Continuum – Episode Six A Place of Secrets

The story so far:

Alanee is settling herself into her first day in the City, encouraged that prospects of punishment for her failure to observe the law seem distant, but unaware she is being observed by key members of the City Council.     Her mentor, Sala, introduces her to the City markets and Toccata’s Tsakal House, where she can see out for the first time to the country beyond the walls.

Sala and Alanee have parted for the night and Alanee is left alone in her new home, where she lingers before her mirror and wonders at herself, made splendid by the burgundy of her new robe.

Does she imagine the haughtiness in her pose?  Has she changed so soon?  This place with its myriad rules and conventions, monstrous though it doubtless will turn out to be, and assuming it does not elect to punish her, might be very hard to leave.

With great deliberation, she folds the robe and puts it aside, dressing in a silk shift Sala bought her at the Bazaar this morning.  Alanee is a woman of the city now.

She will be long into sleep so she will not know when the late aerotran arrives.  Were she to see the flint-grim faces of High Councillor Cassix and Proctor Remis as they alight, she might feel rather less secure.

Early the next morning, her summoner wakes her.  “What?”

Sala’s voice:  “Get up, ba.  We’re going to the palace.”

There is barely time to rise and shower.  Sala looks grave.  She fusses about Alanee, fiddling at her clothing.

“The robe must be just so.  It must cross your body in this way, you see, like mine?  This clasp will help.”  She slips a bracelet of gold cast in the shape of a serpent over Alanee’s wrist.  “Wear this beneath your sleeve.  Only show it if you are challenged.  Now, of this I am unsure.”  With thumb and forefinger, Sala produces one final item from a gold purse at her waist.  It is so small Alanee can barely see it.  “I have never done one of these before, but I know you will be unable to cross the palace threshold without it.  I brought some tape – maybe you could tape it to you somewhere – perhaps beneath your hair?”

Tiny and black, with short, thin wires protruding from it, the object resembles nothing so much as a common or garden ant.  The wires tickle.  Alanee sticks it to her shoulder.  “What is it?”

“A limiter.  This is the first time I’ve seen one.  All who enter the palace have them implanted, you see?  Mine was done years ago, when I began my training.”

Alanee doesn’t see, although she is sufficiently affected by Sala’s obvious nervousness not to argue.  Beyond her window it is a grey and ferocious morning, a blizzard of hurricane proportions all but hiding the Palace’s imposing façade.

“We’re going out in that?”  She asks, rightly thinking that these minute preparations will be laid waste in seconds by the storm.

“No.  There is another way across.”

#

Among green hills far from the snows of the Consensual City; far, too, from the wide flat infinity of the Hakaan, a thousand miles, almost, from the great walls that defend the Fortress of Braillec, there is a village.  It is a small, tight community of Dometian citizens, and it is quite unlike Balkinvel, Alanee’s former home.  There is no Terminal here.  Instead, five miles beyond the village, at the head of the Kaal river valley, a great foundry smokes and grunts about its business;  for the people here are smiths – forgers of metal.  Upon their efforts run the wheels of civilization, the engines of the land.

In early spring the hills above Kaal-Takken are lush with infant grass and graceful trees offer sanctuary from a bold sun.  Nights are studded with fire-flies; tyke beetles whistle their constant song.  On warm evenings, even in the first quarter of the year, families sit outside on their porches eating and trading gossip.  The younger men spend their rest days in the hills hunting, while the women gather by the river, swimming or fishing, or both.  Young girls learn how to catch the fat dappal fish:  it is a skill they exhibit with pride, and often the second rest-day of a cycle will be a feast of their catch.

Last cycle, the first when winter relinquished its grip, Ripero spent an hour seated upon a bluff above the Kaal, admiring the fluid grace of Saleen’s body as she flashed through the icy water, twisting and turning in pursuit of a large dappal.  Saleen’s friends, of course, had seen him, so she was not surprised when, on their way to work next day, he invited her to a picnic in the hills.  And so they come to be sharing food Ripero has brought to a secluded glade in the Kaal-Del forest where, surrounded by flowers of the ancients, they regard one another with nervous apprehension, each afraid to speak.

“It is a good day.”  Ripero mumbles at last, conscious of how weak his voice sounds.  He has so many speeches planned, words to say, all confounded by Saleen’s fragile beauty.

Saleen’s eyes challenge him.  “So warm,”  she agrees.

She will not yet confess how she approves of Ripero.  His arms are strong and his face is well-featured, his mind agile.  Her friends would give their mortal souls to be where she sits at this moment.  She was overjoyed when he invited her – why is she so tongue-tied now?

“You have picked this place well.”  She tries to say, her words almost strangled to a whisper.  She clears her throat, quickly.

His face lights in a smile.  “Did you catch your fish?”

“Oh!  You were watching me?  (She feigns surprise) You shouldn’t have been spying.”

“I know.  I couldn’t help it.  You are so lovely.”  He blurts out the words, but they have their effect.  A pleasing blush colors her cheeks.

“But still…”  He has her at a disadvantage:  he has seen her naked, albeit in the water, albeit from a distance.  He would not have been so brazen as to stay and watch her rise to the bank, would he?  She blushes deeper.  She thinks how it would be if they were to swim together, and this gives her a tingling feeling inside.

“I’m sorry.”  Ripero is aware that this is his time:  ungainly though it will be, he must move closer, negotiating the obstacle of the picnic basket which stands between them.  “I was spellbound.”

He cannot get to his feet in case his undisciplined feelings should be revealed; so he shuffles himself across to her, making her laugh.  She says: “So you do like me then, a little?”

And it is his turn to blush.  “I like you very much.”

The sound comes first.  Neither distant nor near but everywhere, faint to begin; low in pitch to begin.  Ripero and Saleen, who might be lovers in only a little while, both hear it – both feel it.  It is louder, closer with every moment.  Above their heads frightened birds erupt from the trees; in the woods wild creatures cry their fear.  Now it is all-consuming, as total as a tidal wave, as shrill and wrenching as a Banshee scream.  Then comes the Banshee herself.

There is a fleeting second, a slice of a breath when Saleen knows she is about to die.  Ripero has just that flicker of time to read her utter horror in her face.

Then she is gone.  The wall takes her.

Is it a wall?  What is it that rushes past him blotting out all vision, so cold, so clinically precise?  What sound rips the hearing from his ears and reduces his world to silence?  What is it, this thing that takes Saleen, who would have been his woman – his wife?  The screech without no longer heard, becomes a screech within.  When his heart will no longer bear the writhing of demons, when his chest must burst, blackness comes.  Sleep comes

#

“In short, then you have brought us just one?”

There are six people in the chamber, of whom Ellar the Mediant is the only woman.  The great stump of the Domo occupies a chair at the center of the table, the Sires Portis and Trebec on his either flank.  Proctor Remis and High Councillor Cassix face them from chairs upon the other side.  The question is Trebec’s, Cassix its recipient.

“In short, yes.”  Cassix is in no mood to be bullied by Trebec.  “There were two further possibilities.  One is an obvious replicant.  We’ve had her arrested.”

“The only acceptable course!”  Portis interjects.  “Amazing how they still spring up from time to time.  And the other?”

“A girl with a psychological malady.  We had no time to precisely diagnose it, I’m afraid, but obviously completely unsuitable.”

“So we are left with a single candidate, if that is the word.”  The Domo rumbles.  “I like this less and less.”  He glances up to Ellar, who stands at the end of the table.  “You’d better bring her in.”

Outside in the ante-chamber, Sala is still fussing.  “It’s a committee of the High Council, the greatest authority on the planet.  Address them as ‘Sire’, it’s the safest way.  My patron should be here, too – the Lady Ellar.  Oh, Habbach!  Here she is!”

The door of the Chamber opens and Alanee’s heart jumps as an imposing woman in middle-age dressed in a gold-trimmed robe of silk emerges quietly.  Thick floor foam everywhere here deadens sound.  She beckons to Alanee, and as Sala also makes to advance, stills her with a warding hand.

“You must wait out here, Sala.”  Ellar is very tall, her bearing and step masculine and purposeful.  Yet the hand that takes Alanee’s is kind.  “Do not fear us, dear.  We intend you no harm.”

In truth, Alanee is astonished at her lack of fear, although voices in her head, which have been with her since she emerged into the Great Hall of the palace, trouble her slightly.  Before she knows it she is through the door and it has closed behind her.  The figures in the room, two of whom she recognizes as her interrogators upon that terrible last day at the Village, look up as she enters.  Cassix has turned in his chair.  He introduces the others then waves to a chair at the end of the table.

“Please, sit down.”  She does so.  Ellar sits at the table’s further end.

No-one speaks.

All study Alanee.  She is instantly in awe of the Domo, whose eyes are barely visible behind his rolls of fat, suspicious of Sire Portis who does not directly meet her gaze and who seems more interested in her chest.  Proctor Remis, whose lean looks so scared her the first time she encountered them, appears less threatening now.  Only Sire Trebec really disturbs her.  His florid face speaks of temper, his scowl radiates disapproval.

At last she feels compelled to break the silence.  She ventures:  “You summoned me, Sires?”

To her surprise Trebec grunts and nods almost approvingly.  Cassix’s face breaks into one of his steel-eyed smiles.

Sire Portis speaks.  “How old are you, Alanee?”  He does not use the courtesy ‘mer’.

“I am twenty-six, Sire.”  Alanee cannot remember who this is.  Surely, they know so much about her, they must know her age?”

“And you were paired to a…”  Portis studies a sheaf of papers he has before him:  “Hakaani foot-player, is that right?”

“Yes, Sire.  He died.”  Why, after all this time, does she still have difficulty with those words?  She has to force herself to say them.  How the voices in her head irritate her!  “All of three years ago, now.”

“It was a close pairing; you miss him still?”  Portis recognizes the regret in Alanee’s voice.

“Yes, Sire.”  She shrugs.  “But he’s never coming back, is he?”

“When you were together…”  The thin tones of the Proctor, now:  “did you not notice how he was motivated by certain innocent desires, needs that would change from time to time?  On the third day of the summer quarter in 3039, for instance, did he express a wish to go rock-climbing in the Southern Hills?”  The Proctor, too, is studying notes.  “The following week, was he not overtaken by a need to embark upon a pilgrimage?”

“Yes, both those things.  That was the year of the great pilgrimage to the Shrine at Dolca.  I recall it.”

“You did not go with him?”

“No, Sire.  There was no need.”

