The man with the white hair ran his grubby hands through his beard and allowed himself a smile as he made his way across the desert-baked rock towards the pitted bulk of a monolithic andesite boulder, once representing an ancient god or tribe leader but now eroded beyond recognition by thousands of years of wind, sand and water. As he stood in the shade of the boulder and drank – casting his gaze across the odd assortment of stone lintels and broken beams, square and rectangular rocks with grooves and troughs and angular cut-outs in irregular places, left behind as though the place had been abandoned overnight, half-way through construction – he heard the rest of the party making their way through the curtain of dust kicked up by the rising wind. He turned and took a few quick snaps of the relic and a few of his colleagues emerging from the dust with the early-evening sunlight at the rear giving the scene an ethereal golden glow.
The group was led by a shuffling and wheezing Wolfgang Heinrich, a grey-haired and pot-bellied German with the most impressive handlebar moustache Aldous had ever seen. Aldous had first met his oldest friend in the summer of 1987 when he had taken a year or so to travel around South and Central America and had ended up on Easter Island, forty-five years old, freshly retired from his career as an infantryman and photographer with the Royal Logistics Corps and hoping to follow up on the dreams of visiting and photographing the ancient places of the world that he had discarded half a lifetime and more ago.
Wolfgang’s research group had unmasked the history of the imposing stone heads that hold vigil over the tiny granite speck the island’s natives call Te Pito o te Huena – the navel of the world – constructing a thorough timeline of the island’s people since their arrival from distant Polynesia, through their short rise to religious idolatry, the ancient rites of The Cult of the Birdman and their bitter fall, destroying the forests that covered the island in a religious fervour, wiped out down to the very last tree. The two-year project was in its final weeks when Aldous arrived on the island, placed as if by fate in the same lodgings as the German and his companions. The last thing he had expected was to find a true friend and the chance at a life he had always wanted.
From that first meeting in a tiny drinking house beside their hotel, Aldous and Wolfgang had been inseparable. Wolfgang had fawned over Aldous’ photographs of archaeological sites from the places he had visited during his years in the army and soon arranged for his new friend to join his group at the expense of his publisher for the final few weeks of their trip, telling Aldous that he was sure they would ‘do something great together’. Before Aldous knew it the few weeks had turned into a few months and soon enough they had planned out the next few years, trips to sites of interest on every corner of every continent, to begin work on a new history of the ancient world that Wolfgang had been discussing with his publishers for some time, a thesis that would document the esoteric secrets of lost civilisations the world over, written by Wolfgang and photographed by Aldous.
Now, two decades and a few dozen successful papers later, they were well on their way to completing the Great Work they had dreamed up all those years ago. Three volumes and the guts of two thousand pages, over two hundred photographs chosen from thousands, scores of trips lasting weeks or months to sites of note and enigmatic ruins all over the world – all in all it was the best thing Aldous had ever done, something he would be remembered for. Aldous smiled as he looked back upon everything that had led to this. Twenty years. Here’s to twenty more.
He patted Wolfgang on the back as the German passed, offered handshakes to the others – students out of Yale and Harvard mostly, as well as a few representatives from the Museo Nacional de Arqueología de Bolivia in La Paz – rubbing up on his Spanish for a moment with the sombre figure bringing up the rear, a tracker named Huaman, meaning Falcon in the local dialect. Huaman’s help had been invaluable, on this trip and on half a dozen others in the past few years. He knew the land through a lifetime of experience and had worked in the area with the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and with Hugo Boero Rojo, the Bolivian author who had found the first man-made structures beneath Titicaca’s waters. He led two shaggy Alpaca by thin pieces of rope, and tied the animals to a sturdy Qeñoa tree as they chatted before moving off to sit by himself, placing his tattered llucho hat on the ground as he scribbled the day’s happenings in his notebook and cast his eye across the various fragments of rock and pottery and bone he had picked up when they visited the new site being dug out of the hills to the west.
Aldous ambled across to the shade of the boulder to find Wolfgang bothering at the laces on his boots, all fingers and thumbs. “How are you keeping?”
“Oh, you know me, Aldous – miserable, moody, cantankerous,” the German said as he gave up on untying the laces. “I sometimes wonder if I’m getting too old for this.”
“For undoing your boots?”
The German rolled his eyes. “That too, but for all this running around. It was easier once. I was younger and skinnier once.”
“I don’t remember you being much skinnier. And need I remind you that you’ve got a good ten months on me? Besides, you’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember, back when you were skinny and young.”
“Well, I feel old even if you don’t. You are like a fine wine, Aldous. Me, I am a stale beer. That’s just the way it is.”
“Nonsense, Wolfgang. You’ll be fine after a nice hot bath and yet another llama steak, a nice bottle of that fine wine you mentioned.”
“You know, Aldous,” the German said after a pause “I don’t want much from the rest of my life, just to be able to finish this book, this one book that people will look back on some day and say ‘they were right’. Our own Origin of the Species. It’s not too much to ask, is it?”
Aldous gave a small laugh. The importance of their Magnum Opus had been discussed often. “Not much at all. Anyway, the first scan of map will be finished soon enough. We’ll sit down and have a proper talk about it once all the data’s in the bag. Then we can think about relaxing. You can spend a month or six back in Germany with the family. Me, well, I’ve always fancied visiting Tibet, or maybe Antarctica.”
“You’re like a machine, Aldous,” Wolfgang said as he stood and patted his friend on the shoulder, holding his hand there for a moment. “A better man than I. But mark my words, we all need a break sometimes, even you, my friend, even the invincible Mr. Finaeus.”
Aldous watched his oldest friend as he turned and made his way across the dusty road to the camp site and then picked up his camera and walked over to the storage rooms where the finds from the sites were being catalogued and filed, skulls and chicha pots and angular carvings, enough in the two rooms to fill a whole museum.
The group had spent the last three months as part of an international project on the shore of the crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca and had been exploring a number of sites across the Altiplano, most recently the ruins of the temple city of Tiwanaku, a place believed to be the most likely pre-cursor to the Incan empire. The current paradigm of mainstream archaeology dated the city from anywhere between 200 and 500 AD, most veering towards the latter, but there were a whole host of alternative studies and extraneous facts that pointed to habitation of the site from a much earlier date, the dating of the site to 15000 BC by the esteemed Professor Arthur Posnansky (who had studied the ruins and their mathematical intricacies for almost half a century) and the ancient strandline and the ruins of the sprawling ancient docks and piers now twelve miles or so from the lake’s edge and over a hundred feet higher than the current water level being the most intriguing of these. Whilst Aldous and Wolfgang had busied themselves with the sites above ground – cyclopean stone carvings and monoliths that had once rivalled those of ancient Egypt emerging from the earth at each of the three sites within a few miles of Tiwanaku, a host of bones in the once-powerful village of Lukurmata – it was the unknown sites below the frigid waters a few dozen kilometres away, the knowledge that they would be uncovered soon, that occupied most of their thoughts.
Teams of cinematographers and oceanographers had been studying and mapping the depths for the past forty weeks, a group formed of half a dozen different agencies and three governments hoping to find something to prove that the now-distant docks were once part of some ancient megalopolis that had fallen from the pages of history. But the divers could only go so deep, their cameras could only probe so far, and there was mile upon mile of lake bed that would not be revealed until the map was finished. It was this map that held them here still, soon to be completed after weeks of digital imaging. It would be the first ever three-dimensional map of the belly of the lake and as far as Aldous was concerned it was the most important archaeological tool of his generation or any other.
The last research team to conduct a survey of any magnitude was in 1912 with methods somewhat more primitive than the full-scale operation taking place around Puno now. The three scientists of the 1912 U.S. Geological Survey had spent six weeks rowing back and forth across the lake in a tiny boat, dropping plumb lines of piano wire and lead fishing weights in one thousand different locations. Today’s team, almost a full century later and with all the advances of the modern age by their side, had vastly greater resources at their disposal. The small row boat of old had been replaced by a state-of-the-art forty metre research vessel named The Second Wind. The one thousand plumb line readings were greatly eclipsed by the sixty million soundings from a new type of multi-beam sonar which had been processed through a virtual mapping program that was the pride of the US military and – should the 2008 Titicaca Basin Survey prove successful – would one day map the entire underwater surface of the globe. The completed map would show not only depth, accurate to an inch, allowing them to pinpoint all manner of artefacts where the alluvial silt layer was thinner, but would also show the complete topography of the lake bed, everything from landslides to lava flows, canyons to water sources and, what Aldous hoped for most of all, signs of civilisation.
As he felt the first bite of cold air signalling the extreme drop in temperature that always came at night he made his way from the storage rooms toward the camp, his thoughts lingering on Wolfgang for a time. A part of him knew his friend’s musings of before were more than just a case of the blues; Wolfgang was readying to retire. In truth it was something he had expected for some time. Neither he nor Wolfgang could keep going forever but Aldous was beginning to realise that they weren’t cut from exactly the same cloth. For now, with the end so close, he would not worry about such things.
He passed the security hut and walked through the camp to his tent, sucking on the tooth-marked stem of his pipe as he nodded greetings to those he passed, pulling a face at a crowd of children gathered by the kitchens. Once inside the tent he put his jacket over the back of the chair and dropped heavily onto the thin mattress of his camp bed, finding aches and pains which had gone unnoticed before as he stretched his legs and wished he was back in the comfort and warmth of the hotel in La Paz. Deciding to forego the three hour round trip in a cramped van every day in favour of staying on site had its good points and its bad points. He took off his shirt and lay back, closing his eyes just as Alan Dillinger – a Yale Archaeology student and the youngest member of their team – ducked his head through the door, already changed out of his dusty work clothes.
“Food’s ready, Mr…” Dillinger began, but the sentence trailed off as he saw Aldous lying on the bed. “Looks like you’ve had the right idea, Mr Finaeus,” he continued in a lower tone. “Anyway, I just called in to tell you there’s a letter for you here, arrived this morning.”
“If you put it in my jacket I’ll get it later – give me something to look forward to once I’ve had my beauty sleep. And I’ve told you already, call me Aldous. Mr Finaeus makes me sound old.”
Alan laughed as he put the folded letter inside the jacket. “I’ll wrap up some sandwiches for you and leave them in the fridge, maybe even see if I can manage a nice cold beer.”
“You’re too good to me. I’ll have to start paying you a wage.”
Aldous stretched his arms above his head until the stiffness in his limbs begin to dissipate. He listened to Alan’s footsteps until they dwindled and closed his eyes, a part of him worried about what was going to unfold over the coming days. Sleep swept him away as he thought on Wolfgang’s parting words and wondered if his years were finally catching up with him.
Cain Given lit a cigarette, pulled up his jacket collar, and stepped onto the rain-slicked street, a free man for the first time in eight years. He turned and smiled at the guard through the ever-decreasing crack as the heavy gates of Walton prison closed behind him, a broad and all-but-toothless grin, the result of too many fist-fights and a whole lifetime of stupidity and lack of forethought. Even now there was a voice inside begging him to jump through the gates and beat the guard to a bloody pulp, but he held back, offered a mock salute, and turned on his heel.
He made his way towards the train station alongside the tall prison wall and bought a ticket from a chubby young female with a scratched name-badge that read Em ly. She was the first woman apart from the nurse that he’d seen in a year at least, engrossed in some celebrity rag, scanning the pages as she wrapped a strand of chewing gum around her forefinger. When she looked up and her eyes met Cain’s – black and staring back at her, unblinking – the smile quickly left her face. She glanced none-too-subtly towards the door, checking the lock was fastened. Cain laughed aloud as he threw his coins in the tray, used to the reaction.
