Continuum – Episode Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

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

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

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

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

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to him?”

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

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

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

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

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-Seven Poppy’s Courage

The woman was concerned.  “You’re hurt.”   Where Edgar’s hand clutched his side, there was blood.  Blood seeped between his big fingers.  She tried to clarify her thoughts; Edgar was here, which implied that he had won his confrontation with Oddjob, although she could not be sure.

“Edgar, where’s the big man?”

“Where I left him, Poppy.  He’s asleep.”

She had known Edgar use the word ‘asleep’ before.  It was a euphemism.  Oddjob was dead.  That would explain why Edgar was calm, his violence having found focus and spent itself upon Oddjob, leaving him feeling guilty and ashamed.  It was not a phase that could be relied upon to last, What was more, Barbut, Oddjob’s colleague would soon return, an encounter they must avoid.  Hiding was impractical, so the only answer was escape – to pass through the door to the outside, a place without walls.  Outside was darkness, outside was cold; early rain now turned to snow.   Edgar’s shivering form needed to be clothed.

“Come on, we must get that bandaged and find you something to wear.”  The woman rose to her feet, grabbing a selection of clothes from her box; capable, in command.   Edgar, by contrast, was in submissive mood, following her lead meekly from her room, along the landing of the old house and down its creaking stairs.  The floor of the hallway was covered by a threadbare runner of carpet.  She swallowed her revulsion because it was also covered, liberally, in blood.   There was no sign of Oddjob.

“Where is he, Edgar?”

Edgar nodded at the under-stairs cupboard.  “I put him in there.  He’s upside down.”

She stared.  “Why?”

“It’s just the way he went in, Poppy.  Shall I turn him round?”  Edgar offered, moving towards the cupboard door.

“No!  No, Edgar, it’s alright.  We’ll just – leave him like that.  Come now, let’s get you tidied up.”

“Anything for you, Poppy.  Anything, my dear.”

Edgar sat obediently on the edge of his bed as the woman investigated the gunshot wound in his side and adjudged it not to be serious.  She improvised a bandage before seeking out the clothes he had worn for their journey to this place.   Only then did she dress herself, surprised by the difficulties that donning a sweater, jeans and canvas shoes represented.  Someone’s coat had been thrown around her for the journey here: she had not worn outdoor clothing at all within her memory.  For his part Edgar dressed quickly and proficiently, reminding her that, although her treatment of him as a child suited them both, he was a sentient adult with a quick, incisive mind.

She folded up the blood-soaked rug, carried it at arm’s length into the kitchen, throwing behind the scullery door. “What did you do with the gun, Edgar?”

“I took it from him, Poppy.”

“I know that.  What did you do with it?”

“I shot him with it.  Three times.  In the head.  Pop, pop, pop.  Why did he want to hurt me?”

“He didn’t understand you, Edgar.  Where is the gun now?”

“Because I was bad to him?”

“Yes.  You know how bad you can be.” Much as the woman had disliked Oddjob, she pitied him for his last terrified moments.  She had been close to a similar precipice many times.  Oddjob had made a mistake.  He had paid.

She gave up on the gun.  Edgar clearly did not want her to know where it was.  She imagined he had jammed it into Oddjob’s throat, or somewhere worse.

Meanwhile, the pendulum of Edgar’s mood was swinging.  “Chin up, old girl.  This is no place for a chap of discrimination and taste, is it?  Let’s break camp before the cavalry arrives.”

He was right, it was time to run.  Nevertheless, at the front door of the house the woman wavered.  Out there, in the darkness, snow was falling:  the blowing white mist of the high moors draping every inch of cover.  Out there, there were no walls.  Space, immensity without limit.  Panic welled up inside her so swiftly it took her breath.  She was tottering, her head swimming.   Edgar’s arm supported her waist.   “Courage, Poppy!  One step at a time, eh?”

And he guided her into the night.

#

As the car headed north, Patrick asked:  “What will happen to Mr Purvis?”

