Satan’s Rock – The Novel

In a manner of speaking, I’ve been here before – approaching my blog as a platform for a book in serial form. The method, too, is well-tried. I start a story without knowing how it will end, and with none but the loosest of plans. Search my blog history and you will find ‘A Place That was Ours’, ‘Hallbury Summer’, ‘Nowhere Lane’, and ‘Continuum’. In one sense, ‘Satan’s Rock’ is in the same mould as these, because the finished entity will be book-length, but it will also have a much broader and less linear story to tell, a series of episodes coming together by mutual consent and at first appearance, nothing else. But I write for pleasure, so I hope it will be pleasurable to read – a voyage for us to take together. It begins here!

Part One. Conversations: The Wild Sea

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  The woman’s pale voice strove to be heard above a gale -whipped crash of waves. “Isn’t it perfect?” 

“I like it.”   Arthur responded.   It was all he could do to speak.  They were thieves of words, these giant flumes of white-spray that crashed repeatedly upon the rocks below, so confounding that down the years they had drawn him to this spot at the foot of the lighthouse time and again.  The years were honest, though:  they had stolen none of this magic.  

“Me too!”  The woman tucked her pretty chin into her cape.  “It’s real!” 

Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassed surprise:  “My goodness!  Whatever made me say such a thing?!” 

“What did you say, Mama?”  Asked the little boy, taking her hand anxiously.  “Did you use a bad word?” 

“Why no, Samuel, not bad, exactly:  just very odd.”  She replied, as if coming to herself, as  though returning from a far place:  her words seemed full of sadness, of a longing so profound that, despite his curiosity concerning his own part in this innovative little conversation, Arthur felt his heart quite moved.  She hastened to recover herself:  “And I fear brazen, sir.  I beg your forgiveness.” She dropped her gaze demurely. 

”A novel turn of phrase, but forgiveness is quite unnecessary,” Arthur assured her.  “May I have the honour of introducing myself, ma’am?   I am Arthur Herritt , of Mountchester. 

“Oh,Mr Herritt , you must think me very rude.  This is Samuel, my son.   And I am Francine Delisle.   Please forgive my informality – but who would introduce us in this wild place?” 

‘Should we need to be introduced’, he thought.  “Who indeed?” He cried , raising his voice once more above the sea’s renewed onslaught, “I had thought to be alone here.  I commend you for your wild choice!”

Wild it truly was.

Few ventured to Beacon Head in winter, when ocean rollers, compressed into the shallow conduit of the Channel, thundered purposefully against granite cliffs, their spray carried in on the wind like volleys of icy grapeshot.  Arthur, who loved the fury of the seas, gladly suffered whatever dangers the road offered to escape his busy life, but he had been surprised when he saw these two lonely figures standing in a space he often occupied by himself, by the rail of the lighthouse plinth, the red banded light tower at their backs, staring betimes down at the white cauldron of foam, or out towards the ocean.  The place they had chosen was the stormiest – a pulpit over the waters he adored, and his first thoughts were resentful of company but then, when he had drawn closer to the pair, seen the way the woman drew her cape about her, clung to her bonnet while her skirts flew unregarded above her delicate little ankles, it was as if a slumbering place in his soul had reawakened.   He must know her – he did know her.  Surely? 

Her presence might mean his prize of solitude was forfeit, yet he could not regret such a chance encounter.  Anyway, as fortune would have it the skies were becoming ever more leaden.  Rain would soon add to the storm’s torment. 

“Do you like the sea, Samuel?”   Arthur asked the child, raising his gruffest voice above another assault of surf. 

The boy considered this, sagely.  “I do, sir.  I would like to be a sailor, I think.” 

The woman, Francine , laughed.   “That is a severe vocation!  Samuel is full of such notions, Mr Herritt .  Why, only last week he was ready to sign up for the military.  Have a care, my darling boy.  Mr Herritt  has the bearing of an officer about him.  He might recruit you!” 

Smiling, Arthur found he could not avoid the woman’s eyes.  They were, he thought, the deepest, deepest blue.  A familiar blue. 

Francine ’s cheeks flared.  “Sir, you stare at me!” 

He demurred immediately.   “My turn to apologise, ma’am.  I must admit I may not look you in the eyes, lest I lose myself.   You remind me so remarkably of someone I have known.” 

“Well, that is kind, I think.  And flattering too, I must believe?   Tell me, do you come far?” 

“From Mountchester, ma’am.   Although not in a day.  I am passing a night at the Rifleman’s Arms in Bleansted.  And dare I venture to ask?”

“The same, Mr Herritt.   We are visiting in Bleanstead ourselves.  A very good friend has been kind enough to tolerate us for the sennight – a relief from the City, as cholera is so active there.  I confess I am surprised.  If you go about in City Society, I cannot think how we have never met”

 “Nor I.  My club is Frobisher’s, in the town.  I attend there whenever I can.  Does your husband..?”   

He stumbled into silence, seeing Francine ’s instant discomfiture.  “I apologise once again.  I am insensitive.  There is some circumstance?  Forgive me.”  Conducting a normal conversation in these conditions was difficult, the more so because Arthur’s mind was demanding answers to some difficult questions.  He glanced heavenwards.   “It will rain soon.  Have you somewhere to shelter?” 

The woman smiled; a radiant, electric smile.  “Truly we are both so wet already it would be hard to distinguish rain.” 

“Nevertheless I would not see you drowned.  May I offer my chaise?  It waits at the crossway.”

Francine ’s cape and bonnet veiled her frown.  “I do not know you, Mr. Herritt .  We are strangers!”

“Yet we have been introduced, if only one to  the other,”  Arthur protested.  “I can assure you of your safety, and if I should prove to be a scoundrel I am sure Master Samuel would defend you most ably!”

“I would, sir, never fear!”  Cried the boy, adopting his sternest falsetto;  “I give you notice, whoever affronts my mother shall have me to deal with!”

As if anxious Francine  should make the right decision, the clouds delivered their first flurry of raindrops, stirred to needles by the gale.  She relented gracefully.  “Then I thank you, Mr Herritt .  Your kindness is most warmly welcomed!” 

With some reluctance, the pair turned away from their high perch on the cliffs, and their audience with the sea’s relentless fury. A path which, though free of mud by its rocky nature, was nonetheless slick from spray and the advancing rain, led their descent for some four hundred yards while young Samuel gambolled fearlessly ahead of them.  When at last the way levelled out it had a further distance through a beechwood copse before reaching a crossing of two tracks, the wider being the way to the village of Bleanstead.  While they walked with their backs to the wind, Francine ’s skirts billowing before her, his one hand firmly on his hat, Arthur probed gently.  “I have to concede that we have never encountered one another going about in Mountchester, yet I feel strongly that we have met before.  Do we have associations elsewhere, perhaps?  Are you much travelled, Mrs Delisle?  Do you visit London, for example?”

“Indeed no.  In fact, I have very little in my history that could pass for experience of the wider world.  Scarcely any history at all.  I am truly most uninteresting.”

Francine,  as she climbed into the sanctuary of the chaise, accepting the firm support of Arthur’s hand, answered it with a clasp of her own and although her fingers were cold, he was reminded again of a familiar flame.  In the jolting enclosure of the post-chaise cabin young Samuel, securely ensconced upon a footstool, gazed up at him so intently as to rob him of conversation.  Francine , too, seemed preoccupied, watching the passing scenery so fixedly he felt almost as though she was avoiding further conversation.   Perhaps, he considered, she was feeling the chill of her mass of wet clothing: in truth she did look a little like a moth newly emerged from its pupae, but then, as he imagined, once dried and spread, what beauty might those wings reveal?

At Francine ’s request, the post-chaise drew up outside a long, low-eaved cottage, the lime-washed walls of which were a spider-web of virginia creeper tendrils that spoke of splendour in the Spring.  As Arthur’s passengers thanked him and prepared to depart, he decided upon boldness.

“The Rifleman’s Arms belies its title by providing a very good table, Mrs Delisle.  Would you do me the honour of dining with me there; perhaps on the ‘morrow?  I have a feeling there is more to be said.”

Francine  returned him a puzzled smile.  “Indeed?  Now whose is an unusual turn of phrase?”  She addressed her son,  “What shall we do about this, my darling?  Will you wait at home with your Aunt Maud while I dine with Mr Herritt ?”

The boy Samuel made a great show of considering his answer:  “I shall be intolerably bored, Mama, but if you wish it, I agree.”

“Thank you, Sam.  Then I will readily, Mr Herritt . Thank you.”

“Shall I send my carriage for you at seven?”

“You shall.”

Arthur would long agonize over the propriety of this invitation:  the woman clearly moved freely in City society and must, therefore, be respectable; this implied the presence of a husband somewhere.  But then she hinted at no compromise of her sacred vows, nor had her little boy spoken of his father at any time during their encounter.  Was she widowed then, as so many were by the conclusion of the Coalition Wars, or by the ravages of epidemic?  In the end he justified his precipitate behaviour to himself with the defence that he had merely suggested a friendly engagement in a public place.  There was nothing improper in new acquaintances cementing their friendship over dinner!

The Francine Delisle who sat against him at dinner the following evening certainly conveyed no hint of guilt at her flouting of convention.  She had modestly dressed herself in a warm frock of lilac twill that followed the wide-necked style so popular this year, exposing no more than a glimpse of pale shoulder to Arthur’s rasher instincts.  Her smiles conveyed the frankness of friendship.  She was intent upon acting with perfect propriety.  

“I had thought you were going to return to Mountchester today, Mr Herritt .  Did the weather deter you?”

“I admit the weather played its part, Mrs Delisle.”  Arthur chuckled apologetically,  “There were other factors.  I decided to indulge myself.”  

Francine , who liked a man with the ability to laugh at himself, saw through his subterfuge immediately.  She knew one of his ‘factors’ would have to be herself.  Her eyes surveyed him in mock seriousness,  “Should we be friends?  If we are to cultivate this familiarity, you might call me Francine .  Mrs Delisle is such a chore.”

“Willingly.  Therefore I must reciprocate.  I am, henceforward, Arthur.”

“You returned to the lighthouse today, then?”  she asked.  “So much rain!  I couldn’t countenance it.”

“No, nor I.  Although I spent a part of the morning walking, notwithstanding the inclement weather. I had cause.”

“Indeed, Arthur?  Is your mind troubled?”

He nodded, “Perhaps, a little.  I find I am locked in a struggle with an absent memory – but no matter; I shall take the Mail Coach to return to the city tomorrow, for I must conclude some business there, then retire to my home until the disease has run its course.  I am in no need of a fight which I cannot win.”

By degrees the pair fell into familiar conversation and the evening passed amicably enough, though without any suggestion of deeper intimacy.  Francine  proved an easy friend whose wit would sparkle once and again, and Arthur a taciturn but willing listener.   Before they parted, quite close to midnight, they exchanged cards.  

“We have summer to look forward to,” He said.  “Perhaps, when the weather is more friendly, we may run across each other again.”   And then, after the pause he needed for courage, he added:  “In happier times, might I call upon you?”

Francine’s brow took on a serious caste;  “I believe it would be better not to promise,”  she answered.

They would not meet again before Arthur’s departure for the City.  Nevertheless, as the coach and four bumped heavily past that low, lime-washed cottage in the early morning Arthur could not resist a stolen glance at its windows, wondering who was the companion he had heard spoken of as ‘Aunt Maud’ who lived within, and whether Francine was yet in the process of rising?  And he reflected that, apart from his insistent conviction that he had met her somewhere before, he had learned little more of Mrs Delisle from the time they spent together. In all of their evening she had told him nothing about herself.  In matters of the heart, as in most matters, Arthur Beaufort prided himself on his clear-sighted realism.  However gently, the intriguing Francine had rejected his offer of a deeper friendship, and so he must treat her as yet another of his many casual acquaintances who he might chance upon some day, in some other situation, and put all thoughts of her aside.  

Arthur might have been more intrigued, being a man of an inquisitive nature, if he had witnessed Francine’s return to Maud Reybath’s cottage in that late evening; if he had known that Maud Reybath, although she had a year or two on Francine, was not young Samuel Delisle’s aunt in anything but name.  He might have found the conversation between the two women interesting.

Francine discovered Maud snoring gently by a fire in her snug parlour, a book opened and inverted on her lap.  She wakened immediately to watch as  her returning guest briskly removed her gloves, hopeful for certain expected signs.

Maud had a voice that was surprisingly deep for her petite form.   “Well, my dear?”  She asked, letting her words bear weight.  

“I can’t be sure.”

“No definite negative, then,”   Maud rejoined sharply;  “Francine, we have to know soon.  The matter is one of urgency, my dear.  I fear you fail to appreciate…”

“I do, Maud, I truly do.  I understand.  It could be him.  It could be, but in some ways could not.  And so I may not answer you – not yet.”

#

The mail coach had taken all of a day and snow was falling steadily when it reached its Mountchester destination.  Arthur, thoroughly chilled, finally emerged onto the white-carpeted yard at The Royal Oak and collected his valise from the coachman.   He was still adjusting his eyes to the darkness when he descried a tall, gaunt figure in black greatcoat and top hat dismountinging from a burgundy-liveried Brougham that waited at the gates – a carriage he recognised as his own.

The figure belonged to a man well advanced in years, whose progress on the snow was perilously unsteady.  Arthur hastened to support him.  “Edkins?  You shouldn’t have come for me personally, my dear man!  This weather is…”  His words faded into silence.  The craggy features that opposed his own were creased with tears.  “Edkins, whatever ails you, dear chap?  What is the matter?”

“The master, sir.  I’m afraid he is very ill.  I resolved to find you and bring you home, sir.  At once, sir, I beg you.  At once!”

Part Two of Conversations

The Prince’s Gift

“Fecking Bloody Proust!”

Such a malediction, especially shouted into the afternoon peace of an English seaside promenade, was bound to attract notice.  The few heads there were to turn, turned.   Melanie, laughing her embarrassment, clapped her hand over Peter’s mouth.

“Peter!”

“European History.  I’m supposed to be answering a question about the Third Republic, and what do I do?  I write four pages on Proust!”

“Well, he was sort of interesting.  Very, um… influential.”

“And ….and….I went on for about an hour.  Half an hour per essay, maximum.  I know that.”

The girl with the sprite in her eyes grinned sympathetically:   “In search of lost time?”

“Oh.  Oh, funny!”  Peter slammed his fist against the railings.   It hurt.  “I’ve failed.  Oh, I have so failed!   Re-sits, now.   Oh, god!”

Melanie shook her head sadly, seeing the end of the world in Peter’s eyes, knowing it wasn’t;  not really.

“Peter, it’ll be alright.  Since when have you ever had to re-sit anything? Since when did you get anything less than an A?” 

She leant against the rail beside him, and together they watched the evening tide slinking up the beach.  She thought about the face of the serious young man beside her;  something she could do without looking at him.   She knew his face in this mood – the dark, enclosed eyes with a torment behind them, the strong jaw tucked in, the twitch in his pale skin.

Peter; temperamental, unbearably clever, generally considered something of a geek – her friend, now, of many years.  Growing up together in a small town like Levenport, it was never possible to be far apart.   After a while she sighed.  “Calmer now?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

St. Benedict’s Rock, the great basalt island across the bay, was a black silhouette in the evening sun.   The Bavarian towers at its summit like a pair of accusing fingers, features of a mansion which was more a ludicrous hat than a crowning glory, moved their shade eastward across the town, towards Levenport Head.   Once, needing the mental exercise, Peter had tried to devise a means of telling time by those shadows:  at seven am they would be pointing to the fish dock, twelve midday the town hall, and so on.  By that calculation it was now Woolmarket, or five pm.

“Vince Harper’s back in town.”   Melanie tried to change the subject.

“Yeah?”  said Peter absently.

“Yeah.  Saw his car at lunchtime, crossing the causeway.  Look forward to some nice sounds tomorrow morning.”

“Wicked.” 

She referred to the retired rock star who lived in the ludicrous hat atop the rock, and the rooftop guitar solos that were his signature.  Fortunately, he was not in town often, for his musical messages, delivered as early as six o’clock even on winter mornings, were of metal intensity.  The amplifiers which transmitted them, powerful though they undoubtedly were, could not overcome distortion by the elements, and so arrived at the mainland shore devoid of much of their musical eloquence.  Muffled by distance and scarified by the wind, they generated outrage amongst those of the town’s citizenry who were older, and more classically inclined.

“Hey,”  Melanie put her arm around Peter’s shoulders and gave him a brief hug, which was something she liked to do.  “I should go, Babes.  Message me tonight?”

“I guess.”   Peter said.

“See you then.”  Melanie walked away, doubting Peter would even notice she had gone.  “And how did your exam go, Melanie?”  She murmured to herself:  “Oh, OK, Peter.  I forgot all about bloody Proust.”

“Aaark”  said a seagull which had taken Melanie’s place at the rail.

“Ah!”  Said Peter.  “Quite right!  But what happened to Toqus?   That’s the question!”

Eyes narrowed against the sun, Peter’s gaze led him out over the water.  Now Melanie had provided the spark, his own thoughts were turned towards the strange, misshapen house on St. Benedict’s Rock.

St. Benedict’s Rock had a past.   Before the monks came and joined it by a causeway to the mainland it had been entirely an island, a looming pile with a reputation for spirits and black magic.  The warriors who had been first to land there, those whose castle once stood where the house stood now, and who built a tiny harbour on the landward side, spoke of strange sounds, of constant bird attack and plagues of snakes.  They named it Satan’s Rock.   In those days the bay had treacherous tides to draw the shore people and their primitive fishing boats to their deaths.   A causeway had tamed the seas, but the monastery which succeeded the castle had no less a reputation for evil.   The shore people told of skies glowing with fire, young men drawn to the monastery as novices who disappeared, never to be seen again.   

Peter knew the history, of course.  There had been some sort of structure on top of the rock almost since time began:  a castle, a monastery;  but the story of the Great House that topped it now, possibly one of the most unusual great houses in the land, had begun one summer early in the nineteenth century.

This was at a time when the monarchy rested in the hands of a Prince Regent (‘Prinny’ to his friends).   ‘Prinny’ was something of an innovator, and one innovation which greatly enthused him was the then novel past-time of bathing.  He bathed in Brighton – quite often – where his large regal bathing engine, rolled into the sea by flunkies to protect the royal modesty was one of the sights of the fashionable beach.  And occasionally he visited un-bathed-in coastal towns elsewhere for ‘a dip in the waters’.   Of course large parties of  hangers-on invariably followed.   Whether many of these sycophants shared Prinny’s desire to immerse themselves in icy water, Peter did not know: but their liege’s love of a good party was something they all concurred with and a future King will always find company in even the chilliest of seas.

In his own eyes of course, Lord Horace Crowley would consider himself a courtier.  Lord Horace was an empire builder who had come home laden with gold and audacity from some Middle Eastern wars where, in the best traditions of his ancestors, he had done a considerable amount of despoiling and burning.   Horace’s bluff manner was fashionable at the time, and so he came to be courted by the cream of London society;  and so, too, came to be visiting Levenport, emerging from a bathing engine adjacent to Prinny’s one cool April afternoon.   Both had imbibed freely of the vino.

 “Deuced cold!”   Prinny had observed.   Each wavelet brought fresh needles of ice. “Don’t your servant chappy feel it?”

The prince gestured towards Crowley’s manservant, a tall unsmiling figure with ebony skin who stood motionless beside him in water that was at least waist deep.  Toqus, a captive from the last of His Lordship’s foreign expeditions, had an exotic attraction for the Prince – an attraction also felt by many of the high-born ladies in London society.   Toqus seemed oblivious to a temperature that had Crowley shivering almost too violently to speak.

The King-to-be took a lengthy quaff from his glass, which he always carried into the water with him.  “More wine, old chap?”

A fully-clothed attendant hovered, waist deep, ready to recharge their glasses.  Insofar as it was possible for Crowley to feel pity he felt it for this poor flunky, whose slight form bobbed upon (and was almost overset by) each wave.

“Oh, damn it, go on then!”  Said Crowley through chattering teeth:  “You’re a dreadful generous host, y’know Prinny!”

“D’y’know I am?”  Prinny gasped:  “I truly am!  Generous to my truest and dearest friends, Horace!  To you, dear old chap!”   Bursting with emotion, the Prince Regent reached across to touch Crowley on the arm:  “You know I‘d give you anything, don’t you?  You just have to ask me, dear boy – just have to ask.”

The flunky, who had, by now, turned dangerously blue, recharged Crowley’s shaking glass.   What with the shaking of the flunky and the shaking of Crowley, and the mischievous intervention of a stiffish east wind, less than half of the wine found its way from bottle to glass, the rest casting itself upon the waters.  Crowley was so cold he could feel nothing below his waist.   The ludicrousness of this circumstance came home to him so that he began first to giggle, then laugh aloud.

“Anything, Prinny?”  He just managed to stutter.

“Anything, dear man!  Jus’ anything!”

“All right then – anything.”  Crowley looked about him.   “Prinny M’dear, I’ll take the damned rock!”

Both men dissolved into laughter at the hugeness of this joke, and Crowley would have thought no more of it;   but the following week a messenger brought a legal deed of title to his Kensington Village residence.  Toqus presented this document to him with his breakfast tray.   The rock was his.

Part Three of Conversations

Quimple

What could have befallen Toqus?  Peter’s mind had already lost itself – his nightmare examination of the afternoon, European History and the dusty room with the dusty, pacing invigilator – all gone.  The history which had fascinated him since he was first old enough to read was written in local history books.  The bricks and mortar of Levenport, its traditions, superstitions, atrocities and victories, all laid out around him.  The Rock – St. Benedict’s Rock, sometimes reputed to be inhabited by Satan himself – that loomed above them all, loomed large in his vision now.  Callow youth, chin on hands, fingers gripping the cool steel of the handrail, the retreating tide singing to his question in ripples among the stones.   Toques, the manservant who never left Crowley’s side, where did he go?   That seagull, gripping the rail likewise a dozen yards away, remained inscrutable.   

“How would you know?”  Peter murmured.   The gull cocked its head.  “Do seagulls talk about history at all?   In the evenings, maybe, perched up there on the ridge tiles, before the kebab shops open?”

The bird fluffed a few feathers as an adjustment, clucking awkwardly, as references to its scavenging lifestyle were obviously discomfiting.

For several years following his memorable dip in the Levenport waters, Horace, Lord Crowley did nothing about the rocky island that was his royal gift.  During these (it should be said) quite happy times for the town of Levenport, ownership of its rock was a matter of no concern: a trickle of rent flowed through to His Lordship’s ample London coffers, paid by the tenants of the odd few cottages which nipped like bulldog clips onto the side of the track that led to its summit, but that was all.

Lord Crowley never came, and happily for those who eked a living from certain continental trading activities, The Revenue rarely came – the rock languished in its own particular peace.

At last there befell a time when Crowley’s sun began to sink lower in the Palace sky:  the older ‘Prinny’, soon to be King George IV, with his love of laudanum grew tetchy and difficult to please, so many of those friends who, true or otherwise, had found their fortunes at his noble feet were distanced.   After Prinny’s coronation Crowley spent less and less time at Court.  The parties grew fewer, the invitations sparse.  Also older and more circumspect, he took as his wife one Elizabeth Grey, a society beauty who, though herself considered to be past her prime, was yet thirty years his junior. 

At such a distance of time and space it was hard to know exactly when the old warlord decided to retire from London and Brighton life, still harder to comprehend why, of all his estates, he picked the Rock of St. Benedict as the windy cradle for his autumn years.   He alighted from a coach-and-pair one brisk morning outside Roper’s Hotel on Levenport’s esplanade with his manservant Toqus in his wake, making no secret of his intention to stay.   The town was afire with excitement:  the news that their distinguished guest intended to build a mansion on the rock flew through the salons and drinking houses so rapidly that the proprietor of Roper’s Hotel learned of it from his fishmonger before he heard it from Crowley himself!

In the weeks before construction began the town was full of rumours: what sort of dwelling could the great man be thinking of, to crown the rock and still satisfy his undoubted subtleties of vision and taste?   Would he follow the fashion, so popular at the time, of the Indian Palace, with those great Sezincote windows and high exotic domes?

Unfortunately, enormous wealth does not always imply good taste.  Crowley worked hard upon his plans for a mansion to be perched upon the rock:  he employed the best architect, listened to the wiser counsels of his wife, his family, his friends.  He listened, but he never heard.  One by one, the architect’s best endeavours were rejected until at last the poor man found he could suggest no more.   He returned to London, leaving in his wake a hotchpotch of drawings and uncompleted notes. These, the noble Lord studied for some time.

Days later there was summoned to Roper’s a certain Mr. Quimple. Mr Quimple was well known within the town as the architect who had created, among other things, Levenport’s charity hospital. This was a fine building, although less artistic than functional.   His subsequent commissions, drawing upon this early success, were equally unimaginatively designed, but had the virtue of being built like fortresses, so no-one relished the idea of knocking one down.

“Quimple!”   Lord Crowley instructed him grandly:  “Build me that!”

Joseph Quimple was a mild, slightly oily little man with disorderly clothes and straggly hair which fell on his head like a well-tossed salad.   His outward appearance was in total contrast to that of his buildings.  They were flat and uninteresting.  Joseph Quimple did not have a flat bit anywhere.

“Er, what did you want built, m’Lord?”

“Dammit, have you no eyes, man?  That!”

Crowley’s hand gestured expansively towards a large board propped against a wall:  Quimple had already seen it.   He felt a lump of horror rising in his throat.

“Well!”   He said. 

“My word!”  He said.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Glued to the board were bits and pieces of architectural drawing, cut apparently at random from the work of an obviously talented architect and reassembled to make a plan for a mansion.  Although what resulted was obviously intended to be a vision of a great house, upon first appearance it looked like nothing more than a page from a scrap-book.   There were bits of roof turned on end to make walls, gable-ends stuck over the top of windows, chimneys turned into pillars. Where the scraps failed to fit into the rest of the picture an expansive hand had joined them with bold lines in black ink with brief notations beneath:

‘Add step to match with first floor’

‘More roof here’.

Quimple felt his diminutive soul shrivelling deeper within him.  He struggled for words:

“It’s a very original concept.”  He managed to blurt out at last.

Crowley swelled with pride: “Glad y’think so!”

“But there are gaps.”  Waving a finger at an obvious space:  “Here, for example?”

“Stick in a water-closet, or something. You’ll think of it.”

Quimple felt as though the space beneath his feet was no longer supporting him.  He struggled in vain for firm footing.  “It defies description.”   He said finally.

“Excellent!”  The Lord took this as a compliment.  “Pleased you like it.” 

The little architect’s personal diary had provided an account of this conversation, but it was the last regular entry, and thereafter Peter had been unable to discover much concerning Joseph Quimple, or how he took Crowley’s dream glued to a large piece of board up to the summit of the rock and, somehow, brought it together in the agglomeration of styles and peculiar angles which came to be St. Benedict’s House.   He did know that the little man regarded the house as his master work, that it eventually sent him mad.   He found some clue as to why in a letter from the richly embossed Lord Crowley dated 18th August 1825.

Sir,

I have received missives from you concerning your progress with the house at St. Benedict’s Rock, and I am disappointed that you should feel cause to repeatedly complain about, as you would have it, “constant importuning of tradesmen for payment”. I surely need not remind one such as yourself, sir, that tradesmen are incessant in their pursuit of money and it is a necessary duty to rebuff them.  I do, however, send a draft for a further one hundred and fifty guineas to settle the most necessary accounts, but kindly do not trouble too much with decorators and the like, of whom there are an almost unlimited supply.

You reprimand me for my absence from the project, sir, but I say to you that I placed my complete trust upon you when I gave you instructions, which I expected to be followed to the letter.  Reports which I have received suggesting that there are, in fact, substantial variations from my plans, are disturbing to me, sir.   I am hopeful for an improvement to my health which shall allow me to return to England to correct these matters, but for the meanwhile I must advise you that you should persist no further with extravagances which, I am persuaded, lend to the house a quite undignified appearance.  

 I intend to limit my further investment in the house to a further nine hundred and fifty guineas, which will follow at the commencement of next year. You should dispose of this in such manner as will finish the house to an acceptable standard of accommodation.  I enclose my plan for the finished building.

I am,

Lord Horace Crowley

In even those distant times, though riches beyond the wildest dreams of many nine hundred and fifty guineas for such a project was a completely unrealistic sum,  but Crowley was, of course, by this time stumbling down a dusty road towards bankruptcy.

         “A book of account, Ma’am,”  he said once to Lady Crowley, on one of the few occasions when he spoke to her;  “Is a dreadful devious foe.   Whichever way ye turn him there’s always another within his ranks to find the weakness on your flank.   Set me against an army of the Frenchie and I’ll take ‘im on and thrash ‘im for ye:  but this?   Ye can never beat him Ma’am.  Ye never can!”

In eighteen-twenty-five, after some three years during which he never returned to the seaside town, the old Lord was still battling the elusive book of account.  Now, however, he had a second enemy gathering in his lungs.

On the rainy morning when the messenger arrived bearing Quimple’s request for further funds, Crowley had just seen his doctor.   He was ordered abroad. He must stay a winter in the warmer climate of the south of France; take the waters regularly, rest as much as possible.   If he did not he would live for….a year – two?  Who could say?

So Quimple worked alone, with very little money, constantly battling his Patron’s amendments and alterations to a plan which was structurally unworkable.   This alone, Peter thought, might have driven him insane.  But there were other enticing snippets of history surrounding the rock and its new crowning glory, other pieces to a puzzle which intrigued him and helped, as he returned home this evening, to distract from memories of a bad history examination.

Contemporary accounts relate that a bright summer morning in the Year of Our Lord 1822, when one Matthew Brightley, master mason, laid the first stone of Crowley’s Great House, marked an ending as well as a beginning.  Quimple had hitherto been untroubled by the rock’s natural inhabitants, but from that morning on, as if some truce had been broken, the snake population of the rock  attacked remorselessly.  Viper venom was a constant hazard for all who laboured there.   Several were made very ill by it, and two older stonemasons died.  It was also the time when the seabirds’ yelling became ceaseless, their molestation unpredictable and vicious.  The old title of Devil’s Rock was resurrected more than once in the taverns of Levenport.

Joseph Quimple’s final entry in his diary had always fascinated Peter:

21st August 1825:

Today completed excavations to level the surface of the central courtyard.  Exposed a shelf of stone apparently intruding deep into rock – possibly a seam.  Not granite.  Warm to touch.  Suggests hot spring, or similar – investigate.

He never did investigate.

In the gathering darkness of evening on 22nd August, the very day after this entry, those who chanced to be looking seaward were just able to distinguish Joseph Quimple’s bent form running atop the rock, inexorably running towards the lip of the cliff and its three hundred foot plunge to the sea.  There were those at the subsequent inquest who testified that madness and obsession were the cause of the little man’s lonely end.  There was one townswoman who saw the event, and her evidence spoke of Quimple as being pursued by a large flock of gulls.

Part Four of Conversations

Intrusion

Mountsel Park, in Arthur’s opinion, was at its best on those Spring mornings when the rhododendrons in the Step-Wood were in full bloom, the lawns were silvered by dew and a gentle mist diffused the hard lines of the house’s stone-hewn grandeur.  Mountsel was an  old house but a merchant’s house, given more to display than beauty, more to theatre than poetry.  Yes, theatre was everywhere; in the echoes of the grand, almost baronial hall, the high windows, the extravagant statuary, heavy tapestries and drapes.  Part of such a place’s function was, after all, to impress, but those it sought to inspire were traders, not literati, and the higher echelons of London centric society were rarely to be spotted here. Instead, on the nights when its doors were thrown wide the salons and corridors were filled by prosperous local stomachs that could comfortably support a wine glass without the aid of a table, and ribald local humour such as graced the better houses of many provincial cities where money was made and exchanges were done.

In the brightness of day the house’s commanding position, too, giving it such clarity as a viewpoint, could only be softened by cloud or rain.  The aspect from which, on brighter days, could be picked out so clearly the urban clutter of Mountchester and extend down the navigable river Leven to the Channel and beyond would be muted by distance to a watercolour palette of melted tones; greys, blues and a dozen more subtle shades.  Upon these mornings Arthur could imagine himself immersed in a timelessness when the hours no longer mattered.  He could lose himself – he could mask the dark and haunting things that pursued him always: in essence,he could forget.

It was the Spring of the year following Hart-Witterington’s passing.   Arthur had not relinquished his mourning, for he missed the old man and his idiosyncrasies sorely; he had regarded him as immortal; never thinking that, despite his great age, death could overtake so dominant a life-force.  But then, on the one weekend he had been away, the one weekend he had extended by a day, his protector, the great man of substance who had built this house, had left him.

Alone in the world was a description Arthur did not care for:  he put it to the back of his mind, for Hart-Witterington had left him everything; the house, the business that provided eggs which, if not golden, were at least sterling silver; everything, in fact, but the gift of good company.  He had much to be grateful for, in terms not just of the warehouses he now owned, stacked along the City bank of the river and bursting with artefacts from the emerging markets of the East, but the organisation which conferred upon him a wealth of leisure to enjoy it.  Too much leisure.

He had breakfasted on his favourite devilled kidneys early, taken one of his horses for exercise in the parkland that surrounded Mountsel, before visiting one of his tenant farmers who was in feud with a neighbour over the damming of a stream.  By the time he had returned to the house and changed out of his riding clothes, the hour was eleven o’clock local time. He was contemplating means to fill the final hour before luncheon when Edkins discreetly tapped upon his study door.

“A visitor, sir.  Without appointment, I’m afraid; a Miss Delisle?  She has a child with her.”  The old butler imparted this information with the controlled horror of a meticulous house servant for whom exposure to children was deeply distressing;  “Shall I tell her you’re unavailable?”

Surprised, Arthur managed a slight shake of the head,  “No, Edkin, show them to the morning room, if you would.”

The old butler raised an eyebrow,  “But a child, sir?”

“A very well behaved one, if my memory serves me.  See if they require refreshment?  A brandy for myself, too, if you please.”

Approaching the doors of the morning room, it would be fair to say Arthur’s emotions were mixed.  After his chance encounter with Francine Delisle he had entertained thoughts of meeting her again and how such a rendezvous could be devised.  The tragic news of his protector’s impending death had all but driven her from his mind, so only recently had she revived in his thoughts.  Yet there must be grounds for this sudden visit:  had some misfortune befallen her?

She was seated on a salon chaise, and much as he remembered, if anything the more alluring because until this moment he had seen her only by candlelight,  or otherwise protected from full view by cape and bonnet against a gale. Her countenance was pale, emphasised by a grey dress trimmed with rose, her eyes the darkest pools of solemn blue

“Mr Herritt, how kind of you to receive me!”  She said quietly,  “I do hope I do not impose?”

He smiled,  “Not at all.  I thought we addressed each other in familiar terms, Francine.  I was Arthur; do you not recall?”

She returned his smile.  “Indeed, I do.”

Arthur turned his attention to young Samuel, who had positioned himself defensively behind his mother;  “And you, sir.  I trust you are well?”

The child looked uncomfortable, and rather trussed in his blue velvet suit.  He mumbled a muffled  “Well, thank you sir,”  without raising his eyes.

 Francine stepped in hurriedly,  “As are you, Arthur?  We are so pleased to see you are in good health!”

“The cholera, you mean?  That has largely passed, has it not?”

And so, haltingly at first, the ease of rapport they had found over dinner at ‘The Rifleman’ in Bleanstead was renewed, until it was almost as if a momentous three months had vanished altogether.  Edkins brought tea and shandy for the visitors, a brandy for his master.  As the conversation at last turned to the reason for Francine’s visit, her brow creased in a frown. 

 “I suppose I must declare myself, mustn’t I?  First may I ask for your indulgence a little further?  Could Samuel be entertained elsewhere?  Another room, perhaps.  He is quite independent.”

“Mama!”  The boy protested.

“Darling boy, you need not be distressed.  I have something to say that is for Mr Herritt’s ears alone.  A confidence, do you see?  And you needn’t fear for my honour, I promise.  Mr Herritt and I have already flouted convention without his giving me any cause for distrust.  Can it be managed, sir?”

Arthur said it could, and Mrs James, his housekeeper, was sent for, to lead a reluctant Samuel away for ‘A look at he hatchery’.

As soon as they had gone, Francine, having sipped from her tea bowl, as if by doing so she would gain time to choose her words, began her tale.  “You might think this curious, Arthur, that our fortunes should have taken such similar turns these past few months, but they have.  Oh, we have not suffered such tragedies as you, my guardian is still very much with us, Heaven be praised, but he is grievously beset.  His fear is for Samuel and I.  He is convinced our lives are in danger.”

“Why should he reason thus?”   Arthur asked;  “Who wishes you harm?”

“I do not know.  By my faith I don’t.  I have so few answers!   We had returned from Bleanstead only three days when he confronted me with his concerns.  He was quite ashen, as though he had just received a shock, and he told me I must find another, safer situation.  I managed to placate him, as a consequence submitting Samuel and myself to virtual imprisonment within his house, and we have been in this condition every day until last evening when he raised the matter with me again, quite forcefully!”

“You say he is your Guardian,”  Arthur interposed.  “He is not a blood relation?”

“No.”

“Would I know his name?”

“He has begged me to repeat his name to no-one.  He seems terrified to have any association with me.  It is quite unbearable!”

Arthur walked to the window that looked out upon the park, half expecting to see some strange carriage or a posse of runners, so earnest was his companion’s tone, but the tranquil innocence of the park was undisturbed.  The mist of morning was fully lifted now and the lawns might be already dry.  He rather wished the same clarity could have visited his mind. “What, do you suppose, renewed his  anxiety?”

“I can throw no light upon it.  But this morning I discovered a valise packed for us and ready in the kitchen.  A handsome had been ordered to the tradesmen’s door “

“With no destination at all?”

“None!  Oh, he did not leave us without money.  I have sufficient to keep us in lodgings somewhere – until summer, he said.  I am not to contact him or acquaint him with my address because, in his words, it would be better if he could not have the information extracted from him.  To that end, he was also emphatic that I should not return to Bleanstead.  That would, apparently, endanger Maud, because whoever pursues me will expect me to go there.”

Arthur shook his head.  “So we have to assume he is fearful of violence, or torture, perhaps.  Who does he believe to be pursuing you, that is the question?  Could there be somebody from your past who bears you ill-will?”

“ I have no notion.”   Francine’s hands were clasped her in her lap and her knuckles were white.  “It is possible, you see, that I have enemies.  May I be frank with you, Arthur?  Can we rely upon each other’s confidence?”

Exigency in the silk of her voice brought him immediately to her side.  “Never doubt it,”  he said gently.  “What is it you need to say?”

“I did not make my circumstances known to you when last we met, and I should do so now.  Indeed, it is imperative that I do.  Arthur, I have no past.”

“My word!”  He exclaimed, taking her hand in his.  It was cold, trembling slightly within the protection of his fingers.  “Many of us might wish we had no past, but the truth must be otherwise.  What are the circumstances that lead you to this conclusion?”

“If you want me to phrase it differently I shall.  I have no memory of anything before a night when I awoke to find myself lying,  heavy with child, before my guardian’s door.  His housemaid discovered me and I recall it so vividly because I have never felt such cold, never since then.  I really think that within another hour I might have died.”

Very gently, Arthur relinquished his grip on her hand, only to feel her reach for its reassurance once more.  “Oh, I am shameless!  Given a day, you would find me recovered to my usual self.  Today?  Today I had such a need to share my story, and you came first to my thoughts.  I cannot make any other excuse!”

“Nor should you be required to.”  He nodded.  “I am glad to be of service.”

“How must you see me?”

“With nothing but respect for your courage.  I see something must be done, and I see that it would be cruel to persist with this discussion.  I will reunite you with Samuel, and I hope that you will grace this house with your presence, for tonight, at least.  There are clearly many things to be said, but they will not suffer by waiting.  My housekeeper will conduct you both to a room where you can rest.  Perhaps you might join me for luncheon?  I normally eat at noon.”

Was he a little peremptory?  Under disguise of consideration for Miss Delisle’s welfare, had he concluded their conversation too soon?  Might he have learned more if he had allowed the thread to continue?   Arthur took no pride in his suspicions, nor was he blind to the meaningful glance his housekeeper bestowed as she took charge of Miss Delisle and her son: he, a man newly come into a fortune, a fact that was well known in Mountchester; she a young woman in straightened circumstances. A mother possibly without a husband, and certainlyt without alternative means of support.  If his thoughts were darkened by suspicion, who would doubt him, or blame him for that?  Of Miss Delisle he knew very little – one meeting, a convivial evening, some three months since.  Yet such meanness of spirit was not natural to him and he was, before all things, a gentleman, not a gallant.  He would not condemn a beautiful woman to hazard the road alone, without escort:  these were not the most propitious days for travel.   He had to know more.

Left to himself with an hour to squander before next meeting Francine, Arthur could have returned to his library, as was his normal custom before his midday meal.  He did not.  Instead, desiring the fresh air of a very pleasant spring morning he turned his feet towards the terrace on Mountsel’s facade, from which to could overlook the park.  Leaning against the stone balustrade he watched as the normal industry of morning took place on the driveway below: deliveries in a purveyor’s horse and cart diverted by a scullery maid from the road reserved for privileged visitors, to head around the East Wing in the direction of the kitchens; a pair of coach horses being led back to the stable block, three of Mr. Maple, the Head Gardener’s apprentices, attacking the rose beds by the fountain, pruning back to old wood,   Bees from the kitchen garden hives were busy adding their note to the proceedings, peacocks rehearsing in more raucous tones, all playing their instrumental part in the symphony of day.

In spite of all the distractions, it would have to be said Arthur’s inner thoughts were never far from Francine Delisle.  Her solo part in the orchestra of the estate was less voluble, but no less intrusive.  In his rapture, Arthur was unaware of an urgent approach of hooves, a thunder of heavy horse and furious haste.  It came upon him unexpectedly:  not from the driveway he could see, but around the West Wing, around the orangery, around the hatcheries, around the high walls of the tropical gardens.   Challenged by the shouts of the ostlers, the hooves spurned the civilised, muffling crunch of Mountsel’s imperious drive, opting instead for the flight of steps that ascended to the end of the terrace – the very terrace where Arthur stood.   He had barely time to turn before this horse was upon him; before its hot breath was panting down in his face and its rider – its mighty, bronzed rider, whose flint-cold eyes  glared fiercely enough to rip his soul from his breast – parted savage lips in a screeching war-cry.  It was a banshee screech, but the words that followed it were plain enough:

“The woman is ours!”

Before Arthur had time to respond, horse and rider had wheeled around, and by a cacophony of clattering hooves, returned from whence they came.

Part Five of Conversations

Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths.

Edkins, aged family retainer and butler though he was, reacted immediately to the menacing intruder’s attack on his master.  About to seek his instructions for the midday meal, he had been close by, close enough to see and describe both rider and horse.  At Arthur’s side in an instant, his expression was one of more than usual concern,  “Are you hurt, sir?  Should I summon the Watchmen?”

“No, no,”  Arthur quickly recovered himself.  He had been surprised but was not, in his own estimation, of a mettle to be be intimidated by such a trespass.  He leaned across the balustrade, addressing a huddle of anxious upturned faces gathered on the driveway below.  “Robinson, ride with a few of the stable boys and make sure that villain is not still on the Park, will you?”

Robinson, his chief ostler, was a sturdily-built man known not to baulk at a fight: “Aye, sir.  Will we take a staff or two?”

“To defend yourselves only, I think.  I am uninjured.  We should not respond with harm.”

In Arthur’s mind,there was no doubt his assailant had  long gone.  Were he not, and if the lads from the stable should discover him, he was also fairly certain Robinson, being of an uncharitable disposition, would place his own interpretation upon their defence of themselves..  

His hour of peaceful contemplation rudely ended, Arthur retired to his library until luncheon.  He would be of a mood to put the extraordinary event behind him, were it not for the mad rider’s words.   What imagined cause had he to claim ‘the woman’ was his?  Arthur presumed this reference was to Francine.  Did that man contribute to the cause of her guardian’s anxiety?    He decided he must forgo delicacy and urgently discover more about Francine.   At his library desk he wrote a note to Abel Montcleif, his business manager in Mountchester and secured it with his seal before summoning a houseboy.

#

On the Esplanade at Levenport and leaning against the steel railing that kept the unwary or the inebriated from plunging fifteen feet to the beach, Peter could not wipe out the memory of his – as he saw it – disastrous exam.  Whether he accepted its historical title of St. Clement’s Rock, or acknowledged the superstitious sobriquet given to it by those who lived in its shadow, the sombre height of ‘Satan’s Rock’ now all but hid a descending sun, a gloomy reflection of his thoughts.  Exercising his little pocket of expertise in matters of the Rock’s history helped him, did it not?  In some measure was this not the start of his demise, just as once a single failure had begun Horace Crowley’s downward spiral?  Such thoughts in one so young were ridiculous, of course, but they fed his mood.  And he could claim a cause:  he needed to complete the picture, to find the final piece to his personal puzzle – what had become of Toqus?

Lord Crowley did not know of his architect Quimple’s demise when he took ship for warmer climes, leaving his wife in charge of affairs at home,  Toqus stood at the old Lord’s side as he left England, believing his house on St. Clement’s Rock would be finished by the coming spring.  The noble Lord was greatly troubled with more immediate matters.   Powerless to correct the slide of his personal fortunes he embarked upon a very carefully planned programme of visits to those of his wealthier acquaintances who enjoyed a bet or two, and who, like himself, were wintering abroad.  Not entirely surprising, then, that he turned to gambling as an extreme measure – he had been, after all, the beneficiary of many of Prinny’s wilder wagers – and perhaps his early success, given the shrewd manner of so many of his past campaigns, might have been expected:  not the rapidity of his later losses, though, which had nothing to do with shrewdness or control.

There happened to be a young Contessa whom he met one warm September evening as they took the air on the balcony of a villa belonging to one of Crowley’s gaming companions.   She a radiantly beautiful young woman of twenty years, he an ailing soldier soon becoming sixty, he was flattered by her attentions enough to fall, as many an old man will, into her maelstrom of charm.   And he would suffer for it, soon enough. Who could tell if she saw anything in him beyond his money? Let us record part of a letter from the Contessa to her closest confidante, written a little before Christmas 1825.

“The dullness of this place is only relieved by a most amusing companion.  My dearest Yleni, I believe I have a suitor!  His title is Lord Horace Crowley, but he insists I call him Rollo!

Lord Crowley is a man of such blunt manners one may think him coarse upon first acquaintance, yet I am persuaded he has much gentleness in his soul, and his courtesy to me is that of a true gentle-person.   Oh, Yleni, I am quite disgracefully besotted by my English Lord!   He has monopolized my time far too easily these last months; he lavishes his generosity upon me ceaselessly – there seems to be nothing for which I may not ask!

He is terribly old, I fear, but has land and money enough.  Am I very wicked, do you think?” 

   Only one redeeming feature of this liaison would save Crowley from utter ruin – the Contessa‘s letter acknowledges it:

“A manservant accompanies him whom he calls Toqus.  This man seems never to leave his side and he is most distracting!  He is, as I believe, of Moorish descent, certainly of a pallor which would hide him well were the night too dark, and of a size which could fairly support the roof to this villa should the walls collapse!

“At times one could be forgiven for feeling as if this Toqus had some curious hold over Rollo.  I find him disturbing, and confide I should be quite grateful if he would just not be there.  But when I suggest to Lord Crowley that a certain amount of privacy might be attained were the man dismissed; even when, dare I say, there should be some temptation in the prospect, he is most reluctant to allow the creature from the room.  I swear this Toqus seems to have us both in his power, and the way he regards me, with such rude discernment, has me quite frightened!”

So, while the balmy Mediterranean winter soothed Crowley’s lungs, he paid court to a pleasant young woman a third his age, who, to give her justice, promised him nothing in return.   It was a long winter.

When the lovely Contessa left in the spring she took a sizeable amount of Crowley’s diminished fortune with her: jewels, rich fabrics, gold trinkets and favours, much of the money he had lavished upon her, even small items of salon furniture for which she had expressed desire, all joined the very practical and efficient train that followed her on her progress through Europe.

Devastated at the Contessa’s loss to him and ravaged by guilt, Crowley sought to recover what he could by a final desperate round of wagers,  none of them successful.   His credibility, ultimately his credit with his friends guttered like a spent candle; and the seizure which struck him, one hot summer evening on the Avenue des Libes, very nearly snuffed him out.   Had Toqus not been there to rescue him he would have died.   Passers-by, meaning well, recoiled in revulsion at the sight of the great black fellow who knelt beside Crowley’s lifeless form, alternately apparently kissing him on the mouth and beating his chest – and disgust turned to amazement when Horace Crowley, his pallor that of stone, was seen to be suddenly coughing back to life.

Meanwhile, in England, Lady Crowley was subjected to a visit by an extremely attractive young man – several visits, in fact.

When Quimple the Architect took his death-plunge, all work on St. Benedict’s Rock stopped.   Quimple had been, after all, more than just the planner of the great house: he had been its executor too.  Although he left behind him drawings, bills, sketches and notes which would guide future construction, he left no management structure, no master of works – he had done all of this himself.  So a crew of labourers and craftsmen who were accustomed to remuneration at the end of each week saw no prospect of further wages, and left. 

The great house was still roofless, open to the torments of the weather.  And winter set about the merciless business of destruction.

Into this rusting breech stepped one Matthew Ballentine.  Peter knew little about Ballentine, except that he was a gentleman who, unlike a great majority of his peers, apparently enjoyed an active life.   While others such as him might be found sailing uncharted southern seas or hacking through snake-infested jungle, Matthew Ballentine seemed to like exploring closer to home.    When Quimple made his dramatic exit it drew some attention from the national press which Ballentine, then at his London Club, read with interest.   He took coach for Levenport the very next day.

First sight of Crowley’s intended mansion was a shock for most.  When Ballentine saw it he was dumbfounded.   Half-raised Bavarian towers, Russian domes, Moorish courtyards and castellations, all within one design:  the result, applied to the uneven summit of the rock, being hideous confusion.  Ballentine was something of a draughtsman:  not an architect; no, no-one had ever addressed him thus, but a skilled artist with a natural appreciation of form.   So for some little while, as Peter imagined him, he must have gazed at the amoebic sprawl that crowned St. Benedict’s Rock with horror:  then he would have begun to laugh.

Three weeks after this Ballentine sought out Lady Crowley in her country estate.  He found a woman, who, though now well into her thirties, had lost none of her classical beauty.

For her part, Lady Elizabeth might have been equally pleased with the tall, elegantly dressed man who stood to greet her in her drawing room that afternoon: he had a natural charm which floated her through the usual pleasantries with unaccustomed ease.   Peter could imagine their conversation:

“You wished to see me with regard to the property on St. Benedict’s Rock, Mr. Ballentine?”  Her voice was flute-like, musical:  but when she spoke of the house, Ballentine fancied he detected a tension in her tone.

“I did.”   He approached the essence of the issue delicately:   “Such an enterprise must be extremely demanding of your husband’s time?”

“Indeed it is.”

“And the distance involved, given his extensive occupation here, must be taxing.”

“That too.”   Elizabeth studied a Turkish urn which graced a corner of her withdrawing room carefully.

“And then there was the sad affair of Mr. Quimple….”

“True.”  Ballentine suddenly found himself gazing into the depths behind Lady Elizabeth’s eyes – they were not tranquil depths.  “May we dispense with this verbal quadrille, sir?”

“Certainly.”   He breathed.  He was captivated.

“You are aware that my husband is not here.  You will know that he is presently in France, for his health, leaving me to deal with all of his affairs. You no doubt also know that the house of which you speak is in an intolerable state with no work being done upon it.   I have my hands full with this estate, so your intention is to – what – perhaps offer my husband a sum to purchase the place?  Enlighten me, Mr. Ballentine?”

“No ma’am. Not that.”

Elizabeth suppressed a resigned sigh.   Of course, no one would want to buy it now.  No-one would ever want to buy it.  Still, there was something in this man that encouraged confidence.  Whatever his scheme, she might be dangerously tempted.

“I know that communication with the South of France must be difficult, so such a negotiation would be awkward at this time:” Ballentine said.  “For the present – I have some comprehension of architecture, ma’am – I would like to offer my services to ensure the house is safely completed.”

“Indeed, Mr. Ballentine?”  Elizabeth treated him to a tiny smile.  “Then you would be most welcome, for I assure you I have no idea how the situation might be remedied otherwise.   But you do not look like a man who builds houses for an occupation.  Tell me, were I to gain my husband’s agreement to such an arrangement, what would be your interest in this?”

Ballentine returned her smile with one of his own.  It was the gently understanding, knowing smile of a man who had done his research well.  “To complete the house would require a large sum of money – freeing capital amounts of such a size might be difficult?”

Lady Crowley understood.  “Ah!”  She said simply.   Should she confide in this man? If ever there was a time to lay cards on the table, it was probably now.