He stood on the bridge above the railway line as he waited, looking down the tracks towards the city and thinking about the night when he’d thrown it all away. He’d just turned twenty one, little more than a kid really, full of bravado with a few drinks in him. A crowd of mouthy drunks had started on he and Abel one night, name-calling mostly, but when one of them decided that he was going to play the big man in front of his friends, teach the wiry little slip of a thing that was Cain a thing or two, Cain had taken the man to the ground and went to work on him - breaking half a dozen bones, biting the man’s nose clean off, blinding him in one eye with a well-placed thumb. It had only lasted a few seconds but, none of it had ever seemed real to him. He could remember little until the police came, carried him off kicking and screaming, Abel nowhere to be seen.
It was all he had thought about in the eight years since, eight years stuck in a ten by ten cell for twenty-odd hours a day, not a single visitor, nothing but drab grey walls, shouts and screams in the night, the world and all its opportunities passing him by. Still, it had been inevitable – if he hadn’t snapped then, something else would’ve set him off at some other time and he might well have ended up killing someone. He was just glad the guy had lived, if only for selfish reasons. He flicked his cigarette onto the tracks and went down to the platform as the train slid from the tunnel, eager to get back to Abel, pick up the strands of his old life, plan a way out of this place.
Fifteen minutes later Cain had left Moorfields Station and was moving up Tithebarn Street towards the housing estates on the outskirts of the centre, passing throngs of workers and students heading home, early-evening drinkers hitting the bars, not a single one of them paying him a blind bit of notice. Cain liked it that way, to be a part of the crowd again, a nobody. He lit his last cigarette as he turned off the main road and cut through quiet side-streets and empty, tall-walled lots, crossing the footbridge by the Kingsway tunnel as he moved into the housing estate proper. When he arrived at the house dark had bled into the sky. He took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, made his way to the alley in the back and climbed the wall, landing awkwardly on top of a holly bush that had sprouted since his last visit.
Cain lifted himself up and wiped the dirt from his front. The house was quiet and dark, empty-looking, but Cain knew it was supposed to look that way to keep the prying eyes out. The windows were all sealed tight, triple-locked and too grubby to look through, and every door was reinforced, covered with steel plate half an inch thick – things happened inside that good people weren’t supposed to know about. As he moved toward the house the back door burst open and a figure stumbled out, tripping over the step and falling to the ground at Cain’s feet.
“Paul? What in the name of Christ...” Cain said as he leaned down and turned Paul over. His friend’s nose was bleeding heavily, broken maybe, his stubbled-chin dappled with clots of red, eyes rolling like eight balls. He was high as a kite.
Paul squinted through the blood, his voice heavy as though he’d just awakened from a deep sleep. For a moment his eyes flared wide. “Cain? Is that you?”
Before Cain had the chance to reply he heard an angry shout from inside the house, a wordless roar, then a heavy crash from somewhere upstairs. “Abel?” he asked as he helped Paul to his feet. It wasn’t the first time his brother had lost it – he and Cain were one and the same. “Did Abel do this? What have you done to set him off?”
Paul wiped the blood away with the cuff of his shirt, spitting a ball of bloodied phlegm onto the dirt. “Not a thing, Cain. He’s lost it, that’s all it is. He’s gone fucking crazy.”
“Abel was always crazy, Paul, you and me both know that. What’s under his skin now?”
“Everything. Steroids, coke, whiskey. He’s an animal, Cain, a fucking animal. Now’s not the time for it, not when...”
“Just sit down and clean yourself up,” Cain interrupted as he moved Paul over to the wall. “I’ll go sort this idiot out.”
“But, I should…”
“Just leave him to me,” Cain said as he waved Paul away. “You get your head straight.”
Since the noises from inside the darkened house there had been nothing but silence. If Abel was peeking out from behind a curtain, he gave no sign. Cain stepped through the back door and into the kitchen, spying the drinks cabinet in the corner. Abel could wait for just a minute. He moved to a bottle of ten-year-old Bells and took a generous hit before he moved on, bringing the bottle with him.
As he passed through the living room, Cain noticed that not much had changed in his time away. Empty beer bottles and take-away packets littered the room as they had years before, so similar that it could have been the same waste. He saw the same old matted dog occupying the same position on the tattered sheepskin rug, like a shabby taxidermist’s specimen, waiting for warmth from a fireplace that hadn’t felt heat for years, the same TV in the corner that would be too big for a room twice this size. A door that Cain remembered off to the right of the living room was covered by a bookcase with only a few books and withered cacti on the shelves, a marijuana crop growing behind the door if Cain’s sense of smell was right.
A single bulb hung uncovered from the ceiling in the hallway, swaying gently from an unseen breeze, waving shadows across the floor and walls. Still there were no sounds from upstairs. Cain shouted for Abel but received no reply. He moved quickly up the stairs, butterflies fluttering in his stomach, holding the whiskey bottle by the neck, wielding it like a baton. From the darkness above something flew through the air and smashed against the wall by his side, peppering Cain with jagged shards. He rushed up to the top landing, hearing movement behind one of the bedroom doors.
“Abel? I’m coming in, Abel. It’s me, Abel. Don’t do anything stupid.”
He pushed through the door, ducking low as Abel swung a sledgehammer, missing Cain by no more than a hair’s breadth before it buried its head in the plasterboard. Cain rolled and came up to his feet quickly, hitting Abel hard between the legs with the bottle. Abel doubled over and dropped the weapon. Cain punched his brother in the windpipe and pulled him to the floor, coming down heavy on top of him.
“What did I say?” Cain hissed as he sat astride his brother’s chest and grabbed him roughly by both ears. “What did I fucking say, Abel? You could’ve taken my fucking head off.” He glanced to the discarded weapon his brother had held. “A sledgehammer! A fucking sledgehammer!”
Abel – bare-chested and reeking of alcohol and stale sweat, white powder crusted around his nose – looked at Cain for a long moment before he saw him.
“Cain? Cain? What… what are you doing here?” The words were slurred and fast.
Cain let go of his brother’s ears and balled his fists as he stood. “Sit up and sort yourself out, you gobshite. I should kick you around this room until I’ve beat the stupid out of you.”
The anger and confusion drained suddenly from Abel’s face. In no time at all he was crying, turning onto his front and sobbing softly into the grubby carpet. It was the first time Cain had seen his brother cry since they were kids.
“What’s wrong with you?” Cain asked. “I’d have thought you were glad to see me.”
Abel pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and stood up, brushing away the tears, offering his brother a wide smile as he reached out and took him in a great bear hug.
“Jesus Christ, Abel. One minute you’re wrecking the place and ready to kill me, the next you’re crying, and now you’re like a kid at Christmas. What’s going on with you?”
Abel sighed and sat on the bed, pulling on his vest then reaching for a bottle of vodka.
“You’ve had enough,” Cain said as he reached out and took the bottle.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Abel said as he turned to the windowsill and snorted a fat line of white powder. When he turned back to Cain his eyes were wide and black, the pupils throbbing. “I’ve got myself into a bit of bother, Cain. Serious bother.”
“What does that mean?
“He’s only gone and fucked over some big gangster, hasn’t he?” Paul said from the bedroom door, a swathe of dark red covering his chest. “The Turk. Might as well have signed his death warrant.”
“I’m sorry, mate,” Abel mumbled as Paul came into the room. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“Yes, you did,” Paul said as he moved to the windowsill and dipped his finger into the pile of coke, moving it to his mouth and rubbing it on his gums. “Your head’s gone, mate. This… this thing has fucking twisted you.”
“Who’s the Turk?” Cain interrupted. “Are we talking about Jimmy Turgut? That little rat who used to deal smack before I went inside?”
Paul nodded. “He’s moved up a bit since then, him and his brothers have a network all over the country. He’s been top dog ’round these parts for the past few years. There’s plenty of powerful people in his pocket.”
Cain smiled. He remembered Jimmy Turgut very well, had given him a serious beating one night, for some reason he couldn’t even recall now. That was the guts of a decade ago and Cain had heard no mention of the name since. If he was the Big Fish now, the news hadn’t made it inside, and Cain was pretty sure he’d be able to sort out whatever mess Abel had made. Give him five minutes alone with any man, and he’d come away agreeing to whatever Cain had suggested. “So, what have you done to upset him then?” he asked Abel.
“I killed his little brother,” he said, quite matter-of-factly. “And his dog. And I stole about a kilo and a half of coke. Oh, and his car, I fucked up his car as well.”
Cain rubbed his temples. This was the last thing he needed on the day he got out. “Well, the rest I can understand, but you kill a guy’s dog, there’ll be comeback.” He moved to Abel and lifted him roughly from the bed. “You’re a sorry state. Go and have a cold shower, straighten yourself out before we figure what we’re going to do, before I figure what we’re going to do.”
He went to the bathroom, turned the shower on and pushed Abel inside, closing the door behind him. “And don’t think of coming back out until your head’s right,” he hissed.
Paul was sitting on the bed, tissue pressed against his nose.
“What happened?” Cain asked as he took a seat beside him.
Paul shook his head. “I’m not too sure, mate. Abel’s been working for Jimmy for a while – money collecting, intimidation, that sort of stuff. He’s been looking for a way to get a big payday out of it the whole time, says there’s always all sorts of money and drugs and that all over the place. Anyway, one of Jimmy’s little brothers has been getting involved this past few months and well, Jimmy paired him with Abel last night to organise some delivery or something. Next thing I know, Abel shows up here at about four this morning, higher than I’ve ever seen him, covered in blood with a dead little brother and a dead dog in the boot. I haven’t got much out of him since then, only that Abel had shot him in the face from the passenger seat. Fuck knows why.”
Cain rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Where’s the car now?”
“We loaded it onto the back of a mate’s truck this morning. It’s been crushed with the bodies inside, then dropped into the river. Nobody knows outside this house apart from my mate, and he won’t say a word.”
“If nobody knows, why’s Abel being so tetchy?”
Paul gave a little snorted laugh. “Abel reckons he called Jimmy, told him everything. That’s what’s got under his skin.”
“And did he?”
“Maybe. You never can tell with him. Swears blind he was talking to you in here the other week. Anyway, he can’t find his phone and I’ve been too busy trying to keep him on a lead to do anything about it. Chances are he imagined it. I mean, that was last night, and there’s been nothing... but still, if he did tell him, he’s fucked, and if he’s fucked, we’re fucked.”
Cain took a cigarette from the pack on the table and lay back on the bed, wondering how he’d suddenly become a part of this. Half an hour ago he was a free man, and now he’d walked through a door and become an accessory to murder. He was silent for a long time, thinking, the only sounds the running water from the bathroom and Paul’s jagged breathing. There was nothing to do but help Abel, he decided, sort the whole mess out.
“Do you have a car?” he asked after a while.
“We did, but Abel... well, you know.”
“Can you get one... quickly, I mean? Something no one could trace.”
Paul cast him a sideways glance. “I suppose I could.”
“Go on then,” Cain said. “Jump to it. Don’t be too long.”