Rebecca grinned at him over her shoulder:  “A nice comfortable night in the Accident Department, I hope.  He’ll get lots of free tests.  That’s what usually happens.”

“He does this sort of thing frequently?”

“Not frequently, exactly…Is there a map in this thing?”  She asked, rummaging through the glove compartment.

Patrick had already retrieved a road atlas from the pocket on the back of Rebecca’s seat.  He passed it forward.  “What do we want to find?”

“Amy gave me an address, but it’s so remote she had to use an Ordnance Survey map to find it.  It sounds ideal – fits what we’re looking for.”  Rebecca discovered a navigation light and flicked through the pages of the tattered atlas.  “But it won’t be in this, will it?  Look Tarq, this town – can you see?”  She held the atlas up to the light.  “Martlock?  Amy said there’s a road, or a track or something around about here on the B1724, at least, that’s what I think she said.  It’s only ten miles, yeah?   It goes straight up onto the moor, so it’s going to be quite hairy.   Pity you couldn’t pinch a Land Rover, genius!”

Tarquin slipped the Toyota into a higher gear.  “You’re the philosopher here, Patrick,” He said.  “Can you explain why it always rains when you are trying to drive an unfamiliar road in the middle of the night?  I’d really like to know.”

“Nothing personal;” Patrick assured him.  “It’s all to do with the juxtaposition of the spheres.  What sort of place is it, ‘Becca?”

“An old farmhouse, Amy thinks. I didn’t manage to get much info., with Beefy breathing on my neck.  Can’t you do anything with these wipers, Tarq?  I’m seeing double.”

“At least you’re seeing something,”   Tarquin muttered.

Martlock crept up on them without their noticing, an apologetic clutch of squat grey dwellings split asunder by a road its Victorian builders had never designed it to accommodate.   A few anaemic streetlights threw reflective glimmers onto the uneven tarmac, a few brave windows cast their dim message of habitation out into relentless rain.  A hardened town, embittered by a climate that could bring snow even in May: a scattering of shops half-starved – a market square, some cobbled alleyways that rose up onto the sheer slopes of the moors, looming behind their cloak of darkness.  Citizens scornful of the storm’s attack emerged shirt-sleeved from the public houses, The Red Lion, The Black Horse, gathering defiantly along the pavements, dodging puddles and glancing only briefly before launching themselves across the road.

It was over almost before it was begun, that town.  Ascending steadily as they drove beyond it, the companions were plunged into inky night once more, and rainfall that had been plagued by doubt finally became snow.  Hedges newly hued in white rushed by, occasional headlights, oncoming, brought hearts to mouths.

“Somebody’ll have reported this thing stolen by now,”  Tarquin said, referring to their transport. “Although why anyone would want it…”

“The turn-off should be here somewhere,” warned Rebecca.  “Just after a sharp right-hand bend.  That’s it!  Look!”

“Alright, alright, I see it!”  snapped Tarquin irritably.  “That?  Are you sure it’s that?”

“Must be.”

“Okay.”

The gap in some dry stone wall on their left provided access, but not to anything that might have been described as a road.  Tarquin sent the car diving into it with a silent prayer.   A sharp descent, a gut-wrenching bang as the car’s suspension bottomed out, then a rise and an airborne moment before the headlights stabilized, shining on a track that was doing its best to impress as a river, with water flooding down it.

“That was a ditch!”

Patrick groaned.  “We’re going to get stuck in this!”  The gradient before them was simply too steep.

“Not if we keep the speed up, m’dear!”  Tarquin yelled.  “This is hardcore.  Look to your teeth!”

His foot applied hard to the accelerator, the comfortable newspaper hack was suddenly rallying a special stage:   “Whoa!  Lots of hill!  Sit tight!”

Wheels spun, Rebecca squealed as the left front wing failed to miss a rock, with a crash which sent the whole chassis sideways.  A headlight was extinguished, the back end of the car slewed, Tarquin wound it back into shape, spinning the wheel left and right like a Finnish Ice Racer.   In second gear for most of the time, he was thrusting the car into the hill at near-suicidal speed.

