashing rapidly towards Maslingham.   He felt cold fingers of shock creeping around his throat; what had he done?  He was mad, he was lethal!   Something inside him was beyond his control and he was a killer!   An involuntary moan escaped his lips; slumping back in his seat he stared at the branches flitting past, suddenly aware of the agony of his swollen fists, and consumed by furnaces of guilt.

In no time at all they had cleared the trees and their car was driving across open moor.   Early autumn winds gusted at the car; low sun forced the big man to squint his way with a hand shading his eyes.  Then they were off the main road, scraping down a twisting lane into a deep, narrow trough between the hills where, at last, the driver guided the car more slowly, wary of the wild life which seemed to use this road as their highway:  rabbits, weasels, the occasional hedgehog all promenaded here, scornful of human company and reluctant to give way.  More than once he had to stop, chivvying a four-legged pedestrian with bips from the car’s high-pitched horn.

“Come on, sunshine, move yer fluffy arse!”

For mile upon mile, turn after turn, Peter was oblivious to all but the memory of those few minutes on Maslingham Square.   Where had he learned such a capacity for brutality, gained such strength?     In the lea of his confrontation with Copper Copeland he had spared a moment to wonder just how he had achieved an upper hand, recognising that some new-found ability must have come to his aid,   but nothing as devastating as this!   Was he a murderer now, wanted by the police?   Would he have to be locked away, for the sake of public protection?   He must have asked these last questions out loud, for the big man chipped into his thoughts.

“Don’t worry, lad, you didn’t kill anybody!   Gave ‘em a few bruises, maybe,and a few bad memories, but they’re tough, those lads.   An hour in Casualty and they’ll be right as rain.  Mind you;”   He grinned:  “If I hadn’t got there when I did….”

Around a sharp, declining corner, squatting above them on a steep grassy bank a house came into view.   This was not, like so many of the dwellings on the moor, a lonstead built by smallholders in the mine-working days:  a crude construction of random rubble.   No, this was an imposing if somewhat grim building of dressed stone:  the windows were large – weavers’ windows made in days when no electricity helped working eyes – and the slate of its roof glared orange where it caught an oblique shaft of evening sun.  A rough driveway led up to and around the rear of this house with the light from an opened back door to welcome them.

The big man got out, came to help Peter with his door.  “Hop out now!  I’m not staying.   I’m going to drive on, in case we were followed.  If you trot up to that door, they’ll make you welcome.  I just want to say…”   He faltered:   “I just want to say I’m honoured, young man.   I never thought I’d see this day, I never did!”   Before Peter could ask him what he meant, he had turned away.   And with a slam of the car door, a tearing of wheels and flying grit, he was gone.  

Peter’s feet crunched through gravel.   Save for a distant rushing of wind through heather, his was the only sound.   A faint odour greeted him as he approached the open door.   It told of recent cooking, of herbs and freshly baked bread.

  Cautiously, he peered inside, to find himself face to face with Vincent Harper.

“Hello mate!”   Vincent said.  “Long time no see.  Have a nice trip?”

Upon a similar sun-blessed evening separated from that moorland house by some distance and almost two centuries of time, Arthur Herritt was seated in a chair in the Salon Parisien at Mountsel Park, watching Francine Delisle, who was perched upon a sofa opposite him, making irritable stabs at embroidery.  Her needlecraft, he allowed himself to think, was at least as inadept as her musicianship, and her posture nearly a match for both, yet the woman was undeniably charming.  Hurriedly, he rebuked himself for his thoughts.   As always, he felt compelled to limit his time with her, for fear of absolutely betraying his feelings.

“I’m contemplating a small excursion,” Said he, “From which I am loathe to exclude you, Francine.   I am hoping you will agree to accompany me.”

“Well I am sure, sir, that  as grateful as I may be for your hospitality, I shall go mad if I do not have a change of scenery soon, so I beg you to take me wherever you intend to go!   May I know your purpose?”

“Truthfully I am not sure of that, I want merely to investigate a place with which you may possibly have a connection,  We shall be on the road, of course, but I shall see to it you are protected.”

“Arthur, please!  I am assured enough!  May I be apprised of our destination, then?”