“There may be some things, Mr. Ballentine, which you do not know.  I am not, for example, in communication with my husband.   Oh, I know where he is, but he does not write to me.  Nor does he send me anything else.   When poor Mr. Quimple died there were…debts…which, with no authorisation from Lord Crowley, are difficult to settle.  Then there is the matter of this estate.  I have to deal with issues here which are unmanaged.   The Estate Manager my husband put in place was of no use and had to be dismissed, so I have to do the work myself.”

“You must find all this extremely distressing.”

“It is.  So you see, sir, the demands of the St. Benedict’s house are far more than just architectural.”  His eyes were kind: oh, so kind!   “Mr. Ballentine, I confess I am at my wits’ end!”

“Then,” said Mr. Ballentine; “You must, I beg you, accept my offer of help?”

“So may I believe your interests are also more than simply architectural?”

Ballentine paused before replying, stirred inwardly by Elizabeth’s implication and the emanations he knew already passed between them:   “Indeed they are, Ma’am.  Very much more.”

Part Two: The Cuckoo and the Nest

When Matthew Ballentine called upon Lady Crowley at the old general’s country estate,she rightly discerned that he had interests beyond the simple business of saving the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  He would not have acquainted Lady Crowley with them, precisely, upon their first meeting, nor on subsequent occasions; but Elizabeth was a very perceptive woman so there is little doubt that she knew.  In the weeks before his first call upon her, Ballentine had inquired into Lord Crowley’s financial affairs, taking care to learn the devices by which his estate could function in his absence.   He had learned, for example, how attorney rested with a legal partnership who served the Crowley family, and how they had power in an emergency to raise revenue and settle debts:  unable to contact Lord Horace they had only to be persuaded by Lady Crowley that an emergency existed in order for them to take certain measures which he, Ballentine, hoped to play to advantage.  And so it proved.

As winter tightened its grip Crowley’s creditors organised themselves and sought a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment.  Whether they could have succeeded is in doubt, but the threat of scandal was enough.   Ballentine entered into a bond to settle the debts in return for some forgotten acres at the fringe of the Montingshire Estate.

Meanwhile, his influence was spreading through Levenport like a faery ring, with invisible roots reaching out to every wealthy townsperson or merchant in whose interest it would be to see the Great House completed.  Ballentine entered into private contracts with them all: his name was never mentioned but his money underpinned the syndicate which tied the ring together.  As a professed draughtsman, Ballentine busied himself with alterations and amendments to Quimple’s jumbled plans, and although he was often seen at the site, his financial involvement was not questioned.  Work on the Great House resumed  – the road that serviced what little housing adorned the Rock’s lower slopes was extended, by means of a tunnel, to the site, the scaffolds of which crawled with mason-ants as they hewed and crafted the stone walls, perched high above the bay.   Roof –beams that Quimple had planned to hoist from sea-level now slithered like starched worms on dollies across the causeway.   Drovers cursed and horses sweated.  Garden terraces began to form, the Bavarian towers inched upwards.

Peter was sure Elizabeth must have known what was happening.  Although Ballentine took care that she should never see the accounts, she would have reviewed them many times in her imagination;  yet she did nothing to stem a rising financial tide.   She left everything to her new-found draughtsman and manager, whose ‘syndicate’ continued to pay, and pay, and pay.

The veil of mystery surrounding Matthew Ballentine intrigued Lady Crowley;   so much so that she was almost constantly in his company:  sometimes he would call upon her at the Montingshire estate, at other times she would visit Roper’s in the town, to observe the progress of her husband’s amazing house, and to…well, let us say, although the proprieties were always punctiliously observed, it was generally agreed in the town, as well as in the Montingshire mansion’s servants’ hall, that ‘an arrangement’ existed.   This was gossip which suited Ballentine – he did nothing to promote it, but neither did he do anything to deny it.

In the autumn Crowley, a sick and broken man, returned to his Montingshire home.   Work upon the Great House on the Rock was completed in the winter of the year eighteen hundred and twenty six, and whilst it would never be beautiful or acknowledged as a great work of architecture, with Ballentine’s modifications it would at least stand up.  He had come to the work when it was too far advanced to do much about its extravagant towers or bulbous domes, or even the great Moorish Arch over its main doors, but he had curbed their excesses to some extent, to make a house which might not be greeted with outright laughter.

By this time Ballentine had become an established figure in the town, and a personage of some worth.   A member of the Chamber of Trades, he frequented town society, recognised by his affinity to Lady Crowley.   As arrangements began to install the ailing Lord Crowley in his new abode, Matthew Ballentine was at the forefront, organising furnishings, transport for staff, and so on.   He was unflagging too, in his attendance upon Lady Crowley, who now found for herself a new burden in the person of her returned husband.

Lord Horace Crowley was driven into the town quietly one October night to take up residence in his new home.   What he thought of the structure which was meant to be the realisation of a private dream, was never recorded. Quite possibly he was too ill, this pale, gasping shadow of a soldier, to really care:  he was scarcely well enough to travel, barely survived the slow, careful journey from his country estate.   He may only have been concerned with finding a quiet place to end his days.   Borne by a coach and pair, he entered his preposterous gates to be seen no more except by those immediates who attended him.   The town, or such proportion of it that realised he was there, watched with speculative curiosity. 

At some point between October and December of that year a syndicate representative must have presented Lord Crowley with an account of all the money it had spent in affecting completion of the great house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  Precisely how large a sum was involved is not known although it would have been considerable, well beyond the noble Lord’s reduced means to pay.   So it was that ownership of the last of his estates,  Montingshire, passed to the syndicate, then quietly on to Matthew Ballentine with an ease which may have seemed remarkable to some who witnessed it, but no surprise to those few who personally waited on the old man.

Crowley cannot have relished life, or had much interest in its continuance.  Cuckolded quite openly, he spent his last days struggling from one breath to the next, in the fright of a mansion his addled eye had imagined so differently when he first saw his rock, now so many years ago.  His only redress, as he saw it, was to sign away his treacherous wife’s future security:  he would leave no trust or allowance for her in his will (women were not allowed to inherit property as of right in those days), and with this stroke, no roof over her head.  That Ballentine seemed to be at the helm of the syndicate was a final act of treachery which very probably eluded him; he was certainly not intended to find out.   Would it have deceived the faithful manservant Toqus, whose silent wisdom had guided him so soundly down the years?   Ah, but Toqus was not there.  

No-one was watching when Toqus did reappear.  His dark shade must have wafted through the rain of some December evening:  how or when he gained entry to the great house was never known. He did not enter by the gates, for no-one remembered admitting him there – in fact the servants seemed vague in their recollection of the first time they chanced upon him in the corridors, or saw him at his master’s shoulder.   He arrived ‘sometime before Christmas’.   The servants of the Great House remembered Christmas well.

On Christmas Eve night came before its time.  Concerned mariners watched as the barometer glass dropped like a stone: boats crowded the town’s harbour, those merchants with premises along the seafront boarded up their windows and doors.    The first howling blast of wind fired from the sea like a cannon-shot, exploding against bluff stone walls and thrashing at window shutters as it tore a path through deserted streets.   Great grey ocean rollers in stately procession made their slow march into the bay where they fixed bayonets to charge, white-plumed, upon the sea-wall.   Quoins groaned, dogs howled, the gale grew to a hideous shriek. This, just the advance force, lashed spume across the foreshore, sent spray to the very roof of Roper’s Hotel. Then the main army advanced: walls of water in dress line, breaking disdainfully over the top of the harbour to crash and to crush the feeble wooden hulls inside.   They breached the sea-wall as though it were made of sticks, led forays well inshore to the heart of the town. By eight o’clock that night Levenport was in the grip of a hurricane.

In the black eye of this malevolent  invasion, the Great House was an unearthly thing of cries and groans – tiles flying from the yet-unbedded roof let in cataracts of rain to slough down newly-decorated walls; and wind-demons which, once inside, ricocheted from room to room, guttering candles, shattering window-glass, screeching their need to be free.   Papers flew, furniture was overset, doors blew in:   the mighty main gates themselves, left carelessly secured, broke free from their hinges to crash drunkenly against their gatehouse wall.  The newly planted gardens were stripped and levelled – bedding plants, bushes, infant trees all whisked away like chaff. So many of the household staff had been already sent home for Christmas (Toqus had insisted upon this) that no-one remained to secure that which had loosed, or resurrect that which had fallen.   Far below, the causeway to the mainland  was long gone, only remnants occasionally revealed by the trough of a wave.   The storm blew until morning, when it ceased as suddenly as it had begun. In the leaden dawn, sleepless townspeople surveyed the damage.

No sound or sign of life came from the Great House.  A long gallery which rested on abutments embedded in the face of the rock, had disintegrated and fallen to the sea.  Once-flamboyant Turkish arches from its façade were strewn in pieces along the sea-shore; entangled with much of the planting from the gardens of the house, and flotsam from boats for which the harbour had been no protection at all.   Of the three domes atop the gatehouse, only one survived.  One sat perilously askew on the brink of destruction, the third had completely disappeared.   The causeway was breached in seven places.

When at last servants managed to return to the house, they  discovered Crowley’s rigored body at the door of his bedchamber.   Terrified, the frail old man had apparently left his bath chair and taken to his feet to find safety.   The effort or the terror that induced had proved too much for a heart which, but for the intervention of Toqus, should have stopped a year before.

Crowley was buried with a simple ceremony.  His body was laid to rest in a family vault on the Montingshire estate. He died without knowing he would lie beneath land he had wife’s lover while she, far from being dispossessed as he would have wished, visited his memorial regularly that winter and on into the following spring, before her morning ride through the grounds.   Often that same ride would take Elizabeth to those distant acres of estate that had compensated Ballentine when he agreed to settle the debts remaining from Quimple’s days.  She might pause to watch for a while as the navvies worked:  soon there would be a main railway line  through the cutting they dug.

Peter realised his arm, draped over the railing, had gone numb.   He shifted it and the movement disturbed the seagull, still perched at his side. 

So what did happen to Crowley’s manservant?

Crowley’s body had actually been discovered by a maidservant, one of only five staff who spent the night of the storm on St. Benedict’s Rock.   This woman later attested that the body was locked by rigor, suggesting that Crowley had died many hours before, and that he clutched in his left hand a large gold medallion with a chain which was snapped in half – a medallion and chain familiar as that worn by Toqus.   Never thinking of the implications of what she saw, the maidservant first ran to find Toqus, because the African had always been closest to the old man. He was not to be found. By the time she had sought out othersCrowley’s body had been left unattended for perhaps an hour, maybe more:  by which time the noble Lord’s dead fingers had been broken open, and the medallion and chain had gone.

For some reason this piece of evidence was never put to any test.  The maidservant herself did not claim the memory until some weeks after Crowley’s funeral, and then only in the confidence of the servants’ hall.   The undertaker either did not notice, or did not set any store by, the fractured hand, but rumours persisted for many years, until, herself in her final decline, the maidservant swore that she had cowered before the sweat-covered and bloody form of Toqus towering over her in that bedroom, on that terrible morning.

Toqus was never seen again.   So did the servant give a true account?  Was the African giant there?

“I don’t know;” said Peter conversationally to the seagull:   “But I bet wherever he was, Matthew Ballentine wasn’t far away.”

“Really?”   The seagull appeared to consider this for a moment:  “What makes you say that, dear boy?”

“It was all too convenient.   Ballentine’s scheme wouldn’t have allowed him to claim the estate directly while the old man was alive – too obvious.  And if the syndicate charade had been allowed to continue with a sitting tenant like Crowley, they might have wanted to evict him, and then who knows what problems might have come up?”

The seagull fixed him with one beady eye.   “You’ll be saying next that Ballentine arranged for the storm.”

“No.   Toqus might have done that.”

Peter suddenly realised he was speaking aloud:  a large woman in a blue coat gave him a bemused look as she passed on the end of a dog. Talking to a seagull!  What next?    He glanced in the bird’s direction, thinking that they had been together, he leaning, the gull perching, on that railing for some while.   And it had not occurred to him that this was odd behaviour for such a creature, until now, when in his glance he took in a peculiar diamond-shaped mark on its feathered white neck – probably just some irregularity in its natural colouring, yet quite distinctive – and realised that they had been side-by-side there for nearly half-an-hour.   The bird seemed to recognise this, too.    With a lazy flap it wheeled out over the bay:  it was gone.

Part Three: Honored Guests

For Arthur, the hour before luncheon had been a restless one.  Even though his encounter with the wild rider on Mountsel Park’s west terrace could not be said to have entirely unnerved him, the powerful odour of the horse, the heat of its breath on his face and the rider’s words haunted him:  ‘The Woman is ours’ had locked in his mind.  Who so wanted to hunt Francine DeLisle down?  Was it even she to whom they referred?  It had to be, yet how quickly had they trailed her to his door?  A morning?  Less?

In his library the master of Mountsel Park resorted to a volume that anonymously recounted the suffering of common soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars:  ‘The Journal of a Soldier of the seventy-first Glasgow Regiment’, seeking to refresh his compassion for the thousands of crippled veterans who were still spilling, years after Waterloo, from the hospitals onto the nation’s streets.  Something in the desperate bearing of the violent emissary spoke to Arthur of the military, while everything about Francine suggested, no matter how she accounted for her absence of a past, that she had been either a widow or victim of those wars.

Edkins had apparently educated Francine concerning the geography of Mountsel, for when he reached the Breakfast Room, he found she awaited him there.

She had pinned her hair back, primly.  He remarked upon it, because to his mind it drained what pallor remained from her cheeks, so she seemed at once vulnerable, and a little severe.  No longer clad in her heavy, travelling clothes she had donned a simple powder blue dress that draped to her ankles in what had come to be known as the Empire Line.   Little Samuel stood at her left hand, looking more confident (or defiant) than his mother.

She patted her hair uncomfortably, in response to his comment.   “It is too long.  Access to care of such personal trifles has been…difficult.”

“I’ll see to it that a maid is placed at your disposal.”

“Oh, there is no need…”

“Nonetheless…”

“It is a woman’s matter.  I should not trouble you…”

“It is,”  he assured her with great gentleness,  “Not the least trouble.”

Francine lifted her gaze to meet his and they laughed mutually, sharing their self-consciousness.  He saw all he wanted in her eyes. 

At table they sampled from a platter of meats; cold tongue, beef and ham with artichoke and Spring leaf.  Samuel ignored his mother’s warnings to  taste his first horseradish and complained loudly about it.  Little was said, although every brain that gathered there blazed with questions.  Only when they had eaten, only when Samuel had been released to return to some toys the Housekeeper had provided in the Withdrawing Room, were the barriers breached.

Arthur’s opening gambit; “I feel I have to discover more about you,”  sounded too eager.

“I wish I had more to tell you,”  Francine rejoined.  “Indeed, I wish I knew myself!”

“Yet you know your name.”

“Nay, sir, not even that.  My guardian, who is one of those who are unstinting in their admiration of the First Republic, insisted I should answer to a name –  in the Gallic mode, he said, and thus I am Francine.  His lettering of ‘DeLisle is a little quaint, but notwithstanding his education on the matter I believe he thought me a casualty of Monsieur Bonapat’s campaigns.”

Arthur acknowledged this ratification of his own theory,  “You have doubts?”

Francine’s hands were laid upon the table before her.  She studied her fingers, taking care with her reply;  “The casualties of war are everywhere, most certainly, as much now as when he discovered me, yet – you will think me foolish – I cannot count myself  among them.  

I have no wounds, no scars, I am not alarmed by sudden noise, as I am told affects so many poor souls;  and I have no nightmares, save only one.”

Arthur smiled,  “And you are not French.”

She shot him an embarrassed smile of her own.  “It seems not.  Pray do not test me with the language, for I cannot understand a word!   I speak only English, I cannot play the Pianoforte, and although I sense that I have some virtuosity on an instrument,  I have no idea what that is!   My guardian’s musical accomplishments were not such that he could aid me in these matters.”

“Needlecrafts?”  Arthur suggested,  She pulled a face.

He shrugged helplessly,  “Knitting?”

“Please!!”

 He laughed, because the disgust in her voice at this last suggestion was another step, as she became more animated, more relaxed in his company, despite his interrogation of her.  He decided to advance further.  “When we first met,”  he said,  “You expressed your enjoyment of the storm with words I found curious.  Do you remember them?”

Francine blushed prettily,  “You embarrass me Arthur.  I do.  My understanding of them is no greater than yours.”

“You said you found the experience ‘perfect’.  You described it as ‘real’, which I thought both original and luminous, although I had never heard them so used before.  Could there be some dialect in your past that eludes us both?”   When she made no reply, but just stared at the table before her, he quickly stepped back in:  “I must introduce you to the Music Room, Francine.  Our array of instruments is somewhat limited, I fear, but you may find something there to detain you.  I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon, but you will be are well protected.  If you wish to allow young Samuel out into the grounds, I will see to it the ostlers are nearby.”

“Sir, you treat me too kindly.  I must not stay…”

Reaching forward to cover her fingers with his hand, he cut in,  “You are my guests; my very honoured guests.  You are welcomed here.”

#

At around the time that Peter, released from his seafront reverie by the departure of the companionable seagull was making his way home, a very special plane inched into its allotted space on an English airfield, and its V.I.P. (Very Important  Passenger – or Person, if you like) prepared for his first public moment on British soil.  In the aircraft’s aisle a group of six figures in grey overcoats were being marshaled into order by a grim-faced wedge of humanity who snapped out instructions with the brisk percussion of a snare drum.  This was Hal.  

Although Hal undoubtedly had more names than that, the Very Important Person they were duty-bound to protect did not know them, or, for that matter, much care.  He had long learned that it was necessary to know only a very little about a person in order to find that special wavelength, that personal level of concerned inquiry that had made him Very Important.  The security chief’s name was Hal and he had a sick wife in Portland.  That was sufficient for one man.

“Hal, my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Hal, how is your dear  wife?   I so hope she is better?”

And Hal, who had trouble sometimes remembering that his second name was Bronski, would wait the eight seconds he knew the greeting was timed to take – all the Very Important Person’s greetings took exactly eight seconds – meet that deep, sincere gaze, those eyes almost moist with sorrow, before responding in a voice like a chainsaw ticking over.

“An honour to see you too, sir.   She is much better, thank you.”   He would refrain from adding:   “And living with an Airforce pilot in Kansas.”   It was simpler not to tell the Very Important Person things that were unnecessary, like how his ex-wife had gotten over the flu several years ago.

This evening, Hal was perturbed.   He mistrusted British security and he did not like the publicity surrounding the Very Important Person’s visit, or the political sensitivities it would arouse.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Yes, fine, Hal.  Go ahead now.”

Shuddering in anticipation of the cold, the Very Important Person followed his protectors as they moved down the aisle which was his last little bit of the United States for a while.

Below on the tarmac, in England, Jeremy Piggott cut a slight, rather pallid figure as he stepped forward, black shoes squelching dismally beside a soggy red carpet in the rain.  When the aircraft door de-pressurised Jeremy had reluctantly lowered a black brolly to expose wispy red hair.   He hated being wet; but this was a great ceremonial moment, or would have been, had this not been a military airfield from which public and press had been excluded; and anyway, his exposed head was expected as a mark of respect.  Jeremy felt he was going to sneeze.

At the foot of the stairway Jeremy’s own Very Important Person stepped forward to greet the visitors.  Two Very Important Hands clasped warmly, while some very unimportant pleasantries were exchanged:

“Senator Goodridge.  Welcome, sir.”   For the Very Important Person was he.

 “Bob Cranforth my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Bob, how is your dear wife?   I so hope she is better?”

Secretary of State to the Foreign Office Cranforth was one of a very few members of the present government who openly declared his homosexuality.  He smiled distantly, allowed the jnquiry to pass.

Jeremy heard a quiet voice, flint-like, scraping in his left ear.

“Who the hell are you?”  Demanded Hal Bronski.

“Erm….Piggott.  British security.”

Hal looked down at Jeremy as if he were something which had got stuck on his boot.  “My God!”

Jeremy sneezed.

“Stay out of my way, yes?”  Hal grated:   “Peggit?  You got me?”

“Well, yes….it’s Piggott, actually.  And I believe we are supposed to assist each other?”

“Assist my ass.   I have a job to do, Pluggit, and you are not part of it.  Understand?”

“But I have my orders too, if you don’t mind.  I’ll watch my man, you watch yours.”   Jeremy mopped at his nose, urgently stifling a repeat sneeze as he stepped delicately out from beneath the shade of the talking tree which towered above him.   “Sorry.”  He added diffidently.

“Fine.”   Hal said, waving towards a distant corner of the airfield.  “Go watch him from over there someplace.”

And upon this promising foundation, the co-operative effort of the two nations’ security for the Senator grew.   They all followed as their Very Important People headed for a dismally small airfield terminal and shelter, finally, from the interminable English rain.

#

The arrival in Britain of Salaiman Yahedi on the morning of the very Important Person’s visit was an altogether more subdued affair; but then, Yahedi would have wanted it no other way.   The private yacht which took him aboard ten miles off the Sussex coast had set out from Folkestone the previous afternoon: a family party who often sailed that stretch of coast between Kent and Southampton, living the high life on a boat bought from the profits of their travel company.   They were well known in yachting circles and their presence unremarkable. So when they brought Salaiman to their mooring on the RiverTest he was merely one more for lunch, a business contact perhaps, because they had frequent guests on these trips.  No-one could have known that he had recently been an invitee to quite another party, a French one, which had met with them overnight in mid-channel.  And when he left the restaurant by the moorings after a pleasant lunch with no more than an canvas bag and a briefcase – those who were curious assumed he had to return to work – was not the young man in the lounge suit who picked him up in a BMW the stereotypical personal assistant?     Had they seen the BMW being exchanged for another, smaller car twenty miles up the road, they might have assumed differently.

For Yahedi, such methods of travel were normal – his life consisted of switches between small boats in the dark, private planes on airstrips which were always a little too short.   His worldly goods could only just fill the bag he always carried.  Home was the next back bedroom, the space in a sympathizer’s loft, a futon in an unmarked van.   He didn’t mind:  for his simple business baggage was dangerous. All the luggage he required was fitted delicately but precisely into the briefcase which he kept on his lap – the tool of his trade, the proof of his expertise in a very specialised skill.   When assembled in his experienced hands, the sights were accurate to nearly three hundred and fifty metres.   Yahedi was an exponent of a very rare and valued craft.  He was an assassin.   

Part Four

An Invitation

Petergunn2:   Hi Mel!  

Melatrix:     Hi Babes – feeling better?

Petergunn2:  Yeah – sorreeee.

Melatrix:    Cool!   Favour 4 me?  JJJ?

Petergunn2:  Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.

Melatrix:    Remember that photo I took of u?   On the prom last Easter?   Can u mail it me?  I have some ideas.

Petergunn2:   WHAT ideas?

Melatrix:     OK, don’t worry then.   Like I care?

Petergunn:   Yeah, right. Look in your inbox.  And Mel?  Don’t give me lizard feet this time!

Melatrix:     Ta babes.

In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part.   Peter helped her.  He had a way of making the day easier to face.  When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her.  Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.    

#

Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams.  A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed.  Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies:  “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss,  but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction.  He had heard them too often.

If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused.  They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport.  Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining.  This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more.   Yet here he was.  Why?

It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull.  It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself.   The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.

“You liked the music?”  Asked the seagull.

“You’re not real.”  Peter accused him.

“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”

The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought.  Is this how schizophrenia starts?

“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily.  “He wants to meet you.  Come on!”  

And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied.   When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him:  the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.

“Alright – I’m coming!   Shut up!”  He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.

“Oh!   Hissy-fits now!   So sorry!”

What?

So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock.  The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours:  the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left.   Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats.  Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.

 Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times.   The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten.  There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare.   Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun.   Lichens dripped in the cold dampness.   An unkempt dog snuffled by.

Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill.   But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind.   Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.

Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here.  The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone.   Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well.   Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks.   Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore.  It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.

After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.

Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of  himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier.  Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied.   As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting.  He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the  road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it.  Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation.  It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back.   Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect.   A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.

“Now what be you doing ‘ere?”   The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.

“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression.   He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.

“Are you now!”   This wasn’t a question.   The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants.   “What makes you think you can go there?”

Peter thought quickly.  “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.

“Are you now!”   The man repeated.  “Who do you be, then?   You got an ‘ppointment?”

“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull.  “I’m Peter Cartwright.”

The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’,   Peter thought.

“Are you now!   Peter Cartwright, eh?”  Peter got ready to run.

“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are.   Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past.  Tell ‘em Toby said so.”   The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”

Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants. 

Expected?  How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here?   Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too?   Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him!   Perhaps if he turned back, now…

But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child.   Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend.   So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.

The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward.   They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates.   This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?”   He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie.   “Can I announce you?”

“Hello, I’m Peter.”  Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured:  “Toby says you’re to let me through.”

“Righto!”  The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…”   He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”

“Cartwright.”

“Peter Cartwright.  Are you expecting him?”

The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.

“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”

Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun.   Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus.   Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour.   Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles.   ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.

He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.

         Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass.   To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn.   Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.

“Peter! Mate!  Are we glad to see you!  I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you know?”

Part Five: Exploration and Discovery

The sounds emanating from Mountsell Park’s music room spoke of fingers engaged in a titanic struggle.  Abel Montcleif, too polite to refer to the discordant sounds directly, punctuated his conversation with barely concealed winces and, once, an audible groan.

Arthur Herritt’s business manager shared his employer’s appreciation of good music.   Physically, however, he  contrasted less favourably.  Whereas Arthur surpassed six feet in height, Montcleif fell short of it by four inches,  Where Arthur’s nose was prominent and his chin sufficiently determined to support the chin-strap of a cavalryman, Montcleif’s nose would have been inadequate for the oversight of such a jaw as his master’s.  Thankfully, his lower features tapered gracefully into the rest of his rather full profile, so there was no need, and if his voice had a flutish pitch about it which might have made him unremarkable upon first acquaintance, the force of his relentless personal drive more than compensated after a little time passed in his company.  As a manager of Arthur’s affairs, and those of David Hart-Witterington before him, he was irreproachable.  Arthur, so recently succeeded to the Hart-Witterington Estate, had loved him as a friend for years.

“I have seen very little of the lady,”   Montcleif piped, referring to Francine Delisle,  “In the last several months – since before Lord Hart’s sad passing.  If, as you say, her guardian has been keeping her indoors for fear of some danger, real or imagined, that would not surprise me.  Jebediah Fletcher is an ungenerous and frightened little man.”   

Arthur grimaced as he recalled the name,  “I know him!   Of Fletcher and Green, the grocers’ emporium.   Yet he is always out in Society,  whereas I cannot recall encountering Francine in the City at all.  Is she habitually so retiring, d’ye think?”

“Francine!”  Montcleif raised an eyebrow.  “That rather suggests you have been making up for lost time, doesn’t it?  Are we enamoured of the young lady?”

“She…interests me.  The manner of her appearance at Fletcher’s door, in a Moses Basket, as it were, the absence of any other information concerning her or her son, and now this visit from a crazed Dervish who is clearly far more interested than I?  How does it all hinge together, Abel?”

Montcleif nodded,  “I shall endeavour to find out.  As to your assailant, I would think he is three counties away by now.”

“Truly?  Would you?  If his message had any honesty, I would say he is close by, waiting for a gap in our defences.  It might be worthwhile remembering he used a plural:  he said ‘the woman is ours’.  I rather fancy he will not be waiting alone.  I am not Jebediah Fletcher, yet I can see how the poor man could have been affrighted.”

“In the meantime may I take it Francine has become a guest of Mountsell Park?”

“Do you think it inappropriate?”

“A woman with a child, both in need of protection?  A single man of marriageable age?  Very, but one does what one must.  Perhaps you can help her with her Pianoforte tuition?” 

Much of the afternoon had passed when Arthur discovered Francine walking in the walled garden.  Finding her had not been difficult, for Robinson the Ostler and one of his stable hands, returned from their pursuit of the trespassing horseman, were under instructions to keep watch upon her whenever she strayed from the House.  

“I detain these gentlemen,”    She greeted Arthur, nodding to the pair, who stood like sentries at the garden’s single door;   “I intended to take the air.  Am I a serious inconvenience?”

“Not in the least,”  He assured her;  “There must be other diversions than music.”

“You heard!  You heard and you suffered,  I am so sorry!  My fingers seem eager to find a tune, yet I can make nothing pleasing come from the instrument.  I have taken a decade striving to discover just one accomplishment that survives from the teaching of my past life, but I have found none.  I cannot embroider, I cannot paint, and now I have a whole music room to myself I have no escape from my inability to play!   I am truly worthless!”

“Please pardon my imposition of an escort upon you.  I have no wish to limit your freedom, only to keep you safe.  After this morning…”

“I know; I heard.  And I do understand.  Arthur, will you walk with me?”

“Gladly.  Is Samuel not with you?”

“He is within doors.  He is much taken with Peggy, the maid you so kindly provided for me.  She has a repertoire of grisly tales that are entirely to his taste.  He is rapt!”

With this and like subject matter to sustain them, the pair made their way from the garden, Francine treating her two heavily-built bodyguards to a nervous look and enquiring whether the fowling pieces they carried were strictly necessary?

Arthur apologised,  “Scatter-guns are cumbersome, I know.  Unfortunately, my noble predecessor had quite individual views on the subject of firearms, so we are woefully lacking.  Other than a pair of duelling pistols, gamekeeping weaponry is all we possess.  I’m working to correct that.”

“You have so much to defend here, Sir!”  Almost without thought, Francine had taken Arthur’s arm and she gave it a hint of a squeeze;  “After my privations in the City, this is very close to Paradise.”   

They strolled at first by the carriage way which cut through the park, Francine buoyed up by the first bite of evening air, Arthur absorbed by her company.  Behind them, the ostler and his stable hand kept watch at what they perceived to be a respectful distance.  At a place where the way reached a depression Arthur guided Francine onto a far narrower defile, where they found their way beside high banks of rhododendron. A birch copse framed the path in ragged discipline, their history of leaf-mould soft to the tread.  The estate gardeners had cleared this gully and made of it a forest path, full of the rustles and songs of evening, though an hour had passed since it was last touched by the sun.  Francine shivered prettily in the chill, he offered his coat and she, adjusting the garment about her shoulders, expressed her gratitude with a ghost of a smile.

“Come,”  he encouraged her.  “We shall be done with the valley and back among the hills in no time!”  As he promised, the lower portion of the path was immediately followed by an ascent which revealed a vista of the parkland to their right side, and Mountsell House to their left.   The climb was steep enough for his support to be required, engendering a sensation which, as he clasped the cool submission of her hand, affected him more profoundly than he might have wished.

“That poor tree!”  She declared as she found space to regain her balance,  “Whatever happened to it?”

The smooth sloping grass beside their path had been massively disrupted by the toppling of a venerable old oak which, torn from the ground by its roots yet supported by its most stalwart branches, lay like a wounded soldier across the hillbrow, as though trying with its gnarled limbs to drag itself to safety.   

Arthur nodded solemnly.  “A sad casualty of the great gale that occurred on Christmas Night,”  he said.  “It proved the demise of several trees, but this one remains to be cleared.  The work of a summer at least, for our woodcutters.   It reduced our Head Gardener to tears.”

“I remember the storm well,”  Francine acknowledged,  “Nonetheless, I am surprised.  One would have thought such a doughty presence capable of withstanding Armageddon, should it occur!   What forces must have been needed to do that deed!”

“A fine old tree too – of some five hundred years standing, Mr Maple, our head gardener, asserts.   He offered an explanation.  Let us look.”  Arthur took Francine’s hand again, which, he had to admit, he rather liked doing, and led her to an advantage from which she might see down into the pit left by the tree’s roots.  “Do you see how shallow the root bole is?  The tree could never grip the soil deeply because rock lies close to the surface here.  With the years of growth those ancient boughs were gradually exceeding the effort of its roots.”

Francine looked as she was bidden, and she saw the base of the depression as Arthur described it – and yet more.  How smooth, how clean, how extraordinary the surface of the rock appeared, as though freshly washed by rain, although there had been none in recent hours; and quite unreasonably she found herself wondering if somehow Arthur had conspired to lead her here, so she had to tell herself it had been her idea to walk with him, and why would he want, anyway, to impress her with this rock’s unaccountable magnificence or become aware of the warmth that seemed to radiate from it?

“It’s quite beautiful!”  She may have spoken aloud.

A thunderous explosion rent the curtains of this illusion in twain and startled her so much she squealed in alarm, and instinctively threw herself into the arms of the Master of Mountsell Park!   For a few fleeting moments she succumbed to his embrace before he could explain that the stable hand had accidentally discharged his gun, having jammed its stock heavily on his foot.   When she felt able to look elsewhere than the folds of Arthur’s waistcoat she was gratified by the prospect of the culprit dancing on his painful toes.  She sensed the gentle touch of Arthur’s fingers as they brushed the hair back from her cheek, and stepped away hurriedly.  In seconds the moment was passed; she regained her composure, called out to their chastened escorts to enquire if anyone had been injured, even managed to laugh at the whole affair, but the beating of her heart took far longer to recover, and the vision of that rock would pursue her into dreams that night.   

#

Vincent Harper might have appeared to be somewhat dwarfed by the vast proportions of his mansion.  He was not as tall as his picture, nor was he as young.  But as he bounded forward to greet Peter it was certain that his stellar presence had not diminished.  His flaxen hair straggled forward just as it did on his album covers, draping over his narrow shoulders in wavy strings; and if most of these festoons started from a point lower on his cranium than once they did, it would have been unkind to notice.  His wiry frame was so spare of flesh that, though the leather jeans and the white tee-shirt he wore were obviously made to be tight, they slipped freely over his body.  Only his face, lined heavily by the years and by the harder side of living, gave away a man comfortably into his fifties.  Peter was completely overawed.

“Come on, man, we’ve got some serious work to do:”  Vincent took Peter by the shoulder.  “Never been here before, have you?   You’d like some grub, right?  Come and have something to eat and I’ll show you round.”

Feeling a little shaky at the knees and not in the least hungry, Peter nevertheless allowed himself to be guided.   The great hallway, with its school-corridor echoes and hard stone outlines, reduced him to awe-stricken silence.  The walls were hung with pictures – some original oil paintings, some photographs and prints of y eastern origin – some of Vincent the artist and his band, some of women in states of undress, a few obvious family album pictures, too.  a panelled oak door beneath the right hand flight of the glass staircase opened to admit him.

“Welcome to my pad, mate.  This is the bit I actually live in, right?”

Beyond the door was a room from another world; for, as the great hall had been built to impress, so the salon was furnished to pamper.  His feet wrapped by a deep crimson carpet, Peter breathed in a faintly familiar, exotic scent, gazing upon long, deeply cushioned settees and white-curtained walls which were hung, (where they were revealed), with very expensive paintings and prints – A Warhol, certainly, what appeared to be a Lucian Freud, something very like a late Augustus John with many others he couldn’t identify. Six pillars of satin aluminium supported a low padded ceiling dotted with starry lights, from which two womb chairs were suspended.   Framed perfectly in one of these sat a svelte, languorous woman in a bright green silk robe, whose straight raven hair sparked from her head like an electric shock.  Vincent introduced her.

“Peter, this is Alice.”

“Hi Pete.” Alice’s voice had a slow, dialect drawl.  “Want some nosh?  Something to drink?  Drinkies, yeah?”   Her long slender hand gestured at a low table laden with the stuff of luncheon: salad greens, fruit, bread. The hand, with its fine wrist and impossibly thin fingers, should have seemed beautiful to Peter, because Alice was a model who was used to having the finer points of her beauty dissected and admired, but it did not.   She seemed formless, like a squid.

“Hullo Alice.”  Peter responded shyly.

Vincent gave his shoulder a brief hug. “Have what you like, man.  Make yourself at home.  Plant your arse somewhere and we’ll tell you what comes next.”

A drink and two sandwiches later, Peter found it easier to talk.  Where did he live, what was he studying?  All the time he had the impression they knew what his answers would be.  He found himself half-accepting this, just as for some reason he seemed to find his hosts’ expectation of his visit unsurprising – it was the most natural thing in the world to issue invitations via a wild bird.   Nor did he pronounce himself unwilling when Vincent told him how he absolutely must see the rest of the house that very day. He did try vaguely to protest that he had lectures to attend that afternoon, but already the world outside lacked importance – had faded, almost, into mist.   Besides, the rockstar legend was manifestly proud of his ‘pad’ and it would have been rude to deny him.  The air in the room felt thick and heavy, the yielding cushions beneath his weight too softly inviting.   He began to wash in and out on a tide of sleep. Present gently merged into past, words in his head were befogged by music so he was only able to pick up snatches of conversation.   Alice’s voice, quite sharp, was one of these bites.

“Better get him moving now, or he won’t be going anywhere.  Once he drops off, it’ll take hours to get him back.”

Vincent’s hand was grasping his shoulder:  “Come and have a look around, mate.”  He said.

Now, with an odd sensation of floating, he was being steered back into the great hall,   Alice following on spidery legs, her slippers shuffling unaccountably loudly over the marble as though they were treading sand.   Here, with the fresher air clearing his head, he was ready to be told about the history of the pictures on the wall, the architecture, or maybe even some stuff about Crowley or Ballentine.  Could one of the portraits depict Lady Elizabeth herself?   But Vincent did not seem to know – or if he did, he gave very little information.

“Truth is, Peter, I’m not too clued up about the past of this place.   You probably know more than me.  And you’re going to tell me everything you do know, mate; aren’t you?”

Part Six: Butterfly

At first, in spite of the miasma Vincent’s welcoming spread of food had induced, Peter found his introduction to St. Benedict’s House fascinating.   Shepherded by the erstwhile rock star, yet with scant guidance from either Vincent or Alice, he was able to interpret what he saw in his own fashion.  Whatever drug Alice had introduced to him, although it did nothing for his balance, seemed to heighten his perception.  The small wooden paneled door which now led into a quiet informal garden could be the side door Toqus had secretly used.  He could visualize the big man’s form and the shining bronze of his skin, even believed for a moment that he saw his fleeting shadow, and he explained this to Vincent, who asked:   “Who was this ‘Toqus’ geyser, then?”   Peter managed to garble out the story of Crowley and his mysterious servant.

The long gallery, once buttressed onto the rock beyond these windows, had been torn off by the storm on the night Lord Crowley died, its debris cascading down three hundred feet to the sea.   Now full length sheets of glass replaced it to form a sky-walk with a view which took Peter’s breath away.

Here might be the room where poor old Crowley spent his last night alive.    Too ill to use the great stairway that fed the upper parts of the house, his bedroom was on the main floor.  Although the décor was entirely changed, its oak doors opening now into a warm, modern dining room with a beautifully polished central table and Mackintosh chairs, still it was easy to imagine the big Georgian four-poster bed with its poor, huddled occupant.  

“This is where we do the posh eating.”  Vincent explained, unable to see, as Peter saw, beyond the recessed lighting and the plain, smooth walls in their sympathetically soft terracotta hue.  Peter refrained from telling him of the likelihood that the house’s original owner had died in just this doorway.  Certain information might be best left unsaid.

This, then, must have been the corridor along which the maidservant brought news of the old man’s death.   In this smaller salon a widowed Lady Crowley had very likely entertained her scheming lover: of course, the designing Mr. Ballentine would have known all there was to know of the house in his day.  As in Lord Crowley’s bedroom, though, little real clue to its distinguished past remained: just as the structure of the Great Hall had been gutted to accept the new, so most of the rooms had lowered ceilings with crisp, fresh interiors, refurbished for the comfort of Vincent’s music industry guests.   Low volume audio played in most of them, and the air was redolent of nineteen-seventies glam rather than Regency hauteur.

Led hither and thither through so many different rooms all looking so much the same, Peter’s befogged brain began to descend from the height of its euphoria and to tire of the experience.   Yet Vincent,  clearly regarding his ‘place to be’ with pride, wanted him to absorb each space.  Peter noticed, too, that Vincent was moved occasionally to leave him alone in a room, as though his presence might interrupt Peter’s appreciation in some way.  He would have been intrigued had he overheard Vincent and Alice on one such occasion.

“Nothing!”  Alice hissed in exasperation.  “He doesn’t feel anything, he doesn’t see anything – he just wants to talk about bloody history!”

“Right, yeah, right!”   Vincent soothed, “Maybe if you hadn’t dosed him up so much?  Give him time, girl?    He’s got to tune in, right?”

“Vince.   Vince?   Time is what we don’t have?”   Alice paced as she spoke.  “I agreed to this, God help me.   I came down here because you told me you had the answer.   And you’ve got nothing!  Just a schoolkid and some crazy fantasy you dreamed up – probably after one of those iffy fags of yours.   Well, I’m dead!  I’m finished!”

“Will you calm down?”  Vince said.   “Have some faith, Al?  He hasn’t seen everywhere yet, has he?”

“Where else?  The guest bedrooms?  He’s out on his feet now – are you going to take him around all of those?  You said yourself the answer was down here.  Where did you get him from anyway?   How on earth do you know he’s ‘the right one’?”

“Trust me.   I just do.  Let ‘s take him through the atrium and do the studio now, right?”

Alice gave him a look of trust betrayed:  “I can’t believe I’m going along with this!  This is abduction, do you know that?  You’re keeping this kid against his will!  Look, ask him, Okay?  Just ask him if he gets – oh, I don’t know – some vibe or something: whatever he’s supposed to get.  Ask him.”

“Can’t do that, love.”  Replied Vincent.  “It has to be spontaneous.  We’ll know when it happens, though.”

“If it doesn’t hurry up I’m going back to London – see if I’ve got a job left.”   Alice shook her head sadly.  “I did trust you, Vince – you, and your miracle solutions.  I went for it, didn’t I?”

“Faith, Al, have faith.”  Vincent urged, as he returned to the room which had once been the great kitchen of the old house.   “Come on, Peter, mate.   Come and see where I’ve got me own personal recording studio!”

The architect Quimple’s original plans for St. Benedict’s House had depicted a main building surrounding a central courtyard in a sort of horseshoe on three sides.   Part of this courtyard had been intended as a sheltered garden, where his client could take the air while tempests raged and hurricanes blew, the rest, discreetly veiled by a columned palisade, a cobbled yard whereon much of the business of the house, deliveries of food, cleaning and drying of linen, etcetera, could take place.

The stable block with its attendant noise and odour was designed to be away from the house, forming part of a boundary wall on the seaward side, near the gatehouse.   But with the fall of Crowley’s fortunes, and after the more physical fall of Quimple, Matthew Ballentine  insisted that economies must be made; the stable was built across the open space which Quimple had intended as a garden.   Thus the stables formed the fourth side of the courtyard, so other than access gates serving the tradesmen’s yard it completely enclosed the cobbled area.  No-one had much objected to this transformation, in part because all the main windows of the house opened outwards onto the seaward sides, and in part because they knew no differently:  Ballentine ensured the original plans were destroyed.

“This used to be a courtyard,” Vincent explained as he opened the small door from the one-time kitchen;   “We threw a glass roof over the top, so it’s an ‘Atrium’ now.   We got all sorts of stuff in here.   The studio used to be a stable.   Come and see!”

He led Peter into a small, enchanting garden, dissected by a path among giant tropical foliage and a bridge across a pond where golden carp swam sedately.  A fountain played at one end of the garden, sending a tiny stream over a series of little cascades.    Water plants scented the humid air and sun from the glazed roof created a rainbow.  The mist was dusted with exotic butterflies, some catching the sunlight in vibrant flashes of pure color as they flew, others perched with gently flexing wings upon stone carvings of mythic creatures that lurked in the undergrowth to either side of the path.   The enchantment was brief but liberating for Peter.  Here, in a tiny tropical paradise, anxiety, stress, his worries about being missed, all dissipated.  

It was an experience soon over, however, because for all its variety, Vincent’s  temperate house was quite small and the studio-come-stable all too close.  Not that Peter was uninterested in what was, after all, the first recording studio he had ever seen.

“Is this the mixing desk?”

Vincent nodded.   “Yep. Just as good as any they got in the big company studios.   I can do a full recording session here, editing, everything.   Come and try the booth, Pete.”

So Peter stood in the sound booth, where he could not help imagining himself with headphones on and a band behind him as he sang.  And there was a high stool to sit on, and there were guitars strewn carelessly about the place, and a drum set he wanted to play; but he could tell that for some reason Vincent was not so enthused, while Alice in her shuffling slippers inside the sound booth was positively twitching with impatience, so he did not ask if he could do these things.   Instead, he made his excuses.

“Thank you for taking the time to show me all this;” Peter said,   “But I think I really have to leave now.”

“Yep, I guess that’s it.”  Vincent agreed with an odd, resigned sigh:  “Thanks for visiting us, mate.  I’ll show you out, Pete, yeah?”

Alice said nothing.  Outwardly she seemed the same rather laid-back person who had greeted him at the beginning of his visit.   There was a smouldering undercurrent, though, which Peter could not help but detect; and as he and Vincent made to return through the enchanted garden she flounced ahead of them, her hips swinging angrily and her squid-hands clenched so the tentacles were white.

In his dejection, Peter nearly missed the little drama playing out in by the pond.   Had he not chanced to look down he would never have seen the giant white butterfly which, presumably while feeding on a piece of rotting fruit lying at the margin of the water, had got itself caught in weed.   Two legs were firmly wedged in a frond that tightened its grip every time the poor creature struggled, and the golden carp were circling ominously like u-boats close by.   Peter leaned down and released the captive, gently pulling the strands of weed apart until he could lift it clear of danger.  The great insect then, far from flying away as he might have expected, clung to his finger as if in gratitude.

“What should I do with it?”  He asked Vincent, entranced.

“Do you think he wants to go home with you?”  Vincent smiled sadly:  “Better let him settle somewhere to dry out, man.”

There was a rock beside the stream, a nice flat table-shaped stool of sparkly black granite where a butterfly might sunbathe, so Peter let it settle there.  As he persuaded the creature to leave his hand he had to lean against the rock.

            A scream wrenched itself from somewhere deep inside Peter’s head.   He recoiled, clutching pointlessly at pain which was firing some furnace in an untouchable place: he twisted around, nearly fell, yet he could not snatch his hand away.  Pulses of heat were radiating from the stone, engulfing his thoughts, turning them into shapes – images of people, places, exploding through his mind at terrifying speed. The figure of a faceless woman lost in an agony which cried out to him, wrenching at his heart:  behind her, grasping her shoulders, a powerfully-built man whose eyes were filled with hate.   A thin, enigmatic male image in clothes of a bygone time whose cadaverous features twisted and worked at some imagined discourse.   As these three rushed by they were pursued by rows of soldiers; hundreds, no, thousands of soldiers in battle dress. A tall dark man of utter sadness broke from their ranks to come straight towards Peter, reaching out as though to claim him.   The dark man grew larger, ever larger, until Peter knew he must be swallowed by the image:  he was bound for oblivion, bound to be submerged, lost in the mass of this gargantuan figure.   Then, just as he was about to give way, to plunge into the dark man’s despair, he seemed to tip backwards, and he felt himself tumbling, over and over, through featureless space.  He was falling.

From out of the emptiness a townscape came rushing up to meet him.   There were no figures now, no people or faces, just a street of buildings, shops, offices maybe:  but the street was a pit, standing on its end and he was plunging helplessly down into a hot, raging sea which lay at the bottom.  He cried out in terror.  Boiling waves consumed him. He could not breathe, could not see.  This was it:  this was what drowning was like; the water reaching between his lips, into his nose, his throat, down into his lungs.   Then, when he thought that death had come, there was a hand – soft plump skin, a persistent grip – a child’s hand.  It slipped between his own scrabbling fingers as soft as dove feathers; and it led him, it guided him away.  As abruptly as it had begun, the pain stopped.

Peter was back in the garden again.  A few panic-induced gasps for air were needed before he could persuade himself he was free of the illusion, that he was not truly drowning.   He slumped to the ground, his head gripped between his clenched fists.  Looking up, he found his two hosts staring at him.

Vincent grinned broadly.  “Bingo!”   He said.

Part Seven

Schemes and Dreams

In a night of troubled dreams, Francine could manage only fitful sleep.  Her heart could not allow her to forget the warmth of Arthur’s enfolding arms, or how natural it had seemed, even though the mere recollection brought a flush of embarrassment, that she should seek refuge there.  Her head was filled by murmurings, strange conversations in words she could not quite detect, invitations that defied all reason in their insistence.  They called to her, awakening her time after time, growing ever stronger as the night passed.  In the early morning while all but a few of the servants in the house were still asleep she yielded to them at last:  she rose from her bed and slipped stealthily through the corridors of the Guest Wing, out into the darkness.

Once out of doors, the sounds in her head left no doubt: they emanated from the place in the park where the old oak had been blown down by a storm.    Oblivious to the dangers of the lingering darkness, she found her way on slippered feet through icy April rain  back to that great overturned giant,   The first vermillion glow of sunrise broke through the clouds to discover her at the brink of the wide pit left by the uprooted tree, staring down into the abyss and its exposed foundation rock.  Now so close, the urge to find union with that unyielding stone was irresistible.  Francine began to clamber down, an enterprise that, even had it been pursued with caution would have proved impossible on feet wet from the grass.  She had no thought of caution.   Within seconds her balance escaped her and she fell.  She fell so her head cracked against the stone and her arm doubled under her.

There was pain; a searing scream of protest wracked her injured skull; but it abated almost immediately.  Neither did her twisted arm complain for long:  where she lay against it the rock’s warmth, if that was how it could be described, flowed into her like balm, inducing her to seek more from its embrace.   This, it seemed to tell her, was the place she was meant to be.  She did not question it.  It offered the solace she needed so badly.  

She had been lying there how long?  Who could know?  The rain had ceased and the sky was becoming light, a morning chorus of birdsong surrounded her, yet she did not hear it:  all she heard came from beneath her; from the rock itself.   Words, indistinguishable at first, then drifting around her head like those that had invaded her sleep; so much stronger now, so much more assertive.   So much like those strange utterances she had shared with Arthur at the Bleanstead lighthouse as the sea beat in upon them that wild morning, when she had spoken of their experience as being ‘real’.  These, though, were not her own words; they were the words of a young voice, a female voice:

“Wow!    Are you weird or what?” Some other unintelligible words in the same voice, then a male response.

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all…”

#

Peter, his mind still filled with visions, had been ushered back to the room where he and Alice had first met.  Vincent had parked him on some cushions as a seat and Alice, kneeling in front of him, was trying to engage his eyes.  She did not seem quite as furious as before.   “Do you know where you are?”  She asked him.

“I don’t.”  Her hand was on his knee.  He didn’t like it: there might have been no threat, but those fingers, those tentacles were like a cat’s claws, ready to dig into his flesh.    “There seems to be a clock. I keep seeing a clock.  I can’t read the time from it – it’s all liquid and sloshing about…”

“Town, city?  Like London?   Like Big Ben, or something?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s just a clock face, only it’s old; like, ornate hands and everything…”

Vincent was further across the room, pacing.   “A street on its end, part of a big place like a city, a clock.   Don’t worry about it Pete, it’ll come through.  Describe the people you saw.”

As he told his host of the woman whose pain had reached into him, the angry man and the black figure of despair, Peter felt a return of sensation, as if, his head gradually clearing, something new, something dark was revealing itself.  He began to view Alice differently – there was an elusive part of her he had to reach, and for a reason, although he could not grasp what the reason was.

“It’s a strange thing – I never had this happen before.  I’m really sorry!”  He said humbly.

“No, mate, you don’t need to apologise!”   Vincent was magnanimous.  “I’d like to say it could happen to anyone, Pete, but that wouldn’t be true.  Listen, I think we should take you home now:  I’ll get my bloke to bring a car round.”

The red Aston Martin which arrived at the great doors to take Peter back to the mainland was impressive enough to allay his regrets at leaving.   Alice stood beside Vincent under the Arch, watching him leave.   Again, as he said goodbye, Peter experienced that urge to say something left unsaid.  But there was a menace in Alice’s beauty which deprived him of speech, and after a few hesitant mumblings he withdrew into silence.

Alice watched him go, ignoring the faint churning she had felt in her stomach when she caught his parting look.  “A street on its end?    A clock which could be from anywhere?  A woman in some sort of trouble and a big sad guy?   Okay, Vince, how am I going to explain that to my people?”

Vincent hugged her shoulders:    “You’re not, are you?  This is very much our bird, innit?  Look, darlin’, I told you he was special, didn’t I?  And I was right, yeah?”

“So why, if he’s that special, are you just letting him go?  Vince, this is really urgent!  We don’t have any time!”  Alice spelled the words out to him, slowly, as if that would penetrate what she saw as density in his head:  “If there is something there, I need to know it now!   Why not just get him back and sit him on that rock until he sorts out what street, and what city, and who the hell is the giant guy?”

“You get so, so uptight!”  Sighed Vincent.  “Just now you were accusing me of abducting a minor, now you want me to!  If we put him through that again now, he would probably go insane.  He doesn’t understand what is happening to him yet.  Maybe he never will.  But I know this much – if he comes to the answer, he’ll do it in his own way, and his own time.  We can’t rush it.  Besides, I don’t think he’ll be working alone.”

“How do you mean?”

“I didn’t say he had to be the only one, did I?”

