A Quiet English Village with a Lethal Heart

Hi!

Today, a brief note from the knarled old beast behind these keys.

A fulfilment of a promise.

The serialized book I have been running this year, ‘Hallbury Summer’ is now available as a complete eBook on Kindle.   I said I would do it, and I did it!  Just click on the cover to your left and you will be whisked magically away to Amazon’s glorious domain!    I am still working on the hardcover 2019 version.   That will be up for purchase soon.

Hallbury Summer is the third book I have serialized through this blog, and it has been the most popular, though ‘A Place that was Ours’ runs it a close second.  I aim to produce that as an eBook too.  I’m working as fast as I can!  (not fast, I know – doddering, in fact)

Meanwhile, and coming very soon, a new serialized novel.   Science Fiction, this time, but with a difference; several differences, in fact.  I’m looking forward to introducing you to Alanee.  I think you will like her.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

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