Trebec’s eyebrows raise.  He speaks for the first time.  “You felt no need?”

“No Sire.  Why should I?  I don’t like heights!”

“But your village emptied on those days, did it not?  Didn’t that strike you as odd?”

Cassix chips in:  “Not necessarily for the rock-climbing.  That was an elective pursuit.”

Alanee answers.  “Sire, a lot of things have always struck me as odd.  I have learned to live with the sudden passions of others, their strange likes and dislikes.  I think I am different, in some way, but I don’t know how.”

From the mighty mouth of the Domo comes one word, laced with irony:  “Unique.”

Cassix spreads his hands.  “Therefore is she not sent?  Alanee, do you know how we are ruled; why your world lives in peace and harmony for most of its time?”

“Why, by yourselves, Sire.  The High Council:  the Consensual City.”

Portis nods.  “That is good; as it should be.  Alanee, this committee of the High Council wanted to meet you, and now we have, and now we must go into private session.  We have a thing in mind, which, should we agree upon it, will become your mission in the time to come.  You will be well rewarded, and your life with us, no matter what we decide, will always be a comfortable one.  Thank you for being so truthful with us.  Lady Ellar?”

Ellar nods, rises gracefully, beckoning to Alanee.  The meeting is closed.

Cassix waits until the women have left.

“Is she not sent?”  He repeats.  “There is no-one like her.”

“There used to be many.”  Says the Domo, who has spoken very little.

“Not, High Sire, with her blend of passivity and nonconformity.  She does not question:  though she knows she is different, there is no rebellion in her.  She has no wish to shake the State like dissidents of the past!  I insist, this woman is sent to us.  She is the perfect solution.”

The Domo shakes his head.  “This matter, Cassix, is of great moment.  I wish I shared your certainty.  Oh, no blame falls upon the woman, and I am sure she is all you say.  That isn’t what concerns me.  What does concern me is the hinge in our destiny upon which this matter hangs.  It makes me afraid.”  He rises to heavy feet.  “However, it begs our decision.  We must take it before the full Council.  Gentlemen, we adjourn.”

Back in Alanee’s apartment, she and Sala calm themselves with a drink.  Sala seems quite different, almost hysterically relieved that the ordeal is over.

“Was it very nerve-wracking?”

“No.  they just asked me..”

Sala cuts in quickly:  “You must not tell me what they asked you.”

Alanee protests:  “Why ever not?  They questioned me abo….”

No!” It is the first time Alanee has heard Sala shout and it makes her jump.  Her companion immediately recovers herself.  “I’m sorry Alanee-ba.  I’m so sorry – I don’t mean to scare you.  Whatever you discuss with High Council must always remain secret.  No-one outside the Chamber can ever know, you understand?”

“But there’s no-one else to hear except you,” Alanee protests feebly:  “Is there?”

“Of course not.  This is a place of secrets, ba, some of which are wonderful to share, but some of which are dangerous.  Whatever happened in there, the knowledge of it would be dangerous to me.  You wouldn’t want anything to happen to me, would you?”

“Well, I’m getting out of this!”  Making for her bedroom, Alanee slips the bracelet from her wrist, unfastens the clasp that holds her robe ‘just so’.  She changes into the silk shift that feels so comfortable on her body.

Sala, who has followed her to the bedroom, laughs.  “You wear so many underclothes!  Are you cold?”

Something hidden beneath the apparent innocence of the question puts Alanee on the defensive.  “No. I just wear them, don’t you?”

Sala’s face betrays a momentary flash of mischief, which as quickly passes.  “Not a stitch,” She says, seriously.  Then, a little coyly, she murmurs:  “I feel such heat, don’t you? Would you come and bathe with me if I begged you?”

Green eyes, suddenly imploring -Alanee blushing purple, taken completely by surprise!  The shock – the stammered refusal – Sala fingers running across her shoulders, down her arm to take her hand.  “Come on, my ba! There are many new things you must try.”

“No!”  Alanee’s answer is instinctive.  Snatching herself away, she retreats to the living room. Hands shaking, she pours herself a second drink and stands by her window, staring out at the snow as she collects her thoughts and curses herself, perhaps, for her naiveté.  She feels Sala’s hand stroke her back.

“Must I apologise, my ba?”  Sala’s voice is almost tearful.  Turning, Alanee sees she does seem to be near to crying.

“Why?  No.  I mean, what for?” She feels awkward, almost threatened.  “You surprised me, that’s all.”

“I am too forward.  I should not have frightened you.”  Sala seems emboldened, her eyes imbued with an intensity that leaves no room for misunderstanding.  Her arm has closed about Alanee’s waist, drawing her near, Alanee flinches in momentary revulsion.

Sala sees it.  “Oh, you are so – so provincial!”  She releases her grip impatiently, wipes at her eyes with angry strokes.  “You know nothing!  Nothing!

Alanee shakes her head, unable to encompass this.

“How long has your man been dead; two years, three years?  Three years!  In all that time, have you never…”  Sala pauses, words choking in her throat.  “How do you manage, Alanee?  Don’t you ever need to be touched, to be…loved?”

“You mean…?”

Sala blazes at her.  “Yes, I mean!

Before Alanee can stop her, Sala has snatched up her purse and made for the door.  There is no protest that will detain her, and in a handful of seconds she is gone.  It is a moment in which Alanee experiences illogical fury, so she slams her fist onto the glass table, sending her dap fish scattering in terror, before she slumps onto the couch.

“I’ve known you for just one day!”  She protests to the wall. The wall’s only answer is an echo, but if, inside her mind, it could speak, it would remind her that without Sala’s advice she will be defenseless against those stern councilors with their devious eyes.  She will be vulnerable and alone.

All at once the very thought of facing the Consensual City terrifies her.  And her first instinct is to escape…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

A Quiet English Village with a Lethal Heart

Hi!

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

A fulfilment of a promise.

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

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

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

Smokedogs (A Short Story)

Science fiction?  I admit I don’t pass this way often these days, so just for a change…a big one, this, but splitting it doesn’t seem to be an option, so I cordially invite you to make a night of it – bring a friend, if you want?

“We’re in for a storm.”  Jaca says, absently rubbing the fur behind Quietus’s ear with her long fingers.

From the observation platform we have a perfect view, an uninterrupted vista of the Great Plains.  Beyond the ascending wisps of haze from Smokedog fires I too have seen the dark sky, clouds building before the Periclean sun.

I draw Jaca to me, engaging her in a kiss.  We are alone on the platform and I want more, but she desists gently, hands on my chest.

“Not now, Malcor.”  She murmurs, forehead against my own.  “We have things to do, yes?”

I agree reluctantly.  We have things to do.  Before evening there are insect nets to bring inside, outdoor experiments to cover.  Jaca turns from me, stares towards the sunset; pensive, reflective, remote.

“Ixce arrives tonight.”  Her voice is almost a whisper.

“So he does.”  I will not look at her.

Yes, Jaca my love, we are in for a storm.

I call Quietus to me:  he obeys, of course, tail wagging, brown eyes bright.  Together we leave Jaca to her thoughts, descending the circular stairway which leads into the Spartan crew quarters of Periclea Settlement J8.

Periclea is our sun star, a tiny part of the constellation of Orion, a mote in the eye of The Hunter only visible to those who seek her:  the unromantically-listed J8 is her only habitable planet, with just one research station:  this one.

It was not always so.  When you speak to the Silusians of J8 they will submerge their small sharp features into their big fleshy necks and pretend they have not heard.  Only the Mariaca will talk of the place; the legends, the tales.  In their Gordian tones they will tell of times when the sunlight floods the plains in a blood-red hue; when a million ghosts of a doomed Palataian race rise to walk their forgotten world, and all who dare to stand upon its sacred soil tremble in fear of that sight.

I?  I do not listen to such tales.  Nonetheless, when I was asked to come here I hesitated:  for a young geologist J8 was hardly a career move.  It was only when they told me that the senior archaeologist was Jaca Icindae that I agreed.

During my university days Jaca moved at the margin of my world.  In the year above mine, this graceful, elusive girl with her soft curves and softer voice had seemed beyond the reach of my dreams.  I loved her from afar with that desperate, unrequited longing that is the tragedy of youth;  knowing she was not for me, seeing her walk hand-in-hand with another, the man with the greatest intellect that had ever graced our college.

So J8’s forgotten space in the universe became somewhere to be.  A small settlement, a research station really, no more.  And I would like to say the geology is interesting, but the only interest here, for me, is warmer and more alluring than any rocks: Jaca.  When one loves someone enough it is perhaps only gratitude, or loneliness, that will make them love you in return, yet for those of us without pride that will be enough – until Ixce comes.

Ixce: that great mind:  Ixce – Jaca’s first love.

Our crew are in the communal area, lounging around as usual at this time of day.  The games plates are all live, their hologram superheroes thrashing through rituals of conquest and slaughter.

“Now you are mine, Jacoranda!”

“Die, Mastachian dog!”

“Seek the sacred keys of Morcal!”

I pass through, warning of the storm, reminding them they too have duties to attend.

The passage to the airlock is lined with our ‘outdoor suits’ – light self-contained clothing we wear whenever we pass beyond those bland steel doors to the outside.  I slip one over my uniform, grip the air-lug between my teeth.  The doors open with a sibilant wheeze.  Quietus follows: he needs no suit.

Nor do I, if truth be told.  I stand with Quietus in the vestibule, waiting patiently while the system stabilises so I may walk outside, knowing that the atmosphere beyond the doors is not toxic, or even mildly debilitating.  For our species it is breathable; just not in quite the ideal balance.  So we follow this ritual each time we go out without any real need.  This mystifies Quietus, and maybe slightly amuses him:  he sits watching me, head to one side, then trots after me as the doors close.

I work quickly, packing, folding, and retrieving the little pods of data as I shut down the machines.  All the while I watch the western horizon, half-expecting a lander with Ixce aboard to soar into view, even though I know it is not due for hours yet.  And as I watch the sunset turns the land as red as blood, and the Smokedog fires glow like tiny lanterns from their lairs on the Plain.

Smokedogs:  wild wolves of the Plains, the Mariaca say; enigmatic beasts hunting the Kessa deer in packs with an intelligence and guile that has never ceased to fascinate me.  We have known them so long, yet we know so little about them.  Those fires, for instance: we know the dogs create them but we have never seen one created.  We do not know how, or why; although one of our more humorous colleagues once suggested that perhaps they liked their meat cooked?