Peter sat holding his breath as the man he had met at the gate, now his chauffeur, steered them carefully through Crowley’s tunnel. He felt he was still too close to everything that had happened to even try to make sense of it all:   maybe Mel would help him do that if they could meet up on FB tonight.   Meanwhile, Vincent’s parting words to him still reverberated in his head.    The rock guitarist had gripped his shoulders so as to make him look straight into his eyes as he said them.  Vincent was being ree-ally serious.

“Listen carefully Petey, alright?   Sort out that dream, yeah?  And when you have – when you can tell me what it means, or even if you’ve got an idea of what it might mean, whatever time of night or day, you call me immediately.   Doesn’t matter if it makes no sense to you, if you just feel like it’s an answer, ‘phone me.   I’ll be waiting.    Now, here’s my number.   Keep it safe, yeah?”

Avoiding college that afternoon did little to improve Peter’s cataclysmic sense of something that was just beyond his range of vision:  something black and somehow threatening.   He wandered aimlessly through the remains of his day, unable to concentrate, frightened to revisit his dream.  The recurring image of the dark man, so all-consuming and melancholy, loomed like a thunderhead over everything.  

“Petey?”  His mother looking in through the door of his room, gently concerned, seeing that something was wrong, but wise enough not to intrude.  “Are you ill, love?”

“No mum, I’m fine.”   Lena did not persist.   “If you need us, you know where we are.” She closed the door.

Mrs. Cartwright: Lena.   Graduated from ‘The Slade’ with a fine arts degree, met Robert Cartwright at a ‘Varsity ball in Cambridge when he, a student of theology and a little younger, was still an undergraduate.  Lena had been a mysterious, introverted companion; given to sudden outbursts of exhibitionism which were the more remarkable for their unexpectedness.   Bob was as radical then as now, by no means a convinced student of the conventional theologies, or, as he would put it:  ‘Trotskyite religion’.   They remained friends, she painting and establishing a reputation for herself as a graphics artist, he a struggling Anglican whose worldliness was forever in question.   Nevertheless he achieved his Doctorate and, when the Levenport living was offered to him, proposed to Lena.   She gave up a promising career to become the wife of an irascible and altogether unconventional priest.   They were, with certain reservations, dutiful parents, doting on each other and upon their only son:  but they rarely showed, and never spoiled, with their affection.  Peter was who Peter was:  a lonely child but a well-adjusted one.  Robert was a faintly dysfunctional father, perhaps, possessed by demons of a practical nature:  Lena at times very much the artist – self-obsessed, demanding, often terminally depressed.  Yet she still painted: it was the income from her art, rather than Robert’s living, which kept their lifestyle ticking over.

Once he was sure that he would not be interrupted, Peter turned his computer on and used the keyboard to text Melanie, describing everything he could remember of his day.  She called him back at once.   “Wow!   Are u weird or what?  Did you, like, throw up on his carpet or anything?

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all.”

Melanie thought Alice should have impressed him,  “What was she like?  Describe her for me.  Was she sexy?”

“Alice?  What care I what Alice was like!  Tall, black hair – could have done with a comb…

“Heavy eyebrows, big nose, sort of long?”

“Not that big!”

“Alice Burbridge!”  Melanie cried, triumphant,  “I bet it was Alice Burbridge!  She’s dead famous, Pete!”

“Yeah, right! I kind of thought she was going to stab me, some of the time.   Tell me what you think the dream – vision – whatever. was about.     You’re good at these things.”

“I think it was about too much happy cake.”

“Mel, serious, please?”

“Okay, okay.   There was a street, you said?”

“Yes, but on end.  I’m falling down it instead of walking.  The pavement’s vertical, and I fall into the sea at the bottom.”

“Was there anything else about it you remember?  Like the name on a shop, or something?

Peter searched his memory, “No, nothing.  It all happened too fast.   Vincent thought it might represent some sort of code, you know?  With the clock and everything?”

“I don’t see that.    I think it may be a series of clues.  Dreams draw on your experiences, don’t they?  Peter, try this.   Is there somewhere in your past – a place you visited that was so special…”

“…that I didn’t want to leave?   Like the West End, you mean?

“Right: London.  What made you think of that straightaway?”

“Dunno.  I sometimes remember it.  Kensington; went there with olds when I was, like, five or something.   Wicked day.   We did the Natural History museum.   Tiny kid, big skeletons; I was well impressed.”

“You didn’t want to come home?”  Melanie asked.

“No.  I wanted to stay longer, but you know my dad, he’s time-obsessed.   He kept lantering on about missing the train….Oh shit, the clock sloshing around!”

Melanie was triumphant,  “Yep.  Your dad is the clock, and the large place is one of those museums, or maybe just London.   Now, the street; are we looking at this the wrong way round….can u remember falling down, or anything?

“What,  on that trip?  No.”

“Ha ha.  Or panicking?   Did anything make you frightened?   You were only five.”

Peter shook his head, “I don’t think so.”

Melanie sighed,  “Well, we’ve got London, anyway.   Where else did you go, do you remember?”

“Not really.   I mean, we probably did the tourist places, like the Tower and things, but I don’t think they mean anything.”

“Explain?”

“\I can’t, honestly.  I just think that this – whatever it is – I’m supposed to be seeing, should kind of stand out, u know?  Like really obvious, if you know what I mean.    Thing is, Vincent made it sound so urgent and important; I feel like I’m letting him down, yeah?”

Melanie made a face.  “I think he needs a big slap, giving you puff and putting you in this position.    I’ll keep working on it, but I can’t think of anything else right now.  Tell him London.  Maybe that’ll help?     See you at coll tomorrow, if you’re coming, that is.”

“Sarcasm  now!   Yep, I’m coming.  Come round here, if you got time, we’ll go in together.”

“Half-eight then.  ‘Night babes.”

“Mel?”

“Yeah, what?”

“I should have said something to Alice.”

“Like what?”

“Dunno.  Just something.”

Peter closed his call with Melanie before he tapped out Vince’s number.

#

Alice was at home in her Lancaster Gate apartment when Vincent called:

“It’s London.”   His voice said.

Alice was not feeling charitable.  “Great!”   She growled:   “That’s just great!    That narrows it down a lot!”

“Alright, alright!  We still have four possible days when this could happen, don’t we?    Give the lad time, Al.”

“No time.” Alice told him, with resignation in her voice.   “If – and I do say ‘if’ because I don’t believe this whole cockamamie thing with visions and stuff anyway – if it is London it’s going to happen in the next eighteen hours, because tomorrow night the whole circus is moving on to Manchester, then Newcastle.  It flies out from Newcastle on Friday, doesn’t return to London; and I’m not supposed to be telling you this oh Jesus what’s the matter with me!!  We don’t have any time at all, Vince!”

“Well, do you know the itinerary for tomorrow?  That might help a bit, yeah?”

“Yes, I do.   And no, I can’t tell you, because that’s top secret.   You know we aren’t disclosing any details of his schedule.  I’ve already said far too much.”

“I’m not a bleedin’ spy!”

“If this goes belly up you might as well be!  If they discover I’ve been feeding you information the Court’s ‘ll mince us, Vincent. So you’d better pretend you don’t know me for a while, okay?”

#

Salaiman Yahedi rose early as a matter of habit.    Six o’clock was, for him, the best time of the day.   When he strolled in the Park,  joggers, deliverers and carriers, all with a head-down purpose of their own, would scarcely notice him.   If he now and then acknowledged a stranger as they passed, there was no inquisitiveness on either’s part:  no-one studied faces; no-one noted, specifically no-one noticed him.  Yahedi was an expert at these things.  Salaiman Yahedi, who was wanted in almost every country in the western world, might, you would have thought, have been happier in the crowd, losing himself in a host of faces, but no: he preferred the few to the many, the early-morning people who were lost in their own world as much as he was lost in his.

Those who placed barriers for an event later that day were not security men, they were just workmen with barriers.   They had no interest in who was around, who might be attending to the detail of their work.   So Yahedi was able to wipe the dew from a bench and sit watching them for a while, just casually.  None but the most discerning could have seen that, whilst he sat there, he was sizing up the relationship between those barriers and a certain window on the third floor of a prestige hotel across Park Lane.   No-one else could see (for Salaiman was satisfied that he himself could not) the small, circular hole he had so painstakingly incised in all three layers of glazing in that window; working for hours into the previous night.

Yahedi relaxed, enjoying the morning.    There was no smell quite like that of English grass before the day had bullied and bruised it.  It offered some compensation for the eternally low temperatures, the ever- present threat of rain.   Curious, though, that on a morning so fine there should be flocks of seagulls as far inland as the Capital: he assumed the weather on the coast must be less kind.  Salaiman amused himself as he watched their wheeling, spiralling flight for a while, before he returned to his hotel for breakfast.  His day’s work would not begin for a couple of hours yet.  He stood up, preparing to do battle crossing an already busy Park Lane, and in a moment’s carelessness nearly collided with a woman in a red tracksuit who was jogging past.

“I am very sorry, excuse me!”   He apologised.

“It’s okay.” The woman seemed preoccupied, troubled.  As she ran on, Yahedi watched her retreating back thinking how beautiful she was, so tall and with such a shock of black hair, and how he would relish practising his very specific arts upon her.   Some would always escape.  There was nothing he could do; unless, of course, they should run across each other again….

Part Eight

A Revealing Breakfast

Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself:  the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him.   The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table.   His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.

“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.

“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.

“Yes!  Yes!”   His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”

“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas.  I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.” 

Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table.  “Your father likes it,” she explained.  “He doesn’t know many jokes.”

“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery,  “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”

Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel.  “Yes.   Yes I do.   Dinosaurs!”

Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten?   I suppose you have; you were only five, after all.  There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata.   You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”

Yes, Peter remembered.   He often, still, made drawings to recapture  those images.   “Where else did we go?”

“Oh, everywhere!  We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…”   Lena recollected.  “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder?  It must be at least ten years ago.”

“Almost exactly,”  Bob Cartwright chipped in,  “It would have been April 25th.  That’s the date today, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”  Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity.  I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”

“You did, darling.   Well, apart from one bit.”

His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory.  “How do you mean, mum?”

“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you?   Well, maybe that’s a mercy,” 

“No,”  Peter prompted her:  “Tell me?    Was there a problem?”

“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all.  It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”

His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know?    So we took The Tube – The Underground.”     She went on:   “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”

“All hell broke loose.”  His father cut in.  “You screamed, you fought, you scratched.   You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”

“I carried you.”  Lena went on.  “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit.   You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe.  It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”

“You soon got over it once we were down, though.”  Bob said.  “You liked the tube train.”

“Where was this, mum?  What’s the Tube Station called?”

“Hyde Park Corner, darling.”   Peter’s mother regarded him with concern.  “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”

“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained.  “Paying respects, you know?  I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war.  I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”

As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing.  Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream.  Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though.  It was a junction of several streets.  

He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject.  “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me.  It’s so absolutely you!”  She enthused.

Peter frowned.  “It isn’t that special.  Have you been photo-shopping me again?”

“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked.  “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”

“Oh, what?  What did you do to me this time?”

“As a female?”   She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot.  “Pathetic!”

“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you?  Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  All right, I did – once.  I was stupid and I’m sorry.”

“So where is it?”

“It’s at home, somewhere.  I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning.  The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”

Mel asked, after a pause:   “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”

“Battledress, why?”

“Describe it to me.”

Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead.   His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain.  “Hats, trench coats, boots.  You know.”

“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”

Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs!   They were Australian soldiers, yeah?   And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!” 

“Right!”  Melanie crowed.  “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum!    Quick!   Find your ‘phone!”

#

By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.

“How are you, sweetness?”

“Look, Vince, I’m busy.  I don’t have time for social calls.”  The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog.  “Have you got anything else for me?”

“I have.  It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.  Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”

“The kid gave you this?”  Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil:     “How the hell could he know?”  

“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”

“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is.    Anzac Day.  Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that.  Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.”  She checked her watch.   “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks!  Vince, you’d better be right!”

Alice had to consider carefully what she should do.  An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this.  Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent.  Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response.  But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country!  Did she believe him?  

With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it.  She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt.   Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.

“U.S. Embassy, please.”

Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:

“Are you serious?”

“Sir, she recommends you abort.”

“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves.  This is British Security again isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.  I had no choice but tell you.  She insisted I log the call.”

“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls.    If we did, we’d never go any damn place.   Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to log the call.”

From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car.  His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.

“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation.  We’ll be going to code amber.”

“Is it serious, Hal?”

“Sir, it’s amber.  We take everything seriously.  But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry.  We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”

“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”

From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort  scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual.   Yahedi was unconcerned.   Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability.   Not yet, though,: not yet.  Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.

The ceremony was brief.   Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial.   Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall.   Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon.  There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars.   He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window.    Carefully, methodically, he took aim.

The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.

As he did so, a  sheet of paper floated right past his nose.  He dodged it instinctively.

Thwack!     A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.

Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body.  In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.

“Stay down sir.  Are you hit?”

“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right.  By the way, I never got to ask you….?”

But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over.  Doors slammed.  The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.

Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets.  Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life.   It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress.   He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.

“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?”  He asked himself:  “No, you do not.”

He flagged down a passing member of his team.   “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.”   He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding:  “The top bit, of course, not the body.”

Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.

            Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan.  Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days.   Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay.   He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

Part Eleven

The Crooked Prince

“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto.   Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command.  “Those of us who know each other already know too much.     Those who can should remain strangers.”

There were murmurs of assent from around the circle.   All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.

“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning.   We are free to discuss.   Now, our brother,”  He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress,  “will explain a problem which has arisen.  A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”

“Highness.”  The man was an Arab.   His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier.   He spoke in measured words:  “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well.   A target survived.”

Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.

“You refer to the London target?”

The Arab inclined his head.

“The security cordon was warned.”   Yahedi stated.  “Such was my report.”

“But a target was missed, right?”   The American intervened.

Yahedi responded quietly:  “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”

“No-one here is accusing you,”   The Prince cut in hurriedly.   “Your efficiency is not in question.”

“The target was, indeed, warned.”   The Arab continued.  “The warning was given by one of us.”

“Really?”    Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning.  “Why, can I ask?”

“I had to.”  This time it was the woman who spoke.  “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call.   If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”

“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,”   The Prince said:  “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence.   She was very clever, in fact.   Were you not, sister?”

“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line.  US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence.    They allowed your target to present himself for you.   That insured you would still have a clear shot.  You just didn’t hit him.”

Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper.   Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm.  But there were ice crystals in  his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore:  “The man simply ducked.”   He said with exaggerated gentleness.   “He was warned.”    His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.

“He did not ‘duck’.”   the Arab said.

“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”

The Prince took up the thread.  “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him..  He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.”   Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!” 

True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head.  He had not seen any piece of paper.   Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not.   He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself?   The Arab?  Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money.   The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more.   She was ill at ease.   Why?   What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working?   He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?

Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind,  “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot?    Did it drop from a tree, or something?”

“And to place it so exactly!”  the Indian chimed in.  “To drop paper on a precise spot?   Not possible, I think.”

“You know what I think?”   Asked the smiling American:   “Bullshit!   That’s what I think, Sheik.   Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”

“It happened.”  Said the woman.  “The paper does exist.  I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way.  MI6 have it in their possession.  And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”

“We think.”  The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”

“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually:  “For a bird.”

“Can we get to this paper?”    Yahedi asked.

The woman shrugged:   “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far.  I only have the surveillance footage.”

“I got my own theory.”   The American’s voice had a steely edge.  “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit.   And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”

“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.”   Shumal said gently.  “It will be taken care of.”

“Why, thank you, your Highness!   But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”

“Peace, brother, peace! “  The Prince commanded:  “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers?  You test our hospitality!”

There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard.  The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.  

At length Prince Shumal spoke:   “Let us examine this from an added perspective.  We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary.   Brother,”   He gestured to the Arab;  “ I think you have something to tell us.”

“YourHighness.”  The Arab addressed the whole group.  “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution.  Your informer was anonymous, yes?”   He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent;   “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place.   So, an insider, a mole?    But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”

The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience:   “We are all professionals.  We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment.    That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”

“A what?”   Said the American.    “What, like a wizard or something?   Oh, come on!”

The Arab spread his hands:  “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”

“It is the only explanation,”   Shumal cut in:  “Unless you truly believe in coincidence.   I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel.  It was a very important barrel.   And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery.   I do not believe in such coincidences.”

“Prince, you can’t believe this.”   The American was astounded.  “I cannot believe you believe this!”

“The pieces fit.”  The Arab said.   “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar.   A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air.   There can be no other explanation.”

“I’m damned sure I can think of one!”  The American muttered.

“Then I invite it.”

Prince Shumal got to his feet.   “We cannot change what has been.   But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects.  Our brother here…..”   He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning.   Our brother has special skills:  he will be of great value to you in this.”

Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman.    There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal.   And now he was convinced.   He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too.  There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.

“This execution is deferred for a while.”   The Prince continued:   “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date.   In the meantime, brother….”   He smiled crookedly at the Indian:  “We have your affairs to sort out.  Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”

“That’s it?”  The American asked, coldly.   “We just let it go at that?”

“We will do all we can, my friend,”   The Arab said.   “We cannot change the past.”

“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged:  “But you guys are in the business of changing things.   Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed.   OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today:  I want something back.”

“Of course, of  course!”   The Prince was placatory:  “We understand this.   These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I.   We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.”   He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture:  the meeting was concluded.

There was a procedure to follow now:  discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion.  So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done.  A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave.   Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince.  A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance.   Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure.   Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.

 Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab.  Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained.  It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.

 “Do you like the look of our brother?”   Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart.  “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi?   An exemplary man at arms, hmmm?    And a creature of such intelligence!   His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause.   Walk with me.”  Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room.  “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny:  is that the expression?   They fall over themselves to work for us.   One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”

“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers.   They are food for killers.”   Yahedi responded.   “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”

The Prince patted his hand.   “I have faith in you, Brother.   I know your stamp.   There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities.    I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this.  Yahedi is our friend.    It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar.   I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you.  I believe you do work for us.   I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”

“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today.   You would have sent him after me long before now.”

“How do you know the hunt does not start here?”   The Prince chuckled.  “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning?   What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”

Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion.  “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed.  Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post.   I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah.   But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”

“So be it.”  The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further.  An hour when you will both be needed.  In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.”   He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother.  Take this with you.  Allah keep you until we next meet .”

Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand.  It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

Part Thirteen

A Beaten Heart – Part One

Melanie stared at the sanguine figure who Peter introduced as Toby.  Toby, large and fragrant, who sat on the grassy slope waiting for her to appear as though her visit to the island was planned.  “How could you possibly know I would come to The Rock today?  I just came for an afternoon out with Peter.  We nearly went to the Mall.”

“But you came, didn’t ‘ee?   Some just has a tune as calls ‘em, tha’s all.  They needs that, see?”

“What tune?”  Melanie scowled, because her dislike for the old countryman was instinctive, and she couldn’t hear any ‘tune’ – or could she?   She remembered lying in the grass at Peter’s side just a little way from here and just a little while ago,,,

Toby seemed unperturbed, “You can ‘ear ‘un now, missy, in your ‘ead.  I knows you can.   You’ll hear ‘un more an’ more, now you knows ‘tis there.”    He rose to his feet, a violent spinning movement which involved Dervish-like thrashings of arms.  “Come along wi’ me, now.  I think you needs to start learnin’.  ‘Til you do, there‘ll always be them as is ready to take ‘dvantage, see?”

He strode in an oddly uncoordinated lope up the remainder of the hillside towards his cottage.  Peter made to follow.

“Oh, no!”  Mel whispered:  “Not in there!” 

She need not have worried.  At the boundary of his immaculately-kept garden the big man turned, taking them on a path that plunged into a tangle of  under–brush and bramble, leading towards the sheer side of the rock.

“Toby?”   Mel called after him.

“Aye, missy?”

This song I’m supposed to be hearing.  Do you hear it, too?”  She bestowed Peter with a significant look, and hissed under her breath, “Is he a head-case, or what?”

“Oh, aye.   I hears it all the while, I does.  See, it’s part of Old Ben, to them as lives ‘ere.   ‘Tis as old as time, that is.”

“Yes,”  Melanie whispered to herself,  “He is.”

            Through the under-brush, with the high wall of the Great House to their left and open sea some three hundred feet below them to their right, their way led into a converging V between wall and precipice, so Peter and Melanie began to feel that their very breath was being squeezed.  They were following the boundary of the Great House as it rounded the eastern face of the rock. Now they could see the coastline stretching away north eastward, with Levenport Head’s sheer basalt slab frowning at them from across the bay.  Here  the path swung right, doubling back upon itself so tightly there was barely room to turn for fear of stepping out over four hundred feet of uninterrupted air with foaming rocks at the bottom.   They were descending; clinging to the cliff-face along a stony ledge.   Toby wobbled ahead with a casual disregard for the drop.   Peter, led Melanie, for whom the sight of his shaking knees lent an unwarranted sense of encouragement, as shared adversity often will.  The wind, barely a breeze when they were up on the slopes above, screamed and whipped around them, threatening to prise them from the cliff-face altogether.

“Peter!”  Melanie called above the din:  “Do you really want to do this?”

“I don’t want to try turning round!”  Peter shouted back.

Men had carved this path.   There were steps, the worn steps of ages, carved into the steeper reaches: there were passing places, too, though so confined it was hard to imagine even the sparest of bodies being able to edge around one another without falling.

“This ‘ere, ‘twere an old monk’s path.”  Toby called back:  “This bin ‘ere since the mon’stry times.”  They reached a turn in the face of the rock and the path apparently ended.  Two vertical spurs of rock barred their way, like the prongs of a fork.  “On’y they didn’t want ever’ body to know about ‘un, they monks.   Reckon not even the Abbott knew ‘bout this.  This las’ bit’s a bugger, so careful now!”   He legged himself up into the cleft between the spurs, and disappeared over the far side.

Peter saw that the main pathway had actually doubled back again, dropping away below them.   Eroded by time, it had diminished to a grassy lip, a ledge for nesting sea-birds: beyond that, the drop to the sea was uninterrupted.  Yet there was evidence the monks had used this means to reach the shore, for at the foot of the cliff a tiny shelf had been hewn from the stone.  Shale washed up around it rattled uneasily, chivvied constantly by the waves.    The height made Peter’s head swim.   Steadying himself for a moment, he made to follow their guide, levering himself up into the gap between the two rocks.  What he saw on the further side turned his bones to ice.

There was no path,  just a wickedly steep traverse, at the far side of which, some twelve feet away was a ledge, apron to a dark recess in the rock offering sanctuary to those who might reach it.   Toby was standing braced against the cliff-side upon this ledge.

 “There’s six foot–‘olds.   They’m solid enough.   If you looks for ‘em you can see.   You can see six ‘and-‘olds too.  They’m just right for ‘ee, I reckon.  Take it slow, and don’t ‘ee lean in towards the slope.   Use your balance, see?  Now, give me yer left ‘and!”

“Slope?  It’s sheer!”  Peter protested.

“Don’t look down!”  Toby advised.

“They always say that!” 

“You can do ‘un!”  The big man stepped nimbly onto the traverse, stretching out a large, safe-looking hand.  Peter thought he could see the holds Toby had pointed out.   It would still be a huge act of faith, and if Melanie had not been behind him he might never have stretched tentatively for the first of those foot-holds, a mere fragment of levelled stone nearly a yard away.  Shaking with fear, he placed his weight on the tiny pad of rock, grabbing frantically at a protruding stone as he stepped out into space.

A further handhold would be higher up on his left – he had seen it, knew it was there.   Transferring his weight to his right hand and forcing himself to stand away from the slope, he shuffled his right foot alongside his left.   For a terrifying moment his whole body was pivoting on those two points, with the wind trying to take him like a sail, until he could reach out to the next handhold.  His left foot waved in empty air, seeking a projection large enough to take his weight.   The welcome firmness of solid rock formed under his foot.  His hand found its second grip.

Almost sick with terror, Peter tried to draw himself across the last foot or so separating him from Toby’s outstretched hand, but his legs quivered convulsively and his arms refused to co-operate.  Stuck in an ungainly star-shape, he was unable to move, he was going to fall…

“Let go that right ‘and young ‘un.   I got ‘ee.”   Toby’s big hand grasped his arm, 

Within seconds it was over.   Feeling foolish, a breathless Peter allowed himself to be half-dragged onto the rocky platform then guided into shelter away from the edge.  As soon as he had his breath back, he warned:    “Don’t try it, Mel!  It’s too dangerous!”

“Too late!”   Mel informed him blithely.  “I already did.”

She stood behind him with a broad grin on her face.

Toby guffawed loudly, so his voice echoed up and down the rock.

 “She’m like a moun’ain goat, that ‘un!   No danger!”

“Rock-climbing.   Last holidays.  Glen Coe.”   Mel summarised. “Now tell me why I did?”

“Because as ‘ow you has to see this. I’ll show the’”   Toby led them into the deep shadow within the crevice, where they discovered the concealed entrance to a cave,   the portal of which, small and round, had been widened and shaped by human hands.  The marks of their chisels, ages old, showed what a labour this had been.

“Come on, Babes!”  Melanie urged,  “Let’s explore!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that!”

Leaving the gale behind them, they followed Toby through the narrow neck of the entrance, which quickly widened to a small chamber, no more than four meters across.  There was scarcely any natural daylight, so their eyes took time to become accustomed to the gloom.

“Oh!”  Melanie breathed, feeling a little overawed.

At its further end, the chamber wall had been carved to reveal a seam of crystalline rock which, if its short, exposed section were to be believed, ran vertically up through the basalt above them.  At its foot had been hewn a stone altar table, draped with the dry threads of ancient embroidered cloth.    A terra cotta chalice rested there, flanked by two tallow lamps, their spouts blackened by use.   But Melanie’s eyes passed all this by, frozen moment of a forgotten time though it was, to rest upon the figure before the altar, who half-knelt, half laid before it with its faded cloak, or robe, pulled up to conceal its head; as if sleep had overtaken it as it prayed.

“Well!”  She exclaimed, “You just never know how things will turn out, do you?  There was I, expecting a quiet afternoon picnic in the sun, and what did I get?  A cold cave and a dead body,”  She touched the edge of the robe experimentally;  “I hope he is,like, totally dead?”

“Don’t worry, now, Missy.  ‘E can’t do ‘ee no harm.”   Toby’s voice was comforting. “’E been gone these two ‘undred years.”

“Who was he, do you think?”  Melanie asked:  “One of the monks from the Abbey?”

“No, I don’t think so.”   Overcoming his revulsion, Peter stepped closer to examine the mummified form.  It had been tall when it had lived, with shoulders that were broad and very, very strong.   Prompted by some innate knowledge, he reached down past the dry leather and the drawn grin of the face, delicately pushing its garments to one side, to expose a gold chain around its throat.

“Toqus.”  He said. “So you never left.”

“That’s right, young Peter.” Toby murmured softly, taking the young man’s shoulder to draw him back. “’E never did.   Come ‘ere after the old man died, likely, an’ jus’ starved hisself to death.   ‘Tis a solemn fact.”

Somehow, Peter did not find it too incredible that Toby should know enough of the island’s history to have heard the story of Lord Crowley’s death, and the mysterious disappearance of his servant, Toqus.

“What brought him here?”   He wondered.

“Ah well now!    This place ain’t exac’ly a Godly one, now, is it?   Look around ‘ee.   What do y’ see?”

By now, with eyes thoroughly accustomed to the scarce light, Peter and Melanie were able to take in more detail of the chamber.   The walls were daubed with crude pictures of strange horned beasts, dragon-like flying creatures, and indecipherable writing: on the front of the stone altar, half-obscured by Toqus’s body, an inverted cross was engraved.

“Devil worship?”   Melanie asked, with a slight tremor in her voice.   She was not superstitious, but the thought was a little disquieting.

“Maybe – or prob’ly jus’ a bit angry, like.”   Toby sat down on the shelf at the cave entrance.   “See, the old Abbott, ‘e wouldn’t have been too ‘appy if ‘e’d knowed what ‘is flock was doin’ down ‘ere, now would ‘e?   And I don’t think as ‘e ever did know.  That path us come down jus’ now, ‘twasn’t no official path, see?   An’ that landin’ stage down below us there, that ain’t the official dock, neither.   So there was some, like, alternative kind of goin’s on in ‘ere while they up there was prayin’ their socks off. See?”   Toby smiled secretively:  “Nope, I don’ reckon all they monks were quite so godly as they pretended, were they?   No!”

He raised himself to his feet, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the chamber roof.   “Mind old Toqus, now, and come over here.  There’s somethin’ you should do.”

Toby beckoned Peter over to the altar. “Whenever you’m ready, see how the crystals in that seam feel to ‘ee.   Be they sharp, or what?”

“OK.”    Peter touched the black band of rock.   Immediately, a surge of warmth tingled through his finger-tips, sending a little pulse of heat up his arm.   He snatched his hand away.

Toby nodded approvingly:  “Now, you know what that’s all about, don’t you, young ‘un?”

It was tempting to deny it; to lie. Peter would have preferred not to acknowledge that this cave with its musty sitting tenant, with the approach which so terrified him, was another source, and possibly a very special source, even the promise of an explanation for the powers that gave him his extraordinary moment of foresight the day before Anzac Day.   But there was no choice.  He looked at Mel and saw recognition in her eyes, too.   “They’re connected, aren’t they?.”  She murmured:   “This stone and the stone in the House – they link to each other.  You felt it, didn’t you?”

“Not linked, Missy.  They’m all one.  This stone runs right through the whole island. The heart of Old Ben, this is.   ‘It’s beatin’ eart.  Come ‘ere, now.  You try.”     Toby gestured to the seam.

“I don’t want to.”   Melanie protested.

Peter felt equally sure Melanie should never touch the black stone.  “No.   No, don’t do it, Mel!  Please, just….don’t?”

Toby’s eyes showed how deeply he understood.   With something like pity, he said:  “’As to be, young ‘un, see?  ‘As to be.”   He nodded to Melanie:   “There’s nothin’ to fear, Missy.   ‘Specially for you!”

Although she harboured some misgivings, Melaniewas tempted.  She reached out with one probing finger-tip, dabbing at the black crystal.   She tried one finger, then two, finally her whole hand.   The rock gave her no answer.   There were no visions, no sensations of warmth, just cold stone.

“Nothing!”  She said, feeling quite glad.

“Ah, but you ain’t used to ‘un yet!”   Toby told her.   Nevertheless, he seemed confused.

Peter had withdrawn to Toby’s shelf at the cave entrance, where he sat with his head on his chin, trying to convince himself that he still had control of his own thoughts.  A drawing on the wall to the left of the stone altar fascinated him.  He could not drag his eyes away from it.   A crude cartoon, it depicted five matchstick figures.  One prostrate, either injured or dead, two others standing over it, one bearing a club and the other a spear:  he presumed they must be the prone figure’s assailants.  To their right a figure in a full robe and head-dress bent to release an asterisk creature, a lizard or snake, perhaps?  To their left and above them all, a stick figure with unmistakeable wings looked down, one of its arms extended as if in a blessing.  It was hard to dismiss the moral portent of what he saw – murderers watched by a higher being, as if sanctifying their deed..

Melanie had satisfied herself that the stone seam held no fears for her.    She traced it with her fingers, absently sensing its dense, gritty structure as the soft song of the island that Toby had described began to play once more in her head.   There was a dreamy contentment in everything that was part of St. Ben, even this gloomy room of death.  Hadn’t she always wanted to be here?  Wasn’t it a part of her soul?   The music was in the trees, the grass, the sea-borne wind:  it was in this rock, too, as clear as if its singers were all around her.

The music very slightly increased in volume when she realised that Peter had joined her: that was alright; it was meant to be so.   When his hand covered hers the music filled her, strong and vibrant, like a possession, like a sleep.

When he pressed her hand to the stone, so strong and firm, determined, knowing, the music overtook her, so she found herself living entirely within it.    Her mind was drifting…drifting…

It was another time, a room in another place; an oak-panelled bedchamber, lavishly furnished, with a great four-poster bed.

A banshee wind howled, battering at the oak doors of the room, slamming the shutters of the tall windows open and closed.   There were three men here; one, an expensively attired gentleman in his thirties, the second, a great midnight tombstone draped in an African robe who stood like a monument beside the third, a sickly old man in a nightshirt reclining on the bed.  Melanie could hear the old man’s voice above the wind, full of quivering rage:

“This is a trick, sir, and I shall not stand for it!”

“I fear you have no choice….”  The well-dressed man soothed.   “I have all your notes!   I could bankrupt you tomorrow if that were my wish.   But I will do nothing to sully your family or their name.  I will be discreet…”

“Discreet, sir!  Aye, I’ll wager you will be discreet!”   The old man interrupted.   “I have been looking into your affairs, Mr Ballentine!”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed, indeed!  You are not a reputable man, are you Ballentine?     How, I wonder, will my capricious wife respond when she learns of your upbringings and your past dealings, with which my letter will acquaint her?     Answer me that, sir!” The old man’s voice was rising hysterically.   “You are an upstart, a pipsqueak of a stock clerk who made his fortune by stealing his master’s merchandise and selling it for himself.   You may cut something of a figure, here, sir, but what will you answer should my wife suggest a tour in Spain, or in the America’s, eh?    Will you tell her there are warrants for your arrest in those places, eh, Ballentine?   Or should I call you by your real name?  Wilbert, is it not?

The well-dressed man’s finely chiselled features paled:  “How have you…?”

“Found ye, sir?   Found ye?   Did you think I was a nincompoop, a fool?   I have made you my study, Mr Wilbert!  You have been my sole occupation, these last months!”

The dark-skinned sentinel rested a big hand upon his master’s shoulder.  Urging him not to excite himself further, but the old man was incandescent.    “You sought to rob me of my fortune, sir! Now I shall deprive you of yours.   I have a dossier which I shall publish if you do not withdraw.   Return me my land, and my wife.   If I don’t get them Society shall know you for a scoundrel.  I doubt you will have your freedom long.”

In his excitement, the old man failed to notice changes in Ballentine’s demeanour.   “Had you researched more thoroughly, my Lord,”   Ballentine snapped, “You would also have seen what becomes of those who discover too much. Toqus – work your craft!”

The dark man’s great eyes widened:  “What …”   He asked (his voice is thick as treacle); “Would you have me do?”

 “You know where your future lies, do you not?” Ballentine answered,  “ Have we not agreed?”

“We did not agree to murder.”

“Ah! Such an emotive word.  I  prefer to think of it as timing.  Let death promote itself.”   He turned his stare upon the old Lord.  “How chill it feels, eh, old man?   How wildly leaps the beast in that decrepit chest?  You cannot still it, can you?   No, Toqus: not murder.  Just take your master to the brink….he will do all of the jumping.”

Part Fourteen

A Beaten Heart, Part Two

Melanie entranced, no longer confined by the cave but lost within the scene playing out before her, could neither snatch her hand away from the black rock, nor cry out in protest.

Three figures there were, gathered in that sumptuously furnished bedroom as it was buffeted by the storm. An enfeebled Lord Crowley, Toqus, his African manservant, and coldly watching as the old Lord descended into death, Matthew Ballentine, whose noble countenance belied his black heart.

“You are a monster, sir!”  Crowley’ wavering voice was barely audible.  His blue lips writhed.

Toqus said, slowly:  “I will not let my master die.”

Toqus’s and Ballentine’s eyes met.   The younger man’s shrug belied the sibilance of tension that stretched between them .   “You would save him?  I know you have done so, once; but ask yourself, how else can this evening end?”    He drew a pistol from beneath his coat.   “Let your master’s life slip away, kindly, or receive this ball yourself.”   He levelled the pistol at Toqus’s head.   “Consider –  your loyalties, are they changed? “

Crowley shook his head.  “No!   No, Toqui, he would not!  The shot would be heard, he would be undone!”

“Who will hear a shot, above this wind?  Who knows that I am here this night?” Ballentine sneered;  “ No, the faithful servant it must be who found his master dead and took his own life in his grief.   It would be his hand upon this side-arm when he was found, not mine.   I am passing Christmas at Crowley – with your wife, my Lord.   Oh, she will swear it, never fear!”     Ballentine chuckled, cocking the pistol, “Be done with it, man!” He motioned to Toqus.   Moaning, the servant bent over his master, so that Horace Crowley might see the sorrow in his eyes.  The look was of one who strayed for just a little, never knowing it should come to this.  ‘When I first took money from this man,’ the look said, ‘it seemed to be for the good.  We are both betrayed.’   The noble Lord expostulated, feebly; a whimpering sound lost upon the wind.   Shaking, he reached for his servant’s neck (to, what, restrain, embrace, who can know?), and gripped the gold chain suspended there.

“Forgive me.”  Toqus said.   He placed a huge hand on the old general’s chest; and in one second, with just the pressure of his palm, stilled Crowley’s failing heart for ever. A last breath rattled in Horace Crowley’s throat as he slumped back upon the bed, fingers still locked around the chain. It snapped, its broken links tinkling musically to the floor.

As Melanie watched,  Ballentine move methodically about the room, re-ordering the furniture, collecting papers from the table.  There was a shouted exchange with Toqus:  yes, Toqus would be careful to clear up any dossiers, or letters; no, he would not leave with Ballentine by his secret route; rather, he would stay to mourn his master.    So Ballentine slid aside a panel in the oak wall behind the old Lord’s bed and stepped through into the black cavity beyond.   As soon as he had gone, Toqus closed the panel behind him.  

For a long time Toqus sat beside Crowley’s death bed, rocking  himself back and forth, head buried in his hands.   Finally he got to his feet, lifting Crowley’s inert form in his arms to carry it towards the door.   There he hesitated, unsure; should he call for help, announce the death?  Did he fear the consequences? Undecided, he laid his master down upon the floor.   The vision faded.

“Did you see it?   Did you see that too?”  Melanie choked:  “Peter?   Is that what your dream was like?”

It was Toby who answered:  “Give ‘un a minute, Missy.  He needs to come out of it, see?”

Peter’s face had the tint of old vellum. Although his eyesight was impaired by the departing mist of the dream, his mind was not: connections were being made.

“I’ve seen Toqus, now,” He said at last.  “The big dark man in my first dream, the figure of Death, that was Toqus!”

“Ah now!”   Said Toby brightly.  “You’m back!   Come on now, folks, I think it’s time we was out of ‘ere!”

Peter found the return journey less fearsome:  in some small way he had acclimatised to the terrifying traverse which defended the cave from curious eyes.    He could picture the monks, bare-legged and sandaled, as they stepped nimbly and often across that space, and if they could do it…He willingly took the lead, and although his legs were quaking he found his footings easily.   Melanie dallied, taking time for a final look around the cave before following; which was how she spotted the talisman.

In a corner by the cave entrance lay a small black cylinder of wood, the entire eight-inch length of which had been carved with immaculately detailed shapes depicting snakes and winged beasts.  It felt light and tactile, and it seemed to fit comfortably in her hand, bringing a burst of music into her head.   Her smile did not escape Toby’s notice.

“You keep that, Missy.   ‘Twill be a memory o’ this place.   ‘Er wants to belong to ‘ee that does.”

Melanie understood completely.   Before she clambered back across the slope she hid the talisman beneath her blouse.  That evening she would place it in the top drawer of her dressing table where it would lie forgotten for a while.

Later, returned to solid ground, Melanie reminded Toby of her question.   “You never did tell us who expected me today.  Was it you, Toby?”

“Bless you no, Missy.   I were told.”

“When?”  Peter asked.

“Why, ‘tis difficult to say.  ‘Bout a week ago, I ‘spect.”

A week ago?”   Melanie was astounded.   “Before we knew ourselves?”

“Ah, but they know, Missy.  They know.”

“All right!”   Peter ran in front of Toby, turned to stop him in his tracks.  “Time to ‘fess up, Toby.  Who are ‘They’?”

The cottager sighed.  “Aye, it’s time , I s’pose.  Come up home and we’ll ‘ave a nice cup o’ tea or summat.  Us’ll talk then.”

The invitation was one Melanie and Peter had both been dreading.   Toby’s tumbledown cottage with its torn and faded gingham curtains, promised only filth, darkness and damp.  Given all that had passed that afternoon, however, there was no excuse they could make.   Evening on St. Benedict’s Rock, when the fresh breeze came in from the sea, was usually cold.

In the event, Toby’s kitchen proved surprisingly warm and clean, if a little sparsely furnished.    If the curtains were old and none too fresh, the windows they covered were at least fairly transparent.  The pinewood table, pitted by generations of use, had been scrubbed.

“I knowed you was comin’;” Toby reminded them, noticing Melanie’s relief.

They sat around the table clutching big, warm mugs of strong tea.   Beyond the kitchen window a pink sky glowed with impending sunset. The homely, subdued light of the room wrapped itself around them.

Peter sat beside Melanie, their thighs touching, just accidentally, absently; sending a warmth through them both.  Without really knowing they had done so, they clasped hands beneath the table.  Melanie allowed herself to wish that they were alone together.

 “Now, you wants to know who called you here, young Missy,”  Toby said  “ An’ there’s a lot I needs to tell you, but you got to unnerstand there’s a lot I don’t know, see?  Some ways you already knows more ‘un me; that’s a solemn fact….”  His voice had an easy drone which might almost have lulled Melanie into sleep.  She let her head rest on Peter’s shoulder as he spoke of how he had always lived here, on this island, in this house, and how he had learned to accept his part in the island’s story.

“See, I can’t never leave ‘ere.   If I does, I won’t have nothin’!   I be a servant to the old rock, that’s what I be.  An’ bein’ like this….”   He gestured to his neck as though to remind himself of that disability Melanie had sensed when they first met:  “World won’t ‘ccept me no-how.   See?”

“Would you want to live anywhere else?”  Peter asked.

Toby shook his head.  “Nope.  Not for ever-one to know, but this place’s sommat special, young Peter.  Sommat very special indeed.”

He spoke of younger days, when he first realised he was ‘different’ and how one day he had gone to the cliff-top half-determined to finish it all.   It was then he discovered the cave.

“’Course, I’d always knowed about the path.  When you’m a young ‘un you finds these things, don’t you?  But that slope, I never tried to climb over there.  This day I jus’ didn’t care, see?  I thought as ‘ow if I went over, I went over.  Didn’t matter, see?”

Toby slurped at his tea.  Melanie saw that he did not drink easily, because from certain positions he was unable to tip his head back.

“I reckon I was the first ‘un in that there cave for best part two ‘undred year!  Didn’t look nothing like as good as now.   I cleaned ‘un up, see? This cave, it gets to be a sort of favourite place o’ mine, don’t it?  Once I almos’ lived in ut!”

The young Toby had often spent hours alone there, looking out over the sea or staring at the drawings which embellished the cave’s walls.  Later, when his father died and his mother seemed to want no-one near her, he had taken to sleeping there.

“Me and my dad, we did lots of things together.   But ‘er, she never got used to me bein’ like I am.  No, she never got used to that.   An’ what with my old dad passin’ on, she didn’t want me.”

Peter shuddered, trying to picture a young Toby, stretching out to sleep in the cold of that rocky nook with only a dead body for company.   Toby told of the first time he touched the rock behind the altar.

“Kids will touch things, won’t they?  Nothin’ ‘appened at first.  There was no vishuns, or nothing like what you ‘ad.   But after I done it a few times, this music started comin’ into me ‘ead.”

“The song of The Rock”   Melanie said.

“Aye, Missy – jus’ like you’m ‘earin’ now.  Took some time afore it got to be more than that, though.”

“More?”  Peter asked.  “Do you have the dreams, too?”

“Not like your’n, no.  I starts hearin’ voices, on’y in the cave at first.  Now, I hears ‘em anywhere on the island – an’ then one day this fella comes to see me.”

“What ‘fella’?”   Peter sensed the awkwardness in Toby’s voice.

“He were a diddy-squat man, comes knockin’ on the door ‘ere one day….”   Toby described a dapper little man in an office suit and yellow waistcoat which stretched over his corpulence like a net over a football.   “’Calm as you please, ‘e tells me ‘ow ‘e knows all about me, an’ I got a gift that only he and a few other people knows about.  An’ it comes out that this gift is all to do with this ‘ere rock.”

The little man had told Toby the secret story of the island; of how it drew a small, exclusive brethren of monks to begin a monastery here,.   He confirmed what Toby already knew:  that a seam of very special stone ran through the island’s heart.   It surfaced in only a few places:  one at the summit, where Peter had experienced his first vision, another within the cave.   There was supposed to be a third (apparently there had to be three) although Toby had not found it yet.  Many might touch this stone and feel nothing, but those with Toby’s ‘gift’ who touched it were given an understanding of the magic of the place.

“He tells me I be the guardian of this stone.   I has to live ‘ere to watch over ‘un; an’ I says I doesn’t see ‘ow I could.  I’m in trouble, like, keepin’  up the ‘ouse now father’s died.   But he says someone’s comin’ to ‘elp with that an’ I’d be looked after.”

Peter nodded,  “And you were.”

“Aye.  That’s when Mr. Vincent comes to live in the big House.   He sees I don’t go short.   He’s even made an allowance for me if sommat should ‘appen to ‘im.”

“Then Vincent is one of them, these few special people.”

“I don’ know that.  Some’ow I don’think no-one’s told ‘im about the stone.  An’ I’m not to tell nobody, see?”  Toby leaned forward across the table.  “This diddy-squat chap, he says I’m to wait, ‘cause ever’ so offen, like once in a cent’ry or sommat, someone comes along who can get much more from the stone than us folks.   And that once in a very long time, mebbees never yet, two people comes together!   An’ that’s when sommat important is goin’ to take place as hist’ry won’t forget.  I’m to wait for they, an’ when they comes I’ll know them.   Well, looks like you’m ‘ere, don’t it?”

In the silence, Peter fancied he might hear even the smallest sound.  A tap dripping somewhere, a soft breath of wind on the casement, the flap of a bird’s wing outside the glass.   At length it was Melanie who spoke.  “You still haven’t explained how…”

“’Ow I knowed you was comin’ today?”  Toby interrupted, his face creased in a smile that was, for him, close to angelic;  “Why, The Rock tells me, Missy – Old Ben!  ‘Er’s been getting excited ‘bout it for a week gone!”

“Oh, Peter,”  Melanie sighed,   “Does this mean we’re going to be famous?”

Within that room, none of them knew what it meant.  Toby, who understood the island well, lacked the insight to read the deeper messages within Peter’s visions.  Peter, who thought the stone probably imbued him with a gift of foresight, nothing more.  And Melanie, who struggled, as yet, to find any meaning:  it was there, she knew, but out of reach.

By the time Peter and Melanie left the cottage, a red haze of cloud disguised the discreet departure of the evening sun.   Walking together down the old road they passed the summer let cottages, where the little girl played and sang in her back yard.  She smiled at them with a sweet, slightly empty smile, but she did not stop playing.

Melanie asked,  “Peter, do you want this?”

They had entered the tunnel and Peter was probing its roof and walls for  crystalline signs of stone.   “See…”  He gestured as they emerged onto the north side of the island.   “If Toqus’s cave is just around there…”

“I asked you a question.”   Melanie said.

“I don’t know what you mean, ‘do I want this’.”  He met Melanie’s eyes and saw that they were red.   “What, Mel?   It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.”

She paused by the roadside, trying to frame her thoughts:  “You – me.  We’re friends, aren’t we?   We…we’ve known each other a long time, Babes.”

“Okay, so?”

“Well, I thought: I mean, I sort of hoped…..Oh god!”   The tears came.   Peter watched them happen, not understanding, half-frightened by them.   One day in a shelter on the Esplanade not so long ago, he had decided he hated it when Melanie cried.   He offered a faltering arm but she threw him off.   “Don’t!”

He stepped back.   “Mel, what’s wrong?”

“I just assumed someday we would be, like, boy and girlfriend, you know?  You – me?  I thought we might be together, stay together, do all the normal things you do when you’re, well, more than just friends.  That’s what I thought.   Until today – until this.”

“Okay.”  Peter replied cautiously:  “So, what’s changed?”

“What’s changed?  What’s changed?   We’re not normal.  That’s what’s changed.   We’re some sort of monstrous double act – ‘special people’ with a peculiar talent for seeing things which aren’t there and doing things normal people don’t do!  Peter, I don’t want to be a freak!   I don’t want to be ‘special’ and spend my days in a cold cave with a withered old corpse for company.  I don’t want to see anything like the things I saw this afternoon ever, ever again.  It was just – so horrible, so evil.”

“It wasn’t nice,”  Peter agreed.   “But you have.  What do you suggest we do?”

“We exercise our freedom of choice.  We turn our backs on this bloody rock and we never come back here, ever again.   If we dream about it, we turn over and sleep on the other side.  If a seagull pesters you, throw pebbles at it until it goes away.”    Melanie caught the guarded look in Peter’s eye.   “But you don’t want to do that, do you?”

“No.  Well yes, too, in a way.”  Peter sighed.   “I don’t think I we’re going to be allowed freedom of choice.  Now these ‘They’ people have seen what we can do, they’re going to want me – us – to do it again; so I don’t think things can ever be normal from now on.”

Across the bay, Levenport glistened with summer lights – the twinkling stars  of hotel windows, the bright neon colours of the arcades.  Leaning on the railing together with the sea washing the cliff below, they shared a moment of unspoken truth.  Although neither moved, the distance between them grew.

At last, Melanie said: “Sorry Babes, I choose normal.”

Part Fifteen

New Alliances

Peter watched Melanie’s retreating back as she walked quickly away.   Her last words to him:  “I don’t think we should see each other for a while,.” and the cold marble lump in his stomach prevented him calling after her. Did she hesitate, hoping that he would?  He wanted to see reluctance in her step, but in his heart he knew this was something she must resolve on her own.    For some time he remained there, on the St. Benedict road, churning over sorrowful thoughts in his head, before he too started unwillingly for home, with his emotions brimming.   He could not contemplate life without Mel.

#

In the days and weeks that followed, Peter saw little of Melanie.     She was neither waiting on the Esplanade in the morning, nor was she to be found at the Mall when he was there.  She even stayed away from college for a while: not yet strong enough, perhaps, to overcome those inevitable meetings; passing between lectures, in the library or the canteen during study time.  When she did come back she would barely return Peter’s greeting, which, in a way, saved pain for them both.   She made her desire to end their friendship so obvious that eventually Peter tired of attempts to make contact; wearied by unanswered emails and texts, he resigned himself to his loss.

The injustice, in Peter’s eyes, lay in Melanie’s reasons for their separation.   After all, he would have as gladly dropped the baton the Rock had passed to them as she, if he could believe it possible that the force which lurked there was so passive as to let him go.   But he well knew that this would not happen and he knew that Melanie, though she chose to deny it now, was no more immune than he.   He could be fearful, if he allowed himself, of the consequences for her when she faced this truth alone; but he could not change it.   He had to respect her choice.

Meanwhile, he was altering.   Others noticed this first: Lena, his mother, seeing him enter her studio one afternoon was struck, not just by how tall he had become, but by his developing physique:  “My word. Peter, how you have growed!  Are you doing weight training, or something?”

“It’s the steroids.”   Peter explained lamely.  “The little sods keep biting my legs.”

“Well, you slow down, Peter dear, or I shall have to accept you’re inheriting your father’s terrible sense of humour, and feel compelled to paint you.”

“Agh! No; not that!”

Then there was a small flame of self-confidence, which flickers inside everyone who knows that they are, for some reason, different from the crowd.   Peter had always been the quiet child, the loner, the unobtrusive intellect at the back of the class.  He had never exactly been troubled by bullying, but there were those who, back in his school days, he was content to avoid.   The redheaded Ross ‘Copper’ Copeland  had been one such.

Ross, completely and utterly ginger from his shock of untidy thatch to his toenails,   had densely-freckled skin  and  a fine, fluffy beard  which grew untamed around his features in the same angry hue.  His physique – a girth best described as ‘ample’ – arms and wrists tapered thickly down to short, stubby, carriage-bolt fingers; his walk the stamping stride of a Sumo and the  fight in every stare from his steely green eyes meant the world would step aside for Ross Copeland; it was easier that way.

At school, Copper had supplemented his income and his diet from the resources of his fellow students.  Because it pleased him to think of himself as a ‘businessman’ rather than a thief, he had a number of  ploys – ‘selling’ some trivial or useless item to his victim, or offering  protection ‘insurance’ to those with courage enough to resist.  

After school had ended Peter and Copper went their separate ways.  One a  college student, the other an apprentice highways engineer, their paths should never have crossed.   But Levenport was a small town, and Copper’s instinct for commerce flowered among the dark corners and fetid alleys where small white packets were stock in trade.

Peter was wandering through the Woolmarket, a system of narrow streets on the East Side, when Ross  caugh up with him: 

“Hello Worm.   Haven’t talked to you in a while, have I?”

Copper’s considerable form blocked Peter’s path; a little gaggle of hangers-on sniggering in his wake.

“Hello Ross.”  Peter was amazed at his own relaxed reply:  “So true.   We must catch up.  How are the guinea pigs?  Win any prizes?”