“Tarquin!”  ‘Becca shouted.  “I don’t want to die, mate, okay?”

“Are you dead yet?”

“No.”

“Then keep quiet.   I’m working!”

Looking back in one of the ascent’s rare, more sober moments, Patrick spied the scattered lights of the little town far below, animated into crazy trampoline leaps by the action of the car.  Beyond the oval provided by their one remaining light he could see nothing in front but the reflections from the blizzard.

Becca shouted out again.   “Slow down, Tarq!”

“Why?”  Tarquin’s grunt was cut off as he nearly bit through his own tongue.

“Some windows – lights.  That’s the house, I think, yeah?  See it?”

In the next brief cessation of the gale, Tarquin did see it.  They each saw it, just as they saw the van parked in front of it..  “Bugger,”  Tarquin said.

“Turn off the light!”  Becca commanded.

“You’re f***ing kidding, aren’t you, darling?  I can hardly see with it on!”

“Then bloody stop!”

“Is there nothing this woman won’t put me through to get her Pulitzer?” Tarquin complained as he switched off the engine.  “I’m not as young as I was, you know!”

“Oh, shut up, Tarq!” Rebecca snapped.  “Whose is it, do you think?”

“My money says that’s the same van that was hired in London.”

Rebecca nodded in the dark.  “Mine too.  How far away are we – a quarter mile?  They must have seen us coming, even if they didn’t hear us.  They must be in the house.”

Patrick could barely disguise his eagerness.  “How many, I wonder?”

“Two, three captors – two hostages.  At least, that was what left London.”

“So what next?”  Patrick asked.

“Whatever the story is, we aren’t going to find out from here,”  said Rebecca, with decision. “I’m in need of some air – do you young chaps fancy a walk?”

#

No sooner had the woman followed Edgar’s lead and stepped from the house into the whipping blast of the open moor than she saw the beams of the van’s headlights snaking up the side of the hill.  They had made their escape just in time.  Shielded by darkness, Barbut’s return concerned her less now they were out on the moor.  Even the cold was a condition to which she was accustomed.  She had been cold, more or less, for eight years, just as she had been hungry, or hurt, or afraid.  This deprivation counted with her rather less than the emptiness of the void which surrounded her. Of far greater import was agoraphobia, the terror of limitless, unseen space, and Edgar’s mood.  He had been surprisingly complicit thus far, but for how long could she expect that to continue?    Edgar?  She need be in fear of him, not for him.

Probing through darkness, she and Edgar had covered very little distance when the familiar white van’s headlights were snuffed out before the house.  She was able to watch not one, but three heavily-built men emerge from the body of the van to hurry indoors, their jackets pulled over their heads against the elements.  Her thoughts rushed back to Oddjob’s conversation, overheard on the telephone:  sedation, the mention of a beach.  She held no illusions.  If she was to survive this night, if Edgar was to survive, they must get as far beyond the reach of these men as the elements would allow.

The heather and broom carpet was unforgiving, snatching at their ankles, and interlaced by little channels, a thousand of them, filled with frozen rainwater threatening to take their feet from under them.  Unseen sheep snickered in the dark, or gave vent to loud, old-man coughs that might cause many an inexperienced traveller to cower.  In her head, the woman pictured those three big men as they noticed the broken stair rail, registered Edgar’s room with its unsecured door.  Maybe it would be Barbut who would open that cupboard under the stairs…  Suddenly Edgar stopped, scenting the wind almost as a dog might – almost like the wild creature he was, the woman thought.

“We have company, Poppy.”  He said quietly.

The woman paused, listening.  At first all she could hear was the rush of the wind and steady whisper of snow, but as her concentration improved, there were other sounds too – of feet moving softly through the broom, even, she thought, a low undercurrent of urgent, hushed voices.  “How far away?”  She hissed, trusting Edgar’s instincts.