Approach the fires and they extinguish:  by the time one draws close, the dogs are gone – ash, hot ash is all that remains.

Quietus nuzzles my hand, reminding me that he never makes fires.  Ah, I didn’t mention, did I?  Quietus is a Smokedog.

My predecessor, whose name was Dev, discovered that certain of the Smokedogs were attracted to our settlement.  They would gather outside in the night just sitting patiently, staring up at him on the observation deck.

“Not all of them, you understand?  Those out on the Plains, they’re wild, untameable creatures – vicious, probably.  But these, the ones with the darker eyes, they seem to like us.”

Dev adopted one, brought it inside, treated it as a pet.

“Curious thing.”  He told me:  “As soon as I allowed Quietus in, the others went away, as if he were a sort of emissary, or something.”

When Dev left at the end of his tour of duty, Quietus stayed behind.  Oh, he pined for a while, but I befriended him and he soon came around.  He gazes up at me now, those adorable, honest eyes set in the perfect symmetry of his little face, the image of unquestioning love.

“You are distressed.”

He could catch you like that.  He did me, the first time.  I had my back to him when he did it.

“Do I serve you?  Are you content with me?”  He doesn’t actually speak, of course – cannot, with those canine teeth and that elongated jaw; yet he can find a place in your head, and if you answer him with words, he seems to understand.  Sometimes I think he reads my mind, too.

“Me, distressed?”  I make a show of denial, but he can see right past that.

“Ixce.  Who is Ixce?”

“Oh, only the greatest biologist of our generation, that’s all.”

“A superior brain.”

“A superior brain.”  I acknowledge, thinking that Quietus is unusually interested in Ixce.  But he will recognise that Ixce is the cause of my disquiet, of course.

“And your woman will mate with him?”

I shrug.  This is a little too direct for my present depressed state.

“It is natural.”  Is all Quietus ‘says’.

I pat his head, gaining some comfort from the warmth of that thick, dense flesh.  If you tried to pick him up, Quietus would not object, but you would be in for a surprise.  A third my size or rather less, he is nevertheless heavier than me by several kilos.

“Yes. Natural.  Quietus – don’t you ever get homesick for your family?  You’re a pack animal, aren’t you?  This isn’t a natural way for you to live.”

“My pack is always with me.”  Quietus tells me in my mind.  “Do you want me to go back?  Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

“Yes of course; of course you serve me.”  Sometimes, when I feel already a little sad, just that gentle voice within me will make tears come.  “No, don’t leave me, Quietus.  I’d miss you like hell.”

I finish packing up the equipment, crying like a baby.

Back inside the settlement I leave Quietus to consume some choice comestibles from the galley while I go to our private quarters to change into more formal clothing.  Jaca is already there, already undressed.  She drifts about the cabin before me as insubstantial as a spirit, a naked wraith, knowing how I watch her and indulging me with a breathtaking vision of beauty.

“I’ll shower first.”  Jaca decides.

“We could shower together.”

She gives me an arch look.

“It might be the last time.”  I say, wishing instantly that I hadn’t said it.

Jaca does not reply, but gives me a quick smile, then closes the wet-room door upon me.  “Lock.”  She instructs.  The door does as it is told.

I remember how you looked in those first summers, when the bright Itake flowers were fresh on the bud and the sands of the Great Plains shone like burnished amber.  Five years now – five years knowing he is forever in your heart – five years of solitary grief for a love that is always on the edge of extinction.

Outside the storm is gathering:  thunder crackles, rain beats upon the skin of our little home.  Ixce descends from its epicentre like an avenging angel, his lander’s engines roaring out a trumpet call.

We all stand in the corridor to the airlock in orderly submission, awaiting the great man.  Jaca stands at my side, her skin glowing, the subtlety of her scent placing her intentions beyond doubt.

The hatch opens and  Ixce is among us.

“Jaca!  My darling, how gorgeous you look!”  And to me, curtly: “Malcor.  Nice to see you again.”

Oh, Jaca!  How easy you make it for him, this Gabriel of the fearsome look and the golden hair!  How you quake before him – how your eyes are alive now, the way they were when I first coveted you, the way they have never lived for me!

I turn away, the decisions of my life all made on my behalf.  I see at once a battle I cannot win, a mountain I can never climb.

Jaca returns to our quarters late this night.  I have been awake for hours when she steals in and undresses on tiptoe, sliding furtively beneath our coverlet.  I do not ask her where she has been.  I know.

And so it is, for the next few interminable days, while I rub along with Ixce as best I can, liaising with him as I am meant to do.  In so small a community our respective sciences converge and overlap in many ways.  He is interested in the Smokedogs just, I am afraid, as much as Quietus is interested in him.  For it is not only my girlfriend and love who has deserted me:  Quietus has too, fawning over Ixce quite disgracefully every chance he gets.  Now, while we discuss his kindred together he sits by his adored’s feet, head resting on Ixce’s knee as he dotes upon the great man.

“No-one knows what the fires are for.”  I tell Ixce.  “We’ve tried to find out, but it’s almost impossible to get near them.  Even Quietus won’t discuss it.”

“How do they breed, do we know?”

“Not really my field, although I must admit I’m curious.  Again, it seems to be a closed book.  Strange, though.  No-one’s ever seen a puppy.”

“Really?”  Ixce is intrigued.  “Well now, we must discover these things, mustn’t we, Quietus old chap?”  Quietus looks into his eyes with total devotion.  I am sure he is giving his reply – but not to me.

Over breakfast on the morning following our discussion Ixce proposes an expedition.

“Quietus is an impressive little mutt.  I rather fancy finding out a bit more about his country cousins.  Care to join us?”

This invitation comes as something of a surprise, especially since the ‘us’ includes Jaca.  But as soon as we set out I discover Ixce’s reasons for having me along:  I carry things.  Our two buggies are loaded to the gills:  Ixce’s with Jaca and Quietus, mine with everything else.  It turns out that Ixce’s lander is full of experimental surprises, nearly all of which weigh more than Quietus.

We bump over the untracked Plain, Ixce and Jaca side by side in the lead, Quietus next to Ixce on his other side.  Jaca frequently needs Ixce’s supporting arm to steady her as their buggy lurches:  he is quick to assist, but she does not appear to complain when his hand steadies her thigh more than it needs, or accidentally touches her breast.

My supporting arm is employed in a manner similar to Ixce’s, but the stray leg of a tripod has not the same frisson of allure.  The thing – I never do find out what it is and Ixce certainly never uses it – actually falls off the buggy once, so that I have to stop to retrieve it.

“Careful with that!”  Ixce reminds me.  He murmurs something and Jaca giggles foolishly.

We journey for rather more than an hour, down into the basin where the greatest intensity of Smokedog fires occur.  As if by some prearranged signal, Quietus suddenly jumps from his seat on Ixce’s buggy, at which Ixce stops.  I nearly run into the back of him.

Now we set off on foot behind Quietus’s eager rear, Ixce and Jaca in earnest conversation, I in my role as porter.  Upon a rise thick with tall grasses Quietus stops and lays down, his dark stare focused on the depression beyond.  As soon as I see the look upon Ixce’s face I know that my pet has been communicating with him – probably all the way from the settlement.

“Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

You treacherous little rat!

Easing my burden from about me while making as little noise as possible, I join my prostrate colleagues at the rim of the basin, cautiously parting the grasses enough to see down into the undergrowth below.

“A Smokedog den.”  Ixce whispers to me, indicating a spot where the greenery appears to have been flattened, trodden into a natural circular amphitheatre.

“Rather light on Smokedogs.”  I point out.

“Quietus thinks they’ll be here soon.”  Does he now?  “Get my cameras, there’s a good chap.” For an hour we wait, while the sun climbs higher in the sky and cloud-galleons sail across the ocean of heaven.

Ixce asks, to pass the time:  “There was a dominant species here, wasn’t there?  Some form of anthropoid?”

“There are remains, for sure.”  Jaca replies.  “Ruined cities, stone monoliths, graves and grave goods.  We have quite a lot of archaeology back at base.  They reached a state of advancement rather similar to the Incas on Earth, then they died out.”

“We have no idea why,”  I add.  “Why they disappeared, I mean.  A sudden episode of some kind, like a meteor strike perhaps – no idea.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Oh, recent; quite recent.”  Jaca shifts herself uncomfortably.  “No more than a thousand years ago.”

I lie there, half-listening as Ixce and Jaca’s conversation dribbles on, but more intent upon the grasses rippling hazily in the midday heat.  So beclouding is the haze I nearly miss a sudden, purposeful movement in some scrub to our left.

“There!”

Within seconds our depression in the landscape is brimming with Smokedogs;  rangy brutes more than half as big again as my unfaithful servant Quietus – who now lies next to Ixce in the grass, his head between his paws; for all the world as though he were asleep.

No domestic pets these:  their eyes are the yellow of the timber wolf, their fangs long and curved. They move and weave among one another, collisions resolving themselves with a quick snarl and a flash of saliva-slick teeth as they enforce their seniority in the pack.  At the centre of the meeting-place the elder, larger Smokedogs gather, while those less prominent in the hierarchy retreat to form an outer circle.

As the lesser dogs settle themselves, those nearer the centre of the basin form groups of three or four or five.  From time to time, a dog will break from one group to join another.   All stand head to head as if engaged in conversation.    Fascinated, we watch this process, our personal difficulties put aside:  we are the first humans to get close to a Smokedog parliament.

“They are interacting in social groups!”  Jaca whispers. “Malcor, does this remind you of anything?”

Then, as if upon some spoken command, all the Smokedogs lie down, old and young in two concentric circles, facing an arena which is now completely clear.

Silence.  No movement – not even a breath.

We wait.

From somewhere in the long grass to the east there rises a deep, resonant baying sound – a Smokedog giving tongue.   Every dog in the pack raises its head, stretches its vocal cords to give one united answer; rising and falling – a sound to chill the warmest heart, a threat of something more direful than doom itself.

I hear Jaca gasp.  Out into the clearing comes a lone dog, emerging from the grass with slow, uncertain tread – but such a dog!  Whether from great age or from disability (I cannot know) it is gnarled and twisted into a grotesque parody of its species:  lips drawn, tongue lolling, eyes closed.  Its pelt hangs from it in matted festoons of fur, its legs drag it along as if they might any moment give way beneath it.  But all these trials are as nothing by comparison with the immensity of its belly, which gives the animal the appearance of an obscenely bloated bladder with legs, so stretched and hardened that it looks as if it must burst at any second.