This brought a suspicious glance, because Ross did not generally let his hobby be known:  “They’re all right,” He said staunchly, looking very like a large guinea pig.  Then, with the light of ‘The Fancy’ glinting in his eyes, “Got a couple of ‘Thirds’ last week.”

Somebody behind him quickly stifled a giggle. “Look here now,”   Copper went on, hurriedly, “I’ve got something you’ll want.”   He began ferreting around in his trouser pocket, producing, at length, a tattered ‘Get Out of Gaol Free’ card from a Monopoly game.   “Useful, eh?”

Peter looked at the crumpled item: “And still warm, too.”

 “Only a score, to you Worm.   Special price.”

“Twenty pounds!   For that?”   Peter was incredulous.  “Sorry Ross, none on me.  Catch you later!”   And he walked away.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you don’t like my merchandise, Worm, really I am.   It’s a very good opportunity.   Maybe you needs some business education, do y’ think?”

“Seriously?”   Amazed by how rapidly his eyes could move and focus, Peter rounded upon Copper, who was totally unprepared for what came next.   “Would you like to begin teaching me now?”   Outfaced, Copper stepped back.  Somehow, Peter found he was able to detect the precise position of Copper’s feet, analyse his point of balance so as to know exactly when, where, and how hard to lunge.    In a breath, Ross Copeland was lying on his back on the pavement, with Peter standing over him, offering his hand:   “Geez, sorry Ross, must’ve tripped?  Here you go!”    And Copper, maybe slightly winded, allowed himself to be helped up.

It was a huge moment, one in which the reputations of both youths hung by a thread. 

“All right then, Cartwright….”   Copper began, his complexion boiling to a bright pink.

“Worm.”  Peter gently corrected him. In a low, confidential voice, he added:  “You used to call me ‘Worm’.  I miss that.” A gathering throng of onlookers tittered nervously.

Copper glared.   His anger rested upon Peter’s face, which was smiling, although his eyes were not. “We’re not at school anymore, Ross.  If you want to try and re-educate me, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.”    And he walked away again.   This time no heavy hand restrained him.

The importance of this re-balancing of strengths was not lost upon Melanie.   At the time of Peter’s confrontation with Ross she was elsewhere, but the buzz traveled quickly.   As is the way with rumor, the details had already changed.  Peter was accredited with having worsted Copper in battle.   She tried to fit this piece of the jigsaw into the image she kept of Peter; an image already visibly transformed.  It only added to her misery.

It was a time of trial.  The autumn of that year was punctuated by examinations, tests of many different kinds.   There were challenges for which there were simply not days enough, so that the weeks, the months, the seasons plunged into each other with unrecognised speed – autumn into winter, winter becoming spring. No summons came from the powers or the personalities that dwelt upon St. Benedict’s Rock, so Peter began to forget that visionary day in Toqus’ cave:  greater things occupied his mind.

As Peter grew strong, Melanie became beautiful, a melancholy, gentle girl with large, dark eyes and a soft smile which betrayed a wisdom beyond her years.   Neither found any relationship which matched the one they once shared: each dallied briefly with new love, then turned away.   It seemed that although they were not together anymore, they were never far apart.

Perhaps if Melanie’s home life had been happier, she might have sloughed the skin of Peter more readily:  her aversion to Howard was undying, though, and it looked unlikely he would go.  So she was left with reminiscences and might-have-beens, and a reputation with the local lads for being remote and cold.    She fell deeper into depression, and her mother Karen might have seen this, had she wished, and were she not already weary of the tightrope she walked between her lover and her daughter.   Howard tried; she could not blame Howard, but the gulf of Melanie’s mistrust was too wide for either of them to bridge.

Howard, in fact, remained something of an enigma.  A haze of mystery surrounded this large, ungainly man who, whenever questioned closely concerning his work  role at Catesby’s, the local heavy engineering Company, would be evasive, attributing his involvement ‘more to the sales side’.   And it was true he spent long periods away on business, with a predilection for suits with collars rather than suits for boilers.

There was something further that Karen might have seen:  did she not wonder why, when Melanie had declared the cessation of her friendship with Peter, Howard had seemed so concerned?  Why did Howard, normally not much exercised by Melanie’s affairs, earnestly entreat her to think again?   Then, when it was clear that the relationship had died, why did he go to such lengths to remain in contact with Peter?

To supplement his meagre finances, Peter had taken a job as car cleaner at Ensell Street Motors, a main dealer with showrooms in the town.  Howard transferred the servicing for Karen’s car from her local garage to this firm at some extra expense, apparently just in order to gain some conversation occasionally with ‘the Cartwright lad’.  Since Peter was only employed for two days in a week, around his college commitments, this was a fairly unrewarding means to keep in touch, but Howard seemed content with it.

Peter had, by now, got past his early dread of Howard, so that he was willing to engage in some discourse with him, although he never enquired after Melanie, or acceded to Howard’s persistent suggestions that they “get together over some computer stuff.”  Peter often considered that Howard might be stalking him:  the guy turned up at the oddest moments; around the corner from the café where he stopped for coffee, or on the Esplanade where, despite his commitments and the march of time, he often still walked.

Did Melanie notice these things?  Perhaps.  She noticed most that Howard was more and more a part of her life; that Karen took less care to keep them apart.  And as the seasons passed, their alienation grew.

Then, when it seemed that affairs were at their lowest point, there was Lesley.

Melanie was still socially gregarious enough to have a small, but much-treasured circle of friends.   Trisha, the eldest of three sisters and a serious student, her alter ego, Kate – who had never, to Melanie’s certain knowledge, been serious about anything – and Lesley.  ‘Trish and Kate were both local girls, they had grown up in the same town.   Lesley was an outsider who had moved to Levenport a year or so ago to stay with an aunt after a family break-up.  The four of them would communicate often through college, where they studied the same subjects, or on the Net, from time to time.  The most sacrosanct of their meetings took place each Saturday across the road from the Mall, at a café called Hennik’s.  Seated at one of the outside tables, they sipped latte and shared their news.

 “I just think it’s so the right thing,”   Kate was saying:  “I mean, this town’s, like, numb, isn’t it?”

They were discussing Trisha’s results, which made her certain of a place at St. Andrews for the coming year.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”  Trisha said:  “I couldn’t stay here for another three years, I‘d start biting my nails for a hobby.  It’s tragic already.   I‘ve only been off studies for three weeks and its s-o-o boring.”

“Get a job, girl!”  Kate urged: “A little currency might help, yeah?”  She added, to Melanie:  “Your Peter has, hasn’t he?  He looks so cool in those overalls.”

“He’d look cool in anything.”  Trisha’s voice betrayed just a hint of reverence.

There was then a drop in the conversation, because Kate had broken a taboo by mentioning Peter’s name and each of the companions knew this.  Melanie’s permanently ruptured heart was common knowledge among them, something which, though they thought it unnatural, they never broached as a subject.

“He isn’t my Peter.”   Melanie said carefully, after a moment or two.

Kate chuckled:    “Have you tried snapping your fingers?”

“It’s true, then?  You finally laid the ghost?”  Trisha touched her friend’s hand. “Does that mean you’re moving on at last?”

“I guess, I suppose    It isn’t like we were ever serious, or anything,   We were just friends.”  Melanie managed a weak smile.   “I’m a bit of a wuss, aren’t I?”

“Oh, get real!”  Kate came back:  “We know you two were joined at the hip for years.”

“And that was, like, years ago.  We aren’t ‘joined’ any more.”

“Big move!”  Kate was respectful.  “Mind you, we do all think you’re mental.”

“No, she isn’t.   He isn’t everybody’s idea of love walking, is he?”  Said Trisha.   “I mean, not long ago most of us thought he was a geek?”

“Not any more.”  Kate came back.  “You’re doing a good thing, Mel.  You really are.  It’s just that he’s, well….”

“…..He’s the silverback?  Don’t I know it?”   Melanie twisted her fingers in her hair.  And she said, with a detectable sadness:  “It’s not like we were ever married or anything…”

“Oh, bless!”  Kate sympathised.  There was a reflective pause.

“So you two are really, finally and definitely, over?”  Lesley had been listening to the conversation quietly.   Lesley, who was deep and intelligent and fun; who had an overt personality and so many qualities which boys, distracted by her long legs and melting curves, never really cared about.   Ash blonde Lesley, for whom it seemed all the most trending clothes had been specifically made, and whose weakness, undeniably, was anything to do with the male sex.

“I know that tone.”  Said Trisha.

“Well, that makes him a free agent, doesn’t it?”  Lesley said defensively.  “And he is, like, fanciable, yeah?”

“Alpha male!”  Kate agreed.

“Oh, Lesley!”  Trisha chided:   “You wouldn’t do that to Mel, would you?”

“NO!”   Lesley protested:  “No, of course not!”

“Serious, Mel?”   Trisha asked:   “There’s no way back?  Face it, he’s so hot right now?   Before we let Foxy loose on him?”

“Here!”  Protested Lesley: “As if I would!  And I’m not, like, a dog or something!”

Nevertheless, on Monday morning, when Peter took the seaside route to college, someone was clearly waiting for him, leaning with their back to the rail which warded the sea wall.  Someone tall and undeniably feminine, even while her long coat whipped about her and her blonde hair tangled in the breeze.

“See?”  Said Lesley,   “I knew you’d come this way!   Walk with me, Peter?”

            This was one of those dramatic mornings when the sky was heavy with cloud and spray fizzed off the sea; the sort of weather Peter relished, but not what he would have expected Lesley to enjoy.  In fact, she looked as if she was enjoying it hugely.

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  She shouted above the noise of the foreshore.   “Isn’t it perfect?”

“I like it.”   Peter responded.

“Me too!”  Lesley snuggled her pretty chin into the collar of her coat.  “It’s real!”

#

Maud Reybath squinteded at the hooded figure who stood before her door, masked by darkness.  “Come in.  Were you seen?”

“I stayed in the undergrowth away from the road, then I followed the backs of the houses.  I do not think so.” 

Shepherding her visitor into her hallway, Maud peered past him, glancing anxiously up and down the village street.  Difficult though it was to tell under the cloak of night, she could discern no sign of life. She closed the door carefully, to find her visitor, whose habit was rank with the scent of damp bracken, shedding the sandals from his rugged little feet. She, motioned him to lower his hood and he did so, revealing sharp features arranged around a hairless cranium.  His stature and girth were small, his anxious grey eyes darted and switched hither and thither, as if he did not believe them to be alone.

“I  am commanded to bring you this,” he said,  “On pain of my life.”   He retrieved a sealed scroll from beneath his clothing, offering it to Maud.  She broke the seal without hesitation, “It was delivered to us by a  child.” 

“Her son?”  Maud responded, a little too quickly.

The man looked puzzled.  “Perhaps.”

She quickly scanned the neat handwriting the scroll revealed.  Its import was simple and direct;  

“My dear Maud,

 The man I encountered when last I visited with you at Bleanstead, one Arthur Herritt, Esquire, is undoubtedly The Pilgrim.   I presently enjoy his hospitality at Mountsell Park by the City of Mountchester, but I fear I may have to move ere long:  I am discovered, I think.

With Sincere Affection,

Francine

 Could she disguise the delight, or relief in her eyes?  Maud turned away so her face might not be seen.   “Very well.  You should take refreshment.  I have bread and some good fowl to restore your energy. You have many more miles to travel this night.  I will write a further message for you to deliver, which must be  for the eyes of the Brotherhood alone, do you understand?  For their eyes alone.”

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

Part Eighteen

From Dust

An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.

Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor.  She was visibly distressed.

“Les?”  Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah?  Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.” 

She shook her head vehemently.  “It wasn’t.  Someone – he was resting there!  Where is he, Peter?  Who took him?  Where’s he gone?”

At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing.  “He?   How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?”    This prescience in  Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily;  “No!  No, I can’t be sure!  How would I know that?”

For now the answers could wait.   “We’re both getting spooked.  Let’s get out of here.”  He decided.

As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he?   Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing.  Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why?   What had he, Peter, missed?  He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened. 

Lesley remained subdued for some while.   She pretended interest in other features of  the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation.  At last, in the midst of a paved circle  less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support.  Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.

Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her.   Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real.   Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind.   Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary?  He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right.  Had Ballentine been the father? 

“Are you going to sit there all day?”   Lesley’s toe nudged him.  He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically.  “Sorry Petey.   I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe.  Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”

It took them a while.  Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables.  Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies.  Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows.   Crowley’s defences were breached.

The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles.   Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.

“We’re not the first!”  Lesley hissed.

“Squatters!   What if they’re still inside?”   Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.

“You go first then.”   She whispered back.

Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room.   The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.

“Try not to touch the paint.”  Peter advised:   “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”

From the room they discovered  a passage leading into the belly of the house.  Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way.    “Oh piggit!”  Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble.   “Peter, this is seriously scary!”

“There’s a door here.”   The door fell with a crash.

Lesley yelped:  “Don’t DO that! “

They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house.   This cavernous space reached two storeys high.  Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls.     Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds.  Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence. 

“Wow!”   Lesley shivered at her own echo.   “Castle Dracula!”

They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay.   Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun.   Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s.   This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other.   It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.

These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have.  He felt nothing to connect him to the place.

“Last one to the top!”  Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.

“No!”  Peter came to himself with a jolt.  “Don’t, Lesley!   The stairs won’t…”

A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t.   Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead.  “Oh!   Oh, shit!”   With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side.   “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter?   PETER!”

Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head.   “Over the rail!” He yelled:  “Jump, Les!”

“Oh no!”   Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.

“Come ON!  It’s easy.   I’ll catch you!”

If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough.   With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space.   Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest.   The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both.    It took a long, long time to clear.  When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter.   Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked.   Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out:  “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?”  Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter.   “Am I the same colour as you?”

Peter coughed,  “Yep.”

Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.” 

Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move.  Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage.  Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.

“Do you think anyone heard the noise?”   Lesley said.  “That was one serious crash!”

“Dunno.  Soon find out!”

Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands.   Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place.    “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”

“You’ve been badly frightened…”

“I’m not really like this!  I’m not!”

“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love.  You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“My hero!    You did a sort of Superman thing.  You saved me, didn’t you?”  Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears,  He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.

“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl.  It makes you lighter to catch.  Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”

They were masked in dust.  Lesley beamed white teeth.  “I don’t think we passed a laundrette.  We need water.”  She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”  

Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables.  This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues.  A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.

They turned to face one another.  Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?”   She murmured.

“Well,”   Peter felt equally awkward.  “You first?”

“Not likely!”

“Together then.”

“Yeah…together.”

“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?”  Peter said.  “We can keep the small stuff on.”

“Yes, of course!  Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?”   Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”

“Right then!”   Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.

She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare;   “What?   It’s a bra, innit?   Are you seriously repressed?”  Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed.   Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley:  suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest:  “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”

“Not yours.  Not you.”    He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him.  She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself.  She did not resist.  For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.

At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”

And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”

He had never wanted anything more in his life.

Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace.    He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping.  Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty.  With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.

Lesley twitched and opened an eye.   “Hiya!  She whispered:  “Who are you?”

“I was about to ask the same.  I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead.   I think it’s wet.”

She snorted:  “Really?   You’re surprised?”  She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone:   “Oh, Peter?  What time’s the train back?”

“Six-fifteen, I think.”

“Do you know what the time is now?”

Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry.   They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans.   Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair. 

One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see.   In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was.  Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell.  If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.

   No ghosts lingered.    The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition.  The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten.   Only the trees retained any secrets:   he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if  they might just have something to say:  but they remained silent.   Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.

A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye.  He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.

“Come on, Les, let’s go.”   He felt uneasy:  “We’ll miss that train.”

They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.

“Look at us!”  Lesley said brightly:  “Two scarecrows!  Will they let us on, do you think?”

The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.

On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past.   And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep:  “Because I held him in my arms.  Just for a second I held him, Peter.  One day I’ll find him again.  I will!”

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.

Part Twenty

Marionettes

Jeremy Piggott’s phone bleated piteously enough to make him answer it.

“Hi Jerry, its Sullivan.”

“Howard, how nice!   I thought you’d forgotten us.”

“Nothing to report, Jerry old thing; until now, at least.   Whole issue’s gone a bit stale, if you ask me – my prospective stepdaughter’s out of the picture….”

“That was a pun, I take it – since she created the bloody picture?”

“Oh very good!”

“What is our boy up to, then?”  Piggott asked:   “Exams and such?  Being ordinary?”

“Well yes, actually.”  Sullivan replied.  “Apart from the physical differences we spoke about last time – lads do grow around about his age, don’t they?  He’s picked up with this rather nice little girl (surname Walker, Lesley;  I’ve asked office to get some background) and they have a pretty warm thing going, I can tell you.   He took her to the house at Crowley yesterday, so he’s obviously still obsessed with the history issue…”

“Did they find anything?”

“I don’t know:  I’m curious about that.  I went over the place myself quickly afterwards and there’s something odd.  It’ll be in my report.  History wasn’t all they were researching, by the way.   A certain little girl will have paid a visit to a chemist’s this morning, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Okay, send the photos – I’ll see if there’s anything in the gen. on this Walker girl.   Cartwright hasn’t been back to the rock, or met up with your girl?”

“Photos should be in your mailbox.   And no to both:  in fact, my young friend with the stepdaughter potential is still as mad as a cat with him: I doubt if they even speak.    Look, how much longer should we keep this up?   Melanie senior is spewing wedding bells whenever she opens her mouth, so it’s getting difficult to side-step, if you see what I mean?”

“Maybe for years.  Cartwright could be a sleeper, your Melanie girl may take us off on a different route?  I don’t know, perhaps it is time for a change.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right’o.  Just a thought, hm?   Take care, Jerry.”

The line closed, leaving Jeremy Piggott, British Secret Service, to ponder events in Levenport.  Howard Sullivan’s brief  had been to keep tabs upon Peter Cartwright, but the whole investigation had begun to look like a dead end.  Since his bureau had traced this boy; he whose printed image adorned the scrap of floating paper which saved a Senator’s life, surveillance had revealed little or nothing.  Yet a burning question remained:  why the picture?  A clue, a signpost to something more?

“Someone’s pulling your strings, Jerry old mate.” Piggott mused.  “You’re a bloody marionette, that’s what you are.”

            He dialled a number from the phone’s memory.   “George,”   He said when a voice answered.  “Levenport file.   I’m sending you some stuff on a family called Walker, focus the daughter.  Pictures follow.  Check it out.  Then I want a conference call tomorrow morning with anyone still on the case.  Circulate the appropriate memo, will you?”

Piggott replaced the ‘phone, settling down to an interrupted viewing of a television soap for which, were he quite honest, he had little regard.

In the meanwhile, returning from his day at Crowley, Peter Cartwright had to submit to some well-meaning interrogation by his mother and father.   Lena’s horror was limited initially to the state of his clothes.

“Well, you might as well throw those away.”

“I can’t!  They’re designer jeans!”

Bob, who knew both where Peter had been and who had been there with him, was concerned for different reasons; but he was wise enough not to say so.   There were questions he did not need to ask – the alterations in his son’s demeanor told him all he needed to know.

“Well, Peter my son, the Crowley place must have impressed you mightily, that’s all I can say.  He seems to have brought most of it back with him, doesn’t he, darling?”

Lena was fussing:  “Go up and run a bath.   And get those clothes off you, for heaven’s sake!  I’ll do what I can with them.”

There was an interlude while Peter went through the business of undressing, and Lena ran his bath for him, collecting his soiled clothes from outside his bedroom door.   She re-entered the kitchen, laden with these, to find her husband in reflective mood.

“Odd, I’d say.”

“What?”

“Well, I had a call from our novice Bishop today.  He asked about Peter again!  Again!  And I told him where Pete was going today.  Strange thing is, he seemed to know already.”

Lena frowned, “You’re imagining it,” she said.

Somewhat later on this same evening, Peter finally broke free of parental curiosity and bathing rituals for long enough to switch on his PC.    There was one email with an enclosure.  

Hi Peter:

You deal with this.   I can’t.

Melanie.

He opened the enclosure.  It read:

Hiya:

You don’t know me, or I you, so I’m hoping I can convince you I’m not some pervert by using a phrase that’ll mean something:  ‘ the stones are awake’, gettit? Because it’s vital that we meet.  

Here’s the plan.  For the weekend of 8th September you and Peter are going to stay with an old school friend, Mary Wilson, who’s moved to Mancheste.  Birthday?  House party?  You choose.    You’ll forget to take your mobiles, so you’ll be difficult to trace.   You and Peter can both use this same story – the pitch is that there will be six of you going.   That’s just in case you’ve got parents who worry (Sorry, but I don’t know your parents!).

 Train tickets to Manchester for you both on the reference number below.   You’ll be met at Piccadilly, and measures taken to see you aren’t followed.

  Look, this is for real.  Keep it between yourselves.   We believe you are being watched, so be careful.   I know how iffy this looks but if you travel together and if I add that Vince Harper gave me your email I hope that will be enough to persuade you.

 Bung this in your trash straight away.  It’s got a little gizzy all its own to take care of it from there.   Then wipe your history and we should be safe enough.

PS.  If your parents get suspicious or I haven’t earned your trust,  don’t worry – we’ll set up something else.   Remember, no mobiles.   See you soon!

The mail concluded with ticket references.   There was no signature.

Peter thought for a moment, and then sent to Melanie:. 

 “I’ll go.  Are you coming?” 

He waited for a reply, that night and the next day.   Nothing came.

#

These early days of September were the countdown days, last precious remnants of the long summer break.   Lesley and Peter spent as much of this time as they could together, although it was littered with tedious bouts of revision.  For light relief Lesley practised on an acoustic guitar, melodically enough to inspire Peter to join in with vocals until he lost the key so entirely she made him promise to stick to his intended mathematics-based career choices. For most of the time they could work in each other’s company:  their disagreements were rare.

Peter dwelt less and less upon thoughts of Melanie in these days.  He was loyal to his friendship with her, even a little guilty at allowing Lesley to eclipse her so completely, but he could not relate to her if she wanted no contact with him, and the silence was thunderous.    So he went on with the business of preparing for his final year with fewer backward glances than he might.  And he was taken by surprise when Lesley gave him the news.

“Melanie’s gone.”

They had broken from studies for a morning coffee at Hennik’s.

“What?”   Peter could not help a reaction:  “How do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“Like – gone – gone away.   To live with some relation or another up-country, I think.  She’s changed to another college.  She won’t be back next term, for exams or anything.”

Lesley studied Peter’s face, trying to suppress the tiny lump which kept coming back into her throat:   “You still fancy her, don’t you?”

He came to himself.  “No.”  He said, rather too quickly.  “No, I don’t.   I never – I mean we never…..we were just friends, Les.  But I hoped we still would be, you know?”   

There was a wisp of betrayal in his girlfriend’s eyes.   “No.”  Peter repeated more carefully.  “I could never feel for Melanie the way I feel about you.  I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.  You know that really, don’t you?”

Lesley tried to tell herself she did.

“It was just a shock.”  Peter reasoned.   “I mean, why?   I know she didn’t get on with that Howard bloke who lives with her mum, but surely…”

“Exam year?   Has to be a good reason, doesn’t there?   The reason is you, Peter dear; or rather, us.”

‘This honesty thing is out of control,’ Lesley thought to herself: ‘What are you doing to me, Petey?  I’m turning honourable!’   She said:   “Mel may just have been a friend to you; but to her you meant a great deal more. You were, like, the love of her life?   Oh, don’t look like that!  I’m sure of it.   I shouldn’t say these things to you, but I can’t help it.  Mel is – or was – my friend too, yeah?”

Wisely, Peter made no reply.  He could not tell Lesley what he believed to be the real reason for Melanie’s departure, any more than he could admit to the bereft feeling now clawing at his heart.   Okay, so maybe there had been something deeper there, once, but what use was there in revisiting it now?   Melanie had gone; not in flight from a lost love, but running from the inevitable. Like his, her life had changed irreversibly:  that email had to have been the catalyst.   She did not want to be found so easily again.

Lesley meanwhile knew, despite Peter’s pretense, that he thought a lot of Melanie; that they had been more than simply friends.   She was also aware of a mystery in Peter, a part of him she had yet to see.  There were no deliberate lies or subterfuges, no evasive moments or avoided looks:  but he had something within him that was hidden.     All of which would not matter, if her relationship with him had not become, that afternoon at Crowley, at once so simply definable and so complicated:  she was very young, but she was also very much in love.

“Don’t you dump me, Peter.”  She warned him:  “Not ever, do you hear?”

Hidden away in her bed room under the guise of shared homework, Peter did his best to reassure her he would not.

#

Lena Cartwright led a chaotic life: this was the construction she always placed upon her ‘higgledy-piggledy days’ as she called them, when anyone asked why she seemed to be flying about for no reason.   Should any of her friends try to pin her down to an itinerary, or to delicately suggest that, for all her rapidity, she was actually going nowhere and doing very little, she was inclined to fall back upon ‘her art’ and given to explaining that artists don’t think in the same way as other people.   These were the only times when she would refer to ‘her art’ at all:  for the most part she kept her paintings very close to herself.  They were personal to her, the hours she spent in her studio, and very carefully unrecorded.  Production was slow.   A sherry bottle was usually present.

This is not to say Lena was lacking in work or commitment: she had plenty of both.  Long ago, she had forfeited all pretensions to “High Art”.   Her talent, she knew, would never rival Rauschenberg or Hockney, she had no great message to leave to the world.   But that did not inhibit a modestly profitable stream of local commissions, seaside views alongside sketched portraits and a smattering of graphics.   Besides, she had, as she put it to anyone who would listen, ‘a vicar to run’,  in her role as a vicar’s wife.   Altogether these things, generally, filled her day from eight o’clock breakfast to eight o’clock supper. 

Lena exercised one strict discipline; she would never drink in the presence of her only son.   These days Peter was usually somewhere other than home, he touched base more and more rarely, so the sherry bottle was wont to stray into the kitchen as well as her studio, guaranteeing her affability for the evening to come.   On this particular Saturday,  Peter being elsewhere, the mistress of the house could be found doing a little desultory baking when a knock on her kitchen door announced a very distraught Karen Fenton.

 “I didn’t know where else to go.”  Karen said.   Her face quivered on the brink of collapse.

“Come in, love.  Come in.”     Lena shepherded her friend hurriedly indoors.   As soon as the door was closed, Karen broke down.  

“Oh god, I had to come to you – I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to do this!”

Clutching Karen’s sobbing shoulders in her arms; Lena guided her into her kitchen.    “Sit down and I’ll make some coffee – or maybe you’d like something stronger?   What’s happened?”

“Melanie.”   Karen said simply:   “Has disappeared.”

This was not a Richter-scale shock.   Peter had already told his mother that Melanie had ‘left town’.

“She’s moved to Saurborough, hasn’t she?  To your sister’s?”   Solicitously pouring  solace from the sherry bottle, Lena presumed this was the cause of Karen’s misery. 

“You know she and Peter aren’t close anymore?”  Karen sniped,  “Lesley Walker, now, isn’t it?    A  focussed young lady is Lesley.  She sets out her stall really rather well, doesn’t she?  But the let-down wasn’t exactly gentle, Lena dear, was it?   No ‘Let’s still be friends’; no ‘Let’s still see each other, just play it cool for a while’?”

Lena would not be goaded.   It was the old vicar’s wife thing again.  She knew how to resist such crudely cast bait.  “Ah, the young!”  She went for a fatalistic sigh and very nearly made it:   “My lord, it’s hard to believe we were like that once.  Karen, I’m deeply sorry for the hurt Peter caused her, you know that. But we can’t live their lives for them, darling!”

 “No.   No, we can’t I suppose.   And Peter wasn’t the only reason.  Apparently – Christ, I didn’t know – she really hates Howard!  Hates him!  I suppose that happens, doesn’t it?  I mean, just because I love him, it doesn’t mean….”   Karen accepted the proffered glass, pausing to drink.  “She wanted to get away:  start fresh somewhere. I said it was a shame, with it being exam year, and everything, but it seemed for the best.”

Lena listened as her friend recounted how Melanie had left to stay with Bianca, Karen’s younger sister.    Bianca was no stranger to her niece and at last Melanie appeared happy – happier than she had been for some time.   Then the hammer fell.

“She sent me a text.”  Karen said:   “She never texts to me.  Everyone else, yes, but when she wants to tell me anything she likes to talk, you know?   But then, suddenly, a text!    It just said that she was well and I wasn’t to worry.   All day after that I went about trying to tell myself there was nothing wrong.   It was half-past seven when Bianca called.  She hadn’t come home.  Oh, Lena!

“This was yesterday.   No-one’s seen her since yesterday morning.  The police found her ‘phone – it was still switched on – in a waste-bin in bloody Thorngate.  That’s about thirty miles away!  Someone’s got her, I know they have!”

Melanie had left her aunt’s house early, determined to take advantage of some September sun.   She had declared her intention to go for a walk on the beach, but had, in fact, been last seen heading for the fish-dock further up the seafront.   The police?    An officer had visited Karen this morning.    Oh, they were doing everything they could, but really, apart from circulating her description, what else could they do?

Where was Howard?

He’d gone up there, to Saurborough; rushed off early that morning – strange, though, that he hadn’t contacted Bianca as expected. 

“He hasn’t called me either.”   Karen managed a wry smile:   “I suppose it’s possible I’ve lost both of them….”

The sherry bottle had joined them at the table, a centre-piece of telling significance, its level sinking like sand in an hour-glass.    In the dwindling light of a late summer afternoon the two women faced each other both through it and around it, and the words hung unsaid for a long, long time.

“Lena,”   Eventually breaking the silence, Karen spoke carefully; “The policewoman who came to see me said violent abductions are more likely to happen at the end of the day, you know, after dark?   Disappearances in the morning, well, sometimes there’s a plan, like running away with somebody, or something?   It got me thinking.”    She drained her glass.  “Lena, where’s Peter?”

Karen’s words cut through the gentle gauze of sympathy like a woodman’s axe.  Lena bridled:   “Good god what do you mean?”

“I mean, is he here?”

“Well, no.  He’s away for the weekend.  An old schoolmate is having a bit of a birthday and he’s staying over,”   Lena was brusque;  “My stars, Karen, just now you were censuring him for dumping Melanie, are you now saying he’s abducted her?   That’s nonsense, surely!”

“Am I the only one who’s noticed?  There’s something between Peter and my daughter – something that has nothing to do with relationships.  It’s a sort of connection which I know is there but I can’t put my finger on.  Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it?”

 “Well,”  Lena scrabbled her mobile ‘phone from the worktop beside the ‘fridge and tapped Peter’s speed-dial angrily;  “We’ll find out!”.

In the pause which followed, Karen said:    “You don’t believe they could be together?   I do.   I’ve tried to add up the possibilities, and that is one.  It really is one.”

Faintly, from above them in Peter’s bedroom, they both heard Peter’s ring tone. 

Part Twenty-One

The Vanishing Game

Lena Cartwright’s son Peter had gone away for a weekend, on the pretext of staying with an ex-school friend, and when the two mothers met in Lena’s kitchen Karen Fenton suggested that her missing daughter Melanie might be with him.  Lena’s response was to call Peter on his mobile.    It could be heard ringing unattended in his bedroom.

Lena snapped her ‘phone cover shut in irritation.  “No.  No, it’s very unlikely they’re together.  If you start thinking in that way, you might equally ask where Howard has gone.   That would be ridiculous.”   Lena instantly regretted the blunder:  “Oh s**t, what made me say that?   Karen I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t worry, I‘ve wondered that too – about Howard.”   Karen acknowledged glumly.  “I mean, bloody hell, that’s all you can do when you are in my situation; wonder and invent until paranoia takes over completely.   And it has, believe me.   Oh Melanie, where the hell are you?”

The friends stayed together for the duration of Lena’s sherry bottle.   After they had parted Lena climbed the stairs to Peter’s room, checking his ‘phone for any tell-tale messages and trying to pick up the threads of her day.   All she picked up, though, were seeds of doubt.  Karen was unbalanced: it was palpable nonsense, wasn’t it, to suggest that Melanie and her son had absconded together?  Yet, he had been so uncharacteristically secretive about his intentions before he left that morning, and it was so, so unlike Peter to go anywhere without his mobile.    More and more ‘what ifs?’ stacked up before her, question upon unanswerable question.   She indulged herself with twenty or so minutes of wanton self-destruction before returning to break into the reserve sherry bottle.  By the time Bob returned from his parish duties that evening, she was almost leglessly drunk.                         

The train-ride was a long one.  When he alighted at Manchester Piccadilly, Peter was already tired from the jostle of weekend travel, befuddled by his early morning awakening, and tense with expectation.    The email had offered very little in the way of detail.  What the hell was he supposed to do?   He checked in his ticket and followed the stream of the disembarked as it moved towards the foyer.  Everyone else had somewhere to go – taxis to take, buses to catch.   He knew nothing about this northern city, had no idea where to go and only just enough money for a fast food lunch.

“Only one of you?”   The voice behind him was cool and clear. “You must be Peter.  I am honoured to meet you.”

The words belonged to a woman of about his own height:  she was mature, possibly in her late forties, and dressed casually in autumn colours of camel and brown.  “I’m Janice;” She explained in a comfortable voice; “I’m supposed to look like your mother.”

Janice did not waste time.  Guiding Peter with a gentle yet insistent hand, she threaded through the crowded station and out into clear air beyond.   The taxi stand was queued up with people waiting for rides, most of the cabs having already gone.   One, however, with its “Out of Service” sign illuminated, stood at the back of the rank:  it drove forward as they approached.

“This is ours.”

The taxi whisked them from the station into the troubled traffic of the city.  Janice did not seem excessively alarmed at the absence of Melanie, although she took care to confirm that she had left no-one behind.

“Have you eaten?”   She asked Peter.

They pulled over outside a Burger Restaurant.   As they alighted from the taxi, Janice asked its driver:   “Anything, Ben?”

‘Ben’ looked in his mirrors before giving a brief nod.    “One.”   He said.

“Okay, thanks.”

Inside the restaurant Peter found a table while Janice paid for tray meals which they consumed, mostly in silence.    Janice asked a few pleasant, meaningless questions:  how were his studies going, what did he want to do when he left university, did he like living by the sea?    Peter responded with small-talk answers that he hoped were appropriate. There seemed to be no real attempt to communicate, and no reference was made either to where he was going, or why he was there.  Eager as he was to discover these things, Janice’s demeanour seemed to stall such questions.  He doubted if she even knew what his final destination was.

“Now,” she said, when they had finished eating,   “I think I need the loo.   I expect you’ll be wanting to go, too, by now?”

Peter protested that he was not particularly in need, but Janice was emphatic.

“You have a long journey in front of you…”

“The message said it wouldn’t be far.”

“Nevertheless….   I’ll go first.  You can go when I come back.”

Left alone in the restaurant, Peter wondered what the next move would be.  Obviously his guide felt he could be trusted not to leave, or could it be that he was still being watched? How had Janice recognised him at the station?  How many people, like the taxi driver, apparently, were involved in organising this journey;   who were they, and were there more of them here?   He looked around the busy tables, packed and clambered over mostly by children on their Saturday family routines, for someone or something which looked out of place, but everything, and everyone, looked normal.   Harassed parents, groups of teens in animated conversation:  one very fit-looking girl who caught his eye and smiled…

“Your turn.”   Janice was back.

Chastened by the woman’s insistence, Peter wound his way through the throng to the restrooms.  In doing so, he had to pass the girl, who gave him a shy glance.  The facilities were partitioned from the seating area by a door opening into a short lobby with an expected but pervasive odour of disinfectant.  Three clearly labelled doors lined the lobby’s left-hand side: ‘Baby Station’, ‘Women’ and’ Men’;  a ‘Disabled’ bathroom was accessed from the right.  A single fire exit door with a panic bar formed the end of the lobby.  As Peter approached the Men’s Room a firm hand gripped his shoulder, propelling him forward.  Alarmed, he tried to turn, allowed only a second in which  to catch a glimpse of his assailant, a small, weathered man in a boiler suit, before he fell into, and through, the fire door.

Over his initial surprise, Peter recovered his equilibrium with lightning rapidity.  In one sweeping turn he dislodged the invasive hand and rounded upon its owner, thrusting him back against the nearest wall and all but lifting him from his feet.  The weathered-looking man raised one defensive hand   “Whoa!  Whoa!  It’s alright, lad.  Don’t worry!  You were being tailed, see?”

Peter did not see, not immediately, but what he did see when he relinquished his grip was.  the weathered man place the fire door’s detached panic bar and its fittings against the wall (“it were only on wi’ double-sided tape, like”)  then strip the ‘Fire Exit’ transfer sign rapidly from the open door panel and substitute a smaller door plate from his pocket which read ‘Janitor’.   A few curious eyes from within the lobby might have watched, but the process was so rapid and the door closed again so fast very few had a chance to take it in.   Once latched back into place, the leathered man threw home three steel bolts.

“Take ‘em a while to get through those,” He said grimly.  “Come on, lad!”   

They were in a narrow, dimly lit stairwell with walls of naked brick.    The stairs from it led only down.

Approximately a hundred metres from the fast food restaurant, parked very illegally, a van claiming to belong to a logistics company was not all it seemed.   In the back of the van, Melanie’s putative step-father Howard had set up a temporary office.  Wearing a Bluetooth set  and perched upon a tiny stool, he was watching a pair of monitors.

“What’s happening?”   He asked the screens.

Down the street a girl in a blue overcoat appeared to be searching for something in her purse.   “Nothing.  He went to the bathroom.  He’s still in there.”

“The woman?”

“She hasn’t come out.  She went back into the restrooms a couple of minutes ago.  Maybe she’s forgotten something?”

“Or she’s getting a bit worried because he’s been ten minutes…”

“Well, it could be um….?”

‘No,’ Howard thought, ‘it isn’t.   I know this sinking, stinking, black feeling of failure all too well, and it isn’t number bloody twos!’    And he switched to the other screen with its view of an alley behind the restaurant.  “Tom, anything?”

A huddle of clothes against the alley wall moved as the tramp wearing them acknowledged:  “Nope, nothing.”

“OK, people;”   Howard sighed.   “Let’s go in.  And I want the woman as well as the boy!”

Janice had waited for a precise measure of time before returning to the restrooms.   She had, she knew, very little margin to complete her task successfully: but it had been rehearsed many times, so she was confident.  She even managed to smile, distantly, at the fit girl who, because of her interest in Peter, also noticed her passing.

Two minutes later a dishevelled and tattered creature looking like a mad prophet barged through double doors into the open plan restaurant kitchen, to a concerted “Ooooh!” of surprise from crowds of Saturday diners.   Simultaneously a woman in a blue coat entered briskly through the customer entrance, pushing between tables towards the restroom area.   The prophet leapt with surprising agility over the counter to follow her, so swiftly that in a moment both had disappeared into the lobby, closing the door behind them.  In the eating area, nobody spoke for a few seconds.   Then, as the necessary activity of eating ensued, conversation crept back too.   It was as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile the blue-coated woman and the prophet were outraging public decency by slamming open doors to each of the private areas,  questioning anyone they found.  In the last of these, the Men’s Room, the blue-coated woman surprised a fair-haired man in a leather jacket, standing at a urinal.  He glared at her:

“Wrong one, love.  Yours is next door.”

“There was a tall teenager in here.”  The woman rapped;   “blue sweater, grey chinos.   Did you see him?”

The blond man shook his head.  “No.  In here I tend to concentrate on what I’m doing.  Are you deaf, love?  Feck off, will yer?”.

Outside in the corrido woman and prophet coferred.

“Janitor’s cupboard?”

“It’s locked.  We’d need a ram for that one.”   They exchanged hopeless shrugs.  Opening her handbag – something she seemed to have to do abnormally often – the woman said quietly:   “He’s not here.”   A series of expletives rang in her ear, so loudly that the man in the leather jacket, brushing past her on his way out, could actually hear them.

The prophet shrugged philosophically,  “It’ll be a while before ‘Branch’ gets here,”  he said,  “Let’s do lunch.” 

They returned to the restaurant, where, although they checked thoroughly, there was no sign of either Janice or Peter.  The leather jacketed man, having apparently concluded his meal had left and it was a normal, busy weekend lunchtime, a milling chaos of young and old.   The doors to the street were opening and closing constantly as a steady string of new supplicants to the broiler god entered, and sated worshippers returned to the street.  The tramp inched into a space beside the fit girl, who glanced nervously at him and moved aside to provide more room.  She was engaged in a mobile ‘phone conversation, which, had he listened, might well have interested him.   The woman in the blue coat braced her shoulders as she left, preparing for her rendezvous with Howard.

Howard himself found it – at the back of the Men’s Room stall.    Forced into a small cabinet which concealed the lavatory cistern was a supermarket carrier bag containing a wig, handbag, camel-coloured woman’s sweater, dark brown skirt and block-heeled shoes.   The bag also contained a liberal amount of toilet-paper smeared with a fine, greasy mixture of make-up foundation and removing cream.

“We lost him.”  He tried to imagine the expression on Jeremy Piggott’s face as he framed a reply.

“How?”   Piggott rejoined quietly.

“A janitor’s cupboard door in the restroom area.  We had to break it down with a ram eventually.  It led to a basement car park.  We followed when we realised, but he must have been long gone.  He had an accomplice.”

“So, do you have the accomplice?”

Howard swallowed hard:  “No, we lost her, or him, as well.”

Zimzamzu from Pixabay

That afternoon, Jeremy Piggott strolled in a peaceful Surrey garden with a silver-haired grandee, a senior who had long retired from the organisation he served.   Maurice Shelley was a man in whom he occasionally confided, a cool head he turned to for advice whenever the regular channels of command were lacking.   Now well into his seventies, Maurice had served a lifetime with the service as soldier, agent and coordinator.   He was tall, still unbent by the ravages of time, with a hundred campaigns etched into each line of his craggy visage.  His mind was as needle-sharp as it had ever been.   He was the Old Man of Hoy: a rock standing steadfast in a moving sea of politics and intrigue, and  Jeremy was one of many who still sailed, from time to time, to his door.

As Jeremy retold the failures of his day, the old man nodded sagely once in a while, listening without interrupting.  A thoughtfully placed wooden bench hid among trees at the end of his garden, with an advantage from which it was possible to overlook the roofs of neighbouring houses.  These were older, established houses, with gardens wherein older, established trees bore witness to the changing season.  The leaves were just beginning to fringe with autumn yellows and browns.  

“The colours are so subtle, aren’t they?”  Maurice suggested they rest on the bench; “Tell me what you actually have on this boy?”

“Specifically?   A sequence of events in which he appears to be pivotal. There was the picture….”

“Ah yes, the portrait from the sky…”  The old man sighed, barely disguising his scepticism.

“…that first led us to him.    Then our operative found the original file on the girl’s computer, implicating her, but nothing more.  Enough to justify surveillance, which we did, of course,  unproductively, for quite a long time – to a point where I was just about to pull the plug.   I mean, maybe the whole falling paper thing was just a coincidence?”

“What altered your mind?”  Shelley asked.

“Our operative inside Amadhi, who got wind of the Anzac Day assassination attempt, was terminated.  She kept an audio diary on flash drives; her killer probably has one of them, but it might have been quite new.  We found an older one which links her to our boy – she met him – and to a Rock guitarist, Vincent Harper.  She kept those associations from us.

“There are other curious irregularities, A second girl – Lesley Walker.   She’s very into our boy, and her background doesn’t scan.  There’s his association with the first girl, who’s also disappeared and now we have a transvestite with a very professional organisation in Manchester – who could have abducted the girl as well, for all we know.”

“I would guess he’s just a stepping stone.”   Maurice mused, “Is Amadhi directly involved?”

“None of the hallmarks.  Only, I suppose, because it was their hit he fouled up.  No, someone else wanted to draw our attention to the boy.  There’s definitely a pattern behind it all, but I’ve no clue what it is!”

Maurice smiled.   “I imagine you want me to tell you what I might do?”

“I’d value your opinion.”

The old man shifted his position: the wooden seat was hard and his bones not as well padded as they once were.   “First, I’d ask myself why I wanted to do anything.  Does this boy present a threat?  Has a crime been committed, or is he likely to commit one?  Or is this merely unsatisfied curiosity; in which case there are better uses for Service funds?  Either way, there’s nothing you can do until the boy or the girl surface – as they will, eventually, one way or another.   Then I suppose you might pull them in, apply a little pressure and see what they have to say for themselves.   I’d try that.   Evading surveillance is suspicious but it’s hardly a crime, so I’d only be pursuing enquiries and that picture links them pretty stoutly to the assassination attempt, doesn’t it?”

Jeremy considered.  “And hold them for what?  If I get nothing…”  he shook his head.

Maurice asked quietly, “Why do you want them Jerry?  Why, especially, do you want the boy?”

“Honestly?  I think he has something important to tell us.  He’s a messenger.  Alice was trying to tell me about him before she was rubbed out, but her machine was too badly smashed to make out much…”

“So it’s a hunch, isn’t it?  Hunches are notoriously unreliable old boy; even yours.”

“Not this time, Maurice,  Not this time.”

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?

Part 23

A Silent Wisdom

Vincent Harper was standing behind a table laden with food and the paraphernalia of cooking.   He  seemed smaller than Peter remembered him, in fact shorter than himself: and his lined face in a caught-in-the-act smile of welcome added to this impression, as did the quantity of flour and grease adorning his apron, grey shirt, forearms, and face.  The wild guitar player in an apron: it was difficult to assimilate.   Peter tried not to betray his amusement, but of course Vincent noticed.

“Been doin’ some baking, Pete.   You eaten, man?”

Peter had not, at least since his burger that lunchtime.  It was now evening.  The kitchen, a warm, enchanted place laden with shining copper, wrapped itself around him as he accepted offers of bread just baked and cakes so fresh they crumbled to the touch with large brown earthenware mugs of tea to wash them down.    Ignoring the pain of his bruised hands Peter set about the feast while Vincent, saying or doing little except to offer more when he felt it needed, or to cut another slice, or pass a different pot of jam, was content to watch.

“Good stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Peter answered truthfully.  It was so easy to dispense with formalities and slip into familiarity with this man, in spite of the difference in their ages. “What are you doing here, Vince?   Why didn’t you say it was you in your email?”

“Staying out of sight, mate.”  Vincent began clearing plates.  “After our little session back-along, you and I, it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the Rock.  Too many inquisitive people who know what I’m all about will be looking for me.  Can’t even trust email, not with these guys.  They are seriously heavy:  seriously.”

“What are you – and what exactly is this all about?”

Vince would have answered, had not a door in the opposite wall of the kitchen burst open, admitting a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers that should have been fluffy, had they not suffered visible food damage.

“He wants fish, now!   Have we got any bloody fish?”  She stopped short as she saw Peter.   “Oh hi!   Oh, wow, Vincent, is this him?”

“Peter, this is my lady, yeah?  Her name’s Estelle.  Estelle, meet Peter.”

“Hello Peter.”

Estelle was not at first encounter elegant or possessed of Alice’s frail beauty, although with acquaintance her inner grace would find the light.  There were ways about a movement of her hands, or a quickness of her look, which in time could draw the attention of a stranger and make them a fast friend.  The same could be said of her voice, which, with her Mid-Atlantic accent to enrich it, was deep, almost boyish.   In her welcoming smile there was the self-consciousness of the surgically enhanced; leading a critical eye to that strategic placement of her dark hair which covered sins of age not quite effortlessly enough to convince.  To Peter, whether she was thirty-five or fifty-five mattered little, for her greeting was warm and genuine, and her inner softness beckoned:  he instantly liked Estelle.

Vincent asked:  “Is he ready to receive visitors?”

“Not yet.”   Estelle said.   “He’s still eating.  I have to clean him up first.”     She took Vincent’s arm, and, with an apologetic look at Peter, led him out of the room, part-closing the door behind them.   Beyond it, Peter overheard her saying, sotto-voce, “Vince, is this quite all right, huh?  I mean, the old creep tried to grope me just now!  He’s got fingers everywhere- he makes me crawl!”           

“Sorry, sweetheart.  He’s hard to take, I know.  He won’t stay here after tonight, yeah?”

“OK.  I’ll just mop him over a bit.  You find him some goddamn fish for his supper.  If he’d only just stop eating!”

Vincent grinned around the door, then re-joined Peter.   “Someone you should meet.” He explained, as Estelle departed, presumably to renew her confrontation with the ‘old creep’,  “But not for a bit.  Come on through to the front room, Peter mate.  I owe you a few answers.”

Departure from the kitchen and all its temptations was a wrench, but Peter took it well.   Estelle, in the haste of her leaving had left her door ajar, so as he passed he was able to hear raised voices from what he took to be a basement.  The words exchanged were undistinguishable if their sentiment was not:  one of the voices belonged to Estelle, the other, a tenor with an hysterical edge, struck a chord in Peter’s memory.  He could not recall where, but he was certain he had heard that voice before.

Beyond the kitchen a narrow, timber-clad corridor led to a parlour as Dickensian and out of character with the Vincent Peter knew as it was possible to be.  Soft upholstered wing chairs in old brocade, drawn up each side of a luxuriously deep Chinese rug, stood like sentries before a large fire-blacked grate where a crackling wood fire burned cheerfully.  Its flickering glow threw into sharp relief a dark wooden sideboard loaded with Spode and Meissen that leant against a further wall.  Windows of warped and shrunken joints moaned softly in the September wind, their prospect of valley and open moor framed by heavy curtains of dusky red velvet.   A cat had curled itself contentedly on the soft pile of the rug.  

After ensuring Peter was ensconced in one of the chairs, Vincent perched on the sill of the window and began to talk in a voice so mellifluous and comforting that Peter might have been lulled into sleep, were this not an explanation of so much that he did not understand.  He hung, riveted, upon every word.

“I’m not all I seem, Pete.  There’s stories about me livin’ in houses in LA and havin’ a yacht down Barbados way.  Not true.  Oh, yeah, I’ve got the place at St. Benedict’s:  that’s where I play at bein’ twenty-one again and do me music.  And I put it about that I’ve got all these other places.  But it isn’t me; not any more.   I lived all that once, but now I’m getting older I find meself spending more and more time here.   It’s my hideout, yeah?   Oh, and me and Estelle, we’re together, you know?  Have been for ten years now.  She’s a great girl, see?”

“Toby told me you were single.   Didn’t have any regular companions, he said.  I thought you were with Alice.”

“Nah.  Alice?  Just a mate, Pete, like you.  Again…”  Vince spread his hands:  “not something I talk about.  Doesn’t fit the image, yeah?  The rocker thing.

“Sometimes;” He went on, “I like to sit here and watch the dale through this window.   In the spring the curlews come, in autumn the geese pass by.   And for all the years that I’m here, they come and go just the same. To all of us living things, man, bird or beast, the land don’t seem to change.  That stream, curlin’ along the valley bottom there, it’s been there longer than any man can remember, and it’s always looked just the same as it does now.”   He smiled reflectively, leaning forward to catch Peter’s attention. “But through thousands of years that stream cut this valley.   It made the slope where this house stands!   It worked and worked, for time beyond memory, to carve the groove it needed to get it to the sea.  Think of that, Pete!  Think of the time that took!

“Looking out there, mate, I‘m so amazed how little, we know. Us, Homo-whose-‘is-face; everyone assumes that we sort of spewed out of some genetic witches’ cauldron somewhere and started world domination.  Adam and Eve, y’know: all that? We view other species we share the planet with  along the barrel of a gun, most often, or fattenin’ up prettily in a field, just for the privilege of being eaten by us.”

He turned from the window, suddenly fierce.   “It wasn’t always like that.   It wasn’t never meant to be that way at all!”

“Life started in the sea,” Peter said cautiously, trying to dispel some of Vincent’s surprising anger; “Single-cell creatures, then fish; amphibians, eventually.  I know the dinosaurs developed from the first amphibians, the birds evolved from them, the smaller ones, that is:  Mammals came along and the larger reptiles perished because of climate change, or maybe….no-one knows, really.”

“Or maybe because they over-stretched their food sources, got too bloody big and so over-populated they couldn’t survive?  Anything sound familiar, so far?”

Peter nodded.  “It’s one explanation, I guess, but there are others – volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere, a meteor strike?”

“Could be, mate,”   Vincent agreed.  “Could be.  Thing is, the thing to remember, they were a dominant species long before we came along, a dynasty of creatures which were powerful and clever enough to rule their world.”

“They died out, though.”

“After a hundred million years during which their world changed mightily, for a lot of which they must have been walking a tightrope between their numbers and their resources?  Millions of years of learning, of gathering wisdom?  Perhaps they did die out, but now, Pete;” The guitarist leaned forward to emphasise his words,  “Perhaps their intelligence didn’t.”

Peter didn’t take the bait at first.  He sipped from the mug of tea he had brought with him from the kitchen, contemplating a response.  At last he said, slowly, “So if Archaeopteryx was, as I’ve read it, a dinosaur that evolved into a bird, he’s flying around now with an IQ of umpteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine.  Why wasn’t he the dominant species instead of us?  What about crocodilia, aren’t they a hundred and twenty million years old, or something?  They could have literally had us for breakfast if they’d wanted, couldn’t they?  They’ll have missed a chance there.”