Once Cain was alone the gravity of what he’d been told hit him. If Abel got caught for this he would go down for a very long time, and there was every chance that Cain would find himself back inside as part of the bargain. He opened the window a crack and lifted the pile of coke from the sill, pouring it through the crack where it drifted away on the wind like talc. What the fuck am I going to do with you? he thought as he heard Abel groaning from behind the bathroom door. His brother had no one to fight his corner, no one clean up the loose ends, and he was in no fit state to sort his own mess out. The rest of their family were long-dead or long-forgotten and the only friend the two of them had was Paul. One way or another, the three of them would do what needed to be done and sort the whole mess out tonight.
As he brushed his hands and went to the bathroom to check on Abel he heard a noise, a vibration from the adjoining room. He pushed the door open and saw a pale green light coming from underneath the bed, ducked to his knees and found the missing phone. It was on silent but a call was coming through. The display read UNKNOWN NUMBER, so he pressed the answer button, held it to his ear and listened.
“Abel? Is that you, Abel?”
The voice at the other end sounded both strained and relieved, as though he’d been waiting for the call to connect for minutes. “Yes, it’s me,” Cain replied.
“It’s Jimmy. I need you to come over to mine, Abel. I need you to come over now.”
The way the Turk said it hadn’t made it sound like a threat. He was pleading. “Why?”
“Just come quick. Please, I’ll make it worth your while, Abel. Please.”
Cain paused for a moment, a little confused. “What if I’m busy?”
Jimmy made a strange sound, a sob almost, then cleared his throat as if to cover it. When he spoke again his voice was firmer. “Ten grand if you get straight over here.”
Cain’s mouth hung slack for a moment as his mind went blank “We… I’m coming over.”
The next words were spoken quickly, a whispered afterthought. “Just you, Abel. Tell my brother to go home.”
Cain hung up, turned the phone off, and placed it in his pocket. He didn’t know what to think. The whys and hows, what Jimmy did know or didn’t know, held no real interest for him. Cain was focussed on the voice, the strain he’d heard, the tension behind the words. So many things didn’t seem right but Cain had no idea where to begin. They could talk and talk for hours but it would all end only one way, whether Jimmy knew what had happened or he didn’t, whether the tension he had heard was real or imagined, they had to go over there. Every minute they put if off was another chance for Jimmy to find out what had happened.
He heard movement as the door close below followed by Paul running up the stairs.
“I’ve got us a car. Had to call in a favour, but I’ve got it.”
“Good,” Cain said as he turned his thoughts away from the odd phone call. “Good. Now, grab some weapons and take them out to the car whilst I get Abel ready. It’s going to be a busy night.”
Jimmy the Turk dropped the telephone and wiped the sweat from his brow with a personalised silk handkerchief, the letters embossed in rich purple to match his socks and tie. Though a summer breeze swept through the open window there were patches of sweat seeping through his shirt and his hands felt clammier than they ever had. He stared at the letters for a second, trying to remind himself who he was, the weight his name carried, but he felt broken, his thoughts muddled. Nothing made any sense.
What had happened since the thing by the window revealed itself, Jimmy couldn’t really remember. That the figure was a thing he had no doubt, the same thing he had felt in the house for the past few days, maybe as long as a week – a growing presence he could often feel but never see, like a shadow dispersed by the light of his gaze, or like the feeling of unseen eyes watching him from places they couldn’t be watching. Well, it had made itself known now and sure, it looked like his older brother, Tamer, spoke like him with that deep, rich voice that sounded just like their Grandfather, even smelled like Tamer – hair oil and cloves and sweet cigarettes – but Jimmy knew that couldn’t be. He had held Tamer’s cold hand in the hospital bed as the life went out of him five winters back, fell into a coma when he’d crashed his Harley, drunk on an icy road. Jimmy had put the first sod on the coffin and had stayed until the last took its place; he had visited the grave a dozen times since, birthdays and Christmases. Whatever that thing was, it was not Tamer. It had no place here, no place anywhere.
He looked to the chain of keys on his desk – five keys, one for the deadlock and four for the bolt locks in pairs at the top and bottom of the door. He had locked the door himself, shut the bolts and sealed himself in – the only way he could feel safe when the house was empty – so how his captor had made it in here was something he couldn’t begin to understand.
“Well?” came Tamer’s voice, a hollow impersonation.
“Soon. He’s coming soon.”
The figure remained silent for a time as Jimmy drifted in and out, gripped by an intense fog that rose up behind his eyes, the reflection of the moon in the mirror in a new position each time he became alert for a few fleeting seconds. In one of his longer spells of alertness Jimmy found the strength to clear his throat. The sound he made was nervous and broken, but the fog seemed to recede for a moment, allowing him to speak. His voice was a croak, his throat dry and sore. “What... what do you want?”
The figure behind made not a sound, but moments later Jimmy felt the fog leave him entirely, limbs twitching to life, pins and needles dancing beneath his skin. Jimmy remembered something vital at that moment and knew more surely than he had ever known anything what he had to do – whatever was happening here, there was only one way to end it. Nestling in the top drawer of his desk was his treasured .44 Magnum. It’d blast a hole the size of a fist through anything within 25 yards. Then he’d take control, empty the chamber until there was nothing but bloody mush and the tang of gun-smoke in the air. He asked the figure what it wanted again, louder this time, and heard only silence.
Jimmy turned his head ever-so-slowly and saw that the figure had turned to face the window, gazing out across the manicured gardens like a modern day Aegeus. He leaned forward in as subtle a manner as he could manage and began to slowly, carefully, slide open the top drawer, lifting it off the track so as to lessen any noise, the miniscule creaks and groans seeming to amplify in the silence. Sweat dripped from the bridge of his nose to his lap as he opened the drawer another inch and slid his shaking hand slowly inside.
As he felt the first touch of the cold steel the figure behind him moved, the empty air behind him filling. Jimmy’s heart leapt as the clinging grey fog came rushing back, a wet cloth filling his body, turning the blood in his veins to frozen sludge.
“I’m just… I was…” he blurted out as his hand disobeyed the synaptic order, snapping to his side as if he was no more than a puppet. “I was… my… I didn’t… I…”
“Oh, you foolish thing,” came Tamer’s voice, different this time, a muffled acoustic that was somehow inside the muggy expanse of Jimmy’s skull, a mixture of voices borne of the fog. “You should have obeyed. You will wish you had listened.”
Jimmy suddenly felt icy fingers probing deep inside his head, pinning him to the back of the chair, the cold, illicit touch filling his mind’s eye with the wash of countless vile images – flashes of family and friends, bloody and dying; screams from mouths so wide and dark that they might fall down upon him and extinguish everything; vague hints of unnameable terrors that made him want to sob retch, so comprised that he could not even begin to comprehend them – the miasma so sudden and rushed that his body revolted, the flood causing his stomach to lurch and his bowels to loosen, hot urine soaking his crotch and dripping down his leg to puddle on the floor.
This violation lasted for a mere second, but the force of it was powerful enough to assert dominance over the now-trembling figure in the chair, every fibre of his body shaking.
“Don’t disobey,” came the voice as its owner reached past Jimmy and took the weapon from the door. The hand was grey, lifeless, gnarled like old wood. “Don’t ever disobey.” There was something like a chuckle from his tormentor as he tossed the gun out through the window where it landed on the lawn with a dull thud.
It was a game. A trap. A test.
Jimmy felt himself shrink with the knowledge that his one hope of gaining the upper hand was twenty feet below on the lawn and knew the time had come to beg for his life.
“Listen,” he began, every word a struggle, “what do you want? Whatever it is, it’s yours. I’m a wealthy man. You can have anything, anything at all. Please, I can give you money, I can get you anything you need please just don’t… just let me…”
“Silence! You have nothing of value,” the figure spat, words like drops of acid. “Nothing.”
The Turk had never been religious, not since he was a boy, but he began to whisper a prayer to any god who might be listening. As he pressed his palms together another figure stepped out from the shadows to the side of the door, as if it had materialised from the solid wall, lurking in the heavy gloaming until the moment was ripe. In the same instant, Tamer vanished, melted into the shadows in Jimmy’s periphery. Confusion spread across Jimmy’s brow as he looked upon her. It was a mere child, a young pale skinned girl in a gingham dress not four feet tall, her very presence here at odds with everything. She took a step forward and smiled, cherubic face framed by rich golden curls all sweetness and light, tiny teeth glinting in the moonlight, and Jimmy felt an irrational horror rise up behind his rib cage and settle like a lead weight in the centre of his chest. It was something in her eyes, the way they seemed to laugh at his weakness, to own him.
The child spoke in dulcet tones, soothing and chilling in the same instant, the words delivered with a strength and knowledge that seemed to belong to another more capable being, someone far beyond her years. “I trust that you will bow to me and do as I ask. If not, well... I have ways of getting what I desire. What I have given you thus far was merely a taster.”
She stepped forward and fluttered her eyelashes in a provocative manner that was knowingly erotic, the blond curl in the middle of her forehead bobbing as she moved. Jimmy flinched as she neared. This tiny child with her sparse words scared him more than she had any right to. There was something dark and alien in the way she carried herself, the way her eyes shone like black diamonds behind hoods of flesh. There was something about those eyes that made him want to retch, something broiling in the oily emptiness, something that could not and should not be.
As these thoughts came to him he saw – glimpsed for no more than an instant, as though he had been permitted to see – the roiling blackness deep within her, a nothingness at the very crux of her being, powerful and bottomless. It was a warning. Her childish smirk changed suddenly, morphed into a high-pitched giggle, an innocent sound that belonged to the figure Jimmy saw but did not belong at the same time. Jimmy felt bile rise in his throat, tasted the familiar burn as she placed her hands upon his head.
He could feel the terrors he had glimpsed in the moments before rising, an unstoppable force rushing towards him, a blood-and fire- and scream-dappled terror rushing up from the primal part of his mind like a tidal wave, and as Jimmy began to think he might fall apart at the seams, the sickening sensations stopped, the darkness that had filled him letting go as he slumped in his chair and slid to the floor, sweat and tears and spittle soaking his clothes. The child had turned away from him and was staring towards the front of the house, eyes fixed as though she could see through the dozen or so walls that separated the front door from his office. Something had happened; something had changed – he didn’t know how but he had been granted a reprieve.
“You are lucky,” she said with a smile as she took the keys from the desk and walked towards the door, skipping softly, a child once again. “He has come.”
“I told you he’d come,” Jimmy said. “I promised. I promised.”
Jimmy felt himself pulled back into the chair, arms and legs gripping to the leather-bound wood by invisible shackles as the girl melted into the shadows.
“You will wait,” came her voice, everywhere and nowhere. “I may have some use for you yet.”
Aldous woke with a jolt as the faceless man reached out to grab him, the hands falling away at his back like smoke. The sheets beneath him were sodden with sweat and his thoughts were fractured, half here with him, half in another place. It was the same nightmare that had plagued him for as long as he could remember, regular as clockwork ever since he was a boy – a dark, cold shadow chasing him through the corridors of his childhood home, a faceless figure that was always on his heel no matter how fast Aldous moved, bearing down upon him, so close that Aldous could feel the breath on his nape. It would come to him a few times a month, each appearance as terrifying as the last despite how well-trodden the dream felt, each terror imprinted upon him so fully that, even were the dreams to leave him, he would never be able to forget their detail. But there had been a change this time, he remembered - a stranger to the dream, a young boy calling out to Aldous as he opened the front door to escape, a pale face glimpsed in the growing light of the forest for only a moment in the seconds before Aldous woke, two words spoken and forgotten but flitting faintly through his thoughts now.