“It is not far.  I wish to visit Levenport, to view the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.”

“The Crowley place? You would take me there?  Oh, Arthur, would you take me there?  Oh, Arthur!”

So impulsive a reaction took Arthur by surprise, if not by Francine’s very vocal enthusiasm, then by her physical response, for she seemed disposed to throw her arms about his neck like a child, possibly even to kiss him!  He caught her shoulders to restrain her fervour as kindly as he could:   “Francine, I thought that we agreed…”

The full significance of her impetuosity came over Francine, and she blushed furiously, though insufficiently: her true feelings expressed themselves in the soulful blue lakes of her eyes; “We did.  For goodness sake, whatever came over me?”

“At least until we know more of the history that brought you to me…”

“Oh, Arthur, what is this?  What makes me act so wickedly?” And the unspoken question.  ‘Why do I feel for you in this way?’  Dare she even think it?

“That is what we shall endeavour to find out,” he said, turning away to hide the flush of colour in his own flesh.  “Although those answers may not come to us tomorrow, we shall set forth bravely in the forenoon!” 

As she watched him leave a black cloud of depression enveloped Francine so that she began to weep.  Tears spilled over, coursing almost unregarded down her cheeks.  It was not Arthur’s invitation to visit St. Benedict’s Rock that affected her so, not that.  She had heard of the place, of course, in her years in Mountchester, but it had held no special significance for her then, and very little now.  No, it was the invisible cage imprisoning her that distressed her so, the prison of a past she did not have, compounded by a danger she could not understand.  In her mind she perceived Arthur as standing beyond the bars, beyond her reach.  The journey of the morrow would not resolve these puzzles, but just the chance to share them without the constriction of Mountsel Park, which, for better or worse, she saw as her cage.  The Great House in which she felt so very much the guest of Arthur was also the barrier that stood between them.

How might she explain this growing affection for Arthur?  She took no pleasure in it.  Her undisciplined feelings were a constant embarrassment to her.  A daughter of a good family must deny herself simple transports of affection, and constantly defend her reputation; so what were her true feelings for this man who sparked such wildness in her?  What would be the price she would have to pay for his rescue?

© 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 Free-photos from Pixabay

Hooded Man: David Ortega from Pixabay

Moorland Scene: Gamopy from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Nineteen

Reflections

Arthur Herritt toyed with his glass, rotating the thick leaden stem between finger and thumb, staring into its deep ruby charge of Port as though some vision might appear.  He would discard no possibility of resolution these days.

“I feel – I cannot deny it – such attachment to her.  This extraordinary sense of familiarity is most perplexing.”

Across the polished walnut acres of his desk, Abel Montcleif frowned.  As Arthur’s business manager he had several caps to wear.  As his lifelong friend, he had only one.   “You know so little of her…”

“That I concede.  In spite of my sensibilities, that I must concede.”

“And I have been able to discover little more.”  The higher pitch of Montcleif’s voice found greater clarity in the dark lustre of the panelled room.  “In essence all we have is a woman who arrived in our city a decade since, already bearing someone’s child.  Even her name is not her own.”

“Her guardian?”

“Jebediah Fletcher?   I spoke with him, and found him quite pleased to be rid of her.   Whether that reticence is motivated by guilt, or fear, or both, is open to question.  He certainly seems more than willing to relinquish any claim to Mrs Delisle.”

“Guilt?”

“Knowing the man as we do, is it not difficult to believe he gave her shelter merely as an act of charity?   She is a fine young woman, Arthur…”

“I know it…”

“And therefore vulnerable – or calculating.  I don’t wish to impugn her character, but we do not know it.  And the Hart-Witterington fortune is an inestimable prize.”

Arthur sighed, “No, that is too obvious.  I shall not accept she is merely clever.”   He sipped from his wine; “What news of the lady’s assailants?”

“None, I fear.   The one you shot wore only that simple robe.  There were no brands upon his body.  I spoke with the Justice and he is satisfied the man was a scoundrel:  you shall hear no more of that.  The other?  No trace, although it does seem the pair of them together may tally with Mrs Delisle’s accounts of two men who she saw loitering by Jebediah’s house.”

“So, we have gained no ground?”