Vincent laughed, “No, it wasn’t quite like that.  For a start, there’s a little matter of equipment, yeah?  Like the old opposable thumbs thing?  The birds aren’t fluttering about with huge brains – for a start they wouldn’t be able to fly.   Put it this way, Pete: You’re learning for your Degree, how do you remember everything?  How are you going to pass on the things you’ve learned?”

“It’s all on my laptop, I suppose.  Disks, flash drives, things like that.”

“Exactly!  You’ve got something not permanent, but more durable than you or I.  Now the big lizards didn’t have laptops. For a long time we had no idea what they did have, but now, just maybe, we’re getting close to an answer.  That’s real exciting, yeah?”

The guitar-player waved at the atmosphere with a manic finger, and sounding for a moment not unlike Toby:  “We’ved always known the kind of wisdom that’s gathered in a hundred million years doesn’t die.   It’s there, somewhere, and god knows we need its guidance, because we’re feckin’ up, man.  How long has Homo-what’s-his-face been around?  Not even one million years, and we’re already well on the way to extinction.  Too many of us, too much plundering and too little planning!”  

The cat, at this precise juncture, elected to forgo its warm nest by the fire and slink gracefully over his  hands to sit upon the window sill.   From there it climbed the scaffold of Vincent’s arms with its front legs and began elegantly grooming his stubble with its rough tongue.  Vince and Peter both collapsed, for a moment, into laughter.

“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!”  Vince cried, his sides aching.  “Animals, yeah?”

He raised the cat up in his hands, cradled it and began chucking its chin.  “See, this stupid creature, he’s got more stuff locked inside his head than you’d ever credit.   He knows when a car’s coming at least half a mile before it arrives – and if Estelle’s in the car he’ll be ready for her in the kitchen twenty minutes before she pulls in.  He can sense a storm; he can tell if you’re ill.  How does he do all that – and much more besides?  We put it all down to ‘instinct’ because we don’t have ‘instinct’ anymore and we don’t understand it.”

Peter’s quizzical look betrayed his thinking.  “Anymore?  Meaning we had it once and we lost it?”

“Yes, Pete!  Precisely, mate!  Not very strongly, maybe, but we did have it, before we got too civilised, too wrapped up in our fully-lined and comfortable world.  Like those dinosaurs, we’ve lost touch.”

“So you’re saying the thing we call ’instinct’ is knowledge left for us by reptiles?”  Peter’s furrowed brow betrayed the seeds of a headache. “That’s kind of hard to believe, Vince!”

“It is, isn’t it?  And it isn’t quite like that, to be fair, because we’ve just picked on one previously dominant set of species whereas that knowledge is the sum of everything that’s gone before.  Think of it a source of wisdom without being too specific as to its origins, and you’re there.”

 Vince’s narrative was easy to understand, simplistic even, but he could not see where it was going to lead:  clever extinct dinosaurs, pollution and all the warning signs of impending disaster; what did they have to do with his being brought here?  “I’m sorry, I…”

“I know,”  Vincent nodded;  “I found it hard enough to take in, at first.  But this is all about you, and that girl of yours.”

“She is not ‘mine’.  Anyway, me?  What have I got that has any bearing on species extinction?”

“You rediscovered instinct.  You had a moment, only a moment, but you tapped into that knowledge,  A couple of moments, actually –Toby told me about the cave.”

“No!  I just had a sort of dream!”  Peter’s denial was vehement.  “ I wouldn’t have understood it, even, if Mel hadn’t helped.”

Vincent chuckled and shook his head.  “You can’t run from it.  Let’s start from somewhere else, just for a minute, Pete.  Do you understand Time?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ah, but do you?  If I said to you, time is the process of aging, would you accept that?  You should live, God willing, for your three score years and ten, and that’s a good long life, to you.  But a fruit fly lives no more than a day or so, and that’s a good long life to a fruit fly.

An elephant’s life is more like ours in terms of years, but this puddy-tat, he’ll be lucky if he gets fifteen years.  That’s what time is – a perception; the way we see things through aging.”

“I gues so, but…”

“So what’s a good long life to a rock?”

“But rock’s aren’t living organisms, so they don’t count.”

“Pete, we wouldn’t know if they were living organisms, because with a life-span of billions of years, their metabolism would be undetectable to us.  Nevertheless, mate, they do age.  They erode, too, just like us.  Think about it!”  Vincent urged. 

Peter, with the warm room and the dimming of the light closing around him, felt his eyelids getting heavy,  He wasn’t sure if he could believe what Vincent was saying, and he couldn’t, after the rigours of the day, absorb anything more.   Vincent, watching him, saw the advancing clouds of sleep and grinned.  “Sorry old lad, a bit much, ain’t it?   Bed for you, I reckon,  Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to him downstairs.”

#

A mile after luncheon at The Royal Oak Inn at Mountchester, Arthur Herritt’s landeau took his guests, Francine Delisle and her son Sauel on the turnpike, which followed the course of the River Leven for some miles.   This was a scenically gratifying journey, the road being forced by the Chewlett Hills to run close by the waterside, drawing young Samuel’s fascinated gaze with uninterrupted views of the navigable river, in width by now almost a full estuary.   Question followed question:

“Uncle Arthur…”  (Arthur had acquired the honorary rank of ‘Uncle’)  “Why are no boats going to Mountchester?  They all seem to be headed for the sea.” 

It was true; whether sailing ships, or barges, or mere dredgers, all traffic was headed west.

“The river is tidal here, Samuel, and the tide is ebbing.  They are using it to draw them towards the sea.”

 “What if one should want to go the other way?” Samuel objected.

Arthur smiled, “Why then it would endeavour to sail, given a fair wind, or wait for the tide to turn.  The  Master would put into Levenport harbour and pray for a good westerly to blow him home in the morning.”

“What if it couln’t?”  The boy was rapt, his chin resting upon his hands on the lowered covers of the carriage.

“Samuel!”  His mother rebuked him sharply.

“No, Mama, I mean if its cargo was needed urgently?  Or the ship required repair?”

“Then the Master might resort to  kedging,” Arthur explained.  “An anchor boat must row ahead of the ship, and drop its anchor so the crew might wind it in on the capstan. A second anchor is then transported forward after the manner of the first, and the action repeated all the way up river. That’s very hard work.   As of custom, the larger ships dock in Levenport anyway, and off-load their cargoes onto barges.  Only the smaller ones make sail all the way up to Mountchester.”

“It must be dreadful slow.”  The boy said.

“It is, Samuel.  We hope that Mr  Telford might one day install a tidal lock for us, although I fear it will be a long time hence.”

Samuel sighed weightily.  “You are right, Mama.  I no longer wish to become a sailor.”

It was late afternoon when their Landeau rolled onto Levenport’s esplenade.

“I have taken the liberty of reserving rooms for us at Roper’s Hotel here,”  Arthur informed his guests.  “It is a respectable establishment, indeed I believe Lord Crowley himself stayed here.  In the morning I intend an expedition to the island, I would be honoured if you would join me?”

Later that evening, Samuel accompanied his mother and his adopted ‘uncle’ for a leisurely walk on the waterfront in the gloomy shade of St. Benedict’s rock.    It was a pensive, abnormally quiet affair, during which the boy could not help but sense his mother’s odd distraction, which he attributed to the large and largely ruined house across the Bay.   It was hard to ignore it, for the legacy of the Christmas storm had left a large part of its structure in disarray, and the wreckage of part of it lay in a tangled heap at the foot of the rock which had once supported it.  Yet it seemed to Samuel there were other reasons for his mother’s peculiarly restrained excitement, and being worldly for his age, he wondered if she could be quite trusted to behave acceptably in the night ahead.

Part Twenty-Four

Of fish and Fishing

Peter’s slumber, in a welcoming little bedroom at the north corner of Vincent Harper’s cottage, was deep, and awash with dreaming. Yet, as with all such nights, the only dream he would carry into memory would be the last; his dream before waking. 

He stood beneath a burning sun upon a hill.  Around him and stretching to infinity were grasslands uninterrupted by hedges, or roads, or any natural feature save an occasional clump of scrubby and rather apologetic trees.  Groups of animals grazed, moving lazily, their tails flicking at a drifting mist of flies. 

One of the herds passed close enough so he could see they were not unlike Wildebeest though smaller, and hear as they spoke among themselves in tones curiously evocative of weeping.

As he looked on, a commotion in the grass behind the creatures exploded and a huge cat with gaping jaws and grotesque tusks for teeth sprang from cover.  Its intended victim had no time to turn or run before raking claws and those great teeth put it to death.    Legs crumpling beneath it, with its last breath the poor creature emitted a long, sobbing cry.   The herd scattered. and Peter woke up.

Slowly, as sleep receded, he became aware of breathing.  He was not alone.  His first disorientated thought was that he was back in Levenport, that he and Lesley had taken some time from study and they had fallen asleep together.   He probed softly, half-expecting to be rewarded with the thrill of her warm flesh.   Instead he found a coarse, tight pelt of fur.  It took only a second to realise that this was not human skin, that the owner was much, much larger than Lesley.   He opened his eyes to come face to face with the big cat of the plains, its fantastic fangs still scarlet with blood, eyes angry and lips drawn back in a long, slow feline snarl. Its eyes were craven and yellow, its big paws tensed to strike.  It disappeared.  Daylight peeked through the curtain, and the smell of frying food wafted through the gaps in the planked door.  Just to be sure, Peter pinched himself/

Estelle greeted him in the kitchen.

“Hi.  I was going to give you a shout, but blubber-ball downstairs said you’d be awake.  Are you OK?   You look like you saw a ghost.”

Thirty minutes later, with a calming plate of bacon and eggs inside him, Peter was ready for Vincent when he emerged from that mysterious door.  “Come on, Pete.  This is what you  came for.”

Peter follow Vincent down the flight of stone steps the door concealed.  Halfway down Vincent paused;

“One thing, man; be prepared – a bit of a shock, this.”

Another door: to a basement room, obviously; and their footsteps must have been heard because that oddly familiar voice bellowed from within:  “Not you, Vincent, I need the woman to attend to me.  I demand it!”

  “She’s washing another bale of your clothes, you old f****r!”  Vincent responded unceremoniously.  “We need a bleedin’ laundry!   Keeping you clean’s an industrial enterprise!”   Over his shoulder, in a more modulated voice, he said,  “Come in Pete.  If he throws something at you, throw it back!”.

“Blame me!  My dear, it’s so convenient!  Blame me!”    The voice was suddenly petulant, a soft received English accent with a peculiar dryness, almost a rasp.  Now Peter was sure of its owner, though he hadn’t expected to find him here.

“Right!  Sure, I will!   All I ask, Simeon, is you keep your shirt clean for just, like, an hour or something, huh, baby?   Maybe if you don’t eat for an hour, try that?”

“Not eat?  For a whole hour?”  Expostulated the voice,  “I need food, my dear!  Need it!   You know I need it!   Get me fish.”

“Later.”

“Not later, NOW!”

Peter managed to pass through the door without molestation, into a well-lit space which had all the appearance, although windowless, of a normal sitting room.  A pendant light in the centre of its ceiling provided the illumination; walls were painted a predictable magnolia; wooden features in a contrast tan.  A darker tan carpet fitted the entire floor.   A television of mammoth proportions graced one wall, an over-stuffed chair, a low settee and a smaller upright chair ranged around a large glass occasional table central to the room.

Peter’s attention instantly focused on the occupant of the room – a most unusual-looking human who Vincent introduced:

“Peter, this is Simeon.”

Simeon was seated in a low armchair.   The floor around him was covered by a pair of protective sheets in the form of plastic shower curtains, one bearing a penguin motif, the other a single full-length graphic of a nude female.  

 Simeon’s person could best be described as a vast jelloid balloon topped by a completely hairless head.   Into this, like craters of the moon, were sunk two large, saucer eyes, pinhole nostrils, and a mouth uncluttered by more than the necessary minimum of teeth.  

The lower layers of the apparition were clad in a voluminous pair of blue trousers, partially zipped to respectability:  the upper ones a clean white cotton shirt with cruelly tortured buttons and short sleeves.  The trousers were, like everything else in the immediate vicinity, decorated with splurges of food.   The shirt was not, as yet, though its fate was clear.

A breakfast plate rested neatly upon the shelf of Simeon’s torso.  Peter guessed at Eggs Benedict which Simeon steadily transported to his mouth with both his hands.  Mastication was a very open affair.  Sauce dripped and spattered.   The clean shirt became unclean extremely quickly, especially when speech took place.

“Is this the boy?”  Simeon assessed Peter with a disbelieving stare.   “Bigger than I remember – much bigger.”   He extended a podgy hand, inviting a handshake.   Peter flinched away.

“Sorry!”  Simeon apologised.  “Bit messy, it’s true.  I have difficulty eating this trash, you see.  Bloody stupid idea, leaving sauce all over the place.”

Estelle had followed Vince and Peter into  the room.  “He has difficulty eating anything politely.”  She commented.  “He’s a PIG!”

“Of course he has difficulty;” said Peter a little sententiously, because he was certain now his first encounter with Simeon’s voice had been on Levenport seafront.  “He’s more used to having  a beak.  He’s really a gull.”

Simeon exploded into laughter, a voluble bellow which scattered hollandaise sauce like napalm.   “A GULL!  Of course I am.  You see, my pretty little waitress, how you wrong me?   Dear boy, how well we shall get on!   Simeon Ward-Settering, MSc, BSc, MA, BA, DD, MD, CD, VD, OD, Eton and Balliol here.  How do you do?”

Simeon resumed his gorging:  massaging the remaining contents of the plate into a wad, he stuffed this into his mouth, to be swallowed by a single gulp.

“There. I am replete!   Vincent, you sweet soul, bring me those towels, will you?”

There were towels in a pile by the door.   Four or five were needed, before Simeon looked anything like clean, another two to mop detritus from the table and floor.   To withdraw the shower curtains, Vincent had to prompt Simeon to raise himself, which he did with some difficulty.    Peter noticed that movement induced a ripple effect across the uneven contours of his body, and a made a sloshing sound.

“Not my dear little Popsy!”   Simeon affected grief as the nude woman curtain was taken.  “Do bring her back soon, won’t you?   I shall miss her frightfully!”

“You’re a dirty old bastard.”  Estelle told him, as she gathered up the soiled towels.   There was some humour in the statement, but not too much.

“I know; my failing.  Sit down – Peter, isn’t it?  Vincent, you have told our friend here what this is about?  Broken the ice, as ‘twere?”

“Yeah.”

Peter gingerly lowered himself into a chair which looked relatively free of food.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Estelle said with meaning.  “I have to do laundry.”

“Fish!”   Simeon shouted at her retreating back.

 “Vincent and I, we go back a long way.”  Simeon cocked an eye at Vince, “He didn’t tell you that, did he?”

Vincent shook his head.  “I left it to you, mate.”

“I first appeared to Vincent after a concert in California.  My path was smoothed by several mind-altering drugs…”

“What a gig that was!”  Vincent laughed,  “He tied me up, literally!  I thought I was having a bad trip.”

“I did a thing with a python materialisation – a favourite of mine at the time.  In retrospect a bit cruel, I suppose.”

“I was that spaced out I thought he was God!”  Vincent exclaimed,  “As you can see, he wasn’t”

 “Now, let us be serious,” Simeon exclaimed.  “We met before – you’ve worked that out, you clever thing – so it is time for you to know who I really am.”

“You were that gull on the rail at Levenport,”  Peter said,  “That’s how I first saw you.  You spoke to me, but inside my head, not with a voice like now.  .  You  invited me to meet Vince, didn’t you?”

Simeon spread lily-pad hands:  “I confess it all, guv’nor.  Guilty as charged.   I suspected you shared our receptiveness, but I had to find out. ”

Vincent grimaced,  “Quite useful timing, in the event.”

“My dream?”  Peter muttered, “That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?  How many times do I have to keep saying this?  It was just a dream!”

Simeon affected a sigh of patience:  “Dear child, remember what happened.   You touched the Truth Stone, and it flooded your head with pictures.  You passed out, but you weren’t asleep.  Then you found another part of the Stone in the Toa shrine, and you repeated the exercise there.  Denial of this is pointless!  Accept your gift!”

“Truth Stone?  Toa shrine?  You mean that cave, the one with Toqus’s body in it.  Who are the Toa?  Come to think of it, you haven’t told me yet what you are.”

“The Toa are a religious sect that existed secretly within the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, and probably in other multitheistic religions long before that;”  Simeon answered.   “Unheard of for four hundred years, they are active again because they know, as do we, that the stones are awake.  As to who I, and possibly you, are?  I don’t precisely know.  We call ourselves Ethereals, but that is only a name. 

“The species that thrived on this planet for a hundred million years, and those who went before them, ‘documented’ their knowledge and their law by some means in stone.  I and some of my predecessors are possibly older, even, than they.   I believe we were once the readers of those records.   If you think of stone as the ‘hard drive’ on which their lore was stored, then we were the lasers that read, and possibly also wrote, that information.”

Peter was struggling:  “That’s pretty radical.  So you must be really old.  I mean, if you were reading their stuff. I mean, seriously?”

“I have to accept I may be very, very old.  Having no physical body apart from those forms I assume for convenience from time to time so people, humans, can better understand me.  I could be as old as the stone itself.   Time relies on substance, and as far as I know I,  and the few brethren who have shared this state with me, have no physical form at all.”

“Supposing I believed all this?  Like I’m sitting in a room with a ghost who looks like the Michelin Man on acid, and he isn’t really there.  He’s what…invisible?  Where do I fit in with that?”

“We can no longer read from the stones.  More importantly, dear boy, we can no longer write into them.  We can’t ‘programme’.  That means destiny is set upon a path we can’t control, and something desperate must inevitably happen.  We had to find someone from your generation with the power to interact with that resource…”

“And you’re it, Pete.”  Vincent cut in.   “Because we’ve seen that you can interact with the Truth Stone.  You’re lovely girlfriend, too, if we can find her, but we think maybe one of the others has got her.”

“Melanie’s not my girlfriend,” Peter reminded them. “Others?  What ‘others’?”?”

 “Others who want to use the stone ‘drive’ for their own ends,” Simeon replied.  “The Toa, some other religious groups and extremists who think they can earn from the power it could give them.”

“Alright,”  Peter said, “What do you want to use it for?  How do I know you’re not another bunch of mad scientists, or whatever?”

  Vincent took the question.  “I suppose you don’t.  You would have to judge us by what we ask you to do, if you can do it.”

“Which is?”  

“Perform a reset, if you like.  Wipe the catastrophic event which has caused the error and if possible extract the information we need to get ourselves back on track.”  Simeon tried to look persuasive – an expression that didn’t sit easily on his moon of a face.  “Not much of an ask, Petie Pooh, is it?”

Vincent cut in with a grimace:  “It’s urgent, Pete. We have to get you back to the Rock and get this sorted like yesterday, man, and I don’t know if I can help you.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had to drag you up here to tell you all this, but I daren’t go near the place at the moment.  I don’t think they know about you, but they know me, and I’m a prime target.”

“Why should they – whoever – target you?”

“For the same reason I sought out Vincent at that California concert,” Simeon answered more soberly; “His is the House on St. Benedict’s Rock.  The place where you touched that black stone – the Truth Stone – is your best hope of accessing the information we need and re-establishing control – as Ethereals must have done, I am sure, for millions of years.  It’s the only place, as far as we know, where the Truth Stone is exposed.”

“What’s to stop ‘them’, whoever they are, from simply moving in and taking over?  If all they need is this Truth Stone?”

“It isn’t all they need.  They need you, Pete.  You or your friend, ideally both.  Together you’re the lynchpins.  You’re the readers.”   

#

Melanie had never slept on a small boat before.   The coastal trawler, a sturdy craft built for the short, choppy waves of inshore waters, made few concessions to the inexperienced: and Melanie was scarcely a sailor.   After struggling for a couple of queasy hours against forces dedicated to tipping her from the hard wooden shelf of her bunk, trying to blot out the bang of waves against a hull only inches from her right ear, she surrendered.   Midnight found her on the foredeck, staring emptily towards lights on a distant shoreline.

“Thinkin’ o’ swimming for it?”   The deck-hand, for that was what Melanie assumed he must be, was a spindly youth in a shabby navy sweater.   “’Tis further ‘an it looks.”

“Where are we, exactly?”   She asked.

“See those lights there?   Those’d be Peterhead.   Us’ll be losin’t coastline in a while:  crossin’t mouth of Mor’y Firth.    Could get rough.   Lucky to ‘ave it this calm, time o’ year.”

“How much further are you taking me?”

“Not far enough, nice lass like the’.   Us’ll be dropping the’ off tomorra morning.”

“Where?”

The boy shook his head:   “can’t tell the’ that.”

So it was to be somewhere in Scotland: the north, too.  What; an island somewhere?

Melanie recalled her first conversation with the boy.   She had not intended, when she left Bianca’s nice seaside semi-detached that morning, to wander as far as the fish-dock: she still wondered why she had.   But, having done so, and having leaned over the rail to watch the vessels departing on the tide, it was natural to someone of her enquiring mind to ask questions of this frail-looking youth, who was stacking white plastic trays on the deck of a neat and sweetly-painted green boat.

“Coom aboard if the’ likes.”

She did like.   It never occurred to her there might be -; what – danger – adventure?

“Tha’d not like it, where us has te’ live when wor ut sea, mind.   Coom on, Ah’ll show the’.”

It never crossed her mind.

She marvelled at the little galley:  the smallness, the compactness of it all.   And the forward cabin: two bunks, a locker, no room for more.

            A quite different figure was from nowhere, all at once standing behind her, removing any thought of retreat; a tall man dressed un-nautically, blunt though not unkind of speech.

“We’ll want your possessions:  purse, mobile.  PDA if you have it.   Now, please.”

A man brooking no dissent: impatient of delay.

“Now, please!”

He blocked the door: or was it a hatch, now she was on a boat?

“Gaffer!”  The boy whispered.   “The’ better do it like.  Do like ‘e says, lass.”

How had it happened?   What had brought her here?   The pulse of the diesel was noisy, the throb of its dissent endemic to the steel of the hull.  Unaccountably, though, she was hearing music.  Oh, not a radio, or anything: no, this was inside her head:  like the music of the rock.

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

Part twenty-Six

Hostages

Fate?   If asked, it is doubtful Melanie could have explained the motives which were guiding her – why it was, for instance, she had wandered down to Seaborough’s fish quay the previous morning, rather than just taking a shorter stroll on the beach: or why she had boarded the trawler so willingly, or why, be he ever so scary, she had not been perturbed by having her personal goods confiscated by the smartly-dressed man.

Was she aware that, to the rest of the world, she had been abducted?    Almost certainly.   Did she care that Karen and Bianca would be distraught?   Of course – although youth never truly appreciates the anxieties of the old:  in her present frame of mind there were higher priorities than appeasing her own mother’s lack of confidence in her.   Bianca was of less concern.   In the moil of feelings surrounding her break-up with Peter, Bianca had not been the life-line she at first promised to be.  Seaborough was not the haven it had appeared.   Melanie had disliked it almost on sight: and the condescension her aunt had shown her, the reluctance of welcome, did nothing to affirm its virtues or relieve her torment.

The nature of the ache inside her was something she did not understand.  Although she and Peter had been great friends for longer than she could remember they were both too young to have been lovers, in the semse she assumed the word to imply.   She had never been close to Peter in any other sense than companionship, never held him to her, or kissed him, although she had wanted to.   So she had expected sadness at their parting, perhaps, a gap in her life that would prove hard to fill; but not a yawning pit of black misery, a sense of total loss:  and no, not the ravening, all-consuming jealousy she harboured for Lesley.   Lesley who had been her friend, Lesley who had betrayed her!    Either she had repressed a deep and obsessive longing for Peter, a hunger which now broke out in her heart, malign and growing like a cancer, or there was something else; something other.   Perhaps, just perhaps, Peter had been right:  perhaps she could never turn her back on her unwanted ‘gift’ and it was driving her helplessly along.   Perhaps it was pushing her forward even now.

Right now she was cold, so cold!   And missing her mobile ‘phone, with which, forgoing all pride, she would have called Peter just for the warm comfort of hearing his voice.   The wind was gathering force, playing through the stone orifice of the tunnel as if it were a reed, with a whistling insistence that it might turn her to stone, too, if it wished.   Agnes’ hastening arm dripped as it steered her towards daylight beyond.    What would she find there – a path to take her away from the sea, she hoped, with maybe some form of transport waiting at its end – certainly not the prospect that did await her.   What she saw drew a shivering gasp of surprise.

The tunnel emerged from the cliff onto a flat, wide shelf, already slick with rain.   Melanie assumed that its margins dropped straight to the sea, for she could hear a swell breaking against it, just below her sight.   But it was the further prospect which took her aback: for she stood at the margin of a small bay; no more than a quarter of a mile across and perfectly semi-circular, its periphery traced by a narrow crescent of sand.  This little beach, complete with short jetty and bobbing row-boat, formed the seaward end of a densely-wooded chine, nestling among the first trees of which was a villa,  a timber-clad house painted green with a wide roof and colonial-style veranda facing the sea.   This in itself seemed remarkable, like a scene drawn from another, much warmer, place: maybe even another time.   Yet more impressive was the contrast which one short bore-hole through a cliff had affected:  a transition from wildness to calm, from malevolence to beauty.   Melanie felt moved enough to cry.

Agnes, clumping wetly, herded her quaking charge down a narrow track of clay fringed with wild Campion to saturate her denim-clad legs even more, if that were possible.   Upon closer examination the house was a structure much larger than it had at first appeared.   As their path followed the curve of the bay, it brought into view a driveway and a parked Land Rover, looking as depressed and soggy as Melanie.   Now that solace seemed so near she shivered even more and the tears rolled from her, as she realised how much she needed warmth,  dry clothes, and food.  But what reason had she to believe this awaited her – this, or imprisonment in some cold dark room?

A simple wooden door at the rear of the house opened into a small lobby, the walls of which were lined with all manner of ephemera, from a cane fishing rod to a rather apologetic-looking lawn mower.    Here Agnes revealed herself, peeling off first the Sou’wester, then multiple layers of coats and woollies.   What remained was a woman dressed in twin-set and plaid skirt, whose scant grey hair straggled down the cheeks of an oval, middle-aged face.   Her glasses had steamed up and she removed these to expose keen, quick eyes, with which she surveyed the dripping Melanie sympathetically.

“Now, dear, it’s a hot bath for you, I think.  Come along indoors.”

‘Indoors’ was a kitchen, if the elderly gas stove at the far end was to be believed. It stood forlornly next to a large boiler on one side and a stack of lobster pots on the other, beyond a table stacked with papers of all descriptions:  catalogues, junk mail, magazines and bills.   The wooden chairs around the table were arranged as though their occupants had been warned of an earthquake.   A dusty welsh dresser, similarly overwhelmed with paperwork, and a fridge nestled uneasily together on the inside wall: a long window, its sill gathering dust and yet more papers, looked out at the Land Rover.   In all, Melanie thought, this was the sort of place her mother would have had nightmares about:  but it was warm and intimate, in a curious way, and for that she was grateful.

Agnes led her briskly on to a large hallway, then up sparsely-carpeted stairs.

“This will be your room.  There’s a bathrobe in the cupboard.   Get yourself out of those clothes while I run you a bath.”

The room, more functional than palatial, sported a comfortable-looking bed, a small plywood wardrobe and dressing table of pine.  It shared the same unpretentiously homely feeling of the kitchen:  the radiator was piping hot, so she felt no reluctance as she shed her sodden clothes beside it.   Standing before the window, cocooned into a luxuriously thick towelling robe, she could look across the little bay to open sea, now white-capped and growing a little angry, and still feel the peace of this quiet place.   It did not matter that the rain tattooed the slates above her, or battered at the window glass.  When she was shown the bathroom she knew what kind of plumbing she would find, and none of that mattered, either:  this was a place of beauty and magic, and it felt right that she was here.

Much later, after Melanie had bathed and Agnes had sated her with hot soup and sandwiches filled with something stramge but undeniably nice, they sat together in the “living room” on a faded suite amongst yet more piles of papers and books, as Agnes explained about the chilly little harbour.

“It’s an unpleasant place.

“A hundred or so years ago it was a working harbour: there’s a small fishing village at the top of the cliff.    There are many such villages up and down these coasts, where fisher people eked out their living from the sea; communities of maybe no more than a dozen families, each with a small boat of some description.”

“I suppose they couldn’t compete as fishing methods changed?”

“No, of course not: and the times have changed too.  You won’t find many of your generation wanting to live in that way.”

Melanie thought of the boy on the trawler.  How different his life must be, compared to her own.   Perhaps that was his attraction? 

 “It must have been a hard life.”

“Certainly it was.   In 1906 a storm drowned every male family member of the village – eighteen men and boys.   So the community died with them.  No-one lives there now, nor have they done for more than a century.   A place of ghosts.”

 “Why have I been brought here?”  Melanie asked.

“’Brought’ here?”    Agnes raised a quizzical eyebrow.   “Is that what really happened, dear?”

 “I was kidnapped, wasn’t I?”  Melanie’s protested. 

Her host ‘tutted’ disgustedly.   “Now is that what they did?   For shame.   You came with me willingly enough, though?”

“I was cold and wet.  I wanted to get out of the rain.”

“Ah.”  Agnes appeared to contemplate this.  “And do you want to leave, now that you are drier?”

Thinking that her answer should be truthful, Melanie said:  “No, I like it here.   But my mum will be worried, and they took my phone.   Maybe if I could just use yours?” 

Her host shook her head.  “There’s no telephone, I’m afraid.   Now, I think you have spent enough time lounging around in that bathrobe, my dear.   I’ve laid some fresh clothing out on your bed.   You go along and change, now.   I have a few errands to run.”

Climbing the stairway to her room, Melanie heard the Land Rover splutter into life in the driveway outside.   Agnes evidently felt confident to leave her alone in her house, and she had to wonder at this, if she truly was a prisoner.   But what happened next changed all of her thinking in an instant.   For she found, neatly laid out on her bed, a set of warm clothing which was entirely suitable to the climate of her current circumstances, yet at the same time exactly in tune with her fashion taste and a perfect fit – as they should have been; because they were the very clothes she had packed in expectation of cold weather when she left home in Levenport, clothes which yesterday morning had been hanging in her closet in Bianca’s house.

#

.           The last thing Howard had expected (though, if he’d thought about it the possibility must have occurred to him) was to come face to face with Peter Cartwright on the train.  Yet as he opened the door between carriages there he sat, not two metres away.  Their eyes met.   It would have been difficult to judge who jumped the highest.

“Good lord!  Peter!”    He contemplated walking on by, concluding the episode with a casual:  “Fancy meeting you here!   Have a nice trip, old son!” but decided against this.   What came out was even lamer.   “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Hello Howard.”   Of all the people Peter would have wished to meet, Karen’s large, over-effusive boyfriend was the least welcome.  What the hell was he doing here?  An enquiry would mean a conversation, a rigour endured too often where Howard was concerned.

“Job interview!”  Howard drew the excuse from thin air.  “Just testing the waters, mind; no intention of moving at the moment.”

“No.  I suppose not.”   Peter tried to sound interested.

“You?”   Howard coaxed.

“Oh!   Party!   A friend invited me to Manchester for the weekend.”

“Ah.”   The train was full, affording Howard no opportunity to sit for a lengthier encounter.  “Well, pleasant journey, then.  See you back in Levenport, yes?”

Moving awkwardly along the central aisle, he suppressed a desire to break into a run,  something difficult to achieve on a fast-moving passenger service.   Safe in his seat, he spoke quietly and urgently to his mobile.   “He’s here!   On the train!”

“A little late, now, mate.”  Piggott’s reply was harsh. “But at least he’s found.  Now all we have to do is lift him.”

Howard was astounded.  Now?  Here?  Gathering himself, he said:  “O.K.  Do you want me to do it?”

“No!  No way!  I want you back in Levenport, acting the frantic step-parent.   Our line is elopement with the Fenton girl; but that means he mustn’t reach home, so I’m going to have to organise something quick.   What’s your last station before Levenport, do you know?

“Hemlington, I think.”

“We’ll pick him up there.   I’ll need to know which carriage he’s in – but Howard?”

“Yes, Jerry?”

“You stay out of it, right?  We must keep your cover intact.  If the boy realises whose side you’re on, we’ve lost a valuable lever.  Stay out of the way.”

An hour later, four minutes from Hemlington, Howard told his seated neighbour that he felt travel sick, requesting he sit by the train window for a while.  Fortunately for him the woman concerned willingly agreed.   He settled into the corner of the seat, covered his face with a newspaper, and pretended to try to sleep.  In the next carriage, Peter watched through his window, casually interested, as the train slowed gently.  It had been a troubled hour.

Enduring his hard seat alongside a woman who seemed to need far more than hers, Peter had felt himself slipping into depression.  The dread image of his future returned, bringing a sensation of impending doom and he drifted briefly into a light, dreamless sleep until the prospect of a stop roused him; travellers weaving their way past his seat, hold-alls and carrying cases probing before them or trundling obediently behind.   Doors opening and closing, the static crackle of announcements; voices, too, from the platform outside:  sounds of greeting, howls of childish distress.

“Hello Peter.”   A voice soft in his ear, thick menthol on its breath – a male voice:  “You’re getting off here, son.   No fuss, alright?”

Peter started up, tried to dodge away, but a heavy hand gripped his shoulder, lifting him from his seat.   “Just nice and slowly, lad.   And look friendly, like we’re your long-lost uncles, or something, right?”

A second man, exaggeratedly casual in posture and dress, stood beside him in the aisle. Peter found himself between them, the man with the breath leading and the other following, being escorted from the train. A concerned-looking woman blocked their path for a moment:  the man with the breath flashed an ID card at her.  “Escapee.   Absconded from Juvenile offenders at Martonbyers yesterday….I know!   They look so innocent, don’t they, these lads?  Robbery with violence.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  “My bag!”  Peter protested, still under the hypnosis of surprise, already alighting from the carriage into the cold air.

“Gottit.”   The casual man assured him.

Peter’s thoughts were in turmoil.   He was being hustled so quickly along the platform by these two heavily-built figures, he hadn’t time to think clearly:  yet he knew he must think clearly.   He must gain some space.

“Where’s your ticket?”  Asked the menthol-breath man.  He wore a Ferrari red rally jacket: it had a slight tear at the shoulder where the sleeve began.

This was Peter’s opportunity.   He fumbled through his pockets, pretending to search.

“Why do you want it?  Why did you make me get off here?”

“Nothing to worry about son.”  The casual man lounged above him, leaning (casually) against a pillar of the station canopy.  “Someone wants to talk to you, that’s all.   Won’t take long.”

“But my parents are meeting me off the train.”   Peter lied.  “Who wants to talk to me?  Who?”

“You’ll find that out soon, if you ever get hold of your ticket.  Here, let me look.”

The casual man dragged Peter’s hands out of his pockets, thrusting his own big hands in their place. Finding nothing, he commenced to frisk the rest of Peter’s clothing expertly, until his fingers encountered the thin contours of what felt like the missing ticket in a patch pocket at the back of his jeans.   “OK son, take it out.”

A northbound train had just come in, its passengers adding to the throng passing through the station foyer.  The morning trains were busy:  students returning to the university, punters for Hemlington’s popular Sunday race meeting.   A group of female students had gathered before the barriers, assembling luggage, chattering happily as the body of the queue edged by them.  Peter was thinking fast.  His captors had no tickets, did not seem to be concerned about them.  So they were some sort of officials:  the pass that the menthol man had shown to the woman on the train was in his hand again, ready for inspection.   Peter reasoned they must have met the train here, at this station.  They had anticipated his coming.   Howard!  Who else but Howard!  Casually-dressed man, holding his jacket firmly at the back, propelled him forward.    Here, in the funnel of travellers at the station entrance, was his chance.   Just a few dangerous seconds as he surreptitiously unzipped his jacket. The line of travellers compacted into a coascervation of humanity as it forced its way, grumbling, past the girl students and their growing pile of baggage.

Once again Peter drew on that perfect timing when the entire world apart from him seemed to move at quarter speed.   His arms slipped easily from the jacket, his shoulder dropped beneath the casual man’s frantic lunge.  In the moment of this escape he also knew, instinctively, which way to go and what to do.  He was at ground level, diving on all-fours into the midst of the students, slithering through a forest of elegant legs which scattered in alarm before him.  Their reaction turned the limited space of the station entrance into complete squealing pandemonium amidst which it would have been easy to escape in any direction; but Peter’s unerring sense led him back onto the platform, where, at that precise second, his train was ready to leave.   His body propelled itself through the closing doors, the safety locks clicked home.   Through the window, Peter came face to face with the menthol-breath man, but now there was glass between them and as the train began to move, the face worked in helpless anger until it could keep pace with him no more.   Hemlington slipped back into history: he was free.

Part Twenty Seven

The Inquisitors

Beyond Hemlington, Peter’s train was much emptier than before.   Walking back through the aisles toward his own carriage, Peter’s eyes met those of Howard.  There was no mistaking the surprise on the big man’s face, however quickly he attempted to disguise it.   Both knew, in that moment of encounter, the gloves were off.

“Well done!”    Howard murmured.

Peter may have smiled.

#

” So does my mother know?”  Melanie asked.

“Karen?   Bless her, not yet.    Not at this moment.  And she will be afraid, I do not doubt.”

“But Bianca?”

“Bianca.   Ah yes.   She knows.  My dear, she has always known.”

“Always?”

“Since you were very young.”   Agnes replied.  The rain still beat upon the window.   The bay, furious now with the intrusion of the North Sea  gale, was a race of white horses, galloping to shore.   “She recognised the signs in you – told us of them many years ago, my dear.   You were marked with your gift, even then.   When we heard you were going to leave Levenport, we almost jumped at the chance, you might say.  We had to persuade your aunt, rather, I’m afraid. She didn’t want to be placed in the invidious position of telling her sister you were missing – as doubtless she will have done by now.   We couldn’t divulge where we were taking you, you see.  She had to feign ignorance and contact the police to protect her own position.”

This was evening.   Agnes had returned in the Land Rover, after a protracted absence, amidst a flurry of protest and coughing and smoky blueness.  The day was far gone, but there was still no sign of the weather abating.   They sat facing one another amid the clutter of Agnes’ life, each vaguely discernable to the other in gathering twilight.

“I wish I had recognised the signs, whatever they were.”  Melanie mused.    “It might have changed some things.”

“The knowledge would have been of little use to you.  Without the innocent years we are incomplete:  you deserved to grow up somewhat before you took this burden upon yourself.”

“But I don’t want this – what:  burden – gift – whatever it is?  I’m not taking it upon myself at all.  I’m not accepting it.”

“The choice isn’t yours.   You have it inside you.  The decision, if there ever was one, is made.”

Melanie sighed resignedly.  “Okay, then.   How long am I to stay here?   Since my life is pre-ordained and you seem to have my schedule, you must know that.”

“Until tomorrow.”   Agnes said.  “And no, I don’t know what is to become of you, my dear.    I would that I did.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Someone is coming to see you; someone very important.  They will have a much better idea of your future than I.   My part in this is very small, believe me.  I have a secluded lifestyle, that is the sum of my worth.  I offer a safe resting place.  You will have few enough of those, I think.”

“Is that who you went into town to meet?   Is this ‘someone’ here already?”

“No, he comes from far away.”   Getting to her feet, Agnes moved towards the kitchen.   “It’s time for you to sleep.   I would guess you got very little rest last night, hmm?”

At this the spell, the mist of perfect tranquillity in which their conversation wafted around them, was lost.   Melanie felt that all peace, all contentment, all of her childhood, was taken away in that moment.   The storm in the bay was finding a silent, stealthy way in, through the fastened windows, under and over and around the battened doors.   It gathered in rage behind her as she went up the stairs.  White horses in a demonic race, a hunt to the death.   And she, Melanie the gifted, was their helpless, hopeless prey.

There were nine text messages on Peter’s phone.   They were all from Lesley.   The last one said simply: “Y won’t U answer Yr feckg fone?”

When he called her number she didn’t answer.  He knew she was there, holding the little red and green mobile in her hand, looking at his name on the display.   Lesley went nowhere without her ‘phone.

It was a difficult afternoon.   Peter’s parents were hanging close, taxing him with questions:  what was his friend’s house like, who else was at the party, had Manchester changed much?  He excused the absence of his bag and jacket by saying he had absent-mindedly left then unattended at the railway station in Manchester.  Otherwise, he answered all of their questions  as truthfully as he could, describing Vincent’s cottage in a way which made it sound like a house in the city suburbs, adding Simeon himself to the picture using Vince’s modified version of his name (Simon) as a ‘really nice guy from somewhere out on the moors’ with whom he had met and formed a friendship at ‘the party’.   Somehow, though, he knew he was not believed.    In fact, his father’s disbelief tingled in his spine like a pincushion full of needles: as soon as he could, he escaped through the kitchen door and headed for the seafront.

The incident at Framlington had gone unmentioned.   When Peter’s train pulled into the station at Levenport Howard Sullivan failed to emerge, and Peter liked to imagine him cowering down in his seat until he had gone, before sneaking from the station by some devious route.  There seemed no good reason for panicking his parents with tales of attempted abduction, yet there were many pressing reasons for doubting his safety.  Whoever it was, if they wanted him badly enough it could only be a matter of time before they got him.   On the seafront, at least, it was open enough to see them coming.

Lesley was still refusing to reply to his calls.   He sent a text.    “Pleze Lesley. Hennik’s.   Now.”

It was twenty minutes before she appeared, running across the street to the coffee shop, a magazine shielding her head from the rain.  She sat down opposite him, fixing him with an angry look.

“I don’t know why I came here.”  She said.

“I forgot to take my ‘phone:  left it behind.”

“Oh, right!   And you couldn’t be arsed to use a landline – just call me?”

“I’ve only been away two days!”   Peter sipped miserably at his coffee.  “I just – didn’t – that’s all.  I wanted to.  I missed you.”

“Yeah?   Well, shall I tell you the crack from round here those two days?   Melanie Fenton’s gone missing.   She left her aunt’s on Friday morning and hasn’t been seen since.”

“What?”  Peter was genuinely shocked.

 “And shall I tell you what else?  When Peter Cartwright went missing on Saturday morning too, word got out that he was with Melanie Fenton:  that you two buggered off together!    Even Mel’s mum thinks that’s what happened.”

Peter was trying to absorb the news that Melanie had disappeared.

“I thought you’d dumped me, you bastard.  I thought you’d gone.  I warned you, didn’t I?   Don’t dump me.”  Lesley felt all the insecurities of the last few days welling up in her eyes.  “Oh shit!”

Groping through the confusion in his head, Peter tried to find words of consolation, but nothing came.   “I’m not with Melanie.  I’m here.”   Was all he could come up with.

“Yeah?   And for how long?”

“What do you mean?”   Lesley who, behind her spectacular appearance was always uncertain of herself, had a penchant for self-destruction.  Peter was seeing this process eating at her now, and he wanted so badly to put it right, but its logic defeated him.  Why should she be so furious with him, when all he had done was drop out of sight for a day or so?

“Peter, you never forget your phone.  You’re so bloody methodical you never forget anything!   You just didn’t take it with you, wherever you went.   And you didn’t call me to tell me where you were, or what you were doing, because you didn’t want to.  You didn’t bloody want to!”

Lesley got up and stormed out, back into the evening rain.   Peter hurrying to pay for his coffee, followed.   She ran as though she did not want to be caught.   He was breathless when he finally drew up with her.

“Les, don’t do this, please?”

She stopped.   He said:   “I’m sorry – really sorry.  Don’t break us up over this?”

Her eyes still brimmed with anger, but her voice had calmed.   “Peter, I can’t handle it.  I really can’t.”

“Handle what?  I don’t understand.”

“Handle you!.   There’s something about you, something secret inside I can’t get to, and its just doing my head in, like, totally.   You’ve a whole part of your life I have nothing to do with, something you won’t, or can’t share.  Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Melanie has something to do with it.”    He started to protest but she held her fingers up to his lips.   “No, mate- don’t say anything.  I know it’s true.  I know whatever it is kept you from calling me these last two days:  I know that I can’t fight it.  I love you, Peter.   I – love – you; understand?   I mean, really.   But I’d rather back off now, you see?   It hurts too much, otherwise.   I deserve all of you, Petey.  I can’t have that, so I’m gone.  Leave me alone now, yeah?  Let me get my life back.”   Lesley turned and walked away.   As she rounded a corner of the street that led up into the town she called over her shoulder:   “Hey, maybe I should move to fecking Seaborough!”

Peter did not go home.   Instead, uncaring that he should be pounced upon by the menthol-breath man or any of his associates, he did something in the best tradition of all the great romantic novels:  he went for a long walk in the rain.   As he kicked at the reflections of streetlights on the pavement he tried to weigh Vincent’s email with its dire warnings about secrecy against his sense of love and honour towards Lesley, and, of course, Lesley came out on top.   Lesley, he knew, was more important to him, more immediate than any of the surreal events of the last few days.  Despair in her eyes had told him what he must do.    If he did it, he might not have to lose her.  Yet was it fair to embroil her in his haphazard fortunes?   Would she, like Melanie, choose to walk away?   Melanie was missing, though, and he felt certain that it had something to do with her connection with the stones.  She would never really be able to deny the thing she was.  Had the people who shepherded him to Simeon taken her, or was she in the hands of someone else?

Finally, there was Karen, Melanie’s mother.   What would Howard Sullivan do?   There were too many questions, too many people whose lives were turning, unstoppably, around them.   Desperate for some answers Peter returned to his favourite haunt on the Esplanade.

The short summer season was dying, so there were few tourists:  those there were ran with clacking heels between the pinball stations of pub and club, amusement hall and hotel lobby, their voices raised in lyrical protest at the rain.   It was a hard rain, driving in off a distant tide, battering his face with all of Lesley’s scorn and fury.   He paused to lean against the railings for a while, oblivious to his saturated clothes, staring across at the black mass of St. Benedict’s Rock as if to do so might apprise him of its ancient secrets:  but nothing came.  Although gulls wheeled silently as ghosts in and out of the lamplight above him, none perched or seemed inclined to talk in any language but their own quarrelsome tongue.   Their intermittent cries were just seagull insults, nothing more.

The brisk sound of approaching male footsteps drew Peter’s attention.  Two men, heavily-built and obviously not made for speed, had appeared on the Esplanade to his right, coming towards him more quickly than was comfortable for them.   Were they simply holiday-makers eager to get out of the weather?  Peter felt instantly wary.   All at once the wide, featureless expanse of the seafront seemed to harbour a thousand concealing opportunities for those who pursued him to lie in wait.   What was he doing here?   Was he mad?   Only ten hours earlier he had come within an inch of being kidnapped!    He took off, squelching wetly back across the road towards the East Mount and home.  Once among the early evening revellers on the hill, he broke into a run.

The evening meal was an interrogative affair.   His mother:   “Peter, if you’ve heard anything about Melanie, you really should tell us.  Poor Karen is beside herself with worry.”

“Why should I know anything?  Mel hasn’t called me for weeks.”   Then, mischievously,  “Why doesn’t she ask Howard?”

His father, suddenly attentive:    “Howard?  You mean Mr. Sullivan?    What makes you think he would know?”

Peter shrugged.   “He just seems like the kind of blokey who would, that’s all.   I mean, he’s like some heavy Secret Service agent or something, isn’t he?”

Lena Cartwright snorted.   “Just a big soft armchair, darling, that’s what he is.   But he did go straight up to Seaborough to try and do something, I’ll admit.   Poor Karen, she hasn’t heard anything from him all day, either.”  She stood, stretching to reach Peter’s plate.

Peter said with deliberation:   “Why, hasn’t he gone home yet?”

His mother’s face was a foot or so from his own:   “What do you mean, Peter?”

“Well, he was on my train today.  So he’s definitely come back.”

Lena said:  “I spoke to Karen just an hour ago.”

 “I wonder how he got on my train,”  Peter mused;  “I mean, if he was coming back from Seaborough, I should have thought he would have gone through London, wouldn’t he?”

“I think you must have been mistaken.”   His father said, slowly.

Peter waited, allowing his parents time to exchange worried looks.  Should he be doing this?   “No. It was definitely him.  We talked for a minute.  Funny, though.  He didn’t say anything about Mel disappearing.  He told me he went north for a job interview.”   He shrugged, adding brightly:  “D’you suppose he got it?”

There was a pregnant pause.   Bob Cartwright murmured:  “Maybe.   Peter, old chap, where were you this weekend?”

“I told you, Dad.   Went to a party.   Good party, too!  Lots of eats!”

“Then tell me why we, who have known you these many years, don’t believe you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re a bad liar, darling.”  His mother said flatly.   “Where were you tonight?”

“I said where I was.   I went to meet Lesley!  What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”   There was nothing Spanish about the process or religious either, come to that:  it was just the first protest that came into Peter’s head and he was no longer being careful about what he said.   “After I left her, I went for a walk, okay?  Dad, is that okay?”

“Now don’t get angry, dear.”

“You don’t believe me!  You don’t believe anything I say, so what’s the point of asking me questions?    I told you I went to a party; you don’t believe me.   If I tell you I went for a walk because Lesley and I broke up tonight, you won’t believe that, either!   I went for a walk, mum, all right?  A bloody walk!”

“Peter!”    His father’s voice menaced; but Peter met Bob Cartwright’s warning stare with a stare of his own.   Their relationship had passed beyond the point when the father could discipline the child.   The son stood taller and probably stronger now than the self-effacing cleric who had never, in all of his erratic ministry, been a man of authority, within his family or without.  His father’s look emitted worry rather than anger, anyway; it spoke of a man struggling to understand, trying vainly to re-enter the mysterious world of youth from a place too far off.

“I’m sorry you have had a tiff with Lesley;” Bob said gently;   “She’s a sweet girl and you go well together.   Peter, when you’re ready – or when you’re able, I’m not sure which it is, please share the burden you are carrying?   We only want to help?”

Peter sighed.   After all, they had a right to know.   The pursuit would not end and sooner rather than later it would reach their door – a door he knew could not be his for much longer, though he tried to deny the thought.   Not tonight, though.  He couldn’t tell them tonight, and if he did they would not believe him.   His father, a man of God?

“I will, dad.   I promise.”

As he walked out of the room, he heard his mother say: “So there is something!”

Later, in his room, Peter sent an email to Lesley. ‘Dearest Les, I need you too much.  I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.   Please meet me at the Causeway Café?  I’ll be there at 10.’  Then he sent a longer email to Vincent, relating the events of the day, and his fears for Melanie.

 Neither replied.

Part Twenty-Eight

Ascending

 The Causeway Café was one of those dejected-looking businesses which eke out a living on the margins of the English tourist trade.   Viewed from almost the entire length of Levenport seafront, St Benedict’s Rock was arguably a thing of scenic beauty, framed by sea and sky.   From here, at the very end of the road which connected it to the shore, its great mass was just a little too close, a little too massive: forbidding and black, it eclipsed the sun.   No landward attractions drew interest to this extremity of the Esplanade.  Its shops and arcades all clustered around the western end, where gulls circled over Levenport’s little fishing harbour and the larger hotels basked in such riches as the season could offer.   Peter was one of only three customers that morning who sat at the Causeway Café’s open-air tables, braving the elements.  An elderly woman in a camel coat sipped noisily at tea: a harassed mother placated her whining child.   At ten-thirty despair drove Peter to text Lesley.   “Cswy Caf. RU comg?  Luv U, Peter.”

Five minutes, then the reply.  “Y.”

He watched her approach from far off, a disconsolate figure with none of the usual purpose in her stride.   Jeans, a short jacket, hands in pockets, her hay-cloud of hair flying in the stiff breeze.   She looked miserable, and cold.

“Alright,”   She said sullenly,   “Why here?”

“I want you to come over to The Rock with me.”

“Oh, no!   Just say what you want to say, and talk fast.  I want to go home.”

“I can’t just tell you.  You wouldn’t believe me if I did.   I have to show you.”

What could he show her?   How could he make her believe him – better yet believe in him?  He had no idea.   He only knew that here was the one person who absolutely must believe him, and she would, however reluctantly, walk with him the half-mile of wind-whipped causeway, and up the road which led around the shady, damp northern face of The Devil’s Rock.

As they walked he told his story – of his first visit to the rock, his invitation to Vincent’s home, of Toby and the cave.  He did not omit his parting with Melanie, or how she had rejected the fate she was being offered.  It was time to be honest about everything, because this was the only chance he would be given.   Finally he explained why he had not called her that weekend; and he related the incident at Hemlington, including Howard’s part in it.   By the time he had stuttered lamely to the end of his tale, they were wandering through the half-ruined, impoverished village at the foot of the rock.  Lesley, who had listened without interruption, maintained her silence.  Shivering against the cold she remained frostily aloof until, as they ascended the little road up the side of the rock, while still deep in the despond of its northern shade, she picked her occasion to say, loudly:.

“That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”

With sinking heart, Peter nodded.   “I know that’s how it sounds.”

“Peter, it’s just nuts!   I mean, they could put you in a home for spouting that stuff!”