“About fifty yards, Poppy, I do believe.   Over there.”  Edgar pointed grandly into the darkness.   “Might be following us, do y’think?”

The woman had never known Edgar to act in this fashion.   Rational thought was rare for him:  phases of sobriety were usually tantalizingly brief and presaged fits of distress or anger.   She was on edge:  when would the mood break, and when it did, what would follow?   She could not handle a manic spasm out here on the moor – conditions were too severe.  She needed – they both needed – enclosure, something around them; to be inside a room, a box, space with features she knew and could touch. Above all, she must get Edgar out of weather which was beyond her experience.  Her heart was pumping wildly.  She had to take a risk, a chance.

She shouted above the gale:  “Help!   Help us!”

“Holy Crap, what’s that?”   The response was immediate, female, and much nearer than Edgar had led her to believe.   “Tarq!  Over here!”

From the direction of the house the sound of pandemonium breaking out announced a discovery – the blood-soaked rug, possibly, or simply their absence – or maybe someone had opened the under stairs cupboard.  Raised voices, torch beams, running feet.

A figure, small and slender and as inadequately dressed as the woman herself suddenly took shape in the white fog, to be joined almost immediately by a second, more substantial presence who clutched a hat to his head.

“It’s the abominable bloody snowman, Rebecca m’dear.  I do believe we’ve struck oil!”  Tarquin Leathers exclaimed.  “May I be so presumptuous as to inquire your names, my dears?”

Alarmed though she was by Tarquin’s extravagant language, so incongruous in the teeth of a howling blizzard, the woman had to trust these strangers.  It was not a matter of choice.

“I’m Poppy, and this is Edgar,” she raised her voice once more against the wind, “And we need to get out of here.”

If any reinforcement of her argument was needed, the crack of a gun and a snick of a bullet in the heather nearby supplied it.  “Back to the car!”  Rebecca yelled.

A third figure materialized in the haze of snow:  “Wait a minute!  Is this who I think it is?”

Another shot, another bullet, uncomfortably close.  “Have we met, dear boy?”  Edgar asked.

“Yes!  Last time, I pushed you into the river!”  Patrick rounded on Rebecca.  “Leave him here!  A bullet’s too good for him, but it’ll do!”

“You may be right, dear boy,” Tarquin reasoned, “ but if we stay to argue you will find these bullets undiscriminating.  Let’s save the moral discussion for later, shall we?”

“Patsy!”  Rebecca placed frozen hands on Patrick’s shoulders, “We need to get at the truth, yeah?  I know how you feel, but…”  Edgar was becoming agitated.  The woman was ignoring everyone now, as she tried to keep him calm.   Wordless, Patrick broke out of Rebecca’s grip, stamping away in the direction of the car.

“They’re coming!”  Tarquin roared, “I think we should leave – now!”

Barbut and his ‘colleagues’ were splitting up, two advancing across the moor in their direction, the other starting their van: its headlights flared.

Rebecca and Tarquin broke cover to run after Patrick, the woman followed, dragging Edgar behind her.   It was not a great distance, it did not need to be.

“I hate to resort to the bleedin’ obvious,”  Rebecca cried, “But the soddin’ car’s facing the wrong way!”

“I’ll turn it!”  Tarquin replied.

“How?  There’s no room!”  Patrick reasoned.  The van’s bright beams were piercing the snow, throwing light upon their distressed Toyota, already half-buried in the confines of the track.  “And no time.”  He added, with finality.

The van was upon them, the figures from the moor catching up fast.   She who called herself ‘Poppy’ was fussing with the man-monster, stroking his arms and cheeks, trying to placate him.  The next burst of small-arms fire from the two on the moor would not miss.  Rebecca and Tarquin?  They were unarmed, and Patrick hoped fervently the man-monster was not holding a gun.  It was over.