Montcleif cocked an eyebrow; “A certain young lady would seem to have gained considerable advantage, would she not?   Albeit (I shall add hurriedly) she may be in no doubt wisdom – and caution – will prevail.”   He rose to his feet, walking slowly past Arthur’s desk to the window.  “Yet there is something…”

Arthur  turned in his chair “Something?”

“Aye, sir.  Something troubling, in its way…or, should I admit, it troubles me?  It has no direct connection to Mrs DeLisle, however.  Ye recall the night of the great storm?”

“Most certainly.   My blessed guardian first took ill upon that night while I sojourned in Bleanstead, a distance down the coast where the storm was less severe.     There, of course, I first met with Mrs Delisle; is that of significance?  ”

“As to its significance, I must leave you to judge.  Though none so grave to us as Lord David’s mortal illness, that night certainly brought a confluence of events.  We were fortunate not to lose two of our ships.   The ‘Pietrie’ was torn from her moorings, and the Pelligore was lucky to make safe harbour.  Less widely acknowledged, yet nonetheless important, Lord Crowley lost his life that night.   You may have heard?”

“I believe I did – although he had been unwell for some time, had he not?  Eccentric old buzzard, ’tis said; built himself a bird’s nest on top of St. Benedict’s Rock.  The ugliest house in the land, I have heard it called.  Yes, that was a fatal night indeed.”

“What if it was more than that?”

“How say you?”

“That night the gale did its best to strip old Crowley’s house from the rock.  There were those who said it should never have been built there, that the rock was an unholy place, the haunt of a monkish clan who consorted with the Devil.  Those same voices insist the storm unleashed the rock’s venom upon this valley; a plague of snakes, gull attacks on anyone who ventured to make safe the house, or even recover the old Lord’s body. The ingress of vermin has led right up the River Leven to our very doors!  Peculiar, is it not, that Jebediah Fletcher’s fears for his safety as Mrs Delisle’s ward have burgeoned from that time?”

You paint a powerful case, Abel.  I shall keep my rabbit’s foot close to hand.”

“You jest, but how many murders have there been in Mountchester this year?   Street crimes, motiveless stabbings, child killings?”

“Oh come!  This is the currency of the mob, surely?  Have you forgotten the cholera has only recently left us?  There are penniless war casualties everywhere – these are troubled times!”

“I know, Arthur, I know, but still I have suspicions.  ‘T‘is as if the storm spilled over a pot of imperfections and they run through the streets like an Egyptian plague.”

So Lord Hart’s death, and Crowley’s, and Mrs Delisle’s misfortunes – all were ordained upon that night?”

“Well, sir, mayhap they were.  Meanwhile, does the good lady seem secure here?”

“Indeed she does, Abel.  She and the maid we picked for her have become fast friends.  They seem quite conspiratorial at times.  Ah, and I have employed a teacher of pianoforte to give her lessons, which will please you.  He is as perplexed as I, for she has skills as a musician, he thinks, yet no notion of an instrument she might have learned to play.”

#

Saturday afternoon was a time for relaxation, a quest for inner peace of which Alice Burbridge’s bathing ceremony was an implicit part.  She had risen at six-thirty, sneezing from a slight cold, donned her black, lavender-piped track-suit and taken her usual run in the park.    Dressed for the day in sloppy Pringle and Ralph Lauren she had breakfasted  (a little cereal, a piece of pawpaw, some black coffee) then shopped;  a taxi from Lancaster Gate to Kensington, a spidery lunch of green salad with a friend before, surrounded by fashionable bags, a taxi back to her flat, to close her door on the world.    There was  magic in the clicking of locks as they secured her against intrusion, a moment of purity as she threw the switches to turn off her intercom, trip out the doorbell.  These were the things, once in each week, that she treasured.  Alice’s time, and hers alone.

In her bathroom she shed a white towelling bathrobe in front of a triptych of full-length mirrors to survey her nakedness critically, rather as an aesthete  might evaluate a work of fine art, and here pause, increasingly with the years, to wonder: where had all the cynicism come from?  Why were those little lines around her mouth always and always creeping back?  What had spawned the empty pool of hopelessness behind her great, dark eyes?