Peter turned away, afraid she would see the emotion written on his face.  But then he felt her hand, slipping into his.    “That would mean I fancy a head-case.   I’m not that bad a judge, am I?”

He dared not trust his voice.  He shook his head.

“I mean, you think you can really…..do some of those things?”

He nodded.

A tear escaped down Lesley’s cheek.  “Fuck!”    She said, swiping it away impatiently. “I’ve a shitty taste in blokes, but I really scooped the pool this time!”

They walked on together, hand in hand, then hip to hip.   In the tunnel between the shady and the sunny side of the Rock, they kissed, paving the metaphor for their emergence into mid-morning light.

It was a bright autumn day, made suddenly very new.

#

Melanie was aware of a dark cloud of melancholy closing around her, although she could not fathom why.   She had woken early to a watery sun leeching through the salt-spattered panes of her bedroom window.   The wind which had demanded entry so furiously in the night had tired of its pursuit.   Beyond the bay a rough sea still threw the odd scouting wave at the foreshore, but the clouds were gone.  The beach beckoned.

She had dressed quietly in the clothes of last night: those she had worn on the boat were still draped damply over a clothes-horse in Agnes’ kitchen.  No sound had come from Agnes’s room, so she slipped quietly downstairs and out onto the gravelly scrunch of the drive, following that weed-strewn path which led back to the old harbour.   Why she so needed to return there, she didn’t know:  she had no clear plans, or idea what she would find:  it was curiosity that drew her – the same curiosity which prevented her from following Agnes’s driveway to whatever road it sprang from and running until she was miles from this cold, wild place.  

The rock passage echoed to her footsteps.  There was no gale now.   Yet, if she expected the little harbour to seem more welcoming in the greater brightness of the day she was disappointed;  for the place was as stark and grim as before.   At the end of the tunnel the gentle breeze bit icily at her face, played a lonely lament through reeds of piled stone.  The sea washed black in the harbour basin, like a cold douche of arterial blood.

She found the ruined cottage to be no more enticing than the day before, and the old boat, still as  close to final decay.    She wandered about the harbour for a time, as the concrete of the wall was drier and easier to negotiate.  Even the stairway in the rock which led from the harbour to the top of the cliff no longer threatened certain death.   There was no incentive to tarry in this harsh place, so suspending her fear she, set herself to climb. Edging past treads that had eroded away meant progress needed to be careful, and she was thankful for the odd handhold in the side of the cliff, but Toby’s assessment of her as being ‘sure-footed as a mountain goat’ proved accurate once more.  

At the top of the cliff she found little to investigate.   The headland was a meadow of coarse grasses raked by generations of sea-salt and gale.   Of the village which had once striven for life here no more than an occasional stone remained.  The sun was warm though, and one of the larger stones inviting enough to lie upon.

Stretched out, Melanie was drifting into slumber when the faintest of scratching reached her inner ear, a sound so tiny that at first she doubted it was there at all.   Then a whisper came, like breathing in a silent room, as though someone or something wanted her attention.  Whatever it was, it was close – beside her left ear.

With great care, she turned her head to find that just inches from her face the miniscule pin-head eyes of a snake were fixed upon her.   The creature’s tongue, flicking in and out so fast it was little other than a blur, was the source of the whispering.   To her great surprise she felt neither fear nor revulsion, but rather a sense of sharing, of mutual need.   She adjusted her position, carefully offering a hand, palm upwards, so that the snake felt no threat.   Completely unafraid, the snake responded by slipping through her fingers to drape itself over her forearm where it seemed happy to rest, sharing her enjoyment of the sun.   Melanie was enchanted.  As softly as she might she stroked its head, running her forefinger along the earth-brown zigzags of its length.   She knew it was a viper, knew of its poison; but she knew, also, the creature had come as a friend, and she welcomed it.

            The snake remained with Melanie for a while, then, possibly hearing the sounds of a Land Rover carrying in the breeze, slipped silently away into the grass.   Before long a vehicle materialised.  This was Agnes, relieved to have recovered her charge.

“Melanie, my dear, I thought I had lost you!”

Melanie lifted herself onto her elbows to regard her captor.   “I was just here.  I thought I’d look for the village.”

“Well, come back with me now.  We have someone to meet.”

In the Land Rover, Agnes was solicitous.  “Are you warm enough?   I was beside myself!  However did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Walked?   But my dear, it’s almost eighteen miles!   Whatever time did you start?”

“No.  No, it’s not very far at all!”  Melanie replied.  “I came straight up the stairway on the cliff.  It took me half an hour at most.”

Agnes said carefully:   “You’ve been away two hours or more.  Its half past eleven now, I noticed you had gone at nine o’clock or a little after.   And I told you last night:  the steps on the cliff are far too treacherous to climb. The only road to this place is this one, and it has to go right up the valley before it crosses the ravine and returns to the sea.   Did someone drive you here?”

 “I climbed the stairs on the cliff,”  Melanie repeated.   “They were slippery, but not too difficult.”

Agnes appeared to be wanting for words.

#                     

Peter was about to knock on Toby’s door.   Though fond, Lesley was still reticent. Since they had crossed to the more benevolent side of Old Ben, she had rarely spoken.   He felt her uncertainty; she had committed to him and he knew, in his heart, he should answer the questions she was reluctant to ask.  But his own insecurities played against him.  He needed to prove his truth to himself as much as to her, to show she was right to trust him.   He did not understand:  Lesley just needed to know she was loved.

“Peter?”   She stopped him. “That time at the big house?   You know that was, like, really different for me – really special?”

“I guessed.”    Peter kissed her forehead.  “It was pretty amazing for me, too, yeah?”

“It’s important to me – that you know?”   Her eyes betrayed her fears, but Peter did not see.

He knocked.

The sun was high over the south side of the rock, bathing the turning colours of heathland in a warm, September glow.  Most of the birds on ‘Old Ben’ were done with nesting now, singing their freedom in trees just tinged with gold.   A flock of seabirds wheeled and played below them on the lower cliffs: Tern, Kittiwake, Black Back Gulls, Guillemot.   Their distant cries added a descant to the song of the wind in the grasses, the tune of the blackbird and the thrush on the branch.  Nothing else stirred.

“He isn’t in.”   Peter accepted.

“It doesn’t matter.  Peter, let’s go home?”

“Come on, I’ll show you the cave.   Maybe, if you touch the rock, it will do for you what it did for me and Melanie…”

Peter carefully folded Lesley’s hand in his, leading her toward the narrow path on the seaward side. 

“Now, young Peter; where do you think you’m be goin’?”

Toby appeared in front of them, his malformed figure’s awkward, rolling gait suggesting a grotesque dance as he climbed the path.   Lesley suppressed a gasp of surprise.

“Toby!”   Peter felt genuinely delighted to see him.   “This is Lesley – we’re going down to the cave.”

  Toby stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily from his efforts. “Tain’t poss’ble, young ‘un.”

“Why not?   I can do that climb now – so can Lesley, with my help.”

“What?  An’ you goin’ to put ‘er at risk, jus’ to prove what you’m told ‘er?    Wha’ you told ‘er, Peter?”

Peter knew the trust he had broken, yet he felt no shame.   “Everything.  Toby, whatever I have, Lesley shares.  I won’t keep secrets from her.”

 “Never’ less, it were given to you in confidence.   Peter, I can’t let you past, an’ I wouldn’t if I could.   That’s my job, lad.   That’s why I’m here.”    Immovable and austere, Toby stood between Peter and his proof: there was nothing Peter could do.

“Young Miss,”   Toby said, his stooped head and up-cast eyes giving Lesley an arch look;    “He’s already told ‘ee more than you’m s’posed to know.   More ‘an anyone’s s’posed to know.   He’s told you ‘cause of ‘ow he feels about ‘ee, that’s what I’m thinkin’.   He’s different, young Miss, very different.   But you can’t have what he has, unnerstand?  You never can.”

Peter was moved to protest, but Lesley took his arm, drawing him back.   “It’s all right, Peter,   I do understand.  Come on.”

“But you have to believe me!”

“Do I?  I want to be with you.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Take ‘er home, young Peter.”   Toby said.  “If she wants to stay with you she’m got troubles enough, I reckon.”

Peter still argued, but Lesley tugged his arm:  “I just want to go home, Peter!   We can do this some other time, yeah?”

Protesting, Peter allowed himself to be turned back up the path to the summit of the Rock.    As he watched their retreating forms, Toby shook his head sadly.   “Women!”   He murmured.  “’Credibly strange creatures, them.”

Lesley hugged Peter’s arm as they walked, keeping him close to her:  “Listen – all this, it doesn’t count:  it doesn’t matter to me.   What matters is you’ve told me – all the places in your head you were keeping me away from, you’ve let me in.    The smelly guy, the whole thing.  I’ll try to believe you.   It’s all mad, but I’ll try.   Seems like I can’t bloody live without you, so I’ll have to, won’t I?”

The sky was beginning to cloud over as they made their way back, past the house where the little girl played.   She at least was there,  dancing her secret little dance in the garden, as always.   Lesley watched her as they walked past, a laconic smile on her lips.   “Oh, sweet!”   She murmured:  “Petey, look at that!”

They, allowed the steep gradient of the hill to draw them down, back through the tunnel which led them to the dark side of the island.   Peter’s fear of impending doom at this point was unwarranted, for Lesley was not Melanie.   There would be no parting here.   Nevertheless, he clasped Lesley to his side protectively and when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, drew her close to the wall to let them pass, and it did not seem at all extraordinary to him that the creatures pulled a carriage, any more than it was unreasonable that the coachman wore a full livery, or its passengers, a young man, a veiled woman and a little boy, should be dressed in Regency fashion.  The carriage had past them, and Peter was looking after it as it made its way into the tunnel when he realised that Lesley was leaning into the wall with him and expecting to be kissed.

“That was nice and spontaneous!”  She murmured when they had disengaged, “If you want to go caveman on me it might be a bit public, though.  Your bum’d be visible from  most of the Esplanade.”

He laughed.  “I just didn’t want you to be flattened by a coach and horses, that’s all.  Although now you mention it…”

“Oh, there was a coach and horses, was there?  And here’s me thinking ‘he’s into exhibitionism now’!  What next?”

“Les!  There was an old carriage – it passed us, just then!”

Lesley scowled, then gave a smile:  “If you say so, love.”

 They walked quite slowly:  for a long time neither of them said much, their minds too full of each other to need words.   Back at the Causeway Café they ordered coffee and sat inside on scrooping wooden seats to warm up.   There was a real chill in the air now, and no sign of the sun.   On an impulse, Lesley kicked Peter’s leg under the table.   It hurt.

“What was that for?”

“Well, you being superhuman and all, I wanted to see if you feel pain.”

“You were right to try.  I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Oh, yeah!”

The coffee came. 

“Peter, I don’t understand what this  is all about, I don’t really care.   But if we stay together, I mean, if it works out that way, I want us to be happy, Okay?  I know it sounds stupid, but in fifty years’ time I’d sort of like to be like that insane old woman.”

“As if!   You’d like to be an insane old woman?”

“She was happy, Peter.  She might have been a bit cracked, but she was happy.  It was lovely.  I’d like to be a bit like that.”

“What old woman?”

“That one back on the rock:  you saw her – the old dear dancing in the garden.”

“Wait a moment.”  Peter tried to understand.  “There was a little girl – a child – dancing in a garden.   You said how sweet she looked.”

Lesley watched Peter’s face closely; seeking something she didn’t comprehend, but knew was there.  “Pete, that was not a little girl; that was a very old woman.  She must have been, like, eighty or something?”

A truth dawned on them both.   “I saw a little girl.”  Peter said.

“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”  Lesley breathed.   “Oh Peter!”

Part 29

The Homecoming

Peter and Lesley had returned from St. Benedict’s Rock together, to sit and warm themselves in the greasy embrace of the Causeway café, from where they had embarked upon their journey some hours before.  Lesley’s mood was no longer hostile or defensive, but after Peter told her that the eccentric old woman she had seen dancing in her cottage garden had appeared to him to be no more than a child, she became quiet for a while, because there was no doubting Peter’s honesty about what he had seen and it was her first experience of his altered vision.  She was deep in thought and unaware that something new was occurring to gently rock Peter’s world.   It was a transition as sweetly soothing as the breath of a summer breeze; as if a door had moved soundlessly open.  So subtly did it begin, at first he noticed no differences at all;   he did not see how his view had changed.  Only gradually did he realise the causeway road was less a road now, more a stony track.  Beyond it, on The Rock itself, the windows of the dejected, half-ruined cottages were glazed again.   There were fishing smacks hauled up on the tiny beach with distant figures moving among them with fish to land, nets to mend.  An oxcart laboured painfully upward to the tunnel that would lead it through to the south face, and ultimately the Great House.

It was a thing of moments.  As rapidly as his vision came it dissipated.   The causeway was a road again, everything back in place.  Then, as his dream died he felt Melanie standing beside him.   She was there only for seconds, but her presence reassured him.   She was well, she was safe.

“What are you grinning at?”  Lesley asked suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing.”

“That’s my line.  There was something, wasn’t there?  One of your insights?”

“Okay, you got me.   I saw us doing some course-work together this evening.  I thought human biology would be nice.”

“You should be so lucky, pervert!”  Lesley grinned at him.  “Now can we get moving?  I’m hungry and if we eat here we’ll probably die?”

They abandoned the café at precisely 1:37pm.   That was the time on Howard’s carefully synchronised watch.   He advised his two colleagues of this, but counselled restraint.   “We don’t take him now, not in broad daylight, and not while he’s with her.  Anyway, we stick out like sore thumbs here.   Wait until they separate.”

Watching the couple pass not three metres from the dark-windowed surveillance van Howard felt the infection of Lesley’s presence, the life which radiated from her, the brilliance of her smile, the music of her laughter.  He may have regretted the probable despoiling affect his plans for her boyfriend would exert; or he may not.   He was too old a hand, immured to such pettiness as the destruction of innocence, the theft of youth.          

It had been a busy twenty-four hours for Howard.  On his return from Manchester, knowing Peter would alight at Levenport he had stayed on his train until the next station, some thirty miles down the coast.  He hoped by so doing to avoid an immediate crisis, although since the debacle at Hemlington station his cover was blown.   Peter knew what Peter had probably always suspected.  and now the risk of Karen Fenton, Melanie’s mother, sharing the knowledge was too great.   His life with Karen had to be over.   Howard faced this with some regret because, in spite of all he had been taught as an operative, he had formed a strong attachment to Karen.  A lengthy cab journey back to Levenport, bouncing on hard leather in a very aged Mercedes, gave him plenty of time to ruminate upon this misfortune.   In two years playing the part of a family man he had become convincing enough to make Karen love him.   They were not idle years:  whilst watching Peter and Melanie he had been able to pursue other work, but Levenport was his base; Karen’s was his home.   Looking forward to their times together had been consolation during some of the more testing phases of his job.

The subject-matter of Howard’s next telephone conversation with Jeremy had come as no surprise.

“That was a right fecking balls-up.  Sorry, mate.”  This, at least, was unexpected.  Piggott rarely apologised.  “Two right wankers we had on that one.  Local lads from Bristol.  No more. I’m sending two of our own guys.”

“Did we get anything from his stuff?”

“The coat and a bag?  Nah, nothing, he didn’t even have a ‘phone in there.  No worries, my people’ll be with you before midday tomorrow.”

“You want me to meet them?”

“They’ll find you.  You’ve got to keep your head down, old son. Shack up at that hotel on the quiet end of the seafront you were talking about.   The Lord something-or-another?”

“Crowley.”

“Yeah, that’s right.  Use the name Conway.  Stay indoors, Okay?”

“Sure.”   Howard could imagine doing nothing else.   Levenport was a small town.  His was already a well-known face.  “Do we still pull the lad?”

“As of now, yes.   Higher authorities are becoming interested for some reason.  I can’t go for a shit up here without signing three forms at the moment.  When you get him bring him straight in.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I get support.”

 “Good.   Listen, don’t pull the Walker girl, understand?  That’s a big ‘don’t’.  We just want him.”

“And what do I do now?”

“Come back with him.  We can’t use you there any more, can we?”

Howard closed the line with a muttered curse.  Apart from his personal difficulties, there were the small issues of two very expensive suits and a lot of sundry clothes and possessions hanging irretrievably in Karen’s bedroom.  Expenses never took account of such trifles.

He slept well.   When morning came and a whimpering sun crept between the black masses of headland and island, it found him moodily awake, perched on his airy window-sill.   His gaze was fixed upon the vista of the seafront, paving still wet from night rain, but his thoughts were elsewhere.   Karen would be rising soon: she would make her way to the bathroom wearing just a t-shirt or, often, nothing at all.   He might have been watching the graceful curve of her retreating back, might have urged her to come back to bed for what he, alone again, knew would have to be a last time.   Might-have-beens:  they were the piers which sustained his whole world.   As he grew older, he looked down upon them from his creaking platform more and more often, watching helplessly as waves of reality wore them down.   Soon there would be no-where else for him to hide.   All his covers blown, he would knock at some door someday to seek refuge, and the chances were he would not even remember who he was.   Mr. Who?  Mr Who, who had turned his back on someone he loved to chase an adolescent with a probably coincidental connection to an attempted killing.    A strange young man, certainly, but no threat – no danger to anyone.   Just a normal lad trying to grow up normally.   The assassination attempt had not even been a success.

Howard (we shall continue to use this name even though Jeremy had moved his identity on another notch) tried to turn his mind to the matter in hand.    Jeremy would want the boy lifted today.   Two new operatives were coming to help him, Special Branch people probably.   He might know them.   Together, that made three adults skilled in the arts required to subdue trained and hardened terrorists, to capture one slender lad; although, for all their undoubted negligence, the pair who had attempted to lift the boy at Hemlington were no pushovers, and Howard had been amazed to see that Peter had eluded them.   Had they been too confident, too casual because their target was apparently so easy?  Could he have been too relaxed himself when a similar thing had happened to him in Manchester?   Peter had help then, he knew.  Was there help at hand here, too?               

“Mr. Conway?”   The speaker took care to announce herself slowly, so as to draw Howard’s attention without over-reliance on his new, unaccustomed name.   Howard had seen her coming anyway, and his heart had sunk as he watched her decamp from a surveillance van parked in front of the hotel.

“Hello Charlie.”   He said, without a hint of welcome.

“Fate brings us together again, hmmm?”   Charlie was a chilled blonde woman of thirty-five or so years.   She was so chilled that Department legend had it she needed to be defrosted before she could piss.   “Meet Klas.”

Klas came forward and greeted Howard cordially.  Someone new, Howard thought.  He doesn’t hate me yet.

Charlie and Howard had been thrown together before – Charlie was the super-efficient, super-active model of a modern major general:  calm in a crisis, ruthless in command, technologically versed in every software programme, every piece of hardware the Department possessed.   In every way she was the antithesis of Howard, and her presence was a slap in the face from Jeremy: because Jeremy knew how much Howard disliked her, how he had emphasised his desire never to work with her again.

Howard would be Jeremy’s scapegoat for the slip-up at Hemlington, that was now clear.   Sending Charlie was his way of expressing mistrust.  This was Charlie’s operation now, even though he, Howard, was still nominally in charge.

Charlie was as perceptive as she was brusque.  “Still in love with me, eh, ‘Conway’?”

Howard ignored this.  “Klas?”  He asked.

“German father,” Klas said.   “Ma was from New Brunswick.   Bit of a mixture, really.”   He had a nice smile, Klas.  Not a trace of the cynicism commonly associated with operatives, even when with colleagues.

“Or a hybrid.”   Howard said unkindly.  “I suppose we all know what this is about?” They seated themselves around a coffee table in the hotel lounge, where Howard had been waiting and reading for more than two hours.   Charlie slipped a document wallet across to him.   Peter Cartwright’s photograph, replicated from different angles and in different lights, was inside.  “Him?” 

So it happened that the three of them were hidden in the back of the surveillance van on Levenport Seafront:  Klas with his pleasant smile, Charlie in her accustomed flinty pose, Howard with his memories of the last time he had worked with this woman, and how she had stolen the credit for a success that was his.   It was he, not Charlie, who had discovered the address of the bomb factory.   It was he, not Charlie, who picked up the leader at his workplace so he could not access the others in his group.  And as he saw Peter walk past, with the nubile girl on his arm, there occurred in Howard a stirring of old feelings, a revival of pages in his psyche he had been trained to ignore, long ago.   In short, at precisely 1:37pm, there occurred a Road to Damascus moment. 

Karen was slow to respond when, thirty minutes later, he walked into her kitchen.  She looked up at him reluctantly, not wanting to show that she had been crying now for nearly two days.  “Howard?   Oh Christ, Howard, where have you bloody been?”

“Come on my love,” He said, as she sobbed out her distress in his arms; “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

#

Peter’s and Lesley’s afternoon passed quickly.  Late lunch at Hennik’s Coffee Bar, afterwards the Mall, dream-shopping among the clothes and games; then later in the park, sharing some intimate game of their own, or just walking.   Where they went or what they did was unimportant, save that they stayed together.   Once or twice, Lesley noticed the SV with the tinted windows:  “Is he, like, obsessed or something?  I think he’s following us, Pete.”

Peter was all too aware of the ominous presence.   “Following you, probably.   Dirty little man!”

“Cool!   Really?”  Lesley felt like teasing.  “He’s quite hunky isn’t he – he could be sorta nice… I fancy his wheels!”

“Nope – chav for certain.  I think he’s a bit creepy.   Best avoid.   Come on, we’ll use The Woolmarket to get to mine, he can’t drive through there.”

Lesley was curious.  “You’re really worried, aren’t you?  Is it your pair from Hemlington, do you think?”

“The guy driving isn’t, but who knows who else is in there – could be.”  Peter was reasonably certain that this was the case, although he did not feel any immediate danger.  The vehicle had been tagging them since they passed it on the Esplanade just before lunch.   If they had wanted to, the occupants could easily have grabbed him before now.   Obviously, Lesley was the reason they hadn’t.  

They were near The Woolmarket, which led from the top of the town down to the seafront: narrow (once filled with stalls selling food produce, now lined with antique shops, souvenir kiosks and café bars)  it was as crowded as anywhere in the town at the peak of the season.   Although much quieter in autumn, it would still deny access to their ‘tail’, or at least force abandonment of the van.   After their last attempt, Peter was sure the kidnappers, whoever they were, would not try to apprehend him again on foot.  They would need transport.

Behind the surveillance vehicle’s bland exterior, Charlie was engaged in earnest conversation over a ‘phone link with Jeremy Piggott.

“I don’t know.   He seemed fine.   Just made some remark about nothing happening for a while and he was going to get a ‘paper.”

“He may have some scheme of his own?”   Piggott suggested.

“Jer, he’s been gone three hours – he said he’d be back in two minutes.  His ‘phone’s switched off.”

Piggott did not admit his concern.  As a professional, he told himself, Sullivan was not that imaginative.  He had never before shown any signs of having his own “schemes”.  Yet there had been something indefinable in the tone of his voice during their last telephoned conversation.   And Jeremy was used to losing his people this way.

The day was Monday:  it found Piggott in a hotel room, away from his office on another case.   If he took a moment to look around it, survey its clinical functionality in the light of a dull grey afternoon, he might find unwelcome reminders of what he was and what he had.   He was forty-two: there was little, really, to declare for his life which would not have fitted into a suitcase the size of Howard’s – a failed marriage, two children he never saw, ruinous child support that bled all pleasure from the business of existence, a house which, small though it was, took what remained of his income.   Howard Sullivan had spent last night in a room just like this: or worse; then Charlie had arrived on his patch the next morning to turn another screw.   Howard was forty, wasn’t he?

“Listen, Chas.   I think you may be right – there could be a problem.   Back off, OK?   Just keep a watch on the Cartwright home.   I want to see what happens.”

Meanwhile the surveillance vehicle had been on the move.   Klas had shadowed Peter and Lesley to the top of the Woolmarket, parking just up the street as the pair turned into the pedestrian only complex.   Before they disappeared, Lesley glanced back at him with a little shrug of her shoulder, pursing her lips in a mocking air-kiss.

“Sweet child.”  He murmured.   “And so clever, hmmm?”

Long Lane, the spine of the old town, emerged three streets from Peter’s house.   As they walked these final pavements Lesley and Peter scanned each side looking anxiously for a sign that the Surveillance Vehicle had arrived before them.   There was nothing.   Five minutes later they opened the door to the kitchen of the Cartwright household.

The room was empty; the house quiet.

“Do you think we’re alone?”   Lesley asked.

“Dunno, maybe.   Why?”

Lesley grinned.  “You know why.”    She moved close to Peter, draping his body, every inch of his body, with her own.  “I’ve been dying all afternoon!   Can we go study now?”

“Oh, I think so.”   He agreed.

“Upstairs?”  Her lips teased his ear.

“No.    No time.”

She felt the hard edge of the kitchen table rub her thighs as his hands cupped beneath them, lifting her.

Lesley laughed out loud.   “Hey, back up a bit you silly sod.  Not here, Pete!  What if somebody comes?”

“They’re out.  They’re both out.”  He was peeling her jacket from her, his hands finding a way beneath her t-shirt.

“You don’t know that!”  Lesley’s hands offered token resistance, but as resistances went, it was already going.  Peter’s impatience, her desire for his touch overwhelmed her.   Intending to make the very best of what was to come; she sank back, thrilling at the touch of cool wood on her naked flesh.

“How does this…?”   Ardent in the minefield of fastenings, Peter was clumsy.

“At the front, dopey!  Oh, here, let me….let me…. Peter….

“Peter?”

Only when she had resolved the mystery of the clip and sought to fold her arms about Peter once more, did it dawn upon Lesley that her lover was no longer close to her.   She opened her eyes quickly to find Peter staring over her shoulder, beetroot-red, guiltily trying to retrieve his boxers.

“Come on, you two.”   Howard’s voice snapped.  “No time for that.   We have a lot to do.”

Part Thirty

Steps out of Time

Beyond the door of the Cartwright drawing room a sombre gathering waited.  Tom Cartwright, Peter’s father, perched on the edge of an old occasional table by the wall, Lena his wife, seated with Karen Fenton on the over-stuffed sofa, lit by an old casement window behind them.   Tom used this room as his reception for visiting parishioners and it was never, even in height of summer, the cosy spiritually uplifting haven he would have wished.   Its window faced west, onto a dingy side street of run-down houses, and the intrusion of seasonal westerly winds through leaky panes gave supplicants who sought his guidance a stiff neck for their trouble.   The apparently random nature of furnishings around the walls was, truthfully, a very careful arrangement.   Each table or chair or settle concealed a place where mildew grew most tenaciously.  Although Lena’s scented candles burned to reduce any odour of damp, nothing could ever take the chill from the room’s atmosphere.   This late September evening seemed to have caught it at its chilliest.

Peter and Lesley’s entrance, still in some disarray, was confronted by the even cooler blast of Karen Fenton’s stare: Tom rose instantly, rushed to grasp his son’s hand:

“We didn’t know, old man.   We didn’t understand what was going on.”    Then, all-too-obviously observing his son’s predicament, he performed a pantomime double-take.  “I should sit down, old chap, eh?”

It may have been simply nerves, or Lesley’s quirky sense of humour,   or even Karen’s obvious antipathy towards her: whatever it was, the result was laughter.   At first a gust of exhaled breath, hastily suppressed, then a ripple, then a wave of shoulder-shaking, tear-inducing mirth.   In desperation, Lesley turned her back on the room and threw her arms around Peter’s shoulders, beating her head on his chest.  “Oh fu….hell, I’m sorry!”   She spluttered out.   “Oh…..help!”

Lena’s comment was acid: “I assume you were about to have sex on my kitchen floor?”

 “Table, actually.”

“Sit down, both of you.   Now!”  Lena’s voice would have stopped the strike of a clock.   “And you, young lady, for heaven’s sake try to behave!”

An aged armchair faced the room from beside an even older sideboard.   Peter slid thankfully into it:  Lesley, still suppressing her giggling fit, refused a separate chair, perching on the arm beside him.   They were immediately aware they had been brought into an ongoing conversation.   Peter’s father continued a line of thought as he said:

“What I can’t understand is why your ‘people’ didn’t simply come and ask us:   why all the clandestine stuff?”

Howard agreed.   “Bull in a china shop, I suppose.   Truth is, that would have meant too many people knowing what was going on:  and besides, when we told you what we wanted to do with Peter you might well have said no.   As long as we were fairly sure you knew even less about this chap’s apparent talents than we did we preferred to keep you in the dark.   Our way of doing business, I’m afraid.”

“See?”  Peter breathed.  “I told you he was some sort of secret agent or something.  I knew it!”

“Be quiet, Peter.”  Lena shot him an impatient glance.  “So presumably, now we aren’t in the dark, we can say no?”

“I wouldn’t recommend trying.   My superiors are far too keen to be put off.   They do have a certain degree of latitude when it comes to playing by the rules, you see.”

“You said you thought you knew what had happened to Melanie.”  Karen interjected.

“Yes.”  Howard’s tone was softer.  “We aren’t the only ones who are interested in these two.   There are others.”

“Who?”  Peter asked.

“The Amadhi, the assassins whose attempt on the US Senator you foiled – however you did it.  They want to find out how.  I believe there might be another group looking for you too.   Until this weekend, we were pretty certain we had a head start on everyone and they didn’t know who you were.  But we think they do now, although we can’t understand why they should pick up Melanie first and not you.”

“How did they find out?”   Lena asked.

“They got one of our operatives, someone working inside their organisation.  We believe she may have talked.”

“Oh my, did they torture her, or something?  Is she alright?”

“No.”  Howard said flatly.  “She’s dead.”

These words fell into the centre of the conversation like a toppled headstone.

“Good Lord.”   Bob Cartwright muttered.   Lena’s face drained of its colour.

Howard saw Karen’s face drop and quickly added:  “But if they do have Melanie (and personally I don’t think they do) she’s safe enough.  They will want her talents just as much as we do.  Try not to worry, my love.  She’ll be OK.”

“Oh sure!”   Karen groaned.  “She’s in the hands of terrorists and she’ll be perfectly fine.   And how do we ever, I mean ever, get her back?”

“Well, that rather depends on young Peter here, doesn’t it?”

All eyes in the room turned to Peter.  Howard said carefully:  “You have to tell us exactly why you’ve become so important to so many people.  I know bits, but I don’t know enough.  Tell us the rest.”

At once, Peter found himself staring at his own future:  at the inevitable he could not avoid, at the traps he must.  There was a weight of ages on his shoulders as he replied, very carefully:   “No.   I don’t think I will.”

“Peter!”   Lesley hissed.   “This is serious stuff, mate.   Like, national security and everything!   Wrong answer?”

“You should listen to your girlfriend, son,”   Howard advised.   “This is – very – serious stuff.”

Lena was less tolerant.   “For god’s sake, Peter, just come out with it!”

But Peter was in command, and he knew it.   “Firstly, how do I know I can trust you, Mr. Sullivan?   The last time we met was on a train and the last thing you did was to try to get me kidnapped.   Your ‘people’ as you call them have been following us all day.   How do I know this isn’t just another way to get me?  Secondly, the thing I have is not for sharing.  I don’t want to share it, and I couldn’t if I did.  You can’t control me, you see.   I’m really no use to you – no use at all.”

“Pete!”   Lesley was distraught.

“Les, don’t you see why they just followed us today?  They dare not take me until I’m away from you.   It would draw too much attention to us – they might have to abduct us both.   He’s on a deadline, you see?   This way he thinks I’ll come away with him by consent and leave you behind.   He gets what he wants without having to do anything too messy or too public.”   He turned to Karen.   “I know you think I don’t care about Mel anymore, but she’s still a friend to us both and we do.   If you want our help in finding her, you won’t go along with this either.”

Lesley said in a hushed tone; “Our help?  Are you including me in this?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is he right Howard?”   Karen asked.

“No.  No, believe me,”    Howard assured her.   “I told you the truth.”

“The truth?”  Peter’s riposte was fierce.  “Like you weren’t in Seaborough looking for Mel this weekend, you were in Manchester following me?”

There was a pause then, as each of the adults present looked to the others to answer.   It was Karen who spoke:  “Peter, I know.  Howard’s told me everything.”

“Karen, you don’t have to…”  Lena made to silence her.

“No.”  Karen held up her hand:  “He’s entitled to hear this.   How can he believe us, otherwise?   Howard has never shared his secrets with me before, Peter, but today, when he was ordered to kidnap you and go back with you to London, he chose a different path.  If he had done what his superiors wanted, I would never have seen him again, but he didn’t.    He chose to stay with me, bless him.”  She reached out to clasp Howard’s hand.  “We are together in this, and you can believe him.”

It was a difficult moment, filled with emotions at a level which Peter, not yet so mature in his perception of relationships, was ill-equipped to grasp.  Yet grasp it he did.

Howard saw this.  “OK.  You put two and two together – I didn’t doubt that you would.   You’re a clever chap, Peter, but here’s the bottom line, son.   See, in a way, the intelligence guys were protecting you.  I’m not with them anymore, as of today, and I don’t want to control you, I just want to keep you from whatever Melanie’s already into.   You should understand that when you pulled off that stunt in Hyde Park, you saved Senator Goodridge, very probably the next President of the United States, from assassination.   If he does become President, his foreign policy will tear the Arabian oil states apart.”

Peter didn’t care.  “Everything is politics for your lot.  The Establishment Suits always pump us with this stuff, don’t they?  And the ‘crusties’ swalllow it every time.  Then, in gets Senator Goodridge and his people tell him what he can and can’t do, and it all blows over.  You want me to join your game  Mr. Sullivan?  I may have helped the old Senator, whether or not I meant to is something else.  I’m not in this for the politics.”

Howard frowned,  “Maybe not.  But we first became aware of you because you caused something to happen that was political.   You can’t blame those parties for taking the bait, son.”

Tom Cartwright had been quiet for a while.  “What are you suggesting Peter does, Sullivan?”

“I – we – have to get him away from here.   Where, I don’t know – somewhere safe.   Somewhere neither our people nor theirs will be aware of.   Then we have to find Melanie. With Peter’s help that shouldn’t be too hard, because I think – no, I’m as near as dammit sure – they are on some kind of mutual wavelength:  they can communicate. 

“Nevertheless I’m not convinced the Amadhi have anything to do with Melanie’s abduction.  I believe they may have provided the spark, the information, but I just don’t see them as sufficiently interested.   They would want Peter, especially if they believe they can control him.

            “Whether or not you want to share this thing you have with us, I believe you when you say you can help, son.  So it’s important to me to keep you in circulation – you see, Melanie’s my only interest here.   I want Karen to get her daughter back.”

Peter had felt the strangeness inside him all that afternoon.  It had been slumbering, quiescent, but there.   Now it seemed to awaken; not in a blaze of untrammelled strength but as in the Causeway Café that morning with quiet pleas for attention, like a tiny flicker of fireflies on a summer evening.    Now it became plain that there was an answer inside him he must find.  He just had to shield himself from the distractions of the room.

“Les; sit on my knees?”  Lesley looked at him, bemused.  “Please?  Like, face me?”

Lesley, with a shy smile for the benefit of their sceptical audience, did as she was asked.  He sat forward in the chair so she could sit across his lap.   He grasped her hands.  “Look at me.”  He said.

“For god’s sake!”  Lena snorted, not for the first time.  Peter did not hear her.

“Pete, maybe it’s not the right moment…”  Lesley’s voice tailed off as she saw the absence, the deep abyss behind her boyfriend’s eyes; there was something in there, some small thing waiting to grow, wanting air, wanting to be free.   It came pleading to her in small waves, this presence in the void:  and although she did not know what it was, it convinced her that it needed her utterly.  “Jee-zuz!”  She said reverently:   “What’s happening?  What are you doing?”

Peter did not answer.  He was focussed on Lesley’s face, using her complete absorption to feed the tiny picture he saw within him.   She screened the room from him, generated a mist in which the shocked faces of its other occupants faded.   He was elsewhere.   He was standing by a cold sea with Lesley beside him and Melanie was there.

It took all of thirty seconds, this episode.  After Lena’s protest, no-one spoke as the gravity of it became apparent, both in Peter’s cold, unearthly expression and Lesley’s equally remarkable response.   Her back and arms were gripped by spasm:  she took the little spark to her and it fed through her quaking body as though she were conduit to a high-voltage shock.  When it finally passed, she slumped with exhaustion.   Then the familiar, ordinary Peter returned, as suddenly as he had left: quickly supporting her, smiling reassuringly.    “I had to do that, Les.   You had to know.”

“Melanie is safe.”   He told Karen.  “She’s staying in a green-painted house that overlooks a small cove on the east coast of Scotland.  It might take you a few days but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.”  He turned to Howard, whose jaw had dropped.  “Now.”  He said quietly:  “Do you see why you can’t control me?”

“There are a number of those extinct fishing communities.”  Howard rejoined:   “It could be anywhere.”

“It isn’t anywhere.”  Lesley informed him in clipped tones, “It’s on the Sutherland Coast.”

Howard maintained his air of cynicism.   “If you know that much, I’m sure you also know the place’s name?”

“We do.”  Peter said.  “But we’re not going to tell you.   Mel asked us to gain her some time.  She’s learning; finding stuff out – she doesn’t want to leave there.  Not yet.”

#

When Francine rides in a horse-drawn carriage the jolting, uncertain action is not unfamiliar to her.  In her life, she is certain, she must have travelled far.  Yet the little causeway on the journey to St. Benedict’s Rock that she crosses with Arthur Herrit in his carriage and pair induces a sway which she might have described as almost hypnotic, had she lived in an age familiar with the term:  she feels quite light-headed, so that only the frenetic enthusiasm of her son in his excitement at their proximity to the sea prevents her from losing her equilibrium altogether.   It is a sensation that becomes even more emphatic as the coachman drives them from the causeway onto this grim island with its high cliffs.  As if innate knowledge has been given a conscious voice, she understands this place has some special significance to her.  The road is narrow, the drop to the sea precipitous, so when they must alter course to pass the two young travellers on foot she feels quite nervous, watching little Samuel leaning eagerly out of the window and imagining the iron-shod wheels scuffing the roadway’s very edge, envisaging the death-plunge that must follow if the horses miss a step.  Her fear is tempered somewhat by the sight of those two young people.   How are they dressed? 

“Arthur, did you see?”

Arthur has been watching young Samuel, with a restraining hand placed for safety on his belt, rather than the road.  “Indeed no.  Pray, what should I have seen?”

“Why those two whom we passed; walkers on the road.  The young woman wore breeches of such peculiar cloth and colour, Arthur.  One has to ask, what next?”

“Really?  A young woman in breeches?”  Arthur, faintly amused, cocks an eyebrow at his companion.  “Were you outraged?”

“Not entirely,”  Francine allows herself a secret smile.  “Despite myself, I thought it quite becoming.  One should admire such courage, one supposes, but however must she be received?  Is there more to Levenport I should know?”

“I have always found it an unremarkable town,” Arthur rejoins, “Although Roper’s is a passably comfortable hotel, don’t ye find?”   his voice is echoing, for the carriage has turned a corner into a short tunnel carved through the rock.

Francine reflects that Roper’s was indeed a pleasant contrast to her enforced confinement at Mountsel Park, even if her view across the water to the deceased Lord Crowley’s storm-ravaged house was one of such dereliction and tragedy.  Young Samuel’s evening walk by the shore, punctuated by a perilous confrontation with a crab and his collection of aesthetically pleasing pebbles, had so lifted her spirits she had been incapable of sleep for some time.  The memory of that little family expedition now accompanies them in the form of a reassuring rattle from the coach’s roof.   

 Shortly the sun will intrude upon them as their transport finds the Rock’s Southern side, and thereafter neither adult passenger will speak for a while, although young Samuel will fill the coach with his excitement at their high prospect of the ocean.  In a while they will pass a lowly peasant’s cottage where a labourer works, and he will doff his cap as they go by, while Francine, despite herself, will inhale briefly from her vinaigrette.  It will take their first sight of the ornate gateway to the Great House, with its Turkish domes teetering precipitately on the brink of their destruction, to loosen their tongues.

Part Thirty-One

A visitor of Distinction

There was no inaccuracy on Peter’s part:  he relayed Melanie’s message to the gathering in his parents’ living room exactly as she sent it; she was, indeed, learning.  Her day, which began by climbing a perilous flight of cliff-side steps without suspecting supernatural assistance had altered the balance of her relationship with Agnes, her host, quite profoundly. Agnes who knew, (and explained with some reverence) that many of those steps had crumbled and collapsed into the sea almost a century ago, drove her the miles of winding road she would have had to walk, had she reached the headland where she was found by any natural means.  But they did not return to Agnes’s villa by the sea; instead, they drove on to the local town, and Melanie suffered the unique experience of changing her clothes into ‘something more suitable’ which Agnes had the forethought to bring, in the back of a Land Rover

The hotel appointed for the meeting Agnes had arranged was uniquely Scottish: a high-fronted building of severe grey stone with windows glowering defiantly over a town square in which small businesses rippled around like eddies in a wind-stirred pond.  Within its doors there was a feeling of warmth and oak, mellowed by voices in highland tune.  Agnes was recognised by the desk-clerk who nodded towards the lounge, wherein, beneath a slightly moth-compromised stag’s head, sat a man of distinction.

Melanie knew, immediately, that this man was important to her.   Rising to his feet with effortless grace, the man took her hand and raised it to his lips in a perfunctory kiss.  She was taken so completely by surprise by this that she almost snatched the hand away:  no-one had ever greeted her so before.

“Lady Agnes” He said in a voice which trickled like honey; “You bring me a jewel of exquisite beauty.   Welcome, my dear Miss Fenton.”

Such a greeting should have caused Melanie to recoil: from any other man it would have seemed insincere, sleazy, almost.  Not from this man.  His dress was immaculate; the dark suit of finest cloth, the shirt radiantly white, his tie tastefully blue. When she looked up into his face, his olive skin taut with muscle and remembered pain, she saw the scars which traced a pale lattice there, and caught the magic of his deep brown eyes, her Lawrence, her Arabian Knight, her saviour from herself.  She was speechless: she shook, but not with fear.  No, even though his face was the face of a devil, she could not feel fear from him.

“Let me introduce myself.  I am Marak.  This will be a strange name to you, because I am from a far-off land.  Please, let us sit?  Would you like something to drink, some wine, perhaps?”

Melanie tried to speak but no words came out.  So she just nodded assent.

“This, I think.”   Marak selected one of several bottles from a table beside his chair, pouring into a sparkling glass.  “You see, I am prepared.   I, myself, do not drink: you must forgive me.   Lady Agnes?   A fine peat-cured malt, I believe?”  – Another bottle, another glass.

Dazed, Melanie tried to take in her situation. 

“You are asking yourself why you are here.”   Marak said.   “So I must tell you.”

And he did.

Her meeting at the hotel was not a long one, yet in its space Melanie grew by several years.  She felt she fully understood, now, her place in the universe.  Although until this precise hour she had never heard of a society called ‘The Toa’, still less had an appreciation of the mystical universe it believed to exist, Marak’s depiction of it was so enticing, so sympathetic to her own interpretation of her ‘gift’ as to convince her utterly.

 There was nothing in Marak’s account of his beliefs, of his assertion that a bridge between life and death existed, that seemed less credible than Peter’s chosen path.   It was much more acceptable to her that she might be a prophetess whose powers would lend substance to spiritual contact, to bring comfort to the grieving.   She little knew that the bereft people of Marak’s philosophy were nations not individuals, or that the Toa’s spiritual gateway to a paradise world was most frequently opened by a bomb.   How would she?  After all, Bianca, her own mother’s sister, was a believer.   How could her aunt’s straightened middle-class morality be even suspected of seeking such a devious route to salvation?

Taking tea with Agnes that evening, back at the old lady’s seaside retreat, Melanie felt she was about to take a seven-league stride in her life.  She wished for it, even relished it.   She had met with someone who could be a big part of her future:  if she could only just bear the next twelve hours – then she would be with him again!

In early evening with the sun still bright, Melanie left Agnes to her book and took a walk along the shore of the little bay.  She did not want, particularly, to return to the chill, blighted harbour beyond the tunnel, but her steps seemed to draw her there.    It was as if the two adjacent arms of the sea were connected in some way other than the physical – as though the tunnel somehow formed a link between the present and the past. Was this how she had performed her small ‘miracle of the steps’ that morning?   But if she hoped, emerging from dark tunnel to scant light on the harbour side, that she might see the little place as it had been in happier times – bustling with fisher folk, landing boxes crammed with the sea’s rich pickings, she was to be disappointed.  The tiny harbour was cold and deserted.

At the foot of the flight of steps she paused, half-expecting to be able to repeat her morning’s climb, but they were as she had seen them the day before, eroded and insurmountable; so she turned her attention seaward where, far off, a lonely boat bobbed, so tiny that it dipped from view often and again in the folds of ocean.  

“Where are you, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was at once distant and near; inside her head and yet as far away as that little boat.  She was neither surprised nor scared by it – it was Peter’s voice.  It came with a warm music she had heard before, and it was like a cup she might raise or put aside as she chose.  “Hello, Peter!”  Her mind replied.   She told him where she was, knowing it did not matter, for tomorrow she would be gone.   She did this because, through it all, her mum remained a tiny hook upon reality, an anchor she could draw in if she had to go back to all that one day.   And, after all, Karen was her mum.   She should not worry – her daughter was in charge of her world.  

Melanie scanned the tiny harbour one last time.   She would never, ever forget this place.   Shuddering, she turned away from that little piece of hell with honour in her heart for those had toiled there, but gladness that she would not return.

#

In the dusk high above Levenport a white gull wheeled and drifted with the freshening wind.   At any time in any day there might be a hundred such gulls in just this patch of heaven, but this day it was almost alone, for a couple of trawlers had discarded waste from their catch out in the bay, gathering its brethren in a screeching host.   Enjoying the wind, proud of its skill in riding it, the great bird seemed to dance to its own private music.  Over a town like Levenport there were wind eddies and thermals:  baffles provided by high buildings, warm, rising air from commercial flues, cold tunnels rushing in from the sea.   Swerving upward on a draught, almost stalling at the peak of the lift, delicately twitching the angle of its flight feathers into a dive before turning tail to a gust, hurtling forward like a graceful arrow and round again, this gull was simply playing: having fun.   Yet the bird’s eyes never rested.  It watched everything.

The gull seemed fascinated by the way the waste of human occupation was taken by the wind.  How it, too, swirled and turned, twisted and tumbled.  Paper, plastic cartons, detritus and dust all formed their separate patterns: they were like another tide, a different sea.   The gull was professorial in its study of these movements:  it knew them minutely, predicted them to perfection.

An attentive onlooker might have noticed the creature’s flight pattern was not, in fact, random at all:  they might have seen how its earlier separation from the predatory host in the bay had led it first to circle above St. Benedict’s House for long enough to witness the House owner’s Ferrari bringing him home on a visit he had not intended to make; or observed that the gull’s navigation took it close to one street, and at last to one particular roof.  It watched the lights from inside the house beneath, and the van with two humans inside parked just a little down the road.  After a while, it descended to rest, perching upon the high, narrow stack of the Cartwrights’ household chimney.  Preening itself, combing rebellious feathers delicately with its viciously hooked beak, the gull seemed to be waiting for something.             

The warning found Vincent in his bathroom.  Vincent was covered in soap.    “Why?”   He complained out loud.   “Why does this always bloody happen just when I’m having a shower?”

Melanie had just returned from her contemplative walk along the shore deep in melancholy, to sit on one of the wooden seats which graced Agnes’ veranda.  She was resisting the first evening chill, reluctant to go indoors to Agnes’ well-meaning but drab conversation, and unprepared for the image of a naked middle-aged man which suddenly blasted across her brain.   She shrank instinctively from the image of a follically impoverished head with a pair of mighty ears, a wrinkled, gaunt body, and what other features she tried not to envision!   Yet however it  repulsed her with its nudity this figure was familiar to her in some way.   It went almost as rapidly as it arrived.  A Wrong number?   Was that a feature of telepathy she might encounter again? Squirming afresh at the recollection: she returned to her thoughts.

#

As thoughts go, among the gathering in the Cartwright household Lesley’s may perhaps have been the most challenging to read.   When Peter had related the nature of his gift had she convinced herself that it did not matter if the guy she was with was a little eccentric, a bit harmlessly loopy, as long as it felt so good to be with him? This was merely an aspect of his personality she could compartmentalise, set aside from the person she had discovered:  the person who, however inappropriately, she knew she might actually love.  But now?   Well, now there was no point in denial:  if the other simple little tests of the day had not been enough she had felt the mad heat of sheer power that shot through their clasped hands as he made contact. It had torn into her body – she had seen Melanie as clearly, perhaps, as he.  There was no denying that Peter was everything he claimed to be.   So how might she go on, knowing that truth?  Knowing all that she knew?.

“We don’t have very much longer;” Howard’s words intruded:  “We have to move you, son, and we have to do it soon.”

Peter made no reply, for Lesley’s face betrayed those same doubts he had seen long ago in the features of someone else he held dear.  His world was collapsing.

“Peter?”  His mother’s voice drew him from his thoughts.   Lena’s own comprehension had been stretched in the past few minutes.  Although she had seen changes taking place in her son, maybe even known something a little more than natural was happening to him, she could not, would not, accept what she had just witnessed.  Worse, she could see how completely Karen was taken in, the unjustifiable relief her dear friend took from this – this adolescent fantasy!   Karen was already preparing to leave with body language that made clear she would not stop until she reached this Scottish cove.  

Karen believed; Lena didn’t.   Yet everything had begun to drop into place: the urgency of the duplicitous Howard, the manner of Melanie’s disappearance.   Married to a clergyman, Lena’s life was moulded around her propensity for rationalisation, for finding a truth behind the lie.  But who was telling the truth this time? 

Peter understood his mother’s torment.   “Mum,” he said,   “Go to the window in the front room.  Keep back from the glass, look down the street and you’ll see a van parked on the other side of the road, about fifty meters away.  Howard’s ‘people’, a man and a woman, are inside it.  They‘re watching this house.”    His mother hesitated.  “Please?”

At first Howard did not take the bait, but after  Lena had exited, he asked:  “How do you know there’s a woman in there?  Is that a guess?”   Charlie never showed herself on surveillance:  she always stayed behind the driver, out of sight.

Peter replied:  “You mean Charlie?  I can see her.”

“My god you are real, aren’t you?  In that case you’ll see we have to get out.  Now!”  Howard sprang into action, proudly unboxing skills that had lain unused for many years.  “We’ll need a diversion….”

“It’s all arranged.”  Peter cut in.  “Howard, I won’t be going with you.”   His tone was detached, his eyes on Lesley, who had wandered away and now stood with her back to him, looking  through the small window into Lena’s studio.  He knew she was close to tears.

Lena returned: if she had left the room with any purpose, that purpose had deserted her.  She looked smaller somehow, and not a little confused.    “It’s there.”  She said simply.  “You can see that?”

“Peter,”  Tom Cartwright reasoned:  “I would say that Sullivan here does have a point, you know.  Mightn’t it be better to keep out of these people’s way for a while?”

“I will dad.   But I’ll do it….”  Peter hesitated, concentrating still upon Lesley’s back; “…..on my own, I guess.   I’ll leave in a while, Mr. Sullivan, but not with you.    You have to help to find Melanie.”

Howard’s frustration was evident:  “But it’s like throwing you to the lions!”

Everyone was standing now.   Karen said, more in an expression of reverence than anything else: “Total self-belief.   He has it, don’t you think?”   And, making to gather her coat and handbag, she added:  “Peter, I believe in you.   Thank you. Howard darling, can we go?”

“It seems I’m robbed of choice,”   Howard said, defeated.

Each left the room in their turn; Karen and Howard by the back gate, which led out into an alley behind the street.  This was accepted by Howard, knowing it would fool no-one: without Peter, though, he was not a target yet.  He might be followed, if his colleagues had extra man-power to do it, but they had been briefed to abduct Peter, not him.   Sensing Peter’s need to be alone with Lesley, his father spoke softly to his wife and they, also withdrew, although Lena couldn’t resist mentioning she was “Going to clear up in the kitchen.”

Lesley’s expression was inscrutable.  “Well, that put a damper on the mood,” she said quietly.  “I think I should go too.”  She headed for the door.   Peter held her arm.

“Les?   Please don’t?”

“Why not?   I mean, you don’t need me to keep these bastards away.  You’re bloody superman, or something.”

“It isn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”

“Yeah, I know.   Look mate, I’ve got something to sort out, Okay?”

“What?  I can explain everything – I haven’t hidden anything from you.  Don’t, break us up, please?”   Peter pleaded.  “I need you!   All this, this stuff; I can’t handle it on my own.”   Lesley gave him a rueful grin.  “You should.  You’re good at it.  You’re scary, you know that?  Really scary!”

“And you don’t – like – me enough?”

“Oh, hey!”  She came to him then, stroked his cheek fondly:  “What’s the cliché?  It isn’t you, it’s me?  You’ve been telling me everything, but s’pose there are things I haven’t told you, yeah?  Stuff of my own?”