A great yawn escaped him as he sat up and let the covers drop, the faint traces of the dream falling away as he stretched his arms out, cracking his elbow joints. His surroundings were darker and more indistinct than he had expected. There was no whirring of generators or chattering voices, no vehicles thrumming in the dust. The bite in the air told him it was somewhere in the middle of the night. They must have let me sleep through, he thought as he glanced at his watch, finding he’d been out for six hours or so.
“First stop, the kitchens,” he said as he patted his grumbling stomach. “See if we can’t magic something to keep you quiet.” His stomach growled approval as his breath frosted in the air.
He dressed quickly, unzipping the doorway of the tent and stepping out into the night, drawing in a lungful of cool air and shaking off the last remnants of sleep. The emptiness was vast and complete as he gazed towards the cloud-covered moon above the Cordillera Real and saw thunderheads rearing and rumbling in the distance. Aldous guessed they’d be on the wrong end of a downpour off the mountains before too long and ducked back into his tent for a thick woollen scarf and his hip flask which he kept topped-up with brandy, a little something to give him a kick for those early mornings or to keep him warm on cold nights away from bed.
There were a few hardy souls working in the lab tents even at this late hour, analysing and logging the numerous finds coming in regularly from the hill sites, the workloads increasing as the deadline to vacate came closer. He stretched and groaned then made his way through the maze of containers and lean-tos towards the kitchens, glowing like a beacon at the edge of the camp. As he’d expected the kitchens were empty but for a stray dog who was waiting patiently outside the door. Aldous had the place to himself but didn’t enjoy the harsh white lights and preferred the thought of eating under the stars while the weather held. He moved to the cluttered fridge and found the remnants of the batch of sandwiches Alan had mentioned and made a well-sugared flask of tea before heading out into the night, throwing a sandwich to the dog as he left.
Within a few minutes the sodium lights and the thrum of the generators had been swallowed into the night and the ever-growing winds that swept across the dusty earth. He made his way through a few of the sites which were still being uncovered beside the Akapana pyramid and down the flight of steps to the open arena of the Kalasasaya, an ancient celestial observatory surrounded by pointed stones over twelve feet in length stretching to the heavens like grasping fingers. He ate his sandwiches as he walked slowly around the central pit whose walls were covered in dozens of carved faces, drinking in the scale of the place, trying to imagine what the earth might have witnessed here before, hoping – and the signs were good – that they might find something else in the hill sites or beneath the waters to help make sense of this place.
An object appeared out of the night a hundred yards or so to his right as he climbed back up the steps towards, uncloaked as the moon peeked through the darkening clouds. The Gateway of the Sun was his favourite Tiwanaku relic, a surpassing work of art whose intriguing carvings depicting long-extinct animals and obscure hieroglyphs had kept scholars scratching their heads ever since it was rediscovered by the Spanish almost five hundred years past.
He stood still and took in the sight, wishing he had brought his camera, capture the majesty of the silhouette limned by the light of the moon with the purple-black sky throbbing behind, a portal to nowhere and nothing. He had spent untold hours taking photographs and rubbings of the carvings on the stone below for the last section of their book, marvelling at the angular and enigmatic faces staring out from the rock, broad noses and oval eyes, surely African in origin; the long-haired, thin-faced men that even a layman would say looked Nordic, or at least European. The frontispiece on the lintel of the Gateway was a series of detailed but largely eroded glyphs believed to be a pictorial calendar centred with a carving of the great god Viracocha, a blue-eyed, bearded and pale-skinned creator whose legend under other names - Quetzalcoatl, Con-Tici, Bochica, Kukulkan, to name but a few – was part of dozens of cultures across the Andes, and seemed to hint at some basis in truth with their prevalence, even if only a kernel.
For the longest time there had been little record beyond the spoken word of the people who had made their home and built these relics by Titicaca. They had no written language to speak of and the truth of their history was a mishmash of myth and guesswork but the general consensus from the evidence extracted from the earth in the past decade was that they had consumed themselves, undertaking a mass exodus to appease the angry gods perhaps, wiped from the earth or subsumed by some other culture – either way, they had been forgotten for centuries, removed from history. Aldous hoped the results of the mapping survey would change that, provide some answers as to who these people were, perhaps even who had come before them. Any signs of human habitation they did find under the deeper sections of the lake would have been there for at least ten thousand years, before the mountains had risen up and formed the lake, and that thought brought a strange warmth to Aldous stomach, knowing that in a matter of days they might be amongst the first to see signs of a civilisation older than the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures put together.
As he approached the Gateway, close enough to see the debris of some prehistoric disaster that littered the periphery of the site, great shattered slabs and windswept boulders tossed asunder like unwanted toys, the sky let out a deep bass rumble, a jagged flash of purple filling the sky for a moment as the rains began to fall, great sheets billowing across the Altiplano from the jagged peaks of the Cordillera Real.
The Gateway brought shelter of sorts, its bulk cutting off the worst of the rains. The flask of tea and maybe a dash or two of brandy would keep the chill at bay. He sure as hell wasn’t moving for a while, not until the worst of the rains had passed, or until the cold became too much to bear – he would give it ten minutes, see if the rains let up a little. As he reached into his pocket for his pipe he found the letter Alan had delivered earlier, neatly folded in two. He had completely forgotten about it but his curiosity was piqued now as he had his first look at the dog-eared envelope, noticing the distinctive branding of the publishing house in the dim light. A deadline or some such; just as I thought. Inside was a single typed page from his publishing director. The postmark was dated two days prior, a few lines in a small serif font explaining that they had been asked to pass on a private message. Behind this was a smaller, grubby envelope that looked as though it had been around for as long as the publishing company. Aldous was intrigued.
He unfolded the fragile envelope and noticed at once the faded Northern Irish postmark, the red ink leeched to a soft pink with age, saw the stamp that read fifteen and a half pence, and shuddered softly as he wondered who it could be from, who from his home knew that he was here, who would have posted a letter when they still used half-pennies.
He knew of only one person.
A lump rose in his throat as he tore the grubby envelope open, the sounds of the wind and rain fading into the growing greyness at his back. The letter had been typed on an old Woodstock typewriter Aldous knew well, though he hadn’t seen it in half a lifetime; it had been a gift to him once, the same keys he remembered being missing in his youth still missing now, replaced with close approximations. His heart gave a sickening tremble his mind put a voice to the words. It was his father, and he had found him. He steadied himself and read on, hands shaking.
My 0n1y s0n, where d0 1 beg1n? What w0rds d0 1 ch0se 1n the h0pe that y0u w1ll g1ve up y0ur hatred and l1sten? H0w can 1 get thr0ugh t0 y0u when the truth 1s bey0nd y0u, bey0nd y0u as 1t was bey0nd me f0r the l0ngest t1me? There 1s n0 t1me f0r that, 1 kn0w, and th1s 1s n0t the place – 1t is t00 danger0us. Y0u have h1dden y0ur tracks well, but there was always a way t0 summ0n y0u when the t1me came, when y0u were needed. Y0u made a pr0m1se t0 me, remember? Y0u pr0m1sed y0u w0uld c0me back and see me g0ne. The t1me has c0me f0r y0u t0 fulf1l that pr0m1se, t0 c0me back and p1ck up where 1 have left 0ff. 1 h0pe you w1ll succeed where 1 fa1led
1 have asked y0ur c0lleagues t0 f0rward th1s t0 y0u 1n the event 0f my death. 1t 1s a l1fet1me s1nce 1 lat saw y0u but 1 am sure y0u w1ll be glad. C0me h0me, Ald0us. Th1s 1s where y0u bel0ng. Th1s h0use needs y0u. Everyth1ng 1s y0urs, as 1t sh0uld be, as 1t sh0uld always have been.
1′m s0rry, s0n, truly s0rry f0r all the hurt 1 have caused. 1 0nly h0pe y0u can f1nd a way t0 f0rg1ve me, that y0u w1ll c0me t0 understand the th1ngs 1 have d0ne, f0r y0u, f0r all 0f us. 1t was 1n the name 0f a h1gher g00d, y0u w1ll see.
Remember 0nly 0ne th1ng when y0u are unsure 0f what y0u see here and when the p1eces d0 n0t add up. Seek the Wh1te Lady and do n0t 1gn0re y0ur dreams.
He was dead. His father was really dead.
Aldous stood up with tears burning in his eyes and screamed against the driving rains until he was breathless. It had been a long time since he had felt such anger.
Acknowledging wrongs and weaknesses by letter was pathetic; apologising for guilt without recognising the extent of the crime even more so, and all of this decades too late. It seemed as though his father was trying to find absolution yet still keep his name untarnished, as if by not mentioning what he had done he would remain unconnected with it. The whole thing was obscene. But they were just words and they meant nothing. The only thing they spoke of was his father’s cowardice. Nothing could hide the fact of what his father was, what he had done, and Aldous hoped (although he did not believe in such things) his father would burn in hell for an eternity for the lives he had ruined. It was all he deserved.
He thought of leaving the letter in the mud and forgetting all he had read, tearing it to pieces and throwing it to the wind, but he could not, and instead folded the page neatly and placed it into his pocket. With a steely cold settling in his chest, he gathered himself and made his way from the shadow of the Gateway, trudging through the driving rains towards the camp, focussing on each step to keep his thoughts from drifting back to that time so long ago.
Twenty minutes after Paul had returned with the car, the trio were making their way across the Runcorn Bridge, banking east towards the Welsh countryside and leaving the main roads behind. It was a more circuitous route to Jimmy’s place but Cain knew it was much safer than travelling through the Mersey Tunnels – the last thing they needed was to be caught by an overeager member of the Tunnel Police with a just-released convict, two of the occupants high as kites, and a bag full of weapons stashed in the boot.
Cain hadn’t told the others about Jimmy’s call, figuring it would serve no purpose other than to make them more jumpy than they already were, and that was something he didn’t need. Abel had reined himself in since they left the house and now seemed to be coming round to the idea of taking his future in his own hands. Paul was not so eager but Cain had stared at him as he tried to find some excuse to drop out, stared at him and told him he had to play his part. Whether they liked it or not they were in this together.
“For the record,” Paul said from the back seat as they approached the turnoff to Jimmy’s estate. “I know we’ve to do this but I think we’re doing it the wrong way. I mean, we don’t have a plan here, boys. We don’t have anything but a bag full of weapons. For all we know he’s got two dozen men in there.”
Cain turned and glared at him. “And for all we know he’s alone and shitting himself. There’s no other way. Once Jimmy realises his brother’s gone, that’s it.”
“But what if he knows already?”
Cain shrugged, remembering the phone call, how Jimmy’s last words seemed to indicate that he had no idea about his brother’s death. “It makes no difference. That’s just the way it is. We find a way in, kill that bastard and burn the place to the ground. Then it’ll be over.”
Paul had no reply to that and nodded. Cain said it so plainly, made it all sound so simple.
Cain parked the car in a muddy lane a hundred yards from Jimmy’s place and sent Paul over to the front gate to investigate. He noticed Abel balling his fists as they watched Paul creep along the hedgerow, staying in the shadows.
“I spoke to Jimmy, you know.”
“What?” Abel said as he turned towards him, eyes wide. “When?”
“I found your phone. He called when you were in the shower.”