Reaching the centre of the arena this repugnant creature staggers and falls.  Around it, the mature dogs begin a gentle whimpering, while those younger bloods of the outer circle give vent to their excitement in yaps and yelps.

I know something of import is about to happen – I cannot possibly predict what.  Glancing at my companions I see similar expectation written upon their faces.   Jaca is first to understand.

“Oh my god it’s catching fire!”

A flicker of red flame has appeared, around the elbow joint of the dog’s front leg.  Tiny at first, it dips and dances in the wind – innocent, almost as though it has strayed there, quite by chance; a burning leaf perhaps, or some wraith conjured by spirits.  But within the wreckage of the creature a much fiercer heat is gathering – its flesh begins to ripple and crack.   Daggers of fresh flame escape, piercing skin, splitting joints apart with cushions of white heat; and yet it moves!

Ixce points to the paws, still probing feebly at the soil.  “It’s dead!  It must be dead!”  But it is not.

With a last despairing howl from its blackened mouth it rolls, exposing a stomach burned open by a forest of flame – and now its whole carcass is ablaze – a raging inferno of such heat that even with our gift of distance I feel compelled to shield my face.

“Spontaneous combustion!”  Ixce whispers, awe in his voice.  “Oh, look at this!”

The burning dog is now no dog at all.  It is a furnace, but a furnace with purpose.  For squirming and shaking itself in the midst of the flames a vague shape, a Smokedog shape, is forming.  No sooner has this creature found its feet than it leaps from the fire: naked of fur but unmistakeably one of Quietus’s brethren – nearly-grown and refulgent with flame!

The fiery creature stands before the inferno which spawned it – head low, white-hot eyes intent upon its mother’s remains.  At once all the dogs around the arena give tongue – a sound I have so often heard but never, until now, understood – then the outer circle of the pack parts to make room for its new member and it bounds through the space that is made, right to the very eastern rim of the basin, before turning to give a long howl in answer, a majestic, luminous miracle baying fire to the sky.  We look on, deprived of speech, as the newly born’s flesh seems to finally extinguish itself, gradually cooling.  Only when the hot fury of its cremated parent has diminished to more moderate proportions does it join the outer ring.  Two dogs move aside to provide space and it lies there, scorched, a haze of smoke hanging over it.

The pack stays for a while, its senior dogs conversing approvingly, we must assume, in their little groups, before drifting away, two by two, back into the long grass.  And their new comrade follows, leaving a smouldering carcass to burn on into the dusk.

That evening we gather on the Observation Deck, Jaca, Ixce, Quietus and I, ready with our assembled thoughts to explain what we have seen.

“Simple.”  Ixce says.  “We see dogs, we think puppies.  But Smokedogs don’t have fluffy little babies, they reproduce by fire.  It isn’t such an untenable concept:  the ancients believed that a certain breed of lizard – the Salamander – was born in a similar way.  We witnessed a pregnant female giving birth – now we have to develop upon the science surrounding it.”

“Awesome!”  Jaca breathes.  “One thing troubles me, though.  Did we, or did we not witness the behaviour of a dominant species today?  I mean, why have they never interfered with us?”

“They don’t see us as a threat?”  I suggest.  “One small settlement – a research station, really, nothing more.  Perhaps if we tried to expand it would be different.”

“I’m new here.”  Ixce interjects; “You’re the geologist, Malcor:  have we any reason to expand?”

“Possibly.  I’m finding evidence of ore, although no sign of deposits yet.”

“If we do,”  Jaca says,  “I think we should be very careful.  I can’t exactly explain why, but I believe those creatures were responsible for wiping out the Palataians.”

“And learnt from them,” I agree.  “That was just like a Palataian religious gathering today.    Their meeting-place was organised like a temple.”

“Wow!  Wild stuff!”  Ixce thumps the air with his fists.  “Come for a drink,  Malcor;  I want a word, if I may?  You stay here, Jaca my darling:” He gives my darling a meaningful look; “Keep Quietus company, will you?”

Jaca distracts Quietus, tickling his tummy in a way he finds irresistible as we leave together.  This is an unusual grouping and from Ixce an unusual request.  I confess myself puzzled.

“I needed to get us away from that damned animal.”  Ixce explains:  “Do you know, Malcor, the blessed creature has been picking my brains with mathematical and quantum theory questions all day?  It’s a dog, for god’s sake!”

“Anything you couldn’t answer?”  I ask mildly.

“That’s cheeky!  No.  But what a brain!”  He takes my arm.  “We’re on the edge of something very big, here, Malcor – very big!  I require your help.”

“How?”

“All the way back this afternoon I was worrying about a way to get hold of a specimen of these creatures, and then it struck me – we have one in our midst!  We have to dissect Quietus, old chap.  I’m going to need an extra pair of hands to subdue him.”

“Quietus?  You’re going to kill him?”

“Name of research, Malcor – we have to do these things.  I want to see how he works – understand that incredible density of his.  First thing after breakfast tomorrow, bring him to the lab.  Don’t be late!”

As it happens, I do not see Quietus again that night.

In the quarters we have shared for most of five years I find Jaca folding the last of her clothes into a travel bag.

“Malcor, my dear:  I’m so sorry.”

“You’re moving in with him?”

“We both knew….”

“Yes.”  I am plunging into some bottomless pit.  “I suppose we did.”

“We have to work together.  We mustn’t fall out over this.”

“No.  Mustn’t fall out.  Friends.”

I do not rise early the next morning:  for a while I lie in our bed, wondering whether to bother to rise at all.  When I get to breakfast I cannot really eat, but pick absently at my food – drink too much coffee; a lot too much.

I am alone.  The crew, who always start early, have finished and gone about their business.  No sign of Ixce – I try not to imagine him lying with Jaca – try not to picture them together:  but no sign, either, of Quietus.  Has he divined his fate with that perfect instinct of his and gone into hiding somewhere?

Jaca comes to the table.  We glance awkwardly at each other, I for my part half-expecting to see the flushed complexion of new love, but Jaca does not reward me:  if anything, she seems a little flustered.

It is a while before the silence is broken.  One of us has to do it.  Me.

“Where’s Ixce?  Sleeping late?”

Jaca mutters so quietly I cannot hear.

“Sorry?”

“I don’t know where he is.”  She says with a hint of bitterness.  “When I woke up this morning he had gone.  I think Quietus must be with him – he’s gone, too.”

An unwelcome presentiment prompts me to look inside the lab, but it is empty and as pristine as it was after cleaning last night.

When I return to the breakfast table, Jaca is still there, her head in her hands:

“Something happened, didn’t it?”  I ask her.

“No!  No, nothing….”

“Come on, Jaca.  I can read your moods well enough by now.  Tell me!”

“It was wrong!  I can’t explain it – he’s different somehow.  It’s as if his head is somewhere else – as if he’s almost forgotten who I am!  Then, when I woke up….  Look, I’m sure it’s nothing; nothing at all.”

“Sure.”  I can see the truth in Jaca’s eyes.  Right decisions, wrong ones.  We all make them.  “History doesn’t always repeat itself,”  I say, and she understands.

Slowly, the hours of morning pass.  We attack our work mechanically, going through our tasks with minds apart, thoughts too deep and personal to share.  Out on the plains the Smokedog fires burn.  I am outside with my seismic experiments, watching as one of the newer fires flares, and because of my greater knowledge closer to it than I have ever been.

At around midday, as I walk down the hill to check upon a malfunctioning receptor, I discover the blood.  There is a considerable quantity of it; dark and tacky, no more than twelve hours old.  The bushes around it are broken and trampled with struggle:  studying it more closely I begin to find particles of flesh and bone, shreds of cloth from an outdoor suit.  With churning stomach I extract slides from my kit, taking samples.

Jaca joins me in the lab, made fearful by my urgency.  Together we work to identify the victim, a deepening horror growing within us both.  There is no doubt.

When the final hammer falls, Jaca runs sobbing from the room.  I gather the crew together for a solemn announcement.

“Science Officer Ixce was attacked and most probably killed – either last night or this morning.”  I tell them. “We have to try and find him.  Draw arms from the secure cupboard and break out the armoured buggies.  We may have a fight on our hands.”

“Do we know what got him, Malcor?”  A security officer asks.

I shake my head.  “I only know of one predator on this part of the planet.  It has to be the Smokedogs.”

Then I ask, as an afterthought:  “Has anyone seen Quietus?”

No-one has.

It occurs to me that no-one has ever tried to shoot a Smokedog, and I wonder briefly how susceptible that thick, solid flesh will be to our primitive bullets:  we are, after all, a research station, unworthy of sophisticated weaponry.

Jaca joins me as I work over my gun, her features pale and strained.  “Ixce’s lander is fuelled up;” She reminds me:  “Wouldn’t it be useful as a scout?”

I shake my head.  “Too fast.  Not much in the way of censor equipment, either – it’s just a standard shuttlecraft.”

The crew are at the back of the settlement, starting up the three armoured buggies we use in a security alert.  I have no battle plan.  I am not a soldier.

“Let’s go and do it.”  I say.

We get no further than the communal area.

At first, the sight of Ixce’s naked form standing in the centre of the room refuses to register in my brain.  It is as if I am accepting an illusion; giving credence to a ghost.  Then, as the recognition that he is there slowly imposes itself, I can say or do nothing.  I find myself rooted to the spot.

Jaca’s strangled cry barely reaches my ears.  “Ixce!  Oh, Ixce!”

She starts forward as though she will embrace him, but somehow doesn’t:  a wall of doubt is there – science is there, saying no.  No, this cannot be.

“You – your blood.  Darling you must be hurt!  You must be!”

But you aren’t, darling, are you?

I find my tongue.  “Ixce.  You are supposed to be dead.”

Ixce cocks a quizzical eyebrow:  “Reports exaggerated?”

“No, my report.  You look extremely healthy for someone who must have lost at least eight pints of blood.”

He looks puzzled, really perplexed; as though he cannot fathom what either of us is talking about.

“Where have you been?  Where are your clothes?”  Jaca asks.

“Out.  I went out early. It’s so warm out there, and we all know each other’s bodies, don’t we?  I had to go back and have another look at those dogs, Malcor.  I told you I would, didn’t I?”

“No.  You told me something quite different.  Ixce – where’s Quietus?”

“How would I know?”

“Not certain, but I think somehow you do.”