“What ‘stuff’?” 

“Oh, just ‘stuff’.  It’s like I took a path I thought was sweet, and calm, and sunny, and after a few steps I realised it wasn’t.  I was seeking one thing, and I found something else.  Something just as fabulous, maybe:  I dunno.  I can’t work that out.  Like I said; ‘stuff’.”

“So you’re parting with me?” 

“Yeah, for a bit.   You’ll be alright.  With – all that – how couldn’t you be?  I need a bit of space, Pete, that’s all.”

Lesley turned on her heel and walked from the room, just as he remembered Melanie’s parting with him one not so distant morning on the road to St. Benedict’s Rock.  Moments later, Peter heard the front door close behind her.

Part 32

Did I make us Fly?

Beset by an array of emotions between hope and despair, Howard, Karen and Lesley  departed the  Cartwright home to disperse into the night, with so much to distract them they scarcely heeded the gathering tumult above their heads.  Seabirds, a hundred, maybe more, swirling and eddying on cardboard cut-out wings around the chimney pots, quarrelling in their language of cackle and keen.  Their talk was of conspiracy and plot.   There was an excitement filling the air, a rushing, a fervour.

The Rock’s western cliff stood gaunt in the last blush of sunset against the shadows of advancing night, a sky fading from vermillion through darkest purple into black.   Thunder growled, a distant mutter lingering to rattle in brassy pinball echoes among the headland crags.   As its echoes died, nothing.

 Silence. 

Even the gulls seemed to pause. 

Then, a first fusillade of raindrops battered the pavements.   Lightning came like the tearing of glass, a brittle scar of brilliance searing heaven and turning night into blue-white day.  

Lesley walked past the silent van that crouched before Peter’s house not thinking, perhaps not caring she might be accosted or attacked.  She was aware of neither thunderclap nor lightning, undaunted by the deluge that soaked her thin clothes.  For the space of two streets, her heart clamped by a second bitter parting with Peter, she was conscious of nothing but loss.  She only barely acknowledged the unlikely vehicle which had stopped just a few metres in front of her; although when its occupant emerged she was compelled to pay attention. 

“Last chance?”   The driver planted his feet so he was directly in her path.  

“How did you know I was here?”   She demanded dully.    The figure’s pinched shoulders and pigeon feet were familiar even in darkness.

“Oh come on!  You can’t shout so loud and not be heard!”

She stood like a child, scuffing and kicking the pavement with expressive feet as the storm poured over her.  This for guilt, this for angst:  this for a promise not kept.    “I can’t.  I won’t.  I didn’t expect this.”

“What else did you expect?  A cosy little provincial eccentricity?  Nights by the fire with beneficial herbs and readings from Dante?  You were told how it would be.”

“Maybe.  Yeah, maybe.  Not – not this!  It’s, like, too intense, you know?”

“You speak as though you had freedom to choose.  Do you?”

Lesley fought back the threat of tears:  “I don’t want to.  I’m in lo…  I like him a lot, alright?  That wasn’t meant to happen was it?”

“But it did.  It would be a sad world indeed if there were not space in it for ‘liking a lot’.”   The man’s words were kind:  “You always liked him, right from the first.  You can’t deny your feelings, Lesley.”

“I might have to, mightn’t I?   I mean, I’ve got a life, yeah? It’s not all ‘Whither thou goest I will go’ and stuff.  I just want to think!”

The strange vehicle’s driver put his hands on Lesley’s shoulders.  He was shorter than she.  “Reason doesn’t always have to win, Lesley.”  He smiled into her eyes.  “You know where you want to be and it might seem mad to you right now, but it’s all about acceptance, isn’t it?”

Lesley shook her head,  “I dunno,”  she replied sadly.  “I just don’t know.”

After Karen and Howard left, the Cartwrights joined Peter in their drawing room.   Peter had never felt less empowered.   Tom and Lena were no longer acting as a father and mother should act:   they prowled about him like bobcats around a porcupine.   Tom, shifting from foot to foot as he sought an apt phrase when even the best of his sermon words proved elusive was reduced to sporadic humming, punctuated by half-formed hand gestures and whistling through his teeth.   Lena stalked hither and yon, drying her sweating hands compulsively on the wool of her skirt, peeping from the window, listening at the glass.

“Well?”   She demanded shrilly:  “Are we going to just wait until they come in here and get you?”

“It’s all in hand, Mum.”   Peter reassured her.   His mind was much more upon Lesley than his possible abduction by Howard’s ‘people’.   Frankly, he did not much care if they did ‘come and get’ him.   Lesley had gone and nothing mattered.   He knew this time there was no reparation he could make that would induce her to return.

“I don’t believe this.  I don’t believe any of this.”  Lena muttered. “This is some juvenile prank.   God!  My God Peter, how did you get yourself involved in – in this?”

Tom seeing his wife in danger of becoming hysterical, moved to comfort her.   “It’ll be alright, dear.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Tom was correct.   When a motor droned in the back lane Peter was expecting it.

“You’ll be glad to be rid of me,” He said:  “I mayn’t be able to get in touch for a while, but you mustn’t worry, Mum.   I’m going to be well taken care of.”

An estate car waited with its tailgate open.   As Peter slid inside, hands reached over the back seat to cover him with a large blanket.   Then the tailgate closed and his transport bumped out of the back lane into the road, gaining speed with a surge of power surprising in so nondescript a vehicle.   

A hundred yards further down the road in the van Charlie  had posted Klas to watch the back of the Cartwright residence, so she tracked both Howard’s departure with Karen and Lesley’s solitary walk.   She conferred with Piggott on an open line.

“The girl’s out of there, so is Sullivan.   We don’t get too many chances like this, Ger…”

“So Howard’s gone with the woman?”  Piggott said.   “Wonders never cease!”

“Ger, are we doing this?”  Charlie urged, impatiently.  “Do we lift him, or what?”

“Yes, if – and only if – he comes out.   Don’t go in after him, for fuck’s sake!   Not tonight.”

Klas’s radio voice was harsh.  “BMW Estate, heading east.  He is in the back!”

“They’ve got him.”  Charlie snapped.  “I’ll pick you up from the end of the alley.  We have a go!”

Charlie picked out the red dots of the estate car’s rear lights as soon as it emerged from the alley.   She   fired the  van’s engine into life and raced to pick up Klas, who dived into the passenger seat beside her.

“He must be going it alone.”   Klas said breathlessly, as Charlie slid into the passenger seat beside him.

“Foolish child.”  Charlie murmured.  “Let’s see if we can catch him before he gets to the main street.  How many in there?”

“Two, I think.”

“You only think?”   The departing rear lights of the BMW were still in view as she gunned the van up through the gears.  It was a narrow road, and Charlie not the most careful of drivers.  Gears screamed, door mirrors flew.   Her blood was up.  “There it is!  We have him!.”   

Then:  “Oh!  What the f..….?”

Rain swept down the road in a dense curtain into which the van, already moving fast, must plunge.   Concealed behind the rain, suspended in the thundery air, a spiralling white mob of seabirds waited.   As soon as the vehicle was immersed in the cloudburst they attacked.  They slammed into the van’s windscreen with their powerful beaks and thrashing wings.  Their screeches and cries blotted out all other sound, their claws brought ordure, discarded food, waste paper, polythene bags, plastic trays snatched from tourist-frequented streets to plaster over the glass.     Blinded, Charlie threw the wiper switch.   

“Can’t see!”   She shouted above the din.  

She could only hit the brakes, but in a narrow road lined with parked traffic it was already too late.  The van demolished a lovingly-tended hatchback with a single, glancing blow.  Charlie fought frantically with the wheel – to no avail:  striking through a garden wall with crunching impact, the van climbed a toppled ramp of bricks before rolling gently onto its side.    Less gently, Charlie, who had scant respect for seatbelts, catapaulted into Klas’s lap.

Their part in the mission achieved, the seagull mob wheeled away en masse, quitting the heavy tattoo of rain in favour of their foraging in the bay.   They were gone as swiftly and as purposefully as they had arrived.   One gull alone remained.   Throughout this attack it had watched from its advantage on the Cartwright chimney as a general might watch a battle.   Now it took off, lazily accepting the rain’s bruising punishment as it swooped over the stricken van, briefly hovering  as if to satisfy itself no-one was badly harmed, before it, too, went in search of jetsam the trawlers had left behind.   Even generals have to eat.

For the second time in the space of a day Peter found himself back on the road to Old Ben.  This was no surprise:  he had known as soon as he was shut into the car that at least one of its other occupants was Toby.   The cottager who cared for Vincent’s estate on The Rock had a signature aroma which was unmistakeable in a confined space:  not an objectionable odour, but a very characteristic and individual one.  Toby’s were the hands which had quickly mantled him with a blanket as they drove away:  the voice which cheerily gave the all clear from his driver’s seat was equally easy to identify – the gatekeeper who had announced him upon his visit to the Great House was, it seemed, also in on their plot.

“There’s no-one following us, lad!   Pop over and have a seat if you like?”

“Ah!”  Toby said.   “You come and sit aside me, young Peter.   I’m not as you might say a good traveller, see?”

Rain hammered, lightning flickered, thunder boomed, once, close by, a huge boulder-on-the-roof bang.   The causeway barriers, normally dropped whenever high tides or weather threatened, were mysteriously raised for their passing.

“Tricky tonight, Tobias my son!”   The gatekeeper yelled above the din. “Where’d this seaway come from?  It was as calm as a mill pond half-an-hour ago.”   Headlight beams, neutralised by spray and rain, struggled to pick out a safe path: in Peter’s eyes, seeing how the storm surge had raised the sea-level to the same height as the road, it appeared they were driving deliberately straight into the waters of the bay.  He flinched instinctively, holding his breath for total immersion: none came.

“It’s in here somewhere!”  The gatekeeper shouted, referring to the road,  “What do we aim for, Toby?  The third lamppost on the left?”

“And straight on ‘til morning.”  Peter found himself saying.

“What?”

Although a valiant row of enfeebled streetlamps showed the line, the causeway itself was completely obscured by waves, themselves scarcely visible in the blackness.  Every now and then, a lightning lantern-slide revealed a snapshot of wet concrete.   Somehow, their car remained central to it, skimming like a pebble:  lifting, skidding, sliding, but still safe.   And the great slab of The Rock, the starry lights of the village road, grew ever closer. 

Suddenly wary, the gatekeeper slowed right down.    He was still revving the engine hard, fighting to keep water out of the exhaust.   “Last bit’s the worst.”  He said quietly, all humour drained from his voice.   “Don’t like the look of this, Toby old mate.”

In the topography of the bay, the water deepened as it reached away from Levenport beach towards Old Ben.   Here, just before the road turned upwards onto the man-made shelf where Crowley had once intended to build his railway station, it described a horseshoe bend some hundred metres in length, into which the sea was piling, breaker after breaker, crashing over the causeway in titanic shows of force.   If only one of them should catch the car the most glancing of blows, it would be thrown into the sea beyond like a discarded toy.

“’Tis too deep. Reckon as we needs you, young Peter,”   Toby said.  “Affer all, us can’t go back, can us?”

Peter understood.   He leant forward to study, as best he could, the movement of the sea. The road was already below sea level and the breakers were truly massive.  There would be no second chance, no room for error.   Nor was there the luxury of delay:  the car must keep going in this deepening water, or its engine would die.

“Us’d feel better if ‘ee stopped shakin’, lad,”  Toby advised him seriously,

Peter nodded.   He watched the swelling sea intently:  the highest, shortest wave would come, then a space.   The undertow would clear the causeway completely, but only for a moment before the next onslaught buried it.   Like a machine, it had a pulse, a rhythm, a beat.   He fed himself into it and he learned its meaning.

He said quietly: “Now.”

There was a wall of water across the causeway when he said it, but the gatekeeper stepped on the pedal without question and ploughed straight in.    The foaming sea drew back before them like a chemise of white silk.   Through a mist of spray the road glistened naked in their headlights – a flash of lightning turned it momentarily to silver.   But the same lightning showed a new, advancing roller, huge and threatening at their side.   The gatekeeper slammed through the gears; the car flew for shelter and The Rock.   The road was rising, rising fast,  but the breaker pursuing them was faster.   It reached them just as they leapt over the hump between causeway and island, catching the tail of the car to thrust it sideways and hoping, maybe, if it had sense and feelings this storm, to clutch it in its fist.  A second too late, it succeeded only in tipping them forward, helping them the last dozen yards of their way.   Moments later they were safely clear of the sea and through the barrier at the island end of the causeway.

“Bloody hell!”   The gatekeeper breathed.

Now  they sped along Crowley’s narrow road towards the summit of Old Ben, Peter awed by the ferocity of the seaway gathering momentum below them.

“Never knowed it come up so sudden.”  Toby sounded bemused.   “There’ll be no-one troublin’ us from the land tonight, I’d reckon.”

Peter remained silent.  Some of him, some part of him, was no longer bound by flesh:  it was out there, at one with wind and rain, learning.  He was a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the gale; finding how little he needed to incline his head to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: police clustered around an upturned van.   He could see the van’s occupants, hear them if he wished, as they engaged the officers in earnest conversation.  

“Were we really flying, Simon?’  his mind asked.  “Did I make us fly?”

‘Simeon, dear boy!  Allow me the distinction of the ‘e’.    As to your question, I don’t know’ the seagull replied.  ‘In my experience when your path is clear, many means of travel it are open to you.’       

 “Dunno.”  This was Toby’s voice.   “Us got over the Causeway an’ then ‘e sort of passes out.  He jus’ sort of drifted off.”

“Don’t worry, me old son. He’ll be all right.”  Peter opened his eyes to see Vincent’s concerned face looking down on him.   “Hey, Pete!  You OK, man?”

Gentle hands were helping him from the car.  The car door was slamming, hitting his back.

“Ow, shit!  I felt that!”   Vincent sympathised.  “For Christ’s sake, loves, get him inside before we kill him!  Bloody weather!”

Floodlights held back the darkness.   The whole of the west-facing front of the Great House was bathed in light, as it could never have been in Lord Crowley’s time.   This, Peter thought, was the lynch-pin of civilisation; a light-bulb.   The dark ages only truly ended when Edison threw the switch.

He was indoors.  He was standing unsteadily, as caring hands supporting his arms.   Vincent, his rock guitar hero, was mopping rain from his face.

“I thought you had to keep away from here,”  Peter said weakly.  “Something about staying out of sight?”

Vincent laughed:  “Yeah, so did I.  But what can you do?  When we realised what was breakin’ down here we had to come.  ‘Struth, Pete, we get around, don’t we mate?   Better get him a bit of a drink, love.  Looks like he needs it.”

“Hi Peter.”  Estelle’s voice chimed from somewhere beside him.  “Come with me, hon.   We’ll sort out a bath for you and something to change into. I’ve put you in the South wing.   Hope you’ll like it.  We better feed you, too, hadn’t we?”

  After his last visit, Peter had no expectation of returning to any of Vincent Harper’s luxurious ‘Guest Bedrooms’ in St. Benedict’s House.  Then, he had grown tired of their repetitive opulence.  Now he had time to enjoy the luxury of bathing in a bath comfortably large enough for two people his size, toes caressing idly around a gold faucet, and fatigued by his day he was glad of the softness of warm towels and the yielding luxury of a bed every bit as accommodating as the bath.  Only the mirror troubled him, for Lesley’s was the reflection he imagined there, not his own: now and then, entirely without his permission, his face would crease as he fought back tears.   It was not over.   If there was ever any love in the world…but each time he pictured her, she wore the same look of farewell.

          For the sake of his sanity, he made a deliberate effort to close his mind to the looking-glass and the pictures it showed him.  The moment he did so, a most peculiar thing happened.

First it was a touch, a gentle, feminine touch upon his arm, just above his wrist.  Then he heard the words,  in tones instilled with longing:

“Arthur my dear?   Arthur?”

When Peter looked again at the mirror, he saw he was not alone.

Part Thirty-Three

Convocation

The first thing Peter remarked was the darkness.   The room in which he stood, the room Estelle had given him was not dark; the room he saw in the mirror was.  It was not even the same room, but a cavernous hall with candelabra-decked walls, walls freshly clad in panelled oak and hung with tapestries.   Through the gloom he could distinguish little else, a bed, perhaps, a well-upholstered chair in the Regency style.    Every objective observation he tried to make, however, was overlaid by the presence.  

Other than in the touch of those gentle feminine fingers on his arm it had no substance at all, just a skein of grey shredded light that wavered and altered itself into various images, sweeping towards the mirror-glass then tumbling away again, rearranging itself to spiral upwards, almost finding shape before once again descending.    At its best it made a half-drawn figure that might be the owner of the voice, at its worst the coiled menace of a snake.

The voice:  that voice!

  “Arthur?   Arthur my dear?  Arthur?”   A pleading, abandoned sound as of a woman drowning.

 And the snake?  The snake came slithering and robbing, taking each strand of the woman’s so nearly finished sketch to integrate within itself.   Too much!  Fearful of spirits that threatened to overwhelm him, Peter tore off his bathrobe, throwing it over the glass, and the voice cried out:  “No!” As if defying him.   The glass cleared.  Exhausted he fell back into the bed and his consciousness left him, but his dreams would not.

Peter spent the rest of  his night somewhere in a hinterland between sleeping and waking.   His dreams led him first to Crowley House – by the lake where he and Lesley had made love together, and she was there; they were looking down into the water, into reeds which grew at the water’s edge, to something floating there they wanted to reach but could not:  Peter woke for a moment, or thought he did.  He saw Melanie far away across the lake, her spy-glass glinting in the sunlight.

Was he dreaming again?  The man’s approach was undisguised, the heavy boot-tread of one who worked the land.  And when he came into view so he proved to be; a gaunt, mean creature whose hardened years had left their trace, like the dendrochronology of a tree, upon his scored features.  This was a man of deeds, a worker who, had he not spotted the same small irregularity that had drawn Peter’s and Lesley’s eyes, would be stooping to some merciless peasant labour even now.   But his keen eye, which knew every inch of this estate and its lakeside, bade him investigate.

Where Peter and Lesley might hesitate this man did not even pause, but slithered and waded in among the weed-choked shallows.   What he found there caused him to draw breath.

“Lord bless us!” He exclaimed, in genuine amazement.

When the man raised a small box from the waters’ edge Peter’s dream followed him, so that he was able to see and understand why he, whose name was Micah, and  his wife should take the little naked child inside the box as their own; because they were barren and they thought it a gift from God,  They called it Moses because of how they had found it, and in the years that followed they would raise it as their own.

In a single night Peter’s dream revealed the  early history of the child (who they named Moses because of the manner of his discovery) through his growing years;  how he came to be known in his local Parish, where his past was never discussed by citizens because they lived a little in fear of his deeply religious and ascetic adopted family.   Peter found himself a fading witness to those passing years, as Moses grew and proved a true son of his adoptive father; one about whom more would be forgotten than known.   But questions, reserved for hushed moments in private corners, were nonetheless asked.   For not everything about Moses added up.

#

There had been a calling together of the secret ones.

They had come by night, in stealth:  quiet cars with darkened windows, solitary figures on footpaths which eschewed the beaten track.   They came, cowled and silent, to the little monastery because the tolling of a Sanctus bell commanded them, but not to pray.   And the plainsong beckoning them from cloister to their holy place was not a holy song, and the monks who sang were not of any order whose name dared be spoken, even there.

Words of wise ones were uttered in hushed tones, so their whispered echoes might not be remembered by the stones they passed across.   Their faces in the guttering candlelight not so plain they might be remembered, or want to be.   And when their hour was done and they melted back into the dark night, their words would be consigned to darkness too.

“We are concerned…….”

“Too vital to lose….”

“One chance to shake the world……”

“The end of all false truths…..”

The frailest, oldest of them all, a gargoyle from the wall of Mother Church supported behind a lectern of stone, led this faceless gathering:  “Be advised!”  His wracked voice ranted:  “There is one transcendent moment coming,  one God-given chance to convert the lost hosts of Islam and bring them to the one true path.   It must not be squandered!   Our weapons are God’s weapons!   Our mercy is His mercy – accept God’s blessing upon your accomplishment, for our war, dear brothers, is a Holy war – our right, the right of Heaven!”

Outside in the cloister as the mysterious ones, these words ringing in their concealed ears, dispersed on their homeward path, two cowled souls met: one, an abbot, the other a monk – a slighter, smaller man whose habit flapped around his ankles as he walked.

“….but Holy Father?”

“Still we must be sure.  Sure, Roderick, are you really sure?”   The Abbott’s tone was urgent.  “You heard his Holiness, did you not?  This – this day:  it is a day given to us.  We must not let it go to waste.”

“I am confident.”  Roderick replied.  “Yet, if you wish it, I shall set the seal.  I will go to Levenport this very night.”

The Abbott nodded and smiled, though behind the anonymity of his hood  it was a secret expression even Roderick would not know.

            The train journey south was a protracted affair: there were few fast links at so early  an hour of the day, the operators preferring to wring every last customer from every station.  It was mid-afternoon before Roderick reached Levenport, and near to dinner-time before he found a hotel.

“Will it be just for one night, sir?”  The desk clerk sounded suspicious.  He eyed the little man’s cheap, well-worn suit, his battered suitcase.   “And how will you be paying – cash or card?”

The instant he stepped off the train, Roderick knew something was wrong.  He had been here many times, and Levenport always affected his psyche to some degree; be it because of the closeness of the rock, or all the myriad lines of energy which converged upon the town.  Today there was a sensation of disturbance, an electricity not attributable to any natural source.    In his hotel, he tried to prepare logically for an evening of waiting.   Something was coming, something palpable and strong, he could feel it.    Yet it would come in its own time, not his, and he must simply be patient.

“Um, is the restaurant open?”   He asked the clerk.   He was unused to restaurants, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Dinner’s at seven.”

Roderick was dressing, preparing for dinner, when the cry from Peter and Lesley blundered into his head – a scream like a cannon shell in flight pursued by a soft, almost muted feminine presence.  Peter was still learning to cope with his enormous powers, while Lesley was encountering them for the first time; but their message, though not intended for him in particular, was clear enough.

For all of his experience Roderick was not the coolest head to have around in a crisis.    His first instinct, to throw his arms in the air, running around the room cursing fate and the small “g” gods in general, was, given consideration, probably not wise.  The curtains were open and he had neglected to dress his lower self; so there may have been a witness or two to this strange ritualistic dance who would go to their homes that night with his image implanted upon their inner eye for ever.   It did not last long, though, this invocation of heathen deities.   Gathering his thoughts, the fully-clothed Roderick raced for the stairs.

“Dinner is being served, sir?”   The desk clerk hailed him as he almost ran through the hotel lobby.

“Ah!  Yes!”   Roderick slid to a halt, pivoting on a precariously balanced heel:  “Hire cars – have any?”

“No, not here sir.”  The desk clerk replied carefully.  “Did you want a taxi?”

“Yes!  Taxi!”  Roderick thought for a moment:  “Here?”

“I can call you one, sir.”

“No.  No good.  Need it now!  Now!”

“Restaurant closes at nine-thirty, sir?”

Wrestling with the old-fashioned swing door, Roderick almost fell out onto the street.   He had selected, or rather wandered into, a hotel on one of the minor thoroughfares which ran down to Levenport Esplanade:  a peaceful back alley as likely to produce a passing taxi in October as fishing in a swimming pool might ensnare a trout.   He cast desperately about him for some sign of transport.   There were, of course, ranks of parked cars.   Swiftly adapting to the role of car thief he peered through car windows looking for keys, attracting the suspicion of a couple of passers-by.   Whilst he had no compunction, in the gravity of his cause, about taking without consent, Roderick was not expert at this trade and it showed.   Anyway, there were no carelessly abandoned vehicles with open doors or inviting keys, so it dwindled as an option.

Panic was beginning to set in once more.  He stilled himself, breathed deeply, looking again at the road and at the buildings which lined it.   He had begun to accept defeat and even started to run down to the seafront in the hope of finding a taxi there, when he spotted the yard.   Its steel gates were open, and within it stood a vehicle with engine running and driver’s door flung invitingly wide.   There was a light in the office behind it, otherwise no sign of life.

Roderick looked dubiously at the vehicle.   “It’ll do.”  He decided out loud.    Without another thought he slipped into the driver’s seat.

Fully ten minutes had elapsed before the vehicle’s absence was discovered; another five before the police were informed by a rather perplexed owner of its loss, by which time Roderick was working his way through the back-streets of Levenport.  It was not entirely by chance he came upon Lesley’s disconsolate figure, walking towards him in the rain.

“Last chance?”  Roderick asked.

When Lesley had recovered a little, and they were driving away, she said:   “Nice choice of car.”

“All I could find.”

“A hearse?”

“I know.  It’ll suffice.”

“Yeah,”  Lesley thought for a little before she said:  “Have you seen what’s in the back?”

#

‘Well,  here’s a pretty pass!’  Francine Delisle scolded herself.   She stared from the window of her rooms in Roper’s Hotel at the sunset profile of St. Benedict’s Rock as if that great black basalt mass might provide her with an answer;  ‘It seems I cannot trust myself when I am with you, Arthur, nor can I be trusted when I am without you.’

They were taking supper together, Arthur Herrit and she, before Arthur retired to his adjacent suite.  Raising his cup to his lips, Arthur asked, “How may we resolve the matter, pray?”

She had spoken these final words aloud, had she?  That had not been her intention.  The reaction in his eyes told her he had divined the unspoken part.  Did they even think alike, now?

He raised an eyebrow.  “It vexes me,”  he admitted, “Yet I cannot say I find the dilemma unpleasant.  Should we discuss your impressions of Lord Crowley’s ruin?”

Francine inclined her head.  “There is little more to discuss, than that about which we have already spoken.  It is a residence in dire distress, I can see that, not so much from the physical assault of the storm, as from Mr Ballentine’s choice of Housekeeper.”

“The redoubtable Mrs. Cruikshank,”  Arthur smiled.  “She provided a lunch upon which I must compliment her, although she seemed lacking in certain mannerly aspects of her appointment.”

“I thought her blunt, at best; her warning to beware of snakes even before we had alighted from our carriage, as an instance.  She appeared quite anxious to see us from the door, Arthur.  I know my behaviour might have been odd, but nonetheless…”

“Nonetheless!”  Arthur agreed.  In his level of society part of a housekeeper’s function was to show visitors around the property in their charge, but he was prepared to make allowances.  “There has been a minor plague of snakes on the island, ‘tis said, since the night of the storm.  Could the wind’s destruction have led to their release, I wonder?  She did mention that it is impossible to find servants for fear of them.”

“And I did not entirely disgrace myself, did I?  What do you suppose will become of the house?”

“Oh, Ballentine will make good the damage, have no doubt of it.  He has some special connection with the widowed Lady Crowley, so I imagine she will persuade him.”

“Indeed, sir!  A ‘special connection’!  He has a reputation, then?”

“Ballentine?   A strong business head, mayhap a ruthless nature. Nevertheless he has promoted Levenport’s cause admirably.   I would like to turn over a few opportunities with him, should he be of a mind.  I left my card.”  Arthur’s  chair seemed to make him uncomfortable;  “Francine?  What happened to you there?  What could you have found so disturbing…”

“As to so nearly rob me of my senses?”  Francine closed her eyes because they were still full of the island.  “In faith, Arthur, I do not know.  It besets me still.   From the moment our coach’s wheels touched The Rock I believe I knew what I should discover there.  Then there was the vision of those two young people on the hill which somehow further convinced me.”

“The stone…”

“Yes!  In the stable yard, of all places!   How could something so noble occupy so lowly a space?   Who could have cobbled all about it yet left it exposed, if they had not shared my experience?  You see what it tells me, Arthur?  I am not alone!  There are others who know, or knew, the worth of it as certainly as I!” 

 “Does this not bring us closer to the answers we  seek?”

Francine scowled.  “I had hoped that would be so, until I tried to touch the stone.  Remember how the stone beneath your great oak charmed me so strongly I I was powerless but to fall upon it and hold it near to me?  This was the reverse case.  Although I feel compelled to get near it, reach out to it, even feel its warmth; when I tried to touch it I thought my head might explode!   It thrust my hand aside so brutally I did indeed fear I should faint.”  She drew a deep breath to steady her voice above the turmoil she felt inside; “And yet now, with the night, it summons me, just as before.  I fear it, Arthur:  I am afraid for myself!” 

Francine had risen to her feet before the window, her fingers gripping the sill with such intensity Arthur was concerned they might break.   His heart bursting, he rose to stay her arm.  “This is a temptation to which we may not yield,”  he insisted.

“’We’?   The temptation is mine, surely.  It is I who cannot be trusted.”

“And I must bear the fault for bringing you here.”  With a steady hand he drew back a frond of hair that had fallen across her cheek, and stroked the pale flesh at the arch of her neck.  Her breathing slipped from her control once more.

“Sir?”  She whispered.

“Is young Samuel safe abed?”   His hand rested about her shoulder now, and she should have resisted such familiarity, but somehow she could not.

“He is,” She answered; then, unsteadily:  “Would you protect me, Arthur, from myself?”

“I would.”  There was sternness, but also honesty in his words; “I would not leave you on your own tonight.  You need not fear:  the couch looks conducive to a night of rest.  I will take it gladly.”

“Nevertheless, sir, my reputation…”

“Ah, the bubble reputation!” He smiled down upon her, but kindly, and at this she gave way, melting shamelessly into his arms – that full embrace she had longed to repeat ever since she sought it once in fright at the discharge of a servant’s gun.

“Alas yes,”  She managed to say;  “It seems if you stay to ward me, my reputation is forfeit…”

“If I leave, can I trust you not to throw yourself on the mercies of that tide?”

“And there, alas, no, for the call of the place is quite beyond my power of resistance…”

“So, am I condemned to take a chair outside your door?”

“I might escape through the window – the fall is not far…”

“So,”  He said. “I must be in the room with you, it seems.”

“I would have to know, Arthur.  I would have to be sure that we…”

“You do know.”  Arthur replied.  “Since the day we first met, you have known.  We both knew.”

“Indeed, did we?  Was I so remiss?”   A small tear of affection escaped onto her cheek.  “I am glad, sir.  That couch seems fearfully uncomfortable, to me.”

Part Thirty-Four

Candle in the Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recognise him, Peter?”   Vincent asked.

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

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

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

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

“Should Goodridge?”  Peter asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Simeon would know,”  Peter thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter nodded dumbly.

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

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

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

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

“Why?  I don’t get it!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well then nothing can be done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

Part 35

Cabbages and Kings

Lesley greeted her mother’s head around her bedroom door with a groan; “Morning already?”

“There’s a very odd little chap at the front door wants to speak to you,” Her mother said;  “Come and take him off my hands, will you?  I have to go to work.   Oh, and don’t let him in…”

#

“I’ve found someone.”

Lesley regarded Roderick blearily:  “How sweet!   But I thought you were a monk?”

“No.  Someone who’ll take you back to Peter – if you want to go.”

“Come in.”  Lesley’s invitation had not a trace of enthusiasm.  “You do know what time it is?”

“For those of my Order this is already late in the day.”

“And for those in my Order this is seven-thirty, and still night-time.”  Lesley slithered towards kitchen and coffee   “Go away.”   Eyes closed, she switched on the kettle.  “Anyway, how do you know where he is?”

“I just do.  I had plenty of time to check around yesterday and he wasn’t that difficult to find.  You have to trust me.  And you have to put water in that kettle.”  

After dropping Lesley at her home and leaving their getaway vehicle for the police to discover on the motorway Roderick had returned to his hotel, promising Lesley he would trace Peter who, he was certain, would not have left Levenport.  

“Logical, really.  Only one place he could have gone.  You do want to go back to him, don’t you?”

Lesley opened her eyes:  “Bleedin’ ‘ell, Roderick, how do you do it?   You’ve only been in the house about ten minutes and you’re getting right on my tits already!  It was you telling me I didn’t have any choice, wasn’t it?”

“Which we believe to be true; but we’re a religious order, not a fascist cult.  We won’t force you to do it.”

“Yeah…yeah, of course I want to go back to him; just not…”

“Very well, then,” Roderick’s tone bore a hint of severity; “I wish you were a bit more enthused by the whole idea, but that’s a positive, I suppose.  Get dressed – your transport’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

“Decisive, that’s me,” Lesley stretched, wakening, in spite of herself, at the thought of returning to Peter. “Rodders – thanks.”

“What for?”

“For helping me through – for being right.  For being wise…”   She paused briefly “Oh, and for making the coffee.  Stuff’s  in that cupboard, mine’s milk and no sugar.”

Roderick grinned, calling after her as she headed for the stairs,   “The transport part, you won’t thank me for that.  Wait ’til you meet your chauffeur.”

Lesley did the best she could with twenty minutes and even had time to quaff half a cup of coffee before her ‘transport’ arrived, in the form of an ancient Luton box van once white.   It identified itself by a sign-written scrawl along the side; ‘Cyril Sixmith, Grocer’.   It stood, ancient diesel engine rattling ominously, as a balding middle-aged man, descended from the driver’s door to greet her.

“Hallo, lass!”   Said Cyril Sixsmith, examining her closely through huge pebble spectacles.    “So you’m my cargo, eh?”

Lesley hoped her breath was fresher than his. “Cargo?  Oh, Cyril, you old romantic!  You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet, don’t you?”

Cyril cocked a luxuriant eyebrow; “Lizzie Walker, still lippy, then?  You want to watch that tongue o’ your’n. In you get!”

“Alright, but don’t you dare tell my mother!”   With a rueful glance at Roderick, she moved towards the passenger door.  

“Oh-ho, no, not in there, me darlin’!”

Roderick was rolling up the rear shutter.   Within, the van was stacked with neat tiers of vegetable boxes on racks, supported by less orderly cardboard cartons full of tinned goods.   Cyril had created a narrow passageway through the middle of this display.

“There’s a nice little cubby-‘ole on the right,”  Cyril said.  “Just get yer’self tucked in – and don’t knock over me sprouts!”

Roderick gave a supporting hand.  “Never fear, this won’t be for long.”

Lesley knew and to some extent trusted Cyril.   Everyone knew him.   A Levenport institution for decades, he delivered vegetables and tinned food through the town, scattering insurance claims wherever he passed.   His vehicle was a history book of scrapes and bumps, battle-scars from a hundred minor encounters, each testifying to his legendary prowess as a driver.

“The accommodation’s a delight,” Said she doubtfully, bestowing an arch look upon Roderick.  “The question is, do I really want to go back to him this much?”

The space which Cyril had cleared nestled among boxes of tomatoes, bags of sprouts which teetered dangerously, and weighty-looking potato sacks.    She levered himself into it with some difficulty, doing her best to make a cushion of some vintage cabbage leaves.   The shutter rolled down, leaving her verging on panic in evil-smelling darkness. With every intake of breath something green and unseen flapped against her nose.  There was a pause, then the engine revved and  the van shook itself like wet dog before setting about its purpose.

Lesley’s ride down into Levenport was not comfortable, for every bump in the old road threw the cartons and racks about her into threatening turmoil.   An apple dropped on her neck.   Her awareness of Cyril’s legendary myopia contributed substantially to her anxiety, for the van’s progress was peppered with swerves and sharp braking.  Now and again there was a bang as its ravaged body encountered some minor obstacle or another.  Outraged hooting broke out on  one occasion, accompanied by shouting and a tortured scream of brakes.   In her imagination Lesley saw herself plunging to her death among showers of vegetables and tinned soup, when Cyril finally missed the road altogether.

 It soon became obvious, even without any kind of view, that they were headed straight for The Rock.  If a steady rhythm of waves or a change in engine sound as the van made its way onto the causeway were not enough, a crunching protest from the gearbox as it ascended into the little village at the foot of The Rock was enough to convince the van’s cramped passenger of her whereabouts.  

Then – anxiety.  The van scrooped and screeched to a shuddering halt.   Lesley heard Cyril alight from his cab, then his rolling footsteps as he marched down the side of the load area.

“Sorry about this.”   It was a woman’s voice.    “It’s a hired car – I tried to turn round and I didn’t have enough room.   We’ll have it clear in a jiff.      You don’t have any oranges in there, do you?  I was going into town to get them, but since you’re here…”

Cyril’s muffled reply was to the effect that no, he didn’t have any oranges.  “I only carries me orders, Get’s stale, see?”

“Onions, then?  Some greens, maybe?   Can I have a look?”

Without waiting for permission, the woman was raising the shutter.  Her face peered in as it rolled up and Lesley knew instantly she was looking for more than fruit and veg.   She cowered into her space, making herself as small as she could.

“Don’t you go opening my van!”   Cyril sounded genuinely annoyed.

“I’m sorry!  I only wanted a look!”   Charlie’s voice was all innocence.  Her face was set in steel.

“’Tis my property.   ‘Tis private, right?”

Lesley could just see the woman through her camouflage of boxes.  A thin disguise of femininity did nothing to hide the coiled spring within her.  She was obviously a professional. 

Cyril had joined Charlie at the back.    “See?  You have got some oranges!   What else have you got down behind there?”  She made to climb into the display.  Cyril was equally resolute.  He moved her gently, but firmly backwards.

“I dissent sell from the van, missus,”   Cyril said severely.  “I aren’t insured f’it, an’ you aren’t goin’ upsettin’ all my stock.”

Charlie’s voice had an edge:  “You deliver groceries here, on the island, don’t you?”

“Twice weekly.  What of it?”

“Where?  Which houses?”

Cyril’s presence was quite substantial, and he was not to be bullied.  “I don’t think as ‘ow that’s any of your bis’niss.”   He reached for the shutter, beginning to pull it back down.  Charlie’s hand stopped him.

“Now look!   I don’t know ‘oo you thinks you are, missus, but I think I’ve ‘ad enough!”  Meeting Charlie eye to eye, he pushed her hand aside, barged his bulk between her and the van, and slammed the shutter down.   From within, Lesley heard the rattling of a lock being secured:  from within though, she could only imagine the turmoil in Charlie’s mind.   Charlie had been instructed to maintain her cover, yet Charlie had more than a suspicion her quarry was inside Cyril’s van.  Backing off gave her great pain.  No further conversation occurred, so she was fairly convinced Charlie’s part in her immediate future was concluded, for now. Cyril’s stomped back to his cab and the van’s further progress were it possible, was even a little less well controlled.

From inside the hired car with which they had replaced their stricken official vehicle, Charlie and Klas watched its departure.

“Anything?”   Klas asked.

“I couldn’t see anything.   The old bugger wouldn’t get out of the way…”

“You could have made it official.”

“We could follow it, too, but no.   Low profile, remember?   Besides, Klas my darling, I want to know more.  This isn’t just one errant youth we are looking for now, it’s a whole organisation!  He has lots of help, this young man, doesn’t he?”

Klas glanced apprehensively skyward.  “Do we include seagulls in that?”  The old white van was puttering and pottering away up the steep road to the summit of the rock.  “A grocer and a flock of seagulls.”  He was beginning to wonder how he would frame his report. “You think the lad was in there?”

“Possibly.  It’s going the wrong way – there’s something not quite right, though:  the old boy was sweating like a pig; it’s not that hot this morning.”

“How should we deal with the van?”

“Wait for it to come back.   Then follow it.”

#

Peter had slept a little more soundly after dispatching a mass of his pent-up psychic energy into the ether; yet his mind, even sleeping, was full with the things he had seen.   Although the discharge was aimless he had felt Melanie’s presence, felt her reach to accept the burden he had launched, and her pain as she took it to her.   They were sharing the things they saw, both now and in the time to come.  He was seeing with her eyes, her thoughts, she with his.  He saw the man who sat across from her, etched that face upon his mind:  saw those features fade as her consciousness was lost, and she left him.   He had hurt her, of that he was sure, and not for the first time he shrank back, fearful of his own power.

What wakened him – maybe faint footsteps in the corridor outside, perhaps the careful closing of his door?   Aware of a human presence, skin prickling at sounds of  furtive movement, suppressed breathing – someone, something, in his room behind him, now moving stealthily past the foot of his bed – bracing himself ready to spring he kept perfectly still; feigning sleep.

The intruder was near, approaching.   Breath on his face – familiar maybe, but rank with the odour of cabbage.  

“Hi.” Lesley said.

He could not respond.   He couldn’t move or speak, in case this too was a dream.

She said:  “I keep walking out on you, don’t I?”

“Yeah.”    Peter could hear his own heart beating.  It was so loud, he was sure Lesley could hear it too.  But then again, he was still half-expecting to wake up.

“Well, Petey, we will discuss it, but not now.  I have had a fried merkin of a morning, and I need to catch up on my sleep.”

#

The office window overlooked  the River Thames.   Jeremy Piggott jealously protected this small symbol of his status; threatening, blackmailing, or quite mercilessly backstabbing anyone who suggested he move.  Demotion was the one thing which could remove the nameplate from his door: demotion was always a threat, and in circumstances such as these it loomed very large indeed.  Leather sofas faced each other at either side of the window.  They could accommodate as many as eight people, but today they seated just three.   Jeremy felt at home among their cushions.  Charlie and Klas looked less comfortable.

“So, in a nutshell, would you say we have sod all?”  Jeremy accused his operatives,  “You haven’t even turned up the car, have you?”

Charlie said:  “I came in late on this, chief, as you know….”

“Not that late!   Not so late you couldn’t read a number plate , Charlie.   You lost him.  Too casual, way too casual!”

“The rain, the birds…it was dark.  Klas read it, before the accident put him out for three hours.  Now he can’t remember it…”

Klas said:  “I think I must have read it.  It will come back to me…”

“Care to put a time on that?” Piggott snarled.

Klas shrugged.  “It will.  One cannot predict these things, but it will.  The whole thing is rather Extraordinary.”  he murmured.

“What is?”

“To be attacked – really attacked – by birds in this fashion.  I have never known such a thing.”

Charlie asked:   “Wasn’t there a theory around the Goodridge assassination attempt?  Something about a bird dropping a piece of paper?   Ah!  It was the boy’s picture on that paper which led us….”

“Well you should have been ready for the bloody seagulls, then, shouldn’t you?”

“They were really determined, the birds!”   Klas mused.  “A methodical attack, almost.   It was as if they knew…..”

“Is he quite with us?”   Piggott asked Charlie crudely.   “Should we be re-naming this lad ‘Bird-man’ or something?”

“They did assist in his escape.  Of course, you have to think ‘coincidence’, but don’t you find that strange?”

“Oh, very odd!”   Jeremy seethed.   “Anyway he’s gone.  Or at least he’s gone to ground and we can’t find him without causing a major ruckus.”   Piggott sighed, gazing out across the tranquil river for what was beginning to look like a final time. “Is he on that Rock thing – the island?”

“Unlikely.  There was a big storm and the tide was running high.  No, if I had to pick I’d say he went north.  The main roads were still busy so it would be easy to blend in.”

  “And your reasoning?”

 “We know the Fenton girl disappeared from Seaborough, don’t we?”  Charlie said;  “she was last seen near the fish-dock there: the harbourmaster’s records are interesting, because almost all the boats which left on that tide were back within three days:  only one – the Marie Helene – stayed out for five days and landed a very small catch, for such a long trip.”

“So what: a day, two days fishing, three-days not fishing, but transporting a passenger instead?”  Klas asked.

“It’s possible.”  Charlie nodded.  “That would take Miss Fenton north of the Border, wouldn’t it?   Might be interesting to take a look at the coast around a day and a half’s sailing away?”

“The boy went north, too.”  Jeremy said.  “When he gave Howard’s crew the slip in Manchester, he didn’t reappear for twenty-four hours.   That could have put him in Scotland, too.  Two separate trips, one shared destination?   So now explain to me why the boy went all the way back home after that little trip when he was going to go north again within twenty-four hours!!”

“I don’t know!”  Charlie protested, “We needed Howard’s ears in that little family meeting of theirs, but he lit off and left me impossibly stretched at very short notice!  Anyway, this is pure conjecture.  For all I know he might have taken a ferry for St. Malo, or somewhere.”

Piggott grunted;  “Where’s our Howard now?”

“He’s dropped from sight.   The Fenton woman is with him, or was as far as Reading, then they shook off our tail and vanished.”

“Seriously?  We didn’t actually lose them, did we?” 

Charlie ignored the sarcasm.  “We can’t be everywhere, chief.  I had to put local lads on it.   It was the second string anyway, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know, now.  Howard’s resigned; the email was in my mailbox this morning.”

“So what do we do, drop this?   Everything’s gone quiet and the original problem is history now.”

Jeremy Piggott shook his head.   “I would.  I would drop it, but I was daft enough to raise the stakes and now I’m being pushed.   Anyhow, I can’t help the twinges I get.  With Election Year coming up and Goodridge such an obvious choice for President there’s something larger afoot which I think the Cartwright lad has somehow tuned into.  He’s already saved Goodridge’s bacon once; Psychic?  Well, whatever, I think we need him at least where we can see him – and we’ve got competition.”

“Al Khubar?”  Charlie asked. 

“Yes,” Jeremy nodded, adding seriously.   “They’ve got twinges too; and as far as they’re concerned, he’s either on their side or dead.  They may have financed that first shooting under disguise of a commercial contract, but they know Goodridge is a danger.”  Jeremy watched a Thames lighter working its way slowly under Westminster Bridge.  “He’s a man with a mission.  Apparently he gets most of his policies direct from God, and God’s told him to kick the shit out of every Islamic State his best-dressed ICBMs  can reach.   Oh, and if that means sequestering the odd oil well or two, then so much the better.   He’ll eat the Crown Prince alive.”

“So it would be fortunate if Goodridge’s path to the White House was blocked…”

“My CIA contacts tell me it would be unbelievably fortunate:  but we can’t be involved – not directly, anyway.  We can’t be seen to interfere openly with either the democratic process, or the Goodridge process.  And we can’t allow the tabloid press a feast like the Cartwright boy, either;”

“Ah!”   Klas was intrigued: “Let the President be wasted.  Very intriguing!”

Jeremy smiled grimly:  “Can you imagine?   Look, our people are working on this, OK?  Goodridge isn’t President yet, and if his God is really wise he never will be.  For the sake of the status quo, and in the interests of avoiding a Middle-Eastern bloodbath,  find that lad, put him in a very dark room and strap him down  – just don’t let him do the obstructing!”

Part Thirty-Six

Seekers in Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Shumal had left, Schulmann and Marak exchanged glances.

“You did not elaborate.”  Marak accused.

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

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

And to speak of witchcraft…

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

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

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

“So, all is well…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama?  Is all well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

#

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.

Part Thirty Eight

Maud’s Obsession and Melanie’s Dream

Although the décor of Mountsell Park’s Venetian Salon seemed, in general, too lavish for Francine’s tastes, she enjoyed a particular large south-facing window at which, in her enforced idleness, she would spend sometimes hours of her mornings dreaming up her ideas for formal gardens that could so enhance Arthur’s well-kept, but somewhat masculine landscape.  This morning, however, though her eyes beheld they scarcely saw.  She was seriously troubled.

Upon arriving home from their excursion to St. Benedict’s Rock, she had tucked an already slumbering Samuel into his bed before taking a late supper wih Arthur from trays in the withdrawing room.   It was a restrained affair, far from the tète-a-tète either had anticipated, each hesitating, though much wanting to pursue their passion of the previous night.  In the end they took to their individual rooms with the sweetness of one kiss as compensation.  Alone, Francine had scribbled the letter which now waited concealed within her escritoire, for urgent dispatch to Maud Reybath, at Bleanstead, though by what means she had no clue.  She had slept late.

The mantel clock had struck the half-afterr-eleven when Arthur discovered her, her slippered feet up upon the sofa as she dozed lightly, a book unregarded in her lap.   He came to stand behind her, his powerful, gently determined hands finding the bare flesh at her shoulders.  She stemmed their advance with restraining fingers:  “Desist, sir!”

He obeyed immediately, “Because you fear discovery, my love, or for other reasons?”

She rested her cheek against his forearm; “Oh, Arthur! There are a thousand reasons!  If I were ever free of all that boils inside me, of all my confusion.  You are right.  I shall always feel in danger of discovery here.”

“Confusion?  Inner torment?  This bodes ill!”  He said seriously, coming to sit beside her; “A thousand reasons you  could never be persuaded to become the mistress of this house?”

Francine smiled; “If when all is known, that were still your wish?”

“Most certainly!  I have sent for a goldsmith this very morning.   He will be here before nightfall, I guarantee.”

“Ah!”  Francine sensed an opportunity, “Then if I have good news may I also send a messenger?   Why are you laughing, sir?”

“Because you said ‘if I have good news’ – that implies a certain consent, does it not?  Madame, you may send as many messengers as you want!”

“Nay, I need only one.”   As the humour left her, Francine rose from the settle and crossed to her favourite window, head bowed to avoid her lover’s discriminating eyes.  She was silent for a while, allowing Arthur, who sensed her need for time, to wait pensively.  At last she murmured, only half aloud:   “No, I may not do this.”

“Do what?”  Arthur prompte her gently.

“Deceive you.”

“Ah.  Was that your intent?”

“I need to get a letter to Maud Reybath…”

“She of Bleanstead?  Samuel’s aunt?  No deception is necessary there, surely?”

“We both know that ‘Aunt’ is a courtesy title, for my dearest boy and I have no relations in this world.  Oh, how to begin?   Arthur, I must forewarn you concerning Maud Reybath.”

“I have not had the pleasure of this woman’s acquaintance.  Does she pose some threat to you?”

“No, Arthur, no.   We have always been – were, are- friends!   Maud first made herself known to me in my very early days in the care of Mr Fletcher, my former guardian, while Samuel was still a baby.  We met at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Mountchester; I was seeking answers to my situation and she seemed to single me out.   She too, as it transpired, was new to Mountchester and in need of friends.   She perceived my shyness in society to be a characteristic she shared; so we revealed as much of our histories as either of us knew – which, in my case was barely a minute of explanation – and discovered we had this much in common: we were both foundlings, Arthur!”

“When you say ‘foundlings’, d’ye mean Miss Reybath was abandoned on a doorstep too?”

“As she explained it, yes!  Yes indeed, exactly that!  Although she was a matter of months old when she was found and in a location in common with some few others – before the gates of a monastery!   The monks took her in, educated her and raised her in their faith until, upon a certain day that was claimed as her eighteenth birthday they received an allowance that was sufficient to provide for her independence.”

Arthur pursed his lips, “A pretty story.  An anonymous benefactor.”

“When we met she was living in her own rooms.  We were close for years, and she seemed inclined to marry a young solicitor’s clerk for a while, but as it transpired there was a higher mission  – in the end Mountchester proved too much for Maud.  She had saved enough from her allowance to purchase the property in Bleanstead and this she did.  I was visiting her for the first time in her new home when I met you.”

Arthur frowned;  “I see this journey has a destination, though I cannot hazard as yet what it may be.  So far you have revealed no deception, unless you intend to depart by the light of the moon and live with your friend Maud?  When you first arrived here, did you not fear putting her in danger by leading your pursuers to her?”

“I did, very much.”  Francine’s eyes were distant, even lost, letting her train of thought move freely.  “No sooner had I returned to Mountchester after that visit than the pursuit, the menace that drew me to your door began.  I was being watched; my guardian threatened.”

“And you believed that whatever endangered you might implicate your friend as well.”  Arthur raised a quizzical eyebrow, “Perhaps in some manner more particular than the mere risk of damage:  what is it you share with this woman, Francine?  Would the same villains we despatched at the fallen oak have an equal interest in her?”

Sighing resignedly, Francine turned to meet Arthur’s eye.  “You must know this, although the story is not really mine to tell, and I pray the knowledge will not cause you pain.

“When Maud’s time came  to leave  the monastery the Father Abbott told her that those she believed to have abandoned her were a conclave of a church he referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’.  This close band of monks had told him she was the child of a seer who died at the hands of their enemies, so they left her to be raised, hidden in the anonymity of his monastery.   Now of age, she must continue her mother’s dangerous mission, which was to lead them to the one they called ‘The Pilgrim’.  They believed ‘The Pilgrim’ alone could read a Holy Scripture they kept in a secret place, and with his guidance they might re-write all the evils of history”   Francine took a deep breath.  “Their judgement of Maud was justified, because she saw something in me that would lead her to you.  It is you, Arthur.  I am certain, as is she.  You are the one they seek with great urgency.  You are The Pilgrim.”

His eyes were kindly when he laughed, she thought; a humour turned in upon himself with no hint of mockery.  He did not believe her; she scarcely expected him to, but neither did he scoff or ridicule.  Instead he came to her as she loved him to do, and closed her explanation with a kiss.

#

  Melanie Fenton was beginning a dream.  The dream opened with a brief, almost subliminal image of a frightened woman, a woman in a nurse’s uniform staring at her.  It seemed, although for sure she could not tell, the cause of this woman’s fear was none other than herself, but the scene flashed by so quickly it was gone almost as soon as it came.

Then there was sunlight; the weak, struggling sunlight of an English morning, and there was a scent of rosewater.  There were warm sheets enfolding her, a soft pillow of duck-down cushioning her cheek.  Behind heavy brocade curtains (which her maid had drawn when she brought her tea) and beyond the open lattice windows a blackbird announced its entitlement in song, with a choir of garden birds as witnesses.   She loved their music, was loath to rise when she might spend the hours here, just on the borders of sleep, listening.