“And nothing. There’s no calls to or from him in your call history so I don’t think he knows, or if he does he’s got something else on his mind. He thought he was talking to you, told you to come over, practically begged. The last thing he said was to make sure his little brother went home.”
Red was flushing into Abel’s cheeks. “So he doesn’t know?”
Cain nodded; there was no need to mention the money Jimmy had offered. “I guess so but it won’t stay like that.” There was nothing more to be said. Jimmy was a problem they would need to deal with; it was best they do it now, before the truth came out.
Paul arrived back a moment later with perplexing news. “The security hut’s empty and the front gates are open. And all the lights inside are off. I’m telling you, boys, something isn’t right.”
Neither of the brothers said anything, merely exchanged a look then stepped out of the car. Abel went to the boot, grabbing the canvas holdall and pulling out a long, curved machete from inside, knuckles white as he held it, Cain watching him, shaking his head. Abel looked fit to jump out of his skin as he walked past the car. Cain motioned for Paul to join them, and together the three of them walked through the front gates beneath the wrought iron sign that bore the name of the estate, Redwood Manor, and entered the security hut. It smelled of fresh cigarette smoke and there was a half-eaten sandwich on the desk. Someone had been here recently.
Cain pointed to where the bank of black and white monitors flickered above the desk. There were twenty or more screens and not a single sign of movement on any of them. “Right, the place looks empty enough. We can’t see anyone inside, so if we’re going to do this, we do it now.”
They walked back to the car and drove towards the house in first gear with the headlights off, moving under the cover of the massive American Redwoods that flanked the driveway and gave the estate its name, following it until it emerged onto an enclosed Romanesque courtyard fronting the house, every window dark and quiet. Cain parked the car outside the courtyard, facing the exit, and the three of them got out and walked to the main building, keeping to the shadows at the edge of the courtyard, glancing around at the dark maws of the windows on the building’s front, looking for twitching curtains, signs of movement. There was nothing to suggest anyone was home.
The front door sat open a few inches, daring them to come in.
“I know we’re doing this but I have to say, I still don’t like the look of it,” Paul said, his voice a whisper. “The front gate open, the front door open, nobody around. It’s a trap. It has to be a trap.”
Abel glowered at him. “I’m going to kick the living shit out of you if you say another word.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Shut it,” Cain interrupted. “Like he said. Not another...”
A sudden noise from the depths of the house drew their attention as Cain stepped forward and pushed the door open. It sounded like someone singing, high pitched and distant, echoing down corridors. A little girl wearing a gingham dress emerged from the gloom at the top of the staircase as they listened, wearing ribbons in her hair and well-polished shoes as though she was going to Sunday School. She skipped her way towards them down the broad oak stairs, staring at her feet and singing a wordless song, a ragged teddy bear held in her hand, gripping it by the leg. Abel lifted the bag of weapons and held it close to his chest as the girl skipped towards them, thoughts careening around inside his skull. As far as he knew Jimmy didn’t have any kids and he could think of no reason why the pale-skinned, blond-haired girl should be here, no reason at all.
The girl came to a stop in the doorway, face framed by the light from outside. “Who are you?” she said softly as she looked up.
“We’re…” Paul started, his voice an octave too high, but Cain stopped him, placing a hand on his chest.
“What are you doing out here at this time of night, little girl? You should be tucked up in bed,” Cain said as he dropped to his haunches and gave her a broad gummy grin. Her eyes reduced to chinks as he ruffled her hair and she dropped her teddy bear to the floor.
“Your face is ugly,” she said with a giggle, reaching out to trace the line of a scar that ran from temple to jaw. Her eyes closed for the briefest second as she stroked a finger across Cain’s puckered skin, a strange shudder seeming to touch her briefly. Cain shrugged away, momentarily appalled, an odd feeling he had felt only once before when someone had been murdered right in front of him, the sharp shank opening the unfortunate convict from gut to gullet, steaming insides spilling across the prison floor like so many sickly-coloured streamers. Suddenly he wasn’t sure how to deal with the angelic child with the glassy eyes that seemed to stare right through him. How long have I been staring? he thought as he pulled his gaze away and glanced towards Abel, then Paul. Both seemed calm. Abel was smiling, gazing past the little girl into the house as though he could feel what waited. Maybe it’s just me. He shrugged the thought off and turned to the girl. “What’s your name, princess?”
“I’m not telling,” she said as she wrung her hands and pushed out her bottom lip. “Uncle Jimmy says not to speak to strangers.”
“Good advice.” The dark thoughts of before were gone. She was just a little girl. “Well, we’re Uncle Jimmy’s friends. We all live in the big house across the road. I’ve known Uncle Jimmy for years and years.” He could see by the way her mouth hung slightly open that he was beginning to win her trust. “You can tell Uncle Jimmy to bring you over to ours tomorrow and have a ride on the ponies, if you’d like.”
The little girl smiled and her eyes lit up. “Really?”
Got her, Cain thought. Too easy. “Really.”
“Now, I’m not a stranger anymore, am I? So, are you going to tell me your name, princess?”
The pink tip of her tongue toyed with her lips for a moment as she thought. “Mmm… Okay,” she eventually relented. “My name’s Cordelia, but you can call me C?”
“That’s better.” He glanced at Abel to see if there was any recognition on his brother’s face but Abel shook his head. “Where’s your mummy and daddy, C?”
She shrugged and turned on her tip-toes like a ballerina, her smile fading. “I don’t have a mummy and daddy. It’s just me and Uncle Jimmy.” She stepped back, granting the trio sight of the house beyond, drawing them in. “Do you want to come in and play with him?”
“We’d love to, C. Love to.”
Cain suddenly felt on firmer ground and forgot about the too-black eyes that had chilled him in that brief moment, that illicit touch, thinking instead of what was to come. Jimmy wouldn’t dare do anything stupid when he was looking after his niece – family was too important. He knew without asking that Abel was having the same thoughts – that this girl could be, if the night was to turn bad, more than useful, a bargaining chip. He looked to the others as Cordelia turned and headed back towards the stairs, realising at the same time that the girl’s presence would work the other way – she had seen them, and if it came down to it, they would have to do something about that. “You stay here, Paul, in case any more friends show up.”
The brothers followed the girl into the house and up the broad staircase quite willingly, thinking only of the power they could assert over Jimmy now they had the child. Everything looked so easy for them. After all, what could the girl do? She was only a child.
Paul reached in to close the front doors as the others moved up the stairwell, and saw the girl’s teddy bear on the floor. He made to shout out but for some reason beyond him his voice froze like liquid in his throat. He realised he was smiling as he picked the teddy bear up. The little girl had had a strange effect on him and he couldn’t help but picture her face as he walked away, remembering the musical sound of her voice, the way her gimlet eyes glittered. It felt good to have this memento of her, felt right somehow. He moved quickly back to the car to keep an eye on the front gate, smiling at the teddy bear as he moved, holding it to his nose and breathing deep, smelling the girl.
A crowd of smiling faces spilled out of the doors of the old Presbyterian Church into the early morning sunshine, the animated chatter filled with a host of accents from the English speaking world – South Africa, Canada, Australia to name but a few. The morning service had just ended and Reverend Thomas Delaney was waiting by the front gates to meet his parishioners and the visitors from all over the world who had doubled the village’s numbers in the past few days, shaking hands and nodding thanks as they passed.
Ballycarry held claim to the oldest Presbyterian ministry in Northern Ireland, its roots stretching back to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The ruins of the old church that had stood for almost half a millennium were the main focal point of the expansive graveyard that all but surrounded the newer building and the Reverend smiled as a number of the foreign visitors made their way to the ruins, squeezing through gaps in the hedgerow, stopping here and there to look for the graves of their ancestors who had settled in the Antrim hills long ago. Most of the regular churchgoers made their way towards the centre of the village where the festivities were soon to begin. Reverend Delaney bade the last of them goodbye and made his way back into the church, hanging his robes inside the ornate mahogany wardrobe alongside the pulpit, brushing a few flakes of dandruff from the collar.
With all the doors and windows checked and double-checked, Reverend Delaney turned off the lights and made his way through the steeple door and into the old graveyard, reading the names of the famous sons and daughters of the village as he went, stopping to uproot the odd weed here and there on the moss-covered graves. Walking down from the stall-filled green through the centre of the village many people stopped and greeted him, commenting on the morning’s service or praising him on arranging the visits of ministers from parishes across the world and giving the visitors a day to remember. He took the compliments with a smile.
The public house on Main Street – its lampposts wearing bunting with the flags of a dozen different nations – was already full to bursting. Many half-inebriated folk had taken to the street to enjoy the glorious sunshine, sitting on the windowsills of the facing houses or trying to find the scarce free seats in the beer garden. Tinny bagpipe music blared from the jukebox, a wailing tune the Reverend recognised from some distant memory. In the car park beside the pub there were jugglers and fire-eaters, figures from the village’s history, all dancing around wildly and holding the younger children to rapt attention. The Fair hill – the common ground across from the pub car park – was filling up with stalls and games that would be taking place throughout the day. The Women’s Institute, The Bible Club, The Young Farmers Association, The Heritage Committee and untold more were plying their wares – jam and scones, postcards and photos, bric-a-brac, little pieces of the village.
An elderly man, dressed in wellington boots, mud-soaked tweeds and a wrinkled shirt, made his way haphazardly towards the minister as he stumbled through the front doors of the pub, cheeks red and spirits a little too high.
Dear God, thought Thomas as he turned to meet the man. Here we go.
The man opened his mouth to let loose some barrage or other but stopped suddenly, scratching his wispy pate. “Aye,” he began as he regained a grasp on his thoughts, “that’s it, Reverend! I towl yous, Reverend, towl yous they’d be back, and sure enough here they are. Sauntered in this morning like bloody regulars, they did. Bloody interlopers; thieves and lairs, Reverend, every one of 'em. I knew something was up the minute I woke, 'could feel a tingling …” He paused for a sharp intake of breath and began to point randomly at passers-by, branding everyone as complicit. “… but naebody would listen. Not a one of you.” He ducked close to the Reverend and placed a grubby hand on his shoulder, the stink of whiskey and cigarettes clinging to him. “I know what folk ’round here think of me, you see, ‘Oh, not mad Bill. Dinnae listen to a word he says’. That’s as may be, but you can’t say I didnae warn you when they overrun the place. It’s not right the way they live, not... not Christian, you see.”
The Reverend was aching to say something to Old Bill about the Lord’s thoughts on getting pissed pre-midday on a Sunday, or about how Christian it was to be casting aspersions on people he didn’t know from Adam, but held his words in check. Now was not the time and he knew from experience that Bill McCrory could be a twisted old fool when he got the drink in him and could be rambling on about any number of his pet hates – best thing, he knew, was to placate him a little and send him on his way.
“Slow down,” he said as placed a hand on Old Bill’s shoulder, guiding him to the faded park bench jutting from the grass verge, away from the crowds so he wouldn’t make a scene. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. Who’re you talking about? Who’s back?”
“The Gypsies, Reverend. The bloody Gypsies.”
Oh, that old chestnut.
Old Bill’s problem with the travellers had started many years back, long before the start of the Reverend’s ministry, and was all a huge misunderstanding from what he’d heard – something about a stolen dog – but Bill was a solitary man with time to brood, and time to drink, and the facts had become twisted for him. The previous minister had put up with years of the same nonsense every time a caravan stopped off in the village, and no amount of arguing would change the facts in Bill’s eyes. Bill seemed to equate anyone with a caravan who wasn’t known to him with the people who had, perhaps or perhaps not, taken his dog all those years ago.