Ixce shakes his head.  “Sorry, no bells ringing.  Now, I have to leave I’m afraid.  Everything finished here – all packed up!  If I’m prompt I’ll manage a rendezvous with the Silusia freighter:  get home quickly, eh?  Be nice to make Earth-fall again before summer’s over.”

“You’re leaving?”  Jaca cries incredulously.  “Just like that?  You said you’d stay – a tour of duty, you said.”

“Change of plans, Jaca dear.  Sorry.  Way things are, you know?”

I can only imagine the turmoil inside Jaca’s brain:  the scientist in her vying with the woman – the realist with the lover.  Yet it will take more than a psychological barrier to keep her from him now, her Gabriel, her Archangel.  She runs to him, arms wide to enfold him, heart bursting in her breast.  “Ixce darling, please?  You can’t!  You can’t!”

Before he can restrain her she has thrown herself upon him, arms around his shoulders, lips seeking his in a frightened, soulful kiss.  In that awful second he moans something, a word I cannot hear because the whole settlement is racked by Jaca’s scream.  She staggers back from him, arms akimbo, staring incredulously down at herself, her face frozen in shock.  She is burning, smoking, her flesh rising in blisters.  She stares at her hands:  “Ixce?  My god!”

Now for the first time I fix upon Ixce’s eyes – yellow eyes, slitted and angry:  I see his fingers, long and bent, the nails pointed.  I see the stoop of his flanks, full of spring and speed.  And I see the truth.

The last of our crew are coming back into the communal area, alerted by Jaca’s scream.

“Stop him!”  I tell them.  “Don’t let him get to the lander!”

Raising my own gun, I position myself between Ixce and the passage which communicates with our landing pad.  He advances.

“Worthless!”  His lip curls, his stare despises me.  “I was not for you, Malcor – I could never waste myself on you!”

I am backing off as I try to keep my gun trained upon him.  The malevolent yellow orbs of his eyes pierce my soul.

“So you waited, didn’t you?”  I am trying to keep my voice controlled, calm.  “You waited for a brain greater than any of the Palataians – the next step in your evolution – even if it had to come from another world.”

“We’ve waited years for this intellect – years!”  Ixce snarls.  “As it was with the Palataians, so it is with Ixce – consumed and reborn of fire!  Don’t try to stop me:  nothing can stop me!  You know that, don’t you, Malcor?  Don’t you!”

A hot hand, or claw as it may be, shoots out:  a vice grips my throat. I am held aloft, the flesh searing from my neck – spun around and flying, a helpless projectile aimed at the crew who do not scatter in time to avoid me.  In the melee of arms and legs I hear two shots fired before I black out.

By the time I come to the air is filled with the roar of the lander’s engines.  Quietus is right: nothing can stop him now.

Horribly burned, Jaca stands shaking with a rifle in her scorched hands.

“I fired twice,” she mumbles between swollen lips.  “I’m not sure if I hit him.”

And so it is.  I have sent a message to Starfleet, of course, but I am not believed – we none of us are.  Shortly after it was sent Jaca got her own confidential memo from them asking her to comment upon my ‘mental condition’.

I am packing now, taking a last look from the observation platform at the plains and the distant Smokedog fires.  Below me, a little semi-circle of Smokedogs sit, gazing up at me with looks which exude devotion.  I am of no use to them, of course.  Since Jaca confirmed my ‘apparent frailty’ I am bound for rehabilitation in the Betelgeuse system.  Realistically, I may be back at work within a year – maybe two.  Jaca and I speak rarely; we avoid each other most of the time – I doubt if she will even say goodbye.

And do the wires buzz with Ixce’s name?  Well no:  you see, shortly after Earth-fall he took a vacation with a very great friend of his, a political genius named Paka Sind.  When the hotel where they stayed caught fire only Paka Sind survived:  Ixce’s body has never been found.

Everyone speaks well of Paka and they say he will be Secretary-General one day.  Those who know him well remark upon his energy and the strange colour of his eyes……..

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Writer’s Notes

In the comments and questions surrounding the last few episodes of ‘Hallbury’, I mentioned that I had re-written the ending of the original book, which engendered the obvious question, I suppose – what were the changes and why?

The substance of change began with Joe Palliser stumbling across Charker Smith on Wedesday Common:  Jennifer Althorpe’s fate was the same, but in the original version Charker’s gun had two barrels.  He was about to fire the second barrel into Joe when Tom Peterkin fell across the gun, taking the full force of the shot.

Next, the book moved to a bedside interview between Joe and a police inspector to clear up the mysteries of the story. Joe gave his explanation of Violet’s antecedents, the contents of the folder, etc., after which the action cut to the night of Ian’s ‘count’, and a lengthier passage concerning his arrest for the murders.

In the afterword, a crippled Tom and Emma raised the child she conceived during her liaison with Joe.   Financially, they were reliant upon Joe, who never found an emotional constant of his own.  He had a distant half-marriage with Sophie: ‘It took three years before he and Sophie finally got together in a sort of marriage.  Even now it is a long-distance relationship, especially since Aunt Sophie’s father died’   and a continuing relationship with Michael, his mentally ill brother, whom he also supported.  For most of his life he was destined to drift, alone with his memories of Marian:

‘The last time I spoke to my father?  No, I am not afraid of the question – I telephoned him just the other day.  He was vague, as usual.

“Are you off to France?”  I asked.

“Yes, I suppose so.  Next week, I believe it will be.”

“Are you going on your own this time?”

“Why not?  Marian will be there.”  My father said.’ 

Other details?  A disabled Jennifer Althorpe became much closer to Sophie, while Charker opened his logging business in Canada, rather than Scotland.  And that’s it!

On the face of it, they seem quite minor, these changes, but they altered the complexion of the last chapter considerably.  Why?   Well, this is the boring stuff!

To shorten the book for serialisation I removed quite a lot.  That altered some practical details; Joe’s explanations to the detective in the original included research he had made into Parkin family history, but for serialisation his visit to the library was cut, so Joe had to catch up with that in the postscript.  Immediately after the fire he simply wouldn’t have the facts.

Charker setting up a logging business in Canada?  I can’t imagine Canada would be anxious to welcome an immigrant with attempted murder on his record – so for the serial I changed the location to Scotland.  Lucky Scotland!

Editing made a huge difference.  Making sex scenes more ‘acceptable’ to a blog audience (and agreeable to WordPress) I blue pencilled much of Joe’s epic last night with Emma, the original version of which was loaded with nuances and tensions.  Here’s one of the tamer bits:

And now he saw her need, saw how her whole body was quaking in its grip; and this was his need, too.  There were no more words of resistance, no more pitiful pleas against the inevitable.  Joe took Emma in his arms.  She struck out at him, ineffectual bird-like flaps not meant to hurt.  He parried them, pushed her back so the wall was behind her head and there was nowhere she might escape, and then he steadied her tear-damp quivering chin with his fingers and took her in a kiss.  It was their first kiss in twelve years, yet it might as well have been the umpteenth kiss and no time between, because Emma fell to drowning in it as gratefully and as openly as she had always done, and the time that had slipped away from them both was forgotten.

It speaks for itself, doesn’t it?  But it isn’t right.  Emma isn’t stupid.  She can differentiate between passion and love.  She knows this is the man who left her, claimed to marry someone else, never wrote to her or gave her much thought for a decade.  She knows that they see each other across a class divide, which means that however much Joe thinks of her, he can never belong to her.   No, she has a man she loves in Tom, and Tom is warm and generous, and kind.   Her heart is his, but her body craves the only thing outside Tom’s power to give her; the child she is convinced only she and Joe can create.

Would Tom forgive her?  Of course he would; we will always forgive the ones we love.  And his friendship with Joe is closely akin to love, close enough, once Emma can persuade him Joe is not a threat, to be rekindled.  I didn’t like a relationship in which a crippled and helpless Tom was reliant upon Joe.  Unfair.  So instead I only allowed Charker one shot, and kept Tom healthy.  He, Emma and Joe can agree, the three of them, to live openly with a truth acceptable to them all, for all it is not often articulated!

If Tom does not deserve to be injured, neither does Joe deserve loneliness.  From Marian he has inherited security, which is the kernel for much more.  The Joe of my ‘final reel’ is a changed character with a love of his own; so I gave him a chance meeting (for brevity’s sake – he would have tracked Sophie down in the end) and she approaches him for the desired result.  Yes, I think Joe and Sophie belong together, don’t you?  She has the true generosity of the upper class, and in their brief acquaintance, despite their differences she and Joe found bridges they could cross together.   Unanswered questions remain – would Sophie’s understanding be stretched to accept the ‘arrangement’ he has with Tom – would they, perhaps, have children of their own?  I think they will be happy.

In writing this book about village life, the elephant in the room was class.  Class in the UK has always been and still is the greatest limitation upon progress both materially and socially.  Upward mobility is stifled into virtual non-existence because of it, education reinforces it, birth right has greater worth than ability in any theatre, but none more so than the English village.   If there is a single thought to leave in the wake of this book, it is this: could Ian have murdered Violet Parkin if she was his equal in class, or would he have been forced to take a different road?

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

I Don’t Normally Give Book Reviews, but…

If I try to buy a Kindle book from Amazon.com (because I was linked to it there, or simply because I discovered it and liked the look of it) I am politely but firmly advised to make my purchase on the Amazon.UK platform.  Now I understand the probable necessity for this approach – it may have to do with taxation, or other legal restrictions – but it also occasionally means I cannot buy a book at all, because it is not listed in UK.  Most importantly, to me, I cannot give my feedback anywhere but the UK platform.  My review will not appear to buyers in US.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Cusp of Night’, the first of three books in the ‘Hodes Hill’ series by Mae Clair.  It inspired me to give a five-star review, which subsequently appeared on the UK site, but not in the United States.  Now this is a great book and essentially a very American book, so I would say its international appeal is an added testimony to its accomplishment:  opinions influence sales from wherever they may come.

‘Cusp of Night’ does not need my approbation; it has already deservedly attracted 39 excellent reviews from its homeland, but for the sake of transparency Mae Clair’s readers should also be aware of a further five five-star reviews of her book from my side of the pond.   Here, in case you are in danger of missing the book, is my review:

The Most Exciting Action Finish I have Read in Years  

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Maya Sinclair, after a motor accident that so nearly took her life, elects to move to Hodes Hill; nor may it be just a quirk of fortune that she decides to rent the old brownstone house at the corner of Chicory and River Road, close to the alley where Charlotte Hode’s young life was so tragically ended, a century ago.  The house has ‘history’ her neighbour tells her; a truth the house itself is swift to confirm when the clock hits 2.22am.- The Cusp of Night.