Alice put all doubts into a little box of forgetfulness to leave stashed by the mirrors for another week, running her bath carefully, adding the cocktail of oils she favoured, testing its temperature to perfection.     When she wrapped herself in the waters they must caress, enfold, cradle her.   Head back, she could close her eyes, and there would be her mother waiting for her as she pushed her bike through the wicker-gate in the garden of her childhood; Sid the rough collie pursuing that toy ring she used to throw; air thick with the scent of gardenia and lilac, fresh in the morning sun.   Home in summer.

    Pleasant lethargy would set her mind adrift to her early career: that first hesitating entrance to a room of stern faces, the auditions which so amused her now, so tormented her then.  The questions, the eyes that crept and saw too much, no matter who was a friend of a friend, a contact, a recipient of her father’s money, or next season’s shining star.  The young, successful model, in the good days.

Then the memory forever present: Paul Bascoe.  He who spoke softly with just the lilt of an accent, like warming her hands by a fire.   His gentle voice commanded, and how gladly she had obeyed!  Her body still purred when she remembered.  He had taken her with no fumbling uncertainty, no doubt or imprecision.   He had taken her as she had always wanted to be taken and still did; smoothly powerful, impossible to deny.   Oh, how he had opened her, exposed the whore in her, taught her about herself as no other man had done before or since!  Never in her direst nightmares could she have imagined it was just a test!   What did it say about the woman in this bath that the greatest night of her life had been an application for a job?

She did get a letter from him, just one, inviting her to recall how she had admitted to enjoyment of risk – the threat of discovery; could she see herself risk-taking in other situations, perhaps in pursuit of information, or in seeking people who were missing?  If so, there was someone she should see…

Alice went to her first meeting with Jeremy Piggott more in the hope of finding Bascoe again than anything.   She had never thought of herself as physically brave.   When Jeremy had told her what he wanted her to do she was hard put to avoid breaking into a run as she left; yet within a month she was in his office again, signing documents which bound her by the Official Secrets Act. 

The work?  It started slowly at first, then, as contacts led to other contacts a few leads proved productive: a modelling Agency importing cocaine, a colleague who was people trafficking.   Small fry.

Her big break came on a high profile shoot in Bahrain.  She met Prince Shumal at a royal reception and found the heady perfume of power intoxicating: in a week of debauchery she underwent recruitment to the Prince’s Amadhi cause.   Her double life had begun.

Thereafter the chess-game of existence as a double agent pleased Alice: no, it did more than that, it excited her, it thrilled.  Wherever her modelling work took her, she excelled; manipulating, juggling relationships, even casual meetings under the ever-present gaze of two jealous masters.   British Intelligence as her official paymaster gave her an office, a security clearance which passed muster with the Amadhi.  Even when fate had thrown her a curved ball – tripping over Yahedi in Hyde Park, not knowing she had accidentally kicked the American Senator’s intended assassin – not until she saw him again in the Prince’s Apartments, she was able to handle it:  she was comfortable as long as she was within the structure, knew whose side she was on.  This was why she found the circumstances surrounding Peter Cartwright so disquieting.  Her loyalties were confused.

Feeling a first chill as the waters which embraced her cooled, Alice emerged from her bath with aphrodisian grace.   She took a warm towel from the rail and returned to her bedroom where, donning a fresh bathrobe, she seated herself at her dressing table.   More mirrors: a fresh triumvirate of mirror-glass, and a chance for a little private game she liked:  a companionable conversation with herself, the Alice in the looking-glass.  In a drawer of her dressing table lay the tablet she used to record her thoughts.  While it was booting up she rehearsed the questions she would ask.

 Piggott had learned who and where Peter was, but not from her.   Although she had known his whereabouts from the first she had said nothing to Piggott about their first meeting, nor had she implicated Vincent Harper.   Why?

 “Why didn’t you tell Jerry you had met the boy?”  The mirror asked her.  She was pleased by her questioning stare, the slightly creased brow.  So cool!

She answered, “Because I don’t think they can understand what he is.”

“Does that matter?”  Asked her reflection.

“Yes, it must.  Jerry just sees him as a pawn.  If Vince is correct, there’s a chance he may be a lot more than that:  he may be the White Knight.  God knows we need one.”