“They’re good people, Bill, I’m sure, not at all like the folks who took your dog. The Christian thing to do is to leave them be. Don’t let them bother you and don’t you go causing any trouble.”
Bill stood silent for a moment and squinted skyward. A few old dears from the Women’s Institute strolled past and rolled their eyes. A young girl screamed from inside the pub as the fruit machine paid out the jackpot, coins clattering in the plastic tray. The noise was enough to twist Bill’s thoughts back to his plan for the day, and he nodded to the Reverend and stood, wandering back towards the pub without another word on the matter, seemingly forgetting the rant that had filled his thoughts moments before.
The Reverend shook his head, hoping none of the visitors had the misfortune to find themselves chatting with Old Bill. He looked down to the rear of the pub (the usual spot for any caravans stopping off) and couldn’t see anything, then took the short walk down to the corners – the main junction in the village - and saw that there was indeed a caravan parked down the hill on the waste ground off Main Street which must have arrived recently, for he had not noticed it on his way through the village that morning. A voice on the tannoy system announced that Mrs McCallister’s bakery stall was down to its last ten bags of world-famous scones, that the penalty shoot-out competition would be starting at the top field in fifteen minutes, and that the heritage parade would depart from the same spot soon afterwards. The Reverend took a seat on the bench by the corners where a crown of young boys were playing kerbie and started to go over the speech he’d be giving after lunch whilst the crowds began to make their way up to the top field. Soon enough the bulk of the crowd had left Main Street and the Reverend decided that he should go down to the caravan to introduce himself, and to apologise on behalf of Old Bill for whatever off-the-cuff remarks he had no doubt made earlier.
The day was turning out to be an absolute cracker and the view between the trees beyond the waste ground was stunning. Ballycarry sat a few miles inland on the County Antrim coast, nestled atop a lush green hill and surrounded by forest, farmland and the grounds of the Redwood estate. One terrace- and cottage-lined road ran through from north to south, unchanged in almost a hundred years save for a few new streetlights and the odd lick of red, white and blue paint on the kerbstones. All the other by-roads circled through the quiet streets of the newer housing estates before falling back to join up with the main road once again. The view to the east was uninterrupted as far as the coast of Scotland on a clear day, the foreground taken up by the village of Islandmagee, its outskirts dotted with a few stone cottages and plantations, criss-crossed with muddy-brown tracks, and raised up at both ends with hills that seemed to bear the weight of the sky. The shining waters of Larne Lough cut a casual swathe between the two villages, breaking up the verdant green and paying graphic compliment to the North Sea beyond. As he stood and watched he heard a dull cheer erupt from the playing fields at the top of West Street signalling the start of the day’s sporting events.
The last few stragglers made their way from the side doors of the pub and loped off across Main Street to join the fun. As the Reverend left Main Street behind and made his way down the narrow path to the waste ground the door in the side of the caravan opened and someone stepped out, a youngish fellow with a touch of grey at his temples, shouting back to someone in the caravan as he opened the boot of his rusted transit van. The Reverend realised at once that he recognised the man. He had seen those eyes before, sadder in those days, and he knew the voice, had listened to its woes and aspirations years ago.
“Isaac? Isaac McCaul?”
The figure turned towards him, a look of shock on his face that soon turned to a smile. “The very same,” he said as he closed the boot and walked toward the Reverend, rubbing his dirty hands on his overalls.
“How are you keeping, Isaac?” the Reverend said as they shook hands. “It’s been way too long. I have to say, I didn’t expect to see you around these parts again. I thought you’d had your fill of the place once… once your mother passed.” Thomas chided himself for faltering, for bringing it up at all. “Anyway, you’ve picked a cracker of a day for it – busiest day of the year ’round these parts – and you’re more than welcome to join in the festivities.”
“Aye, I might just,” Isaac said. “Once we get settled.”
The last time the two had spoken was a decade ago in the Reverend’s previous parish in Belfast when he had buried Isaac’s mother. The young man had been one of only two attendees at the funeral and the Reverend had seen then that Isaac was in a fragile state, barely keeping it together. He had offered him solace but could find no way to get through to him. Thomas had thought of him often since and heard some months later that Isaac had left the country with the young woman – was it Colleen? Catriona? – who had stood by the graveside and stopped Isaac from falling to pieces. He could see her now as she came to the window, waving with one hand whilst she stirred the contents of a steaming pot with the other. The Reverend waved back.
“Cleona’s making her stew if you’d like to come and join us,” Isaac said. “I don’t mind telling you it’s the best stew I’ve ever tasted. And they always say your mother makes the best stew.” The smile he gave showed that he’d made plenty of headway in conquering his grief, which was more than some managed in a lifetime.
“I’d love to, but it’s a very busy day. Perhaps another time,” he looked at his watch, realising time was against him. “I’m giving a speech in an hour or so and I need to make the final touches so I don’t make a fool of myself. Never been much for public speaking, you know, which is an odd thing to hear from the leader of a flock. Anyway, I won’t bore you with the details. I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself more here.”
“No worries, another time. But you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Isaac shouted into the caravan and Thomas was briefly reintroduced to Cleona who offered him a dainty hand to kiss before rushing back inside to check on the stew.
“I’ve been trying to think how long it is since I saw you last,” Thomas said as they walked across the waste ground toward Main Street. “I’ve been here for seven years so it must be eight at least, maybe a bit more.
Isaac tilted his head and looked to the sky as though the story of his past was written there. “I reckon it must have been the guts of ten years since we set off. Seems longer when I look back on it, you know. Like another lifetime. We’ve done alright though, me and Cleona, seen more than our fair share of these islands, been running all over the place with…” he paused, glanced toward the caravan for a moment. The Reverend followed his gaze and noticed a small figure sat in the branches of the tree overhanging the caravan.
“Who’s the young lad?” the Reverend asked. “Not bothering you, is he?”
“Oh aye - how could I forget?” Isaac said. “Come here, son,” he turned and shouted to the young boy sat amongst the shadowed branches. The boy’s shock of jet black hair wavered around his head like a mane as he dropped from the branch and jogged towards them, all wiry limbs and youthful exuberance. Isaac turned back towards Thomas. “This is Dylan. He’s our son.”
The Reverend was struck at once by the boy’s startling eyes, a deep, pure blue, glowing like a fraction of the sky, a colour that seemed to belong in a vivid dream. Beautiful eyes, he thought with a wistful smile before pulling himself to his senses, scarcely believing his thoughts had followed such a strange path. Isaac was beaming and oblivious, a picture of parental pride. Dylan too seemed not to notice the momentary spell he had cast on the Reverend and offered no word of greeting, simply moved to his father’s side and stared at the ground.
“Say hello, Dylan. This man here’s an old friend of mine.”
“Hello,” the boy said softly, gaze fixed to the earth as though scared to look up.
“He doesn’t speak much, do you, son?” Isaac said as he ruffled the boy’s hair. “You’re more than lucky to get a ‘hello’ out of him. But he’s a good, quiet boy, likes to keep himself to himself. You know the way kids are, always looking for someone to single out. It doesn’t help much that we’re travellers. Easy pickings in most places.”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. I’m sure you’ll be made more than welcome.” He briefly thought of Old Bill McFarland and the grudge he’d held for half a lifetime. “Well, we’ve got the odd idiot like everywhere else, but that’s nothing to worry about.”
Dylan turned and wandered back to the tree, pulling himself back amongst the lower branches. The Reverend suddenly remembered watching Isaac walk away from his mother’s grave and a thought came to him. “How long did you say it was since you left? Nearly ten years?” The Reverend could see that the boy was older than that, almost on the brink of manhood, twelve or so if he would hazard a guess. “You’ve been feeding him well. He’s a big lad for a nine year old.”
“I’ll start again. He’s not my own flesh and blood, but I love him as if he was. He never had a father, so I’ve tried as best I can, tried to make sure he has the mettle to cope with whatever life throws at him. It’s the least he deserves, I reckon - someone to be there, to look out for him. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is. A selfless act on your part and I’m sure you’re a better man in the eyes of God for it.” Thomas placed a hand on Isaac’s shoulder, feeling bad and more than a little strange for the way he had reacted, thrown as he was by the strange passage of his thoughts, and he realised then that he had perhaps known the boy was not Isaac’s, for both Isaac and Cleona had deep brown eyes and fair hair, the complete opposite of Dylan. “I’m sorry if I seemed like a nosey beggar just then. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You’re okay. I’m sure you never thought I was the family type, not with the impression I left.”
The Reverend smiled. “That’s in the past and I’m sure we’ll both be happy to leave it there. Anyway, it’s great to see you back.” He paused and mopped his brow, suddenly aware that he was sweating profusely, an all-over sweat that seemed little to do with heat or exertion, a mist of icy droplets that froze on his skin and trickled down his back. He lost track of his thoughts for a moment as he turned to the shadowed branches of the tree to see Dylan staring at him with those wide blue eyes, a jolt seeming to pass between them as their eyes met, then turned away to see the crowds winding through the village at the top of the car park, heading up the Fair hill. A part of him wanted to be there, lost amongst the people, but he could not understand why he felt like this, why pins and needles were dancing across his skin, why his scalp seemed to be tightening as a shiver ran through him. “Anyway,” he said as he turned back to Isaac, shaking the feeling away, “I hope you’ll join in if you have a spare minute, bring Cleona and Dylan along. They’ll have a great time, I’m sure, and Dylan can meet the local kids, maybe make some friends.”
“I don’t know,” Isaac replied with a shrug as a few young kids ran past at the top of the hill, chasing a ball along the street. “Dylan isn’t too good with strangers. He likes to take things slowly. It’s hard for him, hard for all of us. And there’s a few other places he wants to see, things he said he needs to do before he…” Isaac felt the words freeze on his tongue. He could feel Dylan’s eyes on him from behind as the secrets welled up, and shook his head as though getting rid of a fog. “Anyway, that’s the reason we’re here, you see. For Dylan. It’s where he wants to be.”
The Reverend seemed not to have noticed the near-revelation of moments before. “Well, I’m sure he’ll like the quiet of the place once the Gathering’s over. The countryside’s the best place for yous. Anyway, the offer’s there. Perhaps you’ll come and join me for a meal during the week if I don’t see you, tomorrow night maybe?”
A voice on the tannoy system interrupted Isaac’s reply and pulled the Reverend back to his plans for the afternoon. “Sorry for rushing off but I really do have to make a move.”
Thomas gave Isaac a firm handshake before he walked off, promising he would call in and make arrangements to get together.
Isaac struggled within himself as he watched the Reverend depart and the thoughts and memories that had slipped away moments before came rushing back. That was the closest he had ever come to ruining everything. He had wanted to tell Thomas so much, all about the miracles that had befallen him since last they had met, all about the visitation they had received in that muddy English field, all about Dylan and the burdens he carried, and Thomas, he knew, would have been eager to hear it, would have helped him understand, find a way to bring it all together. But, as was always the case, Dylan would not allow it, wary of anyone, of everyone.
He walked back to the caravan, wondering if they were getting close, wondering if this was – finally – the place Dylan had been searching for.