Mae Clair’s book is the story of a town unwilling to forget – her heroine comes to live here at the time of the annual Fiend Festival when townsfolk commemorate Charlotte Hode’s death by dressing up as the fiend that butchered her.  But it turns out the butchering is not entirely consigned to history, for in the course of the celebrations a very fiend-like attack takes the life of at least one reveller.

Before she has time to unpack in her new home, Maya becomes involved in the complex affairs of the Hode family and the tragic story of Lucy Strick, the beautiful Blue Lady.

Mae Clair weaves a skilful and extremely readable tale of mediums and mayhem in a very frightened town.  She attacks the familiar totems of money and power with relish and leaves me wanting…well, I guess you’ll know the feeling, when a book is so absorbing you can’t bear reaching the last page, because you want it to continue just a little longer?   Like that.

Which is why I am about to begin reading the second ‘Hodes Hill’ book…

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Four                        Thunderhead  

The story so far:

‘Wiccan Priestess’ Margaret Farrier tells Joe his brother Michael was rejected by the Hallbury witches, who Margaret insists are harmless herbalists.  She denies knowledge of recent desecration in the village.   He shows her the package from Violet’s home which she identifies as a love charm. Ned Barker, deceased landlord of ‘The King’s Head’, is its subject.

Joe finally finds his brother Michael in the grip of a psychotic episode.  He placates him, and his elder brother arranges to have him taken into care.   Regardless of the hour, a traumatised Joe seeks support from Tom Peterkin, his best friend.  He knocks at his friend’s door, and it opens…

 

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

This was not expected!  Joe tried to form words, “Emma, is Tom….?”

“Oh Joe!”  She took his arms, drew him inside; “Are you hurt?  What have you done?”

In the light of her living room, bleary eyes wide with astonishment Emma took in his dishevelled state.  “Damn it Joe….”  She guided him to an armchair.

“Is Tom awake?”  Joe repeated without thinking, because he was incapable of rational thought, right then.  Why had he not expected Emma to greet him at the door?

“I’ll get you something to drink.”  From the bar Tom had made for a corner of the room, Emma half-filled a whisky glass and brought it to Joe, shuffling in pale green slippers, her dressing gown tied carelessly about her, dropping to her knees to look at him more closely.  “This is blood!  You’m been in the wars properly, haven’t you?”

In the wars?  For hours that seemed like forever his head had been filled with Sophie’s rejection, the shock of his inheritance, Michael’s expressionless face, his emptiness, his despair.  And here was Emma, with her emerald eyes which, full of sleep though they were, could still hold him in thrall, her hair in a tangles, and the smokiness of night in her voice filling him with a warmth of reminiscence for long-ago mornings. To go back there – yes, those were his first rational thoughts for a while…

“Tom?”  He struggled to complete his mantra.  Only a summons to Tom would make this early morning intrusion excusable:  Tom’s presence would quell the surges of emotion which were bursting in his chest, make everything respectable – everything right.

“He’m not here, Joe.  I’m sorry.”

“Not here?”  He repeated her words, mechanically.  At this time of night?  “I must see him, Emm.  Where is he?”

“Tom’s gone, Joe.  He don’t live here no more.  Let’s not talk about it now, hmm? Seems like you’m got bigger things on your mind, boy.”

But no, this was exactly what he wanted to talk about.  “Gone?  Why, what’s happened, Emm?”  For all the scheming of his subconscious mind, that demonic genie that dogged every virtuous decision he attempted to make, it had never occurred to him that his return to Emma’s life might lead to a separation from Tom – or so he would exculpate himself.  But his genie would secretly smile.

She shook her head, seeking strength.  Her features puckered for a second as though she was about to cry.  “I was stupid.  I did something stupid.  Not that it mattered.  The village does the damage anyway, once the talking starts.  Don’t matter what you try and do – how hard you try.  I hurt him, Joe…I hurt him real bad…..”

Emma got to her feet quickly, turning so he should not see the chance escape of a tear.  “You stay comfor’ble there.  I’ll heat some water for ‘e so’s you can get a bath – some of Tom’s clothes…”  She hurried away, through the door into her kitchen.  He forced himself to his feet, following her in the grip of something too strong to be refused, finding her standing in the centre of the flagstone floor with her back to him.  Her shoulders were shaking.

“Emma, I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry?  Why?  Is it your fault?  I’m long past blaming you, Joe – for comin’ back, whatever.  It’s me!  It’s all me!”

His hand reached out.  She brushed it aside.  “Don’t!”

He reached out again.

“Stop!”  Emma told him.  “You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re tired, you’re upset…”

His fingers touched her wet cheek, all of him shaking at the sense and feel of her.  “I should never have left you.”  He said.

“Joe, we’m married to other people – both of us.”  She turned, looked up into his face no longer careful of her tears.  “Think o’ the things we’d destroy.  Think o’ your poor wife, Joe.  I don’t know her, but….”

He pressed his finger to her lips.  “Come back and sit down.”  He said.

“But the water’s hot, look.  You needs to rest, whatever it is can save until tomorrow…”

He was insistent, guiding Emma to her living room couch where he sat down beside her, took her trembling hands and told her everything.  The words he used, though garbled by fatigue and tainted by the thunderhead of regret above his head, came from deep within him – some not his own, because in his confession it was many times easier to use the criticisms and descriptions of others; of Marian, of Ian, of those acquaintances who had passed by and paused for a while on the winding London road.  It was Marian, after all, who had told him he was weak, Ian who had described him as a leech, Owen who gave him the title of Gigolo.  Joe wanted Emma to see him in the light he turned upon himself.

“I know what I am.  I know who you let into your house tonight.”

When he came to speak of Marian’s death, however, he had no other words than those his own heart could speak.  He described her fondly, honoured her memory.

At the news Joe was not married, Emma caught her breath, raised tired eyes to the ceiling.  When he had finished, she withdrew her hands from his, so that for a moment he thought he had lost her, that she would turn away now she knew the truth. She got to her feet, looked down on him, then tenderly cradled his face in her hands.

“Not married then?”  She said.

“No.”

“Joe, Joe!  All they other things – I’ve known them since we met.  God knows you’m not perfect, and maybe some’d find you weak, or selfish?  But back in them days…”  She paused, reflecting; “Well, there was a seed I saw growing and p’haps you didn’t see it, or if you did you turned your back.  Together we were strong, Joe.  We would have been so strong!”

Here he would have spoken, but she stilled him.  “No, let me say what must be said.  I knew you didn’t really love me.  I would have settled for that.”  Again he made to protest, again she held him in check.  “No, you didn’t.  You didn’t then and you probably don’t now:  but I can see something tonight I didn’t see back then:  I can see why.  You don’t know how to love, Joey.  Maybe because you lost your mum and dad so young, lost your home and everything – maybe because of your upbringing with those two bloody awful brothers of yourn, or because of what happened to Rod Smith, I can’t tell.  But this is what’s left.  You can’t trust – not nobody. You can’t give yourself.  It isn’t in you.”

Joe wanted to dissemble, although in his heart he knew that everything Emma said to him was true.  So when she tugged his hand to make him stand up he meekly obeyed.  “Come on.  Whatever happened tonight, you’m exhausted, boy.  Get yourself a bath while I makes up the bed in the spare room.  When you’ve slept us’ll talk some more, if you want.”

And so it was.  He drew himself a bath among the dangling tights and bath-oil forests that were part of Emma’s separate life, and took on one of Tom’s old coats while she did her best with his mangled clothing.  Then he fed himself between sheets of cool linen and fell into a sleep deeper and more dreamless than he had known in years.  No condition, then, to hear the bedroom door quietly open, or the muted pad of Emma’s feet.

She stood for a long time, irresolute, torn between need and pride, content, as she believed, to watch the slumbering figure in the bed.   But the early hours of morning were cold, and there was a heat within her that would brook no denial at the last.  All the years of fruitless waiting seemed to point towards this moment, on this one night, and if there was a goddess of the Earth she stood commanded now.  So it was that like an act of worship to the first light of dawn Emma slipped the nightdress from her body and slid soundlessly into bed, draping herself behind Joe’s unwary form; making a promise to herself she knew she would not keep; that she would leave again before he woke.

Joseph’s eyes opened to daylight.  He could not tell whether or not the day was far advanced or how long he had slept,  Beyond the opened window no sound, other than the melodies of the birds.  Within, and close to him, the regular rhythm of Emma’s breathing, as fragrant and as gentle as the touch of a breeze; around him, the arms he had lived without for many, many years.

Hours had passed.  They had made love, conspired together with words that were for them alone, and drifted back into sleep.  Now, as Joseph woke it was to the touch of lips upon his cheek.    Smiling serenely Emma slipped a lazy arm across his shoulders

“Oh my lord!”  she murmured, “I’m in such trouble with you!”

“You are.”  He grinned, indicating the open window.  “You’re reputation’s gone, for sure.”

She was rueful.  “I was noisy, wasn’t I?”

“You were a bit.  I think the whole neighbourhood heard us.  In fact, I think I detected a round of applause.”

She slid a leg over the side of the bed.  “You can be sure they was listenin’ in.  Not that it matters.  They’d have guessed anyway, what with the car parked outside all night.  They curtains‘ll have been twitchin’ long afore now.”

“When you said – what you said last night; about my not loving you?”  Joe clutched her arm, seeking to detain her, “Maybe that was true, in a way.  Maybe you’re right, I can’t really love anyone.  But I want to be with you more than any of the things I am supposed to want from life – when you walk away from me it’s as though a part of me leaves with you; if there’s a way for me to love, that’s it.  I love you, Emm.”

Even while he was speaking, her bright green eyes were filled once more with tears.  She stretched out her fingers to stroke his cheek.

“There’s a pretty speech.”  She said.  “Thank you, Joe darling.  Dress now, and I’ll get us something to drink, yeah?”

He did not want the dismissal in her voice.  He did not want to leave her.

“No.”  Emma said more firmly.  “Go on now Joey.  It’s for the best.”

Joe nodded mutely, acceptance.  A moment that was past, a threshold he should never have crossed.  Outside; the seedling corn, clover, cornflower and meadowsweet, children to the burgeoning sun – inside, Emma with the Earth Mother’s blessing within her, primal and so, so powerful; To turn away was hard.