The mirror scowled, “What gives you the authority to make that judgement?”

“Nothing, no-one.   Jerry will lock him in a room, treat him as a spy.  The Arabs want him dead.   They want everyone who gets in their way dead.   So what are the choices?  Nobody speaks for the boy:  I don’t think anyone can.  And now there is a girl, too.   She made the picture, didn’t she?  Is she the kingpin?”

“Vincent does.   Vincent speaks for the boy!”   Alice paused:  startled by the simplicity of the mirror’s answer.    “Vincent…..he’s the key to this!    Where did he learn about the boy?”   She was deep in the throes of her little play, pleased with the way her eyes came alive, the fresh flush of her cheeks as she spoke: how lovely, how flawless those features still were!   See the way she could still turn on that arch look, her head downcast, eyes suddenly raised to see …?

Oh no!

Bourta was a reflection in the glass just long enough for Alice to recognise him before his big hands swung her round in her chair.   Overbalanced, she clattered to the floor and her head hit the corner of her dressing table with a bang.  An array of flashing lights filled her vision, blinding pain exploded in her head. Jerry had warned her, shown her pictures of what this man could do.  Oh god those pictures! 

“Allah…Allah protect you!”  She prattled the words, “Brother, we are both Amadhi.  Why do you steal in here like a thief?”

“Beautiful woman – beautiful Alice Burbridge!”   Bourta smiled down, a row of glistening teeth.  “Are you Amadhi?   I do wonder so.   Please tell me, who is ‘the boy’?”

She was aware of her robe being torn aside.  She felt the pressure of Bourta’s arousal as he knelt over her and she knew that those photographs had not lied. 

 As she knew she was already dead.

“What boy?”   She tried to say.  Then the knife cut her face in half.

Pain entered her like a fire which invaded so many places on her body that all the agonies became one.  The cut across her mouth was just the first, for the knife was in skilled hands, butcher’s hands.    Alice may have been conscious of two people in the room, may have heard their questions, registered the anger of one with the other as it was recognised not that she would not answer, but she could not.  She had no means left to speak.   Inside her some tiny vestige of a voice told her this was not for ever, it was just a gateway.  Soon she would pass through; soon it would all be gone.

“Who is the boy?  Tell us of the boy.  Tell us where this boy lives!”

Where was the white light?  She had been told about it; she had read about it – the long tunnel and the white light which always came.    Where was the fucking white light?

“There is a female?   Does she live with the boy?  Who is ‘Vincent’?  If you cannot say it, write it!”

Paper thrust in front of her, something, maybe a pen, pressed into her hand – but fading, not important anymore.   No pain now. She was standing before the gate and there was her mother in the garden: And here at last, at the very last, was home.

#

The telephone call had brought Piggott news he half-expected and dreaded.   So the ring on his doorbell found him ready in coat and hat to make a solemn evening journey.

A sallow youth who was his driver for the night stood waiting, a staff car murmured on the street.  When Jeremy opened the official envelope passed to him by the youth’s cold hand, saw the photographs it contained, there was no shock, no surprise. God help him – how many had there been of these?   He barely looked at them.   The Alice Burbridge they showed was not how she would want to have been remembered, and they had nothing to do with the woman he had known.  As the car whisked him across twilight London to the blood-soaked flat where her life had ended, he called in an APB on Mahennis Bourta, knowing it would be fruitless:  the man – if man was what this monster was – would be far away.

#

Flying at thirty-five thousand feet over the Caucasus, Bourta, his eyes turned to the cabin window, may have known  he had gone too far this time, that he had overstepped a final line.  Salaiman his friend – how many men had friends like Salaiman Yahedi?  – had turned his face.   Salaiman the Prince of Assassins turned away, showed him his back!    Had he outraged the conventions of death so grossly?    Was it not a momentous deed?    And in her death – yes, in her last agony how he had wanted, needed, desired that woman!      Bourta stared long and deep into the eastern night, searching for the first red of approaching dawn.  Only when he saw it, only when he had cleansed his hands of the day that was gone, would he rediscover sleep.

© 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.

Header Image: Comfreak at Pixabay
‘Alice’ Ractapopulous at Pixabay
Mountains: Confused_me from Pixabay