Cain was dreaming. In the dream he was moving down an endless corridor, its ceiling high and shadowed, disappearing into mephitic blackness. Everything around him was a solid pitchy dark, and it seemed his mind was keeping the truth of the surroundings from him, as though it knew Cain wasn’t ready to see, to understand. The air around him felt like it was solidifying, thick and viscous, clinging like quicksand, and he wondered if perhaps this was a dream, one of those odd dreams where you know you are dreaming but can do little about it. He focussed on the murky spaces to his front; there was something up ahead but it could have been inches from his face or miles in the distance. He felt like he had been here forever, as though there had been nothing before this single eternal moment, as though the dark corridor was all there was and all there ever would be.
Yet he knew by having this thought that there must have been something else, something from before to make him realise the change. He strained to think back and realised then that he did not know who he was, a terrifying realisation that made him shrink within himself. A sensation came to him, rising up like a bubble from the depths. There was something else here, something at his back, stalking him, and he somehow knew then that this was not a dream. He tried to turn. Each tiny movement felt like a marathon, muscles straining like chewed gum. Try as he might, he could not will himself to do it.
Abel. Cain. Cain and Abel.
The words popped into his head, setting free a wave of memories, fractured images rushing past like flickering frames of a film. He could remember the girl in the train station, the journey to the city, Paul bursting through the back door and falling headlong, Abel swinging the sledgehammer, the three of them standing in the courtyard outside Jimmy’s house. Last of all he remembered the little girl and a lump rose in his throat as her image came to him. He mouthed a name, unsure why it horrified him so.
He saw himself standing by the front door, the little girl reaching out to stroke his scars, eyes closing softly as her skin met his, that tiny gasp escaping from her lips, fragile and sensual, the moment repeating again and again in his mind. The little girl’s tinkling laugh started up from somewhere inside the recesses of his head and he knew she was nearby, mocking his impotence, his inability to piece together the truth. It was the girl, he knew, the little girl. She was behind everything. She had shown him with her touch, told him what she was and he had ignored her.
He could see a crack of light from up ahead but when he tried to focus his thoughts were dragged away. His head was turned around as if by invisible hands and he saw Abel. His brother was walking beside him, face fixed on the door, dilated pupils bulging, mouth hanging slack. Cain struggled to make a sound or reach out to his brother, to do anything of his own will, but it was all in vain. He could do little but allow himself to be carried along, his head snapping forward to face the door again.
The laughing was beginning to hurt Cain, to swell and bloat and become the burning core of everything, and as he was turned away again his face fell upon the girl. She stood staring at him with those black owl eyes and her voice rose up and filled him though her lips did not move.
You are with me now, came the words, without and within. You will be mine for always.
Flashing imagery filled Cain’s thoughts, memories he had visited time and again – in fevered nightmares, dark times spent alone – and he knew that she was divining fears from him, using them as ammunition. The wash filled him, every sight visceral and terrible. He knew them all from experience – the time when he had seen a mangled body slumped across the driver’s seat of a crashed car, blood slick on every surface, a glassy eye staring; the night when he was five and the storm outside had been so loud and fierce that he had thought the world was ending, the caravan shaking so much he thought it would fall to pieces, Cain and his brother, his mummy and daddy and baby sister pulled away by the howling winds; the dread he had felt when Abel had nearly died when they were both teenagers, pushed from his perch in a tree by an angry Cain, cracking his skull on a branch as he fell. These and a thousand more, dark memories from a dark life, and they were mere tasters, he knew, promises of what would come if he fought against the child. He did not doubt that she could make him stay like this forever, lost in terrors, real and imagined.
Yes. I can, came the voice, heavy and cadaverous, clinging like wet sheets. He let go, allowing her to probe deeper. Yes, she hissed. You are with me now. You will be mine for always.
After a time he realised that the girl was no longer in front of him. The door ahead had opened and he felt himself released from the iron grip, felt his body hit the ground hard, heard pent-up words spill from his mouth, an unstructured babble. Tears soaked his skin, running across the lines of scars – even they had been held back. He felt Abel collapse beside him, saw as he turned the figure inside the room. Jimmy was sat behind his desk, knuckles white as he gripped the arms of his chair, head held straight, eyes wide like a startled rabbit, like a man in an electric chair as the life was burned out of him. The Turk did not struggle when they entered, nor did he acknowledge their presence, merely glanced their way with those broken eyes of his as though he was some mindless and empty thing. The brothers crawled through the door towards the light, each wanting nothing more than to increase the distance between themselves and the child who had reduced them to this. She followed behind, closing the door, then turned to face her audience.
“Boys, boys…” she said with a shake of the finger, chiding them like a young mother as she stepped into the light. “Did you really think I would be your meat? Did you really believe you could use me so easily, that I would allow you to do that?” Every word she spoke was at odds with the tone and timbre of her voice, as though her body was a shell, some simulation thrown up to hide the terrible truth of her. “You will live to regret the way you planned to use me, not for long, but you will.”
Abel stared back at the girl, transfixed, a terror behind his ribcage like he had never felt. He too could remember little from before. One moment he was walking through the front door, adrenaline coursing through him, the next everything had turned to formless black and his mind was no longer his own to control, trapped in the prison of his body with no sight or sound to guide him. All that existed was the little girl, her whispering voice filling him like a virus. As she spoke, Abel felt his mind turned towards Paul, the only hope of rescue from this terrible mess – but as soon as the thought came he felt Cordelia laugh, felt it ripple through him as he found himself lifted from the floor and moved towards the window, Cain moving by his side.
“Watch,” she said softly.
In moments the security lights outside popped on, the brother’s gaze drawn to the solitary figure emerging from the side of the house, making its way across the lawn with a plodding and unnatural gait. It was Paul, the brothers knew, by the pleas she allowed them to hear, the wordless screams careening around inside their skulls. Neither brother could say how long they watched Paul’s shambling walk but they knew when the screams had stopped that it was all over. Paul had walked straight as an arrow to the large pond twinkling in the glow of the moonlight, stepped from the edge without breaking stride and disappeared beneath the black waters, his screams turning to gurgles turning to silence, the surface of the pond flat like glass once again, all that remained to show what had happened a ragged teddy bear floating on the surface, gathering water until it too fell to the bottom.
“There is no one to help you,” Cordelia said as the brothers felt themselves moved from the window, heels dragging across the floor. “There is no one to stop me from taking what I want.”
What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?
Cain’s mind screamed these thoughts in his terror and confusion, and before he had the chance to voice them, Cordelia reached into his memory and gave him the answer. It had been such a long time since he’d thought of them, of that day so long ago – his sister bleeding, Isaac unconscious on the floor as Cain kicked him like a football – but it all came back now as if it had happened only yesterday. He did not know why the girl led him back to this, did not understand what it meant to her. All he knew was that he was helpless and could do nothing but give in.
He could feel her unwanted touch in secret parts of him as he relived those moments, felt her violate him as they joined so illicitly, finger through his thoughts as if they were the pages of a book. The sensation was crippling. Beside him Abel witnessed the same sights, walked in the same memories of forgotten days, unable to control their resurgence. Then, as suddenly as she had entered their thoughts, she loosed her hold on them and walked away, the brothers slumping to the floor. The Turk was moving. His eyes followed her as she walked around his desk, slow and indolent, clouded as though by fever. Her gaze fell upon a letter-opener on Jimmy’s desk as she moved, a miniature stylised sword plated with gold. Jimmy’s eyes went to it and seemed to spark back to life. Cordelia placed the thoughts in his head. Weapon. Escape.
The brothers watched from the floor, captivated by the silent interchange. Cordelia turned to face them and began to speak, stepping in front of Jimmy’s desk, her back to him. This time neither could hear the words. They could see her lips move, could feel her eyes roving over them, but they heard nothing. Both were thinking only of Jimmy, of his hand slowly creeping across the desk towards the letter-opener, the last chance for all this to end.
Jimmy stood behind her, blade glinting in his hand, eyes wild with the promise of escape. They could hear her words now, unrelated to the forms of her lips, interspersed with flashes of fire and blood, power and agony. I can give you everything. I can make all this power yours. I can give you everything if only you give everything to me.
Jimmy raised the blade high, grasping it tight in both hands. His eyes were maddened, the pupils huge and black. The next seconds were a heady blur. The seeds of hope that had flowered within the brothers were shattered as the girl began to laugh, a high-pitched giggle. They knew then that all this was her doing, a part of the show, another way to bind them to her. Jimmy faltered as he readied himself to plunge the blade into the demon that had ruined everything. This brief promise of escape shattered as a cloud passed over Jimmy’s face and he turned the blade upon himself, plunging it between his ribs, twisting his hands as he drove the blade deep, shirt seeping with crimson. Cain thought he saw a smile play across the Turk’s lips as he looked down at the embedded hilt and slumped across the desk. In a few seconds it was all over.
Jimmy did not matter anymore and as soon as the spark of life left him he was forgotten. All that mattered now was that the brothers feared her, that they believed she could rip them apart at the seams if she so wished. All that mattered was that they were broken, willing to give themselves to her, body and soul. So, whilst they cowered on the floor, each lost in the midst of their own terror, Cordelia rested, sitting in Jimmy’s chair like a queen on her throne, smiling at the thought that she had – at last – found a way to reach the one who had outwitted her for all these years.
The pilot announced in a tinny voice that they had been lucky to receive a strong tail-wind and would be landing in Heathrow ahead of schedule.
The voice echoed like a phantom in Aldous’ head as it roused him from sleep. He knew he should stir himself but had no desire to rush back to whatever had caused him to let himself go. His eyes were barely open and the throbbing in his cranium hurt like hell. There were tiny anoxic pinpricks speckled across his vision, as if the fabric of the world was a sheet of muslin covering a brighter light beneath. He looked around the cabin at the other travellers as if they might be able to inform him what had happened, how he had found himself here. He had fully expected to wake up in his tent, high in the Bolivian Andes, but now, as the tiny specks of light began to fade, he remembered everything.
The world seemed suddenly dull and grey with the memory. He coughed into his palm then retched loudly, heedless of the frowning lady beside him. His mouth tasted like whiskey, and lots of it. He could feel it seeping through his pores as he rubbed his eyes.
The plane dropped through a blanket of cloud as he stretched in his seat and tried to remember what had happened since he had got on the plane. It was almost eleven hours since he had left Bolivian soil. Wolfgang had promised he would travel over as soon as he wrapped up a few loose ends and arranged for Alan to collate the statistics. Aldous had said that he would contact him when he had settled back into Redwood and made the funeral arrangements. “We can forget about all this for a while and get back to Bolivia in two or three weeks,” Wolfgang had said. “The break will do us both the world of good, give us time to freshen up, I’m sure of it.”
After the short connecting flight to Belfast, Aldous disembarked and marched straight through the terminal to the taxi rank with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, his one black suit stuffed loosely in a holdall. He sat in the back seat of the taxi, staring out the window at the hedges and fields flowing by, thoughts of the past filling his head against his every wish to ignore them. His father was at the centre of all the real problems in his life and not a single day passed without some bitter memory being dredged up and dwelt upon.