“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?”  Said Emma’s voice beside him.  “You belong here, Joe; you – not your brothers, just you.  You always did.”

They had dressed.  He, standing by the window again, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and the rain-clouds gathering over the hill; she, stripping the bed of its tell-tale linen, in practical mode.  His thoughts were whirling, confused – why had he believed, somewhere in his shrivelled and damaged soul that they could do what they had done and walk away?  It was, after all, so easy when he had done exactly that before.  Not this time.  He had cuckolded a friend, taken the thing that friend held most dear; coveted Emma, slept with her in his house. What was he?  What kind of amoral monster could do such a thing?

Emma came to him.

“Don’t ‘ee punish yourself Joe dear.” She told him gently, as though she could read his thoughts,:  “We’m both weak, selfish creatures.  You at least held back until I told you Tom had left.  I came to you, remember?  I’ve no excuses at all, except one.  I could have no more resisted the nearness of you last night than I could live without water. You’m my fate, Joe – you always were.”  She lapsed into silence, gazing out with him into the bright yellow of the corn, the indigo threat of the coming storms.

As they ate breakfast that was nearly lunch together, Emma expressed the opinion Tom might return to collect some of his possessions that evening, after he had finished his work.  Thus the full story of Tom’s separation from her was revealed.  She told Joe why she had been unable to remove her coat the last time they met, during her visit to the Masefield house, and how Tom had discovered her lying in that state of undress when she returned home afterwards.

“He knew, you see – where I’d been?  He knew as soon as you comed back, Joe.  I couldn’t hide it from him; he was too clever – he understands me too well.”

That evening they had rowed.  Tom had snatched a few belongings and left.  He was staying with a friend in Braunston, this much she knew.  Other than one telephone call, though, Emma had not heard from him since.  It was in that call, after Tom had stated his wish that they should separate, that he had suggested this night as an opportunity for their final meeting.

“I still loves him, Joe.  There’ll always be a space in my heart for Tom.”

Joe wanted to stay, to help her face it out with her husband; Emma wouldn’t hear of it.  “No, my love, this is my fight.  I’ll deal with it my way.”

He nodded his understanding.  “He was my friend too, but alright, if that’s what you want.  Now what about us, Emma?”

Emma pressed her finger to his lips.  “Don’t think about that – no plans, no promises Joe.”

At the door, as they paused to let a pair of village feet click past outside, she whispered:  “Besides, I’m a scarlet woman now, aren’t I?  Who else could I turn to?”

She kissed him goodbye with fervent passion, knowing this was the last time she would kiss him that way, hustled him gently onto the street, then watched his retreating back as he returned to the waiting Wolsey.   And in the sure and certain knowledge that most, if not all of her wishes had been achieved on this night of nights, she tried to imagine the little shoulders that would grow to be so broad, the tiny eager lips that would hunger for her breast, and the end to all the yearning years.

Feeling explicably guilty, Joe did not return to the Masefield house, for he could not face his elderly relations with a sober countenance and deny the electric change that had just taken place in his life.  Instead, as the first distant sounds of thunder muttered their warning, he drove himself by an old road that wound and climbed into the Maddock Hills until it emerged from between high hedges onto a bare hilltop, elevated sufficiently to overlook the coming storm.  Here, he allowed the sheer celebration in his heart to join with the theatre of the elements.  It would not be moved aside by thoughts of propriety; so when he tried to turn his brain to the Parkin murders, or to Michael’s distress, even Marian’s sweetly melancholy letter, it merely threw up another image of Emma, and his body would fill with the same heat, the same need.  Wondering about her, fearing for her lest Tom should fly into a rage, or she should give way to despair, or change her mind, or…. All the while the lightning ripped, the thunder volleyed, the rain fell with the intensity of a glass curtain, sweeping across the valley in fold upon fold.

Hours later, on his way back to the village, Joe called Ian from the telephone box on ‘The Point’.

“Michael’s fine.  He needed a little sedative, and a lot of rest, but he’s safe now.”

“That blood, Ian…he was covered in it!”

“I know.”  Ian said.  “Look, Joe, there’s no proof.  If we were wrong and he hadn’t done anybody any harm, think what we would be putting him through!”

“Is he speaking now?  Has anyone asked him where he’s been?  Ian, if he’s done something to somebody, then he’s dangerous.  There are people who need to know.”

“Do you think I don’t understand that?  No, he hasn’t said anything.  The doctors think he may be some time regaining his speech – a psychotic episode, is how they describe it. Samples of the blood’ll be sent away and tested.  We’ll know ourselves for sure in a couple of weeks.”

“And meanwhile there’s an election?”

Ian sighed.  “All right, yes:  there’s an election.  I’ve worked all my life for this, Joe.  Is it so wrong to want to keep the waters calm for a few days?  Give me a chance to succeed?”

“I will.  I’m sure the answer to all this is in that house – why would he come back here if it weren’t for that?”

“Which house?”

“The Parkin house.  I need to get in there, get some time to look around properly.”

“Joe!  Joe, let it lie, please.  Just let go for once, will you?”

#

Joseph discovered his Aunt Julia in her kitchen, mop in hand.  One glance told him that now was not a good time for glad tidings.

“That infernal storm.  The rain found its way into the scullery.  Everything’s ruined!”

“Where’s Owen?”

“He’s on the roof, trying to fix it.  Help him dear, will you?  I worry about him up there – it’s almost dark!”

“No need!”  Owen’s muffled voice consoled her from the heavens:  “I’ve done it, I think!  I’m coming down!”

Leaning through the scullery door, Joe could see the devastation that torrents of rain could wreak upon packets of flour, boxes of sugar, salt, soap powder, and other household commodities – his aunt and uncle’s supplies for a week, mostly reduced to salvage.

The ceiling had caved in, plaster littered the shelves.

And revelation was a slap in the face, a thousand curtains opening, a fanfare in trumpets of gold.

Of course! 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Two A Letter

The story so far: 

In Abbot’s Friscombe, the nearby home village of the Smith family, Jennifer Althorpe, a journalist for a major national newspaper devoted to sabotaging Joe’s brother Ian Palliser’s political career is at work, trying to stir up a scandal story by rekindling anger over Joe’s reputed involvement in Rodney Smith’s fatal motoring accident, some years before.

Meanwhile, unaware the net is closing, Joe accepts Sophie’s invitation to go horse riding together – a lyrical day out culminating in an act of love which Joe unwittingly destroys by blurting out the name of Marian, his deceased lover.

For the whole of that night Joe lay uneasily in his bed, applying the salves of drink and deductive reasoning to his wounded conscience.  But the more he explored his thoughts and feelings, the more he had to accept there was no logic to be found.  Sophie was as perfect a companion, perhaps even a partner, as he could ever wish for; he was attracted to her and yet he had used her.  Brilliantly though Sophie’s star shone, at one spontaneous, disastrous moment it was Marian who had filled his heart.  Just as once, in another unforgettable instant, Emma Blanchland had worn Sarah Halsey’s mask; Emma Blanchland who was now Emma Peterkin and lost to him forever.  Why?  What part of him insisted he should not move on, but always cling to the impossible, to the memory, to the romantic dream?  He was fairly certain he could fall in love with Sophie – if it were not too late.

In the afternoon when Joe returned Julia had a letter for him from Carnaby, his solicitor, suggesting they appoint to meet, so he had telephoned:  the old man seemed to think there was a matter of some importance to resolve, and Joe had promised to visit him at eleven the next morning.  Before he left for the town, he called Sophie, counting himself fortunate that it was the daughter, not her mother, who picked up the ‘phone.

“Mr. Palliser; how considerate of you to call.”  If words were knives their cut could have been no deeper.

“Please, Sophie, don’t be angry with me!”

“No?  You have other expectations?”

“I know I messed up, and right now it must seem unforgiveable, but Sophie…”

Seem unforgivable?”

“Alright; alright.  Completely unforgiveable.  And I wish I could explain it, I really do.  You can’t imagine how wretched I feel!”

“Oh, I believe I can!  About as wretched as you made me feel, and a little worse, I hope!”  Sophie sighed, letting her anger dissipate, then said, in a more subdued tone:  “It was a mistake, Joe – an awful misjudgement.”

“Something terrible possessed me.  I can’t explain how, but there’s so much that’s  good between us, so much that feels right, and I… ”

Sophie cut in:  “You might as well know, I’m driving up to London with Daddy this evening. He thinks it’s time I made use of my Two-One in Art History, as do I.  He knows the owner of a gallery who will offer me some work.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t believe I will.  The Bayswater flat is big enough for us both and I shall live there.  Daddy will continue to come back at weekends, of course, but I rather think I will stay in town, at least for a while.  It’s time I built an existence of my own.”

“So that’s it?   One stupid mention of a name, and it’s all over?”

“I think it’s for the best.  On a personal note, Joe, there are things you need to sort out.  When you’ve found that brother of yours, see if you can find yourself.”  Her voice was chill.  “Until you have, I believe I should keep well clear; for my own sake, do you see?”

Before he could make any riposte, the line went dead.

Had he means to see, to hear, Sophie after she replaced her receiver, Joe might have bitten back the helpless frustration he felt.  For the Sophie that her mother saw, across the hallway of their home was pale, with eyes dark-shaded where she had not slept.

“He matters, doesn’t he, darling?” Emily Forbes-Pattinson said.

Sophie nodded in silent reply.  “Do you know the one thing he didn’t say, Mummy?  Not once.  He didn’t say he was sorry.”

 

Joseph set off for his meeting with Carnaby in Braunston with Sophie’s words still churning in his thoughts, and only the urgent compulsion to find Michael driving him on.  He could harbour no illusions – his solicitor’s urgency must mean the result of Marian’s autopsy had arrived, and he was giving way to some form of panic, beginning to feel the need to put physical distance between this place, these emotions, and himself.  Perhaps Emma’s advice and Ian’s offer would not have been such bad choices after all.  With this conclusion refusing to take a sensible form he parked up outside Carnaby and Pollack.  Carnaby was in reception when he arrived and greeted him cordially.

“Joe, Joe!  Come in; do.  Take a seat.”  Carnaby waved a bunch of papers in one hand as he sat behind his desk, stirring up a small flurry of dust from the tooled leather.  “Here!”  He said triumphantly, as though he had just discovered the papers:  “These!  Are you sitting comfortably, my dear boy?”  Joe nodded, waiting.  A pause, then, with sudden gravity:  “Are you ready for a shock?”