She was thirsty.  Lazily, she rolled to her other side, taking in as she did so the soft, warm colours, the hangings and the rich furnishings of the room.   There was no doubting its tranquil beauty, yet, although in a part of her mind she had never seen this place before, another part of her barely noticed its charm; was even slightly disapproving of a tall oriental vase which stood upon a what-not in the corner.  And there was a passing of time, how much she did not know, or care.  When she reached for her tea it was still warm: the maid had not yet brought the ewer of hot water she needed to wash, something which struck her as faintly unusual, for she was certain the hour was already late.   But then, there was an expectation, a frisson of excitement, too.   She could not account for this, though she felt she should have a reason.

The tea roused her a little.  She slipped her feet over the side of the bed, sat up. Her nightgown rode up over her knees and she sat, for some minutes it seemed, inspecting them.   They were, she thought, quite passable knees.

Satisfied as to the acceptability of these particular joints she stood and walked across the floor with them, her bare feet tingling at the chill of the boards.   At  the furthest of the windows she paused in her night attire to take in the colours of the day, quite uncaring that the gardeners would be at work outside, aware how the thin cloth which was all she had to cover her might fail to entirely do so in some respects.   It would amuse her, this particular morning, to attract the percipient upward glance of a young face, see how she might captivate its owner, and then how hastily it turned away when it realised who it looked upon.

Her way took her past the cheval mirror, her dressing mirror. She was surprised by her own face:  the delicate features, the swan-like neck.  So poised, so assured, so refined.   And so old!   In the unforgiving light of day, she saw herself as only a woman of advancing years might see.   Mirror, mirror…..

“You are thirty-six;” the mirror said.

“Five.  I’m thirty-five.”   Was she?

“You will be thirty-six soon, my dear.   You are no longer in the bloom of youth, you know.”

“Is not my skin still smooth; my hair still fair; my figure neat?”

“Not as neat as once it was.  Turn to the side.”

This was a silent conversation, but real enough, nonetheless.  She stood critically examining her body this way and that, making certain she was sufficiently far from the window before she shrugged her nightgown from her shoulders – there were things that even a young gardener should not be allowed to see.  She scarcely recognised her own body.   Where had the time gone?

Hurriedly, she reached down to retrieve the pool of filmy cloth around her feet.  She should not be here in this vulnerable state, in the middle of her room, knowing what was going to happen.   What?   What was going to happen?

Only as she straightened, drawing the gown back over her breasts, did she catch sight of the figure in the open doorway.  The dark figure of one who had entered silently – who had been watching her for – oh, how long?

She felt the blood rushing to her neck, her cheeks.  

“You have discovered me, sir!”  But despite her instinct to blush, she did not move to cover herself further.

“I apologise.”   The figure said in a dark voice.  “Should I withdraw?”

She did not answer.  She moved back towards her bed, sitting primly upon it.

The figure came further into the room, closing the door behind him.  “You think I should have let him die.”

At this she shook her head: not emphatically, but with sorrow.   “I could not possibly wish that.   He is my husband.”

“Even having seen him?   Last night I thought…”

“Last night I was…confused.   He is so, so very ill.  How soon may this pass?”

“If by pass you mean recover?”  The dark intruder drew closer to her.   “He will not.   I restarted a heart that wished to beat no longer.  I could not restart the man.”

“Then…”

“Then with time he will die.  We both must seek new masters.   I think you already have yours.”

Ah, mine!   Why did a faint rancour come into her mouth when she thought of that ‘new master’?  Why was there a disappointment, a feeling of betrayal?  Oh, she knew why.   A fateful conversation of a January afternoon here, upon this very bed.  So soon after their first meeting, so soon after she had committed herself completely to his care:  but so late, far, far too late to climb back from the mire of discredit she had willingly entered in return for his attentions.

Matthew Ballantine had no wish for there ever to be an heir. He abhorred the thought of children.  She had gone so far for him, down the road to disreputability.   And now the years would slip by without hope, without the consolation, ever a chance at motherhood!   She took a sip of tea, a moment to reflect and measure what she was about to say.  What she was about to do!

“You are very perceptive.”  She said.  “And a little familiar.”

“I am honest.  We both know this.   He is your lover, and soon he will be my master.  But he is less your lover than you would wish, and not the lover you need.”

The dark man stood right over her now, his shirt open so she could see the sweat glistening on his ebony skin.

“Have a care!”   She tore her eyes away from the brazenness of his manhood to meet the hunger in his stare.  “We both must serve him.”

He was not to be diverted.  “You bade me come.”

“That was last night.  I was,,.”

“Confused?”

“Yes.”

He placed his hands upon her shoulders.  They were gentle, but strength pulsated from them.   “Then should I go?”

She did not answer; could not.   Once their eyes had met there was no turning, no going back.  There was such a heat within her, a desperation which only this man might fill.   And so she stood, and took him to her, and the dream faded, and stillness returned.

There were three people by the bed.  One, a technician, turned and adjusted the monitors, his concentrated expression lit by their glow.  The second person present wore the uniform of nurse in charge, the third was a doctor.   He was speaking.

“There is absolutely nothing irregular.  I can find no changes in the girl’s condition and I take it there isn’t anything wrong with the equipment?”

The technician shook his head.  “No. All fine here.”

“So just run this by me again,”  said the clinician.  “What did the nurse say?”

The nurse in charge shrugged helplessly.  “She screamed.  That’s what brought me in here.  She said the patient’s eyes had opened and stared at her.  That’s why she knocked the drip over, she said.   Then she said the monitors went wild…those were her words.  They were throwing up peaks consistent with violent activity.”

“And when you came in?”

“Everything was normal.  As you see it now.  Except for the nurse – she was in hysterics.”

“And on her own.”   The Doctor said.

“Yes.  Her partner seems to have taken it on herself to go home because she was “ill”.  She did not trouble to report to me first, unfortunately.”

“Very well.”  The clinician nodded.  “Let the new team come in.   Make certain this Aneesha woman is transferred to less demanding duties.  She should never be allowed near this patient again – you understand?”

He need not have been concerned.  Aneesha was already in the air, on a flight to England.

Part Thirty-Nine

Out of Dreams…

Could Peter reconcile himself to the extraordinary peace that came over him whenever Lesley was close by?  Maybe not.  Maybe his experience of love was not so deep he could harvest contentment there, although his reluctance to slip from  beside her already slumbering form in his bed generated a sweet longing which could not be in the least disturbed by an unmistakeable odour of root vegetables.  Nevertheless he had slept enough when she had not, so he left her to her rest.  There was much to do. 

There were so many questions to ask.   Once he had closed the door on the room Vincent had allocated to him it was easy to become intimidated and lost, for Crowley House’s interior, which upon his first visit had seemed a paragon of modern luxury, now tormented him with its maze of carpeted corridors, twisting past door after featureless door, cheaply reproduced plaster mouldings on granite plinths, and reproduction light fittings that conspired to throw him from his purpose.   The things about the house that had meaning for him were all nineteenth century features a contemporary architect had seen fit to bury:  he sought the honesty of that original regency chamber which had framed his vision of the lady who had called him Arthur.  The cavernous candle-lit space from which she had hailed him, even though he had only seen it in a mirror, had greater significance than this modern frippery.  He somehow guessed that if Simeon and Vincent succeeded in convening their ‘summit’ within these walls that would be their guests’ desire too; but for their own reasons.  Those who knew of the Truth Stone’s existence must surely hope it had suffered the minimum disturbance? 

 In Peter’s opinion if their hosts thought they could somehow control access to the ‘Stones’ they were deluded, although he had to admit Simeon seemed unlikely to fall victim to delusions. 

Once he had extricated himself from the temptations of his room, for reasons he might have found difficult to explain Peter headed not for the courtyard garden with its allure of exotic butterflies and mind-altering rock, but for the roof.  It was the right choice.  Emerging from narrow stairs into a chaotic acre of high chimneys and low lead guttering, the random pitches of a score of roofs made instant sense.  This was the glorious incompetence of Lord Crowley’s design made manifest, evidence of Quimple the architect’s genius in bringing it to fruition.   Yes, Matthew Ballantine’s efforts had resurrected the place from the ravages of the storm, but the handwriting of both the mad old general and his draughtsman’s masterwork was plain.

Beneath low grey cloud the winter air from the bay had a keen edge.  Peter sheltered from its worst afflictions by hunkering down on the landward side of one of the main chimneys and finding some warmth there, almost as if a fire burned in a grate somewhere below.  It was still too cold for comfort; too cold, almost, to think.  But he had much to think about.

In poor winter daylight the lights of the Lord Crowley Inn across the Causewaytwinkled like apologetic stars.  The ‘Lord Crowley’, one-time  ‘Roper’s Hotel’, where the old campaigner had pitched his tent for his assault upon the dignity of the rock.  There had been the ruins of a monasteryhere then – long abandoned, but once a source of powerful rumours – tales of Devil worship, even human sacrifice.     In a cave somewhere far beneath him the bones of Toqus, Crowley’s manservant, knelt in eternal atonement.  He knew how to find his way back to it, and so did Melanie, his erstwhile friend.  What made him think of that?  At this precise moment…

With nothing but the intimacy of an offshore breeze to punctuate his personal silence, Peter could feel at last as though some pieces of his jigsaw were falling into place. 

In his understanding those who, by living here, comprised some sort of guard around The Truth Stone were placed in two camps:  Toby and the dancing female figure in the  hill cottage were true residents and in the person of Toby, at least, well versed in the Rock’s history, though otherwise free of any active part in events, whereas  Vincent and Estelle had a more active role, close to Simeon and ready to follow his spiritual lead.

Peter’s father would have been gratified that his son had remembered ‘Simeon’ as a recurring presence in The Bible – mentioned in Genesis, present when Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem, a relation of the Christ child, and a church member in Antioch.  All individual people, of course, but Peter was reasonably convinced ‘Simeon’ had chosen the name as a nod towards his self-described entity as an ‘Ethereal’, one without a physical form and therefore impervious to the passage of time.   He could adopt various identities that would appear differently to different people: to Peter who needed his leadership he was the brilliant and misunderstood seagull, to Estelle just ‘Simon’,a messy, quarrelsome inconvenience, because that was all she needed.  

Vincent was the intermediary:  he had the wealth, the ways and means to make profound changes possible.  Vincent must understand the mission Simeon had given Peter – to read the lost messages of the Truth Stone and reset instinctive forces that had become drowned by the tidal waves of time.  Estelle should be his able lieutenant, although (so far) she seemed to share no such high ideals.  She was politically motivated, a missionary, whose ambitious ideas were helping to steer Vincent towards Simeon’s ‘summit’ meeting.  From all that had been said, Simeon would appear to go along with this idea, even favour it, and there Peter’s understanding hit a wall.  Why?  What was Simeon’s interest in bringing together these heads of states?  Did they have some function in the performance of communicating with the stones?   The timing was astute and there was every likelihood their summit would happen, but how did that benefit the grand plan?

“I’m a puppet!”  Peter shouted at the sky, “A passenger!  You’re using me, Simeon, and I want your reasons!  Come if you dare!  Come and answer!”

The sky made no reply.  There were few gulls about, and none with a tell-tale orange diamond on its neck.   Simeon was elsewhere.

At some point Peter must have closed his eyes, or conceded to the struggle in his brain.   He began to see himself as a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the wind; finding how little effort was needed to to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: he might even attune to the thoughts of his family inside.   Yet there were things he still could not do, answers down there he might not yet find:  and, although the wires of his soul glowed hot with all they had to watch and store, there was more room to learn:  there was a flame of frustration too.

That which followed did so with such subtlety he could not have said, exactly, when a change occurred.   One moment he was flying with the mad freedom of a bird in a gale, the next he was closeted inside a car again, just as he had been on the stormy night of his escape from Charlie and Klas, the denizens of the unmarked van.  He was seated with Toby at his side, squinting ahead into darkness.   He had just enough light to see they had safely clerared the Causeway and gained the road that climbed St. Benedict’s Rock, yet somehow the vivid glare of car headlights had reduced to a sorrowful glow which did little but throw vague shadows on the cliffside to the left, leaving the way in front mysteriously shrouded by night and rain.   Progress was much slower, also, as the wheels bumped and banged with metallic irritability over rough stone, tossing him less like an ocean swell than an unmade, mudded track.  Steadying himself against this gut-churning motion he pressed against the seat, which was hard leather, reaching for a grab-handle:  he found, instead, a heavy sash.

“What’s happened to the lights?”  He asked of Toby.   He was becoming aware of a pervasive smell of camphor.

“Lights?  What lights?”   The reply, unsteady with age, was not Toby’s voice.

“The headlights…..”   Peter’s words tailed away, acknowledging his foolishness.  For his eyes were becoming accustomed to the blackness; enough to see the outline of a swathed, sickly figure beside him.  This was not Toby: this was not the estate car with which he had just braved the wrath of Ocean.   This was a carriage, with a pair of horses to draw it, and headlights were oil-fed affairs in eighteen twenty-six.

“Don’t know what ye mean.   Head lights?  Have ye seen to me chair?   Is it at the gates?”  demanded Lord Crowley.

“Yes m’lord, it will be there.”   Peter knew that it would.   All accounts spoke of the old man being chair-born into his new house.  Lord Crowley fell silent.  Only his stentorian breaths could be heard above the grinding of wheels, the steady clack of hooves.   He seemed barely conscious, though whether comatose or merely dozing it was hard to tell.    After a while he emitted a tiny cry of distress.   This he repeated, as though talking in his sleep: soon recognisable words began to form.

“Don’t understand.  How could the mare do it to me, dammit?   How?”   Crowley’s wavering old voice asked of the wind and darkness.   “How can a woman….how can she?”

Rain beat against the glass of the carriage window, seeped around its wooden frame. The carriage dropped into a pothole with a sickening lurch.   The coachman cursed.   Peter reached out quickly to prevent his companion’s fragile form from toppling sideways.  There was so little weight in Crowley’s spare carcass he might have re-balanced him with a finger!   He settled the old man into a better position, tucking his rugs and blankets around him and.   Crowley seemed to recover himself for a moment, opening his tiny, almost sightless eyes.

“Thank ye.  That’ll do well.  Thank ye.”   Then he lapsed back into whatever chasm of his mind he called home.   He said nothing more, even when his carriage turned a final bend and the eccentric vista of his Great House opened out before it:  a grotesque shadow silhouetted by intermittent flickerings and glare from the troubled sky.   It is doubtful if he saw it.   Three servants greeted them as they drew up by the main door; their bodies huddled around a wicker wheelchair.  Between them they manoeuvred their master from the carriage, battling with its heavy door as it slammed back and forth in the storm.  Once, at least, this loosened beast escaped attention for long enough to deal the old Lord a heavy blow.   Peter felt this as if it was his own back that was smitten.  He was, for a brief while, inside Crowley’s body.   He felt everything:  the age, the pain, the hopeless despair of a man who has loved someone and lost them.

The grip of a  hand on his shoulder brought him to himself.  Lesley’s bright face was all the more illuminating against a grey winter sky.   “Hey, Pete, you alright mate?”

“Good, I guess!”  He said.

“You don’t look it.  You look like a dropped Raspberry Ripple!”  Better get you inside…”

#

At moon-rise over the Gulf the Khubali royal family’s helicopter chuttered homeward, its silhouette a little black wasp in the silver reflections on the sea.   The pilot did not disguise his relief at seeing the towers of the Hyatt and the King Abur Hospital, with their red navigation lights pass beneath him. He was, of necessity, a quiet, respectful man:  the seats behind him had supported many a crowned head, and conversation was not a strong suit in the Khubali Royal family.   Rarely, though, had he felt afraid of his passengers.   There was some quality, some undeniable menace, in the two figures seated at his back:  a malign presence which made the hair on the back of his neck prickle, made the sweat bead coldly on his forehead.   The creature to his left, a granite tower of a man, whose scars etched out the story of his life, sat in silence, hands clenching and unclenching to a secret inner rhythm.   To his right a slender, urbane figure, who might be a businessman on his way to a conference, a gunrunner or a common thief.   His unassuming appearance did nothing to betray his calling in life; nothing until, as the pilot had done, you looked into his eyes and saw the ice of death within.   Neither had spoken since he met them from the Prince’s private jet at Tehran.   The Prince’s army was small, select, and usually unspeaking.   Yet wordless as they were, the emanations of threat from these two killers were the most dreadful he had met.

They landed upon the helipad of a wealthy landowner a dozen miles north of the city, on the desert fringe.   Here, a quiet Mercedes glided to meet them.   Bourta and Yahedi slipped easily from the helicopter, to be whisked away.     The pilot saw them go without regret.  They had not thanked him, or exchanged a word; but they had not shot him either.  For this, he extended his own unspoken gratitude.   He had no doubt, if the covert nature of this journey were important enough, that he would be dead by now.

In the car, Salaiman Yahedi threw Bourta a questioning glance.  Few would venture to judge the granite man, at least within his earshot, but the marksman wondered, not for the first time, why he had permitted a witness to live.

“We leave a trail.”  Bourta said quietly.   “I know this.”

“The woman, the pilots?”

“I think, brother, it is meant to be so.   It is the will of Allah.”

Yahedi thought, privately, that he had no wish of his own to join Bourta in his quest for paradise.   “You seek this, then?”

“The royal pilots?  You would have us eliminate them?   Do we not have troubles enough?  No, I do not seek my martyrdom;  but I accept it if my master demands.”

The limousine whispered over the midnight sand.   Salaiman sighed.    “Ah, if only we knew:  who are our masters, Mahennis?  Tell me that.”

“Maybe not the ones we supposed?”   Bourta said quietly.   He was leaning forward as he spoke, his fingers running over the lower extremities of the partition which separated them from their driver, a sullen, moustachioed man of uncertain race or age.

“It will be armoured”.   Yahedi confirmed, speaking of the glass.  “Have we changed our route?”

Bourta nodded.   “The road to the West Town passed by us a kilometre since.   This is not a road I know.”

“We do not go to the Palace, then.”  The pair exchanged glances.  Salaiman reached down to the case at his feet, opening the latch with extreme care.  One by one he extracted the sections of the weapon it contained, passing them below the level of his knees to Bourta, who methodically assembled each piece.   In a matter of seconds, the big Algerian had a fully-primed sub-machine gun on his lap.   Two grenades lay on the seat to Yahedi’s left:  an automatic pistol rested beneath his hand.

There was an intercom.   Mahennis Bourta switched it on.   “Where are you taking us?”   He asked the driver, quietly.

If the moustachioed man had noticed the unsubtle change of atmosphere in the passenger compartment behind him, he did not show any sign of it.   His glance in the mirror was perfunctory, his answer non-committal.   “Not far.   Two minutes, that is all.”

Bourta smiled:  the slow, glittering ice-smile many had seen, few lived to remember.  “Drive carefully, friend.   Drive very carefully.”

The driver made no answer.

“Look in your mirror.”

When he did as he was bidden, he saw Bourta’s big hands clasping the black shadows of the two grenades.   Their message was unavoidable.

“Stop when we tell you to stop, O.K?    Or we all will meet in Paradise.”

The driver seemed unperturbed.    He merely nodded.

Part Forty

El Hacienda

Around a bend in the desert road, and still practically within sight of Al Khubar’s  South City business district, a white-walled hacienda-style estate lay sprawled upon rising ground against a backcloth of illuminated gardens.    Bourta and Yahedi  were chauffeured alongside its least elevated boundary wall, which was yet high enough to obstruct their vision of the villa at its heart.   They would not pursue this parallel path for long.   Two pillars crowned by sculptures of rampant lions framed bronzed double gates which parted expectantly as their limousine approached.  Closed windows, bullet-proof and sound-proof, stifled Yahedi’s vocal outrage at this lurid display from the hearing of the armed guards, who waved them through.

 Beyond, a driveway affecting to be made of crazy pavement led between cypress trees for some two hundred metres before it swept onto the forecourt area of the house. Blank stucco walls, interspersed with little windows of one-way glass stared out upon two other limousines, already drawn up before theirs..  A small group of figures, maybe four or five, were gathered in the luminescence of an open portico which admitted visitors to the inner courtyard.    The driveway ran with a thin film of water just deep enough to splash almost musically up into the wheel arches of the Mercedes as it passed.   To either side, huge fountains of irrigating water thrashed to and fro, symbolic of wealth the owner of this house must possess to defend himself and all that was his against the ravages of the desert sun.    In the Kingdom, water was as negotiable, and as valuable, as gold.   You had to have money to get it, you had to have connections and power in order to keep it.

At the margin of the forecourt, Bourta commanded: “Stop!”  

Unspeaking, their driver drew the Mercedes to a halt, as, of one accord, Yahedi and Bourta opened their respective doors to slide out of the car, whilst keeping the bullet-proofed metal of the doors between them and their welcoming committee.  Instantly the night chill of the desert caught them.  Feet braced upon the stone of the driveway, handmade leather shoes gently moistened by the water on the driveway, they waited.

For what seemed like minutes, nothing happened.   The decanted passengers from the other limousines, men expensively tailored, women glistening in very western fashion, idled through pools of conversation as they filtered into the belly of the villa and their transports moved away; until the few who remained, clearly staff, were free to focus entirely upon the hardened assassins.  Neither Bourta nor Yahedi showed any intention of leaving the protection of their shielding doors, and their driver sat impassively waiting.   A protocol long understood by those who guard and those who are guarded was being meticulously observed.  At what seemed to be an agreed moment, one member of the welcoming party, a rotund figure of cummerbund and shining face, spread his hands to show he was unarmed, and kept them spread as he walked carefully forward.  His voice had an almost febrile pitch:  “We should have insisted you leave your arms at the gate, yes?”

“Far enough!”   Yahedi said quietly.

The approaching man nodded, standing still.   “Salaiman Yahedi, Mahennis Bourta.   Welcome, my brothers:  advance in peace.”

“Abu Khubis.”   Yahedi had recognised the voice.  “Why are we brought here?”

“To meet with the Crown Prince, Salaiman.   He rests here tonight.”

At this, the tensions in the air seemed to disperse.   Mahennis Bourta’s wide slit of a mouth broke into a demonic grin.   “Khubis, you will never know how close you were to losing your manhood then.”

Abu Khubis nodded towards the villa roof, at its extreme eastern and western points where the moonlight reflected softly from the two AK 47s which were trained upon them.    “Nor you to yours.”  He said brightly.  “Come, my friends.  You are awaited.”

As Salaiman and Mahennis moved to join Khubis, their limousine whispered away from behind them to be parked in twilight with the other cars.   Inside, its driver allowed himself to exhale for the first time in what seemed like an hour.   Just once in a while in his drudge of a job, there were moments. This was one.  Light of heart, he sampled the exquisite pleasure of a breath he thought he might never take.

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway.  Here, Yahedi and Bourta mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A blue, subtly under-lit pool occupied almost all space, sloped at its front edge, inviting easy access to its central depths.  As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of liquid gold cascaded or sprayed. Around the margin of the pool there was laid a wide apron in a continuous mosaic of mythic sea creatures in blue and gold,  from which the level rose in six even stages into those salons and apartments which surrounded it.  At this hour these rooms, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole space in warm, gently humid air.      Although the glazing might have been layered for soundproofing its principle function was privacy, for gas between its layers would cloud if the rooms’ occupants so wished, veiling them from prying eyes.

            On the pool’s eastern side a mosaic walkway joined a bridge to a central island where was set a table, some upholstered chairs, and a mountain of casually scattered silk cushions.   At the sight of the figure reclining amongst these the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though this was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it had not the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features bore arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company.  This was not the Crown Prince Shumal:  this was his older brother, and the heir to the throne of Khubar.  This was El Saada. 

#

In late afternoon an oppressive silence clung to the cloister’s grey stones, only broken once and again by a door slam as some cathedral servant or other emerged unwillingly into its icy precincts.    They would pass through with a spatter of chill-hastened footsteps, to be quickly snapped up by a further door. Sagging gutters dripped steadily, their issue tracing ice-fringed paths to interlace among the grey flags.    It was too late in the year to draw tourists to this sombre shade: too cold for the middle-aged woman with her rubbings, or contemplative strolls of the residing clergy.   Notwithstanding the view the cloister offered of the South Tower, now glowing a gentle pink in late afternoon sun, or the filtered wafts of choral plainsong from the cathedral school, its walks were deserted, its sculpted tombs and memorials unremarked.   The two men seated upon a grey stone settle there were alone in the most absolute sense; their words, hushed with conspiracy, sinking without echo in the damp air.

“Apparently there is to be a meeting.”  Bishop Harkness said, his hawk nose at real risk of frostbite despite swathes of scarf and his huge overcoat:   “Between King Assan of Al Khubar, the American Senator, Goodridge, and some other personage whose identity we have not established yet, but of sufficient worth to lend credibility.”

The monk studied his feet.   A  Chaffinch feeding in the frost-tipped grass regarded him warily.  “So, a political bun-fight?  Which is of what significance to us/”

“The venue will be St. Benedict’s Rock.  It cannot be coincidence.  There is an agenda here.”  The Bishop’s sharp gaze did not miss a twitch of his companion’s eyebrow, “You smile, Brother?  Does this amuse you?”

“No, no!”  The monk demurred; “Although the choice of venue is certainly surprising.  I merely thought of the irony:  we have always seen preferential access to the Holy Stones as culmination of our mission to convert the Moslem to the true faith;  what if the Moslems got there first?  I digress; agenda for whom, I wonder?  King Assan’s well-being is a somewhat temporary thing, is it not?”

“Something of a miracle.”  Bishop Harkness agreed heavily.   “In remission, conveniently pre-empting a forthcoming U.S. Presidential Election.  I am deeply, deeply suspicious of it:  the powers in his administration are aware of The Stones, I’m certain.  How much more do they know, is what we have to ask.”

“One suspects very little,”   The monk raised that sardonic eyebrow again:  “As agency to avert one of their professional assassination attempts, perhaps:  not much more.  Although, if this specific  Middle Eastern presence on The Rock constitutes itself as I predict, it might attract the attention of the Egyptian Portal sect.”

“Their devotion is not dissimilar to our own,”  Agreed the Bishop levelly; “I would be better content if this were not a political gathering of such obvious sensitivity.  Again, I ask, to fit with whose agenda?   If it’s one of those blessed Ethereals driving this, what possible motive can it have?  We may be missing something – this might be the precise reason the stones are awake.”

“Senator Goodridge is a Republican, is he not?”  The monk smiled indulgently,  “Surely, Bishop, our God is a Democrat?”

Harkness’s features were insufficiently exposed for the monk to tell if his companion had taken his bait.   When the Bishop made no reply, he went on:  “The girl – have we found her yet?”

“No, we have not.”  Muttered the Bishop; “I am not discouraged.  Whoever has her, she must surface soon.”

#

As had recently become his custom, Marak stayed late at the King Abur Hospital.  On this particular night Lindemann, the doctor in charge of Melanie Fenton’s care, made a point of  expressing his concern.

“The poor child has gone. There is no sign of mental activity.  Yes, there are anomalies, but of brain-death I am certain.  What we do here is ethically wrong. I assume she will still be a juvenile, with a family somewhere?  They should be informed, Marak, and soon.”

Later that evening, those remarks had formed the substance of a telephone conversation with Prince Shumal.  The Prince’s response was predictable. 

“If the girl is dead, then she is dead.  But she is not dead, Marak.  While she still breathes while there is hope, would you have me sanction her death?”

“This is medical opinion, Highness.   I fear there is no prospect of recovery in even the smallest measure. Her family must be inormed.”

Shumal did not reply for a moment.  At length he said:  “Did we expect too much?”

It was a curious, almost fatalistic question; was it merely rhetorical?   Marak thought not.  There was something in Shumal’s voice.   “Okay.  Like this, she is of no use to us.  

 Twenty-four hours then, Marak.”

“In which case, her family must certainly be informed forthwith.”

“That would be problematic for us all.”

“Your Highness, Lindemann will not be complicit in withholding such information.  He will see it as tantamount to murder!”

“Marak, Marak!  We have not murdered her!  We have done all we can to save her!  In her country she is listed as missing, is she not?  No-one knows where she is; or whether she is alive or dead?  Is it not essential to us all she remains that way?   Police, Press, politocians – awkward explanations?  At this critical time?   Pull the damn plug, man! Allow her the dignity of death.”

“If that is your wish, Highness.”   Marak stared at the lifeless figure amidst its bulrush cradle of tubes and lines, listened to the shallow, assisted breaths as they pumped out their rhythm, for what he felt would be a final time.  He could scarcely recognise in this dried husk the vital girl with the hungry eyes of just three months ago.  He sought in vain some tiny sign, some memory of movement., but found none.  Very well; he would call Lindemann tonight with the Prince’s verdict, and no doubt LIndemann would take his protest back to the Prince, but when Shumal reached a decision there was no possibility of change.   Melanie’s family would never know what became of their daughter.   For himself, his vigil ended here:  he would not return to this sad room, but when, tomorrow, the time came, he would pray for her.   Filled with a deep sense of failure, he turned and walked away.

Word was handed down from Lindemann’s high office.   This would be the last night.   Nurses drew screens around the inert creature in the bed to bathe it, then, finally, because there was really so little to be done, withdrew.  A pair of administering angels remained in accordance with their superiors’ command.   For a while, with the screens back, they sat each side of  their patient;  they would do this for a day if their Prince commanded.   But they seemed unable to stay long in such proximity: soon, irresolute, they each stood, walked away, returned to their charge for a moment or two, then retreated once more.  There was a time when it might appear they, the nurses, might all be planets in orbit around the cold, dark sun which occupied the bed;  attracted yet repulsed, fearing to be too close, unable to leave.  But after all, it no longer really mattered.   At last one nurse made her excuses: her feet clacked briskly away across the shining floor and the doors digested her.  The remaining nurse hesitated in the middle of the room, then walked slowly to a couch upon its further side.   Here she sat, watchful.   The hours passed.

It was the afternoon of Melanie’s appointed day.   Lindemann had dropped into the intensive care ward, made a few necessary checks and departed with a promise to return at 5:30pm.  Only the nurse remained, idly browsing a magazine.  Periodically she would move to Melanie’s bedside, confirm the readings on the machines, examine the integrity of the tubing and its connections.  Once, an adrenaline bottle needed changing.   Behind the bed the picture window was full of dust-blue sky, darkening.    Afternoon sun cast a ribbon of light onto its occupant, light which flowed in a softly-defined river over the floor to make a shadow upon the opposing wall.  It projected a complex profile of bed and tubes, stems of long reeds which seemed to move, slightly, with the flexing of their lens.    Gradually these, in the dwindling light, began to fade until only the river of sun-glow remained.   The nurse looked up, slightly impatient that she could no longer read.   Then, like the throw of a switch, the sunlight was gone.

Lightning split the air.    A jagged saw-blade of blue light photographed the room.

A thunder bomb crashed against the window.   Startled, the nurse leapt to her feet, afraid its force might shatter the stalwart glass.   It did not.     A second lightning bolt followed the first, a second thunder-shock, as violent as the first.   And, when the lightning went, when the room was completely dark to human sight, there came the voice:

“Al-yannnn!  Aneyah!    Anye-caaaaa!”

Remembering her duty, the nurse rushed to ensure her patient was safe.   She got only halfway to the bed.

“Aateh!   Aateh!”

Rising from the sheets as though levitated by some invisible force, tubes radiating from her like snakes of Gorgon hair, Melanie Fenton stood erect.   The starved girl’s body seemed to crackle with static charge.  Her eyes were wide and unblinking, and her mouth was a yawning chasm from which the chant was pouring:    “Aa-aateh!  Aa-aateh!   Aa-aateh!”

The nurse stood rooted to the spot.   Like some terrible angel, refulgent in its own light, Melanie’s wasted form floated towards her.   In the middle of the royal floor, all professionalism forgotten, though she was one among the elite of nurses in the land, she gave way to abject fear.

Part Forty-One

Audience with a Prince

Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway, where the killers Yahedi and Bourta had bowed to superiority and mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose.  An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa.    Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power.   A large, subtly under-lit  kidney-shaped pool tenanted by ornamental fish occupied all space, save for a surrounding walkway paved in mosaic of blue and gold. At about two-thirds of the pool’s length away from the visitors a low bridge formed a crossing to a central island where seating and cushions offered luxurious rest beneath lighting that was softly tinted and discreet.    As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi Fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of crystal clear water cascaded or sprayed.  To either side  salons and apartments, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold:  but it was not cold here.   Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole courtyard in warm, gently humid air.      The glazing was layered for soundproofing, with gas between the layers which would cloud when charged with electricity, so when the rooms’ occupants wished it, privacy could be provided at a button’s touch.

            Persuaded forward by two armed escorts, Bourta and Yahedi took in all these testaments to the fabulous wealth of the villa’s owner, but their focus of attention quickly fell upon the sole occupant of the island, whose eyes had watched them from the moment they crossed the threshold. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst a mountain of silk cushions the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though the figure beckoning them to approach was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it was not of the squat, toad-like proportions they expected.  It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features exuded arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crooked Prince Shumal, but his older brother, and the rightful heir to the throne of Khubar.

 This was El Saada.

 “Two fine heroes!  Welcome!”   The Crown Prince’s voice was sing-song and cracked.  “Join me, please.   We will take tea.”

 “Discourse upon some matters is difficult.”  Said the Prince in his brittle voice, after the escorts had withdrawn and his visitors settled, hesitantly, each upon a chair.  “We must know whom we trust.   That is why I have had you intercepted on your journey to meet my brother.  That is why I brought you directly to me”

Yahedi and Bourta exchanged glances.  Neither man spoke.  Their allegiance to Shumal, the crooked Prince, would be known to Saada, as would Shumal’s implacable hatred for his brother.   Only Saada’s heavy security, with perhaps a little diplomatic expedience, kept him alive.   What force of necessity had led him to meet two of Shumal’s most dangerous assassins face to face?

“And is this ‘interception’,” Mahennis Bourta’s voice cut the air like the stroke of a scimitar:  “Wise, Highness?”

El Saada could not fail to sense so fatal a chill:  “I see I have chosen well. Touch me, my dear, and you will not live another breath.”

Salaiman Yahedi smiled a steel smile, his fingers feeling out the end of a cheese wire garrotte he kept sewn into the undersleeve of his jacket;  “But if this one breath is so sweet, El Saada:  why should it not be the last?”

The heir to the throne of Khubar was not a nerveless man; he needed all his royal breeding, all his belief in his own infallibility, not to fail at this moment.  If he had not known he was holding two tigers by their tails, the glint in Yahedi’s eye would convince him.  

The Crown Prince went on huriedly:  “Let me make an explanation.  When my spies inform me you are returning to our land, I see an opportunity.  Yes, I do!   I see you as my messengers, my ambassadors, even.”

Bourta interrupted dourly.  “You want us to give a message to who?  Your brother?”

“Exactly him!  My brother yes.”  The Crown Prince confirmed enthusiastically.  “More than a message, in the matter of a fact:  I want you to tell him we must put our differences aside and be working together, pretty damn soon, too.”

“Why do you need us, Your Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi permitted himself use of the accepted royal address,  “ A simple message, surely?  An email, a text?”

“Yes, yes, that might be fine.  That might suffice, yes.”  The Prince sat for a moment, his jaw clenched, staring at the koi carp in the pool.  They stared back.  “This thing I am thinking,”  He said at last,  “Is that we should all the time be working together, but he will not hear me.  My own brother disrespects me, he will not listen.  He trusts you; you are his friends.  To you he will listen.”

“Does this have any bearing on the nation’s finances, Your Highness?”  Yahedi asked quietly, “Because…”

“No, no.  Worse.  Far worse.”

“How, then?”

Saada leaned forward, dropping his voice.  “Our father the King is well enough to travel.   It is a great mystery!  He claims he was woken from his sleep by a seabird of marvellous white plumage, I ask you!  The bird has told him he will travel to England, of all places.  And the next day – the very next – he is invited to some godforsaken place to meet with the English Crown Prince and – well, how should I tell you?   The American Senator, Mr bloody Goodridge!”

Yahedi frowned, waiting for the information to make sense.  It didn’t.   The name ‘Goodridge’ struck a chord, though.  That man had already dodged his bullet once, and he was fairly sure Shumal would not want him to miss a second time:  or had the  priorities altered?

 The Prince went on:  “Next year, Senator Goodridge will become President Goodridge.  For once my crooked brother and I are in agreement, or would be if I could damn well speak to him:  this must not happen! But this meeting, this cozy little chatty- chat with my father on an English rock, is almost upon us!  For my father, an alliance with this soon-to-be POTUS person would be so fine – a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished service for his country; for us, though, bloody disaster!  It will be my father’s last great act of statesmanship.  He signs a contract with Goodridge to allow the American’s GAM Oil Corporation drilling rights for three new sites in Al Khubar.  Mr oh-so-ambitious Goodrige will gain an interest in the City State’s existing wells and refineries.  In return, Al Khubar will offer Goodridge the land at Dhobattli Point for an American military base.  By this we would gain western protection, the  premium US market for our oil and endless opportunities for trade.  It is all too bloody marvellous, and it is to happen next bloody week!”

Intuitive needles were shooting through Yahedi’s mind:  “But Highness, we had thought – even your brother thought – you fully supported your father’s marriage of Khubar to the interests of the United States?  We cannot have been mistaken.  Surely, if this has altered, Shumal would welcome your change of heart with open arms?”

The Prince’s mouth acquired a bitter twist, “You would be expecting so, would you not?  But no; he thinks I am plotting, he thinks I am tricking!  And I cannot say, openly, what must be said, because no word must reach our father.  If I had time, perhaps, I could weedle-deedle him, I could talk him round, but there is no time!  Our destiny is upon us!”

Bourta grunted,  “So you persuade us to persuade him.   Why, are we so much easier to convince?  Or is this your device for turning our true Prince upon us, causing him doubt?  You mention trust, Your Highness:  why should we trust you?”

El Saada nodded gravely, returning his attention to the fish that still waited in a small shoal in the water, anticipating leavings from the Royal table.  “If your offices can bring myself and my brother together you will be rewarded:  emissaries and contracted assassins now, you will be given Offices of State, serving the true successor to my father.  When you hear the message I must send my brother I am sure you will be as convinced as I of its veracity:  it is too bloody serious to be making up of the fake news, you see.  Too serious.”

“And what is it, Highness?”  Salaiman Yahedi prompted gently,  “What is this serious news?”

El Saada’s whole demeanour had darkened.  His reply was sombre.  “While our father is ill, I have overseen much of the affairs of state; my brother, some, but mostly myself.  Since his coma, I may have allowed certain things to slide.  The worry, you see?   The worry.

His audience, putting aside the rumours they had heard of wild parties and drug abuse, both nodded.   Satisfied, apparently, with so small a gesture of empathy, El Saada braced himself:  “The oilfields, my dears.  Employing our best estimates, they will become unviable on the fourth month of next year.”

Bourta hissed through his teeth.  

Yahedi, kept his voice level.   “Is that for all of the wells, your Highness, or just “Mahadeni?”   He named the largest of the Al Khubar oil fields, the original discovery, sixty years ago, and the mother-load, so to speak, from which all of the wealth of Al Khubar had been generated.

“Mahadeni.    The others will follow within eighteen months.”

“No oil!”  Bourta’s face split into a smile.

“Not a bloody damn pint for my car, even!”   The Prince confirmed.  “Can you even try to imagine what will happen then, my darlings?” 

 “The State will collapse.”   Yahedi acknowledged.   “It must.   Your Highness, who else knows of this?”

“Less than a few, beside ourselves.  It is a dangerous thing to know.   Millions of dollars in debts unpaid, millions more promised.  Not only our dear, beloved nation in meltdown, but confidence in all the Middle East shattered.   Should this privy knowledge get out into the world, my dears, the price of oil will hit the ruddy roof, I tell you!  The King my father does not know:  in his illness it was easy to keep from him.  Engineers whose lives have, unfortunately, ended prematurely, and we three.  Until you tell my brother, no-one else.”

Salaiman remembered the headline: ‘Plane Missing.   Khubali Oil Executives Lives feared Lost’.   “So His Majesty is about to sign away oil resources he does not have?”

“To an American President-in-waiting whose expansionist policies are targeted on our glorioius Kingdm!”   Bourta exclaimed.  “Now there is irony!”

“Tell my brother!”   The Crown Prince’s voice did not rise by as much as a decibel but its intensity drove his message home like a nail:  “This agreement can never be signed,.  Whoever is present at this meeting, whoever can become a signatory to it, even our own dear father, must be prevented.  Our secret must remain a secret for as long as we can fortify ourselves against the future; not a whisper must leak out, you see?”

“And by prevented,” Yahedi said,  “You mean killed.”

“I mean killed.  No Plan B!”

#

“I am determined to marry the lady,”  Arthur Herrit affirmed, playing the last brandy in his glass idly against a beam of sunlight that had penetrated the salon window.   At Montcleif’s startled response he added;  “Nay, Abel, forebear!  You shall not continue to remind me I know nothing of her past, for no-one does!”

The two men, one the legitimate heir to the Mountsel Park Estate, the other the manager of his businesses had in past years been accustomed, with the coming of winter, to hold their more convivial meetings at their Mountchester club.  With the arrival of Francine Delisle at the Park this arrangement had altered, for although the Estate had staff enough to offer a doughty defence to most forms of trespass, the threat to Miss Delisle seemed to Arthur serious enough to warrant his personal presence at all possible times.   Therefore, Montcleif proving willing enough to make the ride to the great house, his business affairs travelled to him, rather than the other way around.  The changed venue did nothing to detract from the pleasantness of those afternoons that ensued, especially with the year’s turning and spring being announced by all in the park that could sing, or hop, or thrust above the tilth in their greeting for the sun.

 “I should be condemned to wait forever if investigations in those quarters proceed at their present pace,”  Arthur continued,  “So we shall take the initiative.  Unless some person from the congregation stands up to proclaim just cause, we shall be married forthwith.  I’ve consulted with Parson Pettigrew, who is, I’ll grant, somewhat concerned about the Parish Records, but not sufficiently so to put his Living at risk.  The banns are to be read – is that not splendid?”

Montcleif gave one of those barely perceptible shrugs he practised when he was forced to concede a point without necessarily agreeing with it.  “Then I wish you the greatest happiness!”  He said.   “Miss Francine is a very fortunate lady.”

Arthur’s tone lowered to a more serious timbre.  “Suppose I were to question you, Abel, upon another matter – not unrelated, but where answers would put my mind at rest?  You knew my father well?

“I did, of course. We worked together for many years.  Arthur, he was a very careful man.”

“Yes, yes:  one who would not be so hot-headed as to sweep a girl off to his marital bed without knowing a great deal about her, I take your point.  You worked for him, I never knew him; you have the advantage on me there.  Yet he built our fleet of merchantmen, he discovered markets all over the world – there must have been some entrepreneurial flare in him, surely?”

Montcleif gestured his agreement.  “Indeed, he and Amelia did the travelling, the negotiation:  the leg-work, as it were;  they were aboard the ‘Derry Lad’ for no other reason when the Frenchies sunk her with all hands off Cape Finisterre.”  Montcleif contemplated his glass.  “Utterly tragic!   Yet I cannot help but feel it was a way they would have preferred.  So intrepid a couple would ill befit old age.”

Arthur nodded.  “But you will know how tightly the documents and deeds are arranged, Abel?”

“Does this relate to your entitlement?  Of course, Sirrah!  Sir David was your father’s legal partner and his closest friend.  He became your Ward upon your parents’ death, and with no issue of his own he also made you his sole heir.  The will has yet to be finally read but for the sake of the business Sir David discussed the matter openly with me.  Fear not; there will be no dissenting voices raised from your side of the congregation!” 

“And I was born the year before my parents went to India…”

“They left you here, in Nanny Freecombe’s care.  You played in this very room!  They were afraid of exposing you to the heat and disease of that journey when you were so new.  ‘Twas as well they did, Arthur; or we wouldn’t be talking here now.”

The master of Mountsel Park considered his next question carefully:  “You’ll think this a rum thing to ask of you, Abel, but tell me; have you ever heard of a religious organisation that goes by the name of ‘The Brotherhood’, or anyone refer to me as ‘The Pilgrim’?”

Montcleif stared, and Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling he was suppressing laughter.  “The Brotherhood?  One supposes that could refer to almost any radically inclined cult, but ‘Pilgrim’?  Heavens no, Arthur.  Where on Earth could that come from?  What would it mean?”

Arthur closed his shoulders, suddenly smaller,  “I wish I knew,”  He said.  “Very droll, or so it would seem.  Yet my wife-to-be insists I am the very spit of the fellow.  What does a ‘Pilgrim’ do to prove his identity, I wonder?”

Part 42

Music of Winter

In the event, the meeting planned between his father and the American President-elect did not take place as precipitately as El Saada feared.   Their ‘cozy little chitty-chat on an English rock’ would be delayed by one device or another until spring of the following year.  Vince’s efforts had been rebuffed on one level of English security or another, Senator Goodridge’s commitments in the United States and throughout the Middle East made his diary spaces elusive, while lobbyists at home were mounting a campaign of their own designed to obstruct him.  In Al Khubar all these prevarications and postponements frustrated El Saada’s efforts, which were considerable, but the Old King was proving robust and even seemed to brook delay, as if it could be possible he knew of Melanie’s illness, perhaps was waiting, as his younger son waited, against hopes of her recovery?   Although in his last days, the king had his spies.   In Al Khubar everybody had spies.

Accepting this, Saadi’s personal position became more and more precarious.  Somehow, using the presence of the legendary assassinsYahedi and Bourta as deterrents, he appeared to have succeeded in keeping his guilty secret: certainly the King gave no sign the knowledge had spilled out.  Nevertheless January or yenayer was a nervous month, and had the delays continued much longer retribution was almost certain.   Anxious or not, Saadi continued to use every opportunity to bend the ear of the King towards a future independent of the tentacles of GAM Oil.  The King remained obdurate.  AL Khubar’s prospects, he maintained, were rosier by far with the strength of the United States at their elbow.

Meanwhile, at home in Levenport, two families whose children were missing kept in contact with them by means of recorded messages on usb sticks.  The authorship of the idea was never revealed, nor was a satisfactory reason ever given for the usb stick that waited on the bed for Lesley’s mother one evening when she returned from work, and an equivalent device that turned up at Bob  Cartwright’s church on the same night, after evening prayers.   Each of these conveyed a recorded message from their missing children, with reassurances.  They were alright; they were well.   Something important needed their participation and as soon as it was over they would be home.  As their time of absence grew longer other, supplemental recordings kept the narrative going:  they became more conversational, “Hi Mum!  I’ve done my hair different, look!” and expressive of emotion, but gave away nothing in terms of geography.  Bob Cartwright might have strongly suspected his son was on St. Benedict’s rock, but he could not prove it, even though Lena, his wife, urged him to try.   Over Christmas and well into the New Year, the Causeway remained closed.

“They say it’s because of the weather, but we both know it isn’t,” Bob said.   When he urged the local police to assist, they told him the road was private property, and if the owner wished he had every right to place two professional security guards at the end of it to shut it down…

Did Karen Fenton or Howard receive similar assurances of Melanie’s well-being?  It would be difficult to believe they did, wouldn’t it?  Karen did maintain contact with Lena Cartwright by occasional telephone calls but there was little consolation Lena could offer.  The recorded usb sticks made no reference to Melanie at all.  

“She isn’t with them,”  Karen concluded miserably;  “After all, why would she be?”

While the winter of that year proved stressful for everyone around them, Peter and Lesley were enjoying their summer of young love.   Impervious to the cold and, from time to time, the driving rainstorms that scoured the ancient island, they enjoyed walks among the meadows of the south side, long afternoons with Toby (Lesley quickly thawed the old man’s reserve at the presence of someone new and unexpected on the rock) playing his favourite Monopoly game, and even longer evenings in the company of Vincent, Estelle and Eppy (of whom, more anon) listening to music and, in Lesley’s case, gaining greater and greater skills on the guitar.   On this, as on many levels, Lesley had surprised herself.   At first the great tragedy of her covert crossing to The Rock, perched among the vegetables in the rear of Cyril Sixmith’s grocery van, had been the sacrifice of her music.    Her mobile had been taken from her, politely, by a member of Vincent’s household and put into ‘cold storage’.

“We can’t risk someone running a trace.”

That was a couple of months ago, when earphones were an intrinsic part of Lesley’s life, often to a point where they excluded all else, and although she had the streaming channels in the room she shared with Peter, none existed beyond their door – or so she must accept.   Yet; perhaps because she was in the first brave flush of love, or just because she and a guitar had never been strangers, she grew in her enthusiasm for making music rather than listening to it.   Those tiny speakers visited less and less often, and she found how little she missed them.

Perhaps there was another reason too.   Walking in the crisp cold of one early January morning, hand-in-hand with Peter and without really questioning the pleasant miasma of the sun’s new touch on her skin, she thought she heard a song.  It was a tune unheard before and its words were just beyond her hearing but it was music!

Melodic sound, at once soothing and invigorating, so persuasive she caught herself putting in little steps of a dance as she walked.  Once her inner ear attuned to it she could barely resist a temptation to add a lyric, or move her body to the tune.

Was it original?  Was she composing something new?  “Pete, can you hear, like, someone singing, or anything?”

Peter stopped, aware she had begun to inject a touch of rhythm to her steps, “Sounds various,”  he replied.  “That’s a robin, innit?  Hard to hear much over the wind,”

“Nah! Music!  Like a song but you can’t hear the words.”

“Ah!”  Peter nodded wisely. He was right about the wind, he was practically shouting to make himself heard. “You need to talk to Toby.”

“If he knows, you  do.  Explain immediately!   That’s, like, now,” She added, by way of emphasis.”

Peter explained to her, as best he could, about the music of The Rock and how once you heard it here, whenever you came back, it would find you. Lesley did much as her custom dictated when one ear received information she could not process and her brain had a lot of other priorities:  she opened the tympanic membranes in both ears and allowed it to pass through uninterrupted.

According to Peter, Lesley’s prowess with guitar required space every now and then, away from ears that had been treated to the same riff some twenty times.  Sensitive to the problem, Vincent stepped in, generously offering her the use of his recording studio.  Lesley may never have learned the subtleties of a mixing desk but in an unfurnished booth with a stool and one of Vincent’s Fender guitars for company she could, and did, spend many delighted hours shredding herself silly.

There were times, especially, well away from everyone, when the voice of the guitar and the intensity of the melody flowed so perfectly she could genuinely lose herself in music.  Her repertoire extended now to a point where she could play bits of virtually every composer, from Villa-Lobos to Hendrix; her magic so absorbed her she scarcely noticed when ‘physical sounds’, subtle alterations of touch and pressure on her skin as if the t-shirt she habitually wore became tighter; as if her sleeves were fuller and brushing the neck of the instrument.  No, she did not notice at all because the notes had never flowed more sweetly.  Had there been a mirror then, had she been able to see a reflection of the guitar player seated on the stool, it would not have been her:  it would not have been Lesley.

At last there came a night when two ends that were seeking found each other and the ring was closed; there was only the music.  Only three, desperate, pleading chords to weep out their ending and the cry for joy that was almost a scream:  “Oh, yeah, man!   Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Then discord:  the door of the studio crashing open.  The man with his noble features knitted in concern.   “Francine!   Francine my darling, what is it?”

The instrument before her, a guitar no longer but a harpsicord, its ivory keys smashed, her fingers bleeding;

“Arthur?”

#

. It was well after ten o’clock when Lesley joined Peter in their little breakfast room the following morning.

“You slept well!”  He greeted her.  He had been asleep, unaware when she slipped quietly into bed the previous night, and she had been sleeping equally deeply when he dressed that morning.  He guessed she had been in her ‘music room’ most of the night, for which he was glad.  Their enforced isolation needed some diversions to keep them both sane.  It seemed Lesley had discovered hers.

“Pete?”  Her tone was urgent; “Did you see me when I came

to bed last night?”

“Nah, I must have been asleep already.”

“Oh, man!   Oh, f**k!”  Lesley dropped into a chair, buried her face in her hands.

The room door opened and Eppy’s head appeared; “Morning, Les.   Shall I do you some toast?”

It’s time for a word about Eppy.   Although, given Peter’s previous experience of her cooking and cleaning role at the moorland cottage,  it would be tempting to paint Vincent’s soulmate Estelle as a domestic goddess, nothing could be further from the truth.  She was a woman with a hyperactive mind which could expand to fill any role it was given, and St. Benedict’s House was a considerable expansion.  Nor was she a housekeeper, a title she would have found offensive.  She had various projects of her own which kept her darting about the house using every means of communication with the outside world that was available to her.  In normal times she and Vince were a quite complex business team, reliant upon her lightning-quick intelligence as much as his dynamism.   If ‘Vincent Harper, Rock Star’ was the brand, Estelle at the other end of the telephone made the business.  To fulfil her part in looking after their young house guests, Estelle delegated to others, principally to Eppy.

Eppy described himself as a ‘bit of a domestic really’.  He di