As if to vie with his argument, a chatter of automatic rifles split the night.   Bullet-holes sprayed across the windscreen of the van in a neat line.  It skidded sideways and stopped.  One of their assailants on the moor was thrown backwards in a way that suggested he would not get up again, the other threw himself flat.  Hands that brooked no dissent gripped Patrick’s arms, turning him.  Fresh headlights glared in his eyes as the massy presence of a large long-wheel-based land rover slid to a halt only yards away.

“He’s the one!”  The flint-like figure from the hotel might have been difficult to identify in the snow, but his voice betrayed him.  He was pointing at Edgar.  “Jacket him, now!”

Three men, those whom Rebecca had outsmarted earlier that evening, all now dressed in uniform camouflage and each carrying an automatic rifle, closed around them, forcing them into the Land Rover.  A fourth, who was the driver, produced a straitjacket, which, despite the woman’s protests, he and the one Rebecca had nicknamed ‘Beefy’ used to restrain Edgar, pinning him against the snow-burdened Toyota as they tied him in.   Edgar howled, loudly and long, but he was helpless against the trained force of these men.  Everyone waited then, while the flint-like superior officer with two of the men combed the area immediately around the track and inspected the van.

“One dead, the rest have gone,”  was the flint-like man’s verdict as he climbed into the front passenger seat of the Land Rover.  “Van’s empty.  I expect the driver high-tailed it back to the house.”  He extracted a microphone from an RT on the dashboard and transmitted:  “Hotel Tango Alpha, area secure.”  Then, turning to address his captive audience;  “I’m sorry for the rough handling.  We’ve made special transport arrangements for Lord Driscombe.   The rest of you will have to accompany us, I’m afraid.”

Rebecca’s rueful comment from the darkness:  “Fait accompli?”

The driver of the Land Rover took his place, yet made no move to depart.  The three-man assault force had thrown a coat over Edgar’s shoulders and remained out on the moor, supporting Edgar, kicking wildly, between them.   Their attention was focused upon the western sky, and soon the reason became apparent as sounds of a helicopter filtered through the snow, loud and growing louder.

Among the Spartan seating arrangements inside the vehicle, the woman was placed opposite Patrick, giving him an opportunity to assess her, if not see her (there was no interior light) for the first time.  He was nervous, excited; could she be?   She was concerned for altogether different reasons.

“Edgar?  Where are they taking Edgar?”

“I think it’s alright,” he reassured her, “I think you’re safe now.”

“Edgar!  What will they do to him?  Why aren’t they taking me?”

“I don’t know.”  He replied, carefully.  “Perhaps they feel it’s time you had some freedom?  You’ll have to help me because it has been a long time, and I long ago ceased to believe this was possible, but tell me, are you Karen?  Are you Karen Eversley?”

The woman turned her head towards him, as though something, some nuance in his voice had sparked a memory:  “I’m Poppy.”  She said.  “That’s my name, Poppy.  Why won’t they let me be with Edgar?”

The noise made further speech impossible because outside, a helicopter was landing in the snow.

Author’s note:  Don’t miss next week’s final chapter of ‘Nowhere Lane’!

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Sky

The sky this morn is black with crows,

The rising sun an angry rose

Casts blood in petals on the land.

And I sing, to remember all I was

In another age, in another time,

Beneath a sweeter, brighter sky

When all the world was you and I.

 

White horses walked in sylvan glades

In days when knights could honour maids

And seek their favours in return.

And nought I sought in recompense

But ever fought in your defence

Long after honour was all gone

And long before I lost the dawn.

 

The twilight now, in softened hue

Fades all my memories of you.

Evening mist now veils your face

Treasured thoughts of so long ago

Will soon lie cold beneath the snow

In shelter from the wind’s embrace

To be awakened never more.

 

Night clouds gather, my day is past

I will take you to my bed at last

That part of you forever young

Though undefined within my heart

Shall be the verse of my last song.

And when I lose my final fight

Your wraith will guide me into night.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  All rights reserved.  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.