Joe did not answer – could not.

Shock!  Marian, dead in his arms, filled with the drugs he had bought her – the moments of that night he could not remember, no matter how hard he tried.   Second autopsy, police investigation:  oh, god, what had he done?  A surge of sheer fright rose in his chest:  he could hear his genie’s insane laughter, see the mist rising.

“Dear chap!  You look quite ill!”  Carnaby pressed his intercom, summoning aid.  Struggling to breathe, Joseph recovered sufficient consciousness to discover he was accepting a glass of water from an attentive secretary.  The elderly solicitor was bending over him, his face a mirror of concern.  Joe drank deeply.

“I really did not mean to alarm you, dear chap; I am so, so sorry!”  Carnaby fussed.  “Do you feel better now?”

The secretary was called Naomi and she was, Joe thought, quite pretty.  Her large dark eyes were anxious. “Should I call the doctor, do you suppose?”  She asked.

Joe raised a hand.  “No, it’s all right.  I get this sometimes, I’m not ill.  Did I pass out?”

“Very nearly, I think.”  Carnaby told him.  “Have you had this looked into, Joseph?”

Joe said that he had, that the doctors had told him it was all to do with stress.

“Well, I have good news then.”

Joe was incredulous, and must have looked it.  “Good news?”

The solicitor nodded to Naomi, who retreated, closing the door behind her.  “Yesterday I received these…”  He waved the papers again.  “The full copy of Marian Brubaeker’s Last Will and Testament.  The terms of the will make it clear you are Mrs Brubaeker’s principle beneficiary.  There are some details to be worked out, of course, but you may rest assured.  You are heir to virtually her entire fortune.”

Joe was still trying to clear the buzzing in his head.  He blinked at Carnaby:  “But I thought her husband…”

“No longer.  Mr Brubaeker won’t contest it.  That’s final.”

“Weren’t the police involved?”  The journalist – Lynd – had he been lying?

Carnaby shook his head.  “Brubaeker was asking for a second autopsy at one stage, but of course with the information now at our disposal, he won’t want to proceed.  No point, dear boy, is there?”

“Information?”  Joe repeated stupidly.

“There!  You see?   You haven’t had the letter!  Third party in this matter is so inefficient!  I’ve never dealt with such a slipshod firm! (Carnaby’s opinion of a no doubt beleaguered Mr Gooch had obviously altered in the course of their dealings – such reversals in Alistair Carnaby’s estimation were not uncommon)  You should have been told, Joe, because you obviously didn’t know.  Marian Brubaeker had congenital heart disease – she would have been aware of it, especially because, it seems, in her case corrective surgery didn’t work.  I obtained a full diagnosis from the record of her medical history, which, if anyone else had bothered to examine it in detail, would have saved us all a lot of trouble.  My take on this is that Mr Brubaeker was well aware of his wife’s condition, but completely unaware of you until her will was read to him.  The second autopsy threat was nothing more than that – a threat.  He hoped to see you scurry away at the proposition of a police investigation.  Bless her, she could have popped off at any moment.”

“So she died of a heart attack?”

“Heart failure,” Carnaby nodded.  “Hastened possibly because she was in the habit of taking stimulants, but there was no doubt as to the cause of death.  The day before she died she had seen her consultant:  he foresaw an event and tried to persuade her to stay in hospital, but she wanted to die in her own home.  So that was that – dreadful affair, absolutely tragic.  Poor woman!

“But if I may be so indelicate this makes you a rich man, Joseph.  Because Mrs Brubaeker had been examined by a highly qualified consultant close to her time of death we have the best possible testimony that she was of sound mind, therefore her husband – they were virtually estranged, by the way, did you know that? – has no grounds to contest the will!”  He slapped the papers down on his desk then performed a small act of contrition, tidying the sheets into a neat stack.   “I will proceed with the details at this end, if in the meantime you seek some advice as to the disposition of funds.  I can help you with that, too, if you so wish.  Take time to consider, Joseph; that’s my recommendation.  Oh, and one more thing…”  Carnaby pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer:  “Amongst Mrs Brubaeker’s effects we found this – it’s addressed to you.

“Of course, the assurance of this money will grease the axles of your house purchase considerably, unless your plans will now change?  I imagine you could afford something rather larger.  I’ll send you the paperwork.  Now, do you want me to order a car for you?  I don’t believe you should drive yourself, at least not for a while.”

Around the corner of the street there was a café Joe had used occasionally in the days when he was Carnaby’s clerk.  Still somewhat disorientated, he sat heavily at a table, ordering coffee and sandwiches from a fragile-looking waitress.   Then, with some apprehension, he opened the envelope Marian had addressed with the simple word ‘Joseph’, and unfolded the letter it contained.

“My dearest, dearest Joe,

Oh, how should I begin this letter?  The very fact that you are reading it means that now you know a truth I could never bring myself to tell you.  You see, I have the mark of The Reaper upon me as surely as you have the mark of Cain upon you.  We both know our destinies, don’t we?

I told you once, Joe, that although you have many gifts, earning your own living does not feature among them.  So I have made certain you will never have to, my dear.  I don’t expect you to run my businesses if you don’t want to, in fact I wonder really if you should. Janessa Marchant, whom you know, would make a very able Managing Director if you wish them to continue.  I took the small liberty of offering her an interim contract until you decide what to do.   My solicitors are arranging valuations, so you will be able to sell them for quite a handsome sum if you elect to do so.

  Darling boy, you have given me a life; something no amount of money can ever repay.  Our years together have been such a wonder to me, more precious than words can express.  Thank you for each minute of each hour of each day we spent together, for your patience with my silly tantrums, your understanding of my moods and needs.

Don’t mourn me, please.  Don’t feel grateful: the gratitude is all mine.  If you keep the Alsace house, as I hope you will, when you visit there in one of those glorious summers spare a moment to remember me?  I cannot imagine anyone else but you inside those walls, my darling.  We were so happy there, weren’t we?

Take very special care of yourself.  Live, love someone who understands you, be happy, my sweet Joe.

In my last sleep, with my last breath, I will think of you.

My deepest love,

Your Marian.”

“You alright, mister?”  The waitress asked him.

 

There was nothing that Joe could do with the rest of that day, or most of the day that followed.  So profoundly affected was he that thoughts of Sophie, or Michael, or the Parkin murder and everything that arose from that were pushed to the back of his mind for a while.   Instead, he was filled with the recollection of his last night with Marian;  with his new understanding of her behaviour in those few final hours, which shamed him now because of the tawdry manner in which he had attempted to cover up his involvement in her death.  Although he could only consign that dreadful morning to the past, he resolved to accord her memory the respect he denied to her body in death.  He would walk with her forever in his thoughts.  Without regret or apology, Marian would always have a place in his heart.

On the evening following his appointment with Carnaby, Joseph told his aunt and uncle of his inheritance.  How should he not, when its consequences would affect all their lives so profoundly?  To his surprise, Owen’s was the gentler, intuitive reaction:  “I suspected there was something more to tell, Joseph.  You know old chap, for such a secretive person you’re deplorably bad at keeping secrets.”

Julia was infuriated.  “How dare you not tell us, Joe?  How could you keep something like that from us?  That poor woman!”

But it was a tempest that soon blew itself out.  They were happy for him because they shared Marian’s assessment of Joe’s character, and they could be content now, knowing that at least he would be comfortably off.

Although Marian had forbade him to mourn, Joe grieved for her in ways he could not share with his aunt and uncle, for Marian was no more than a name to them.  Instead, he ‘phoned someone who had known her well.  “Is that Janessa?  I thought it only fair you should hear this from me.  I’d like you to stay on as Managing Director, if you would.  Yes, I will be keeping the companies on, but I’ll be only distantly involved.  Marian had great faith in you.”

“I’m so glad,”  Janessa rejoined;  “I’ll get on with the Winter collection.  It’s good that something she achieved will survive in her memory.  We all loved her, you know.”

“As did I,”  Joe said.

For an hour, or very nearly, he and Janessa shared words that expressed their remembrance of Marian, opening gates that perhaps had been closed to them both.  And if it is not remembered who wept and who did not, at least this mutual expression of grief was a way for them both to rise above depths of woe; which in Joe’s case allowed him to begin thinking rationally again – thinking, that is, of Michael.

 

“Ah, I was expecting you.”  It was something less than a welcome.  Margaret Farrier surveyed Joseph from the shelter of her doorway.  “You’d better come in, I suppose.”

Hatton House was a smart, double fronted stone building towards the west end of Cross Street, the road which ran from Church Lane by St. Andrew’s Church to Feather Lane at the corner where stood the now-closed King’s Head pub.  Margaret’s Georgian front windows overlooked most of Hallbury to the Common beyond; then beyond again to the grey backcloth of the Calbeck Hills.

Margaret Farrier was something of an enigma as far as the village was concerned; very tall, almost six feet in height, with a pride of bearing which spoke of a distinguished family whose history in the Parish traced back a number of generations, Her appearance was that of a woman twelve years younger than her true age; her skin still moist and youthful, her eyes lively, her mouth firm.  The hair on her head was almost jet black, tied back so it shone.  She was in all ways an impressive lady, with an indomitable disposition.

Her associations also served to impress.   The meadow across the street from her house was Farrier’s Meadow, named after her great grandfather:  a roadside bench on Church Hill bore the family name; a steep rise behind the house was Farrier Hill.  Even the old wrecked thresher that lay crumbling in Flodder Field was known as the Farrier machine.  Then there was a scholarship to the local High School, a prize for the Shire’s most promising artist.  Yet distinguished as she was Margaret was in her forties now and unmarried.  Her only close relationship, as far as was known, was with her brother.  Patrick did not live in the same house (he rented a room with the Pardin’s on Feather Lane) but would, for example, always accompany her to church, or take her to Braunston, if she had need.  General opinion agreed that neither of them would ever marry, and it was almost certain that with their departure, the Farrier family line would die, too.

Margaret led Joe briskly to her drawing room, motioning to a chair.

“I’m not to your liking.”  Joe said, as he sat down.

She stared.  “What makes you say that?”

“I make ripples?”

“You are given to cause disruption, yes, that is true.  However, that is not always such a bad thing, young man.  You should be careful with your relationships, perhaps.  You have the village fairly buzzing with rumours.”  She sat opposite him, folding her knee-length skirt carefully across her legs.  “Now, what do you want of me?”

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

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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