Aldous’ first years on earth had been spent in turmoil. The ancestral home of the Finaeus clan was used during the Second World War as a training camp for allied soldiers who would later give their lives on the beaches of Normandy and the deserts of North Africa. Aldous had spent those first few years in a blur of foreign strangers. His mother had been the only constant. His father had been at the helm of the war effort in County Antrim and had been little more than a concept to young Aldous at that point. It had not taken him long to learn that familiarity was frowned upon and respectful distance was preferred, the whims of a child having no place in his father’s important work. Even after the war was won, when the soldiers returned to their homelands and village life on the Antrim coast resumed its lazy rhythm, little changed for Aldous. He still felt excluded, surplus to requirements. He had very few memories of his father in those early years. On the rare occasions when his father could find a few days to return home from long spells away, the time passed almost without interaction and Aldous grew to see no obvious difference between his father’s presence and his absence. His father would spend hours on end in his own quarters with the doors locked and Aldous had known better than to knock and ask for his company. Whatever secret things took up his father’s time, Aldous knew he was not meant to be part of them.
His mother had been a painter and historian cherished by the community. He had often watched her for hours as she pored over her canvas, mixing her paints whilst she laughed and joked with him, seeking his involvement. He marvelled at the places she dreamt up and brought to life in her work, the scenes from the local past she created as though she had been there, walking amongst the hay bales and cottages, tasting the air and feeling the sun on her skin. She amazed him and he idolised her for the love she showered upon him. The relationship was perfect, a stark opposite to his bond with his father.
The Housekeeper, Miss Cuthbert, was like a bard when it came to folk history and she would tell Aldous tales of the clansmen who had ruled these parts in ages past, or teach him the tumultuous history of the family home and the intricacies of its different layers of architecture, planting the seeds of interest for the life Aldous would come to lead. At that age Redwood had seemed impossibly old to him, hundreds of years older than anything else in the county, even the ruins of the old Church or the medieval Motte and Bailey forts that littered the hillsides, and it had sparked the first thought of his future dreams, made him feel important to know that he would, one day, be the keeper of that legacy.
His days then had seemed timeless, wandering in the mossy glades of the forest to talk with the estate-workers or help to groom and feed the animals, following the winding paths of the rivers and streams until they vanished into the bedrock or petered out to join the Lough on the bed of valley below, exploring the many hidden rooms and secret recesses of the house and thinking of the glorious time when it would all be his to cherish, when he would be the man of the house and everything would be so different. But that dream would never be and the timeless days would end. Events gathered and came to a head on Aldous’ twelfth birthday, the ramifications spiralling out from that grey day, affecting his life in every choice he would make from that moment onwards.
Mother had organised a party in the main banquet hall. All the children from the local families were invited. It was the biggest event so far in Aldous’ young life. He had felt so grown up and had wished more than anything that his father would be there to share the landmark with him. But, as Aldous had feared and expected, father didn’t show, even though he had promised to be there. The reasons for his absence soon became clear.
One of the local boys, only six years old, had slipped away at some point during the festivities. Amid the hubbub of rattling chairs and chattering children, Aldous noticed one space at the table yet to be filled and saw a look of confusion settle on his mother’s brow. She paused for a moment, eyes glossed in thought as she tried to recall when last she had seen the boy, then gathered up her skirts and rushed from the room, unnoticed by the rowdy children. Aldous looked from face to smiling face from the head of the table and thought for a moment that he could feel something in the air, something from that primal part of him that he did not yet have the faculty to understand but was not entirely beyond the scope of his senses. Looking about for help, his gaze fell on a spectacle in the garden. Something was wrong. There was a man out there, one of the gardeners stumbling from the side of the pool. Finding his voice, the man let out a wretched sob. It was the most terrible sound Aldous had ever heard and to hear it from a grown man only made it worse.
The laughter of the children stopped as they sensed the urgency in that cry and turned one-by-one towards the bay windows, seeing the man go weak at the knees and drop to the earth. Aldous joined the sudden rush that flowed from the banquet hall to the gardens, his mother at the head.
The body lay inert on the bottom of the pool, a pale shape beneath the scum-covered water, hair ballooned around its head in a golden-brown halo, skin bleached of the colour that signified life and living. Aldous stood stock-still and stared at the sight with wide eyes. For long seconds he could not link the waste beneath the waters with the living person it had been. Then it struck him exactly what he was looking at. The sky seemed to darken with the realisation and he sensed that he was losing something, felt it breaking in the air around him, something tenuous and indefinable. Faces seemed grey and haggard where moments before all had been bathed in colour and light.
Yet there was a darker sight than this ruined innocent. Through the water glossed with reflections of sky, Aldous could see the boy was clutching something: a thin gold chain, clenched tight in a fist that would never open of its own volition again. It was a distinctive necklace, the pendant that hung from it embossed with a crest Aldous knew well, for he had seen it in the portraits of his forefathers on the walls in the house, painted on scrolls and parchments, filigreed onto precious relics locked away in shadowy, secret rooms. He had seen the chain itself a thousand times, draped around his father’s neck.
His mother had come to her senses by then and was ushering the children away from the pool, back towards the house, but they too were eager and were flooding back out faster than she could send them back. It was too late for that now, Aldous knew. What mattered was that he had seen the necklace, that he understood the child couldn’t have stolen it unless he had torn it from around his father’s neck. Impossible, he knew. No child would dare approach him, never mind attack him, tear the chain from him with tiny, weak hands. These thoughts and a thousand more whirled in his head and every one pointed to his father’s involvement.
A large crowd had gathered by then, parents and workers, unsure what to say or do. Aldous looked around the sombre faces gathered and thought dimly that no one else had assembled the pieces in the same way as he – they looked somehow inert, unreal and unknowing. His knowledge brought a grasping feeling to his gut and he was alarmed at the change in his perception of his father, the way he had suddenly morphed into something terrible. Mothers held their wailing children amongst their skirts as if to confirm their safety as one of the estate workers dived into the waters to retrieve the body. The throng stepped back as the worker broke the surface and laid the body on the grass with a gentleness that spoke breadths before turning his back and moving away.
The skin on the tiny corpse was white and rubbery, dappled with bruises, the life-giving blood within drained away. Aldous’ mother stepped forward and covered the body with a blanket. Aldous watched her remove the necklace from the boy’s hand, prise the tiny fingers open with a shudder, drop the chain in a pocket on her skirt, the movement so fluid that no one else seemed to notice, their focus on the sodden worker – the boy’s father, Aldous would later learn – who had sat down on the grass and was crying into his hands.
It was obvious even to Aldous in the seconds he had seen the body that the boy had been the victim of some horrible act. He had seen a small purple-white puncture mark on the porcelain throat. It had puckered like the mouth of a fish, placed so perfectly over the jugular, and Aldous thought he saw flares of recognition in the eyes of the others around him who had seen it too. This was no accident, their eyes said. Someone has killed the boy. The heavy silence was shattered as the boy’s mother, a scullery maid, ran screaming from the open doors of the banquet hall and fell to the ground by the pool, pulling back the blanket to be greeted by the body of her son. Aching minutes passed in that wretched lament and Aldous became sure that everyone present must now have finally realised the truth as they looked upon the body, that this was no simple drowning by misadventure, no accident. Even a child could see that.
Aldous had cried for the nameless boy as the families walked away into the forest, their backs turning on Redwood as the boy’s mother hugged the lifeless body tight. He felt his barely-formed belief in humanity shatter that day. All life he had left to live would be stunted, broken in some way that he knew instinctively was beyond repair.
As the days passed it became clear to Aldous that his father was not coming back, confirming his guilt, at least in Aldous’ mind, by his absence. It was said that one of the workers had seen him disappear into the forest. They had thought it strange that he was running. Now they knew why. There were rumours that a stable-maid had seen him with blood splattered on his coat, yet none would come forward and admit to starting the rumour, and still, in spite of the silent accusations and whispered words, no one could find any reason as to why he would have killed the child. The pieces didn’t fit yet the fact of the body outweighed all else. There was no motive save stark brutality and few, despite his harsh mien, could believe he was capable of that.
The boy was buried in the old graveyard of the Presbyterian Church. The death received only a brief mention in the local press. That was what happened when something befell those with money. Accident at Party, the headlines read, but in a few weeks, those who were not present forgot and those who were kept their secrets to themselves. The incident was covered up by the estate without the involvement of the police and his father was forgotten for a time. The Finaeus family paid for the burial and people spoke of the ‘tragic accident’ that had befallen the poor wee boy.
The first child had gone missing from the village just over two weeks after the party, another young boy whose name Aldous dimly recognised from church, tucked up in bed by his mother at night, vanished in the morning. Less than a week later another boy disappeared as he walked his dog, this time from White Bay, the village on the other side of the Lough. Neither boy, as far as Aldous knew, had ever been found, nor had he heard of any further children going missing. The police had never called at the house again, not that Aldous could remember, but there had always been a tiny part of him that wondered if his father had been involved, a fear that was small but never small enough to be able to disregard entirely.
The estate suffered greatly during the years of his father’s absence as businesses cut their links and moved on, his mother too poorly to deal with its running, Aldous too busy dealing with her regular bouts of fever and sickness. Most of the casual workers left, unwilling to be associated with the place as its reputation worsened across the years. It got so bad that even some of the families who had lived and worked the land for generations had given up and set out for pastures new. All of this helped to slowly ruin the life of his mother. The grey bags that hung under her eyes were a visible reminder of past wrongs that marked out her slow but steady descent into madness. She blamed herself for the boy’s demise, of course, for that was the powerful effect his father had held over her. She was bound to him in a way Aldous couldn’t understand and thought that without him she was nothing. All that the tortured love represented for Aldous was a deeper well for his hate – hate that brewed like a glowing ember within him, burning and waiting.
The next time Aldous heard from his father was six years later, on the day his mother, who had finally slipped away from life, was to be buried. His father had arrived at the house early in the morning, walking through the door with a smile pasted across his face, carefree and bold as though all that had gone before had never really happened. The years had not changed him much but those years for Aldous had festered only hatred. Aldous was gripped by fury as he ducked out of the kitchen to investigate the noise and laid eyes on his father. Words would not come to him as he stared daggers at that grinning face. His father was a child murderer who had escaped punishment and his mother had died alone bearing the shame of his crime. The man who she had so loved, who she had ached for in the face of everything, now strolled back into his abandoned life, holding his smile as he wandered about the house as if he were some buyer inspecting its suitability.
Aldous met his father’s gaze and knew at once (something in the way he looked Aldous over so callously, the diamond gleam in his eye) that his father was here for one reason only: he had returned to claim the estate.
Aldous was struck by a moment of clarity as he ran to his mother’s body in the drawing room. He had spent his life in a world of his parents’ making, a child with nothing but what his lineage had provided, a lineage whose roots were on his father’s side. He did not know if his mother was the rightful owner of the estate or not. If she was and had not signed the estate over to Aldous or written a will then his position was untenable and his father had won before the struggle had even begun. He knew already that she had done none of this – she had been too sick to even think of it, too sure that her husband would return for her, come back and make everything better. There would be nothing Aldous could do to hold on to Redwood if his worries proved true save stay and wait for his father’s death, but knew he would end up a withered husk if he stayed and devoted his life to seeing his father’s downfall.
He had realised in those few seconds how powerless he was. He had stayed with his mother’s body and locked the door, listening to the sound of his father’s footfalls echoing around the house until they dwindled away to nothing, holding her hand tight until the driver of the hearse came knocking on the door. It had seemed like his father’s return had been a dream but he had showed up at the funeral, arriving late and standing unnoticed by the cemetery gates. Barely a day had passed since the funeral when Aldous made the choice to enlist in the army, seeing escape there more than anything. There was nothing left in Redwood for him and he realised he would be better off severing all ties, that to stay here with his father and the house and the horde of unanswered questions would tear him apart inside.
In the days that followed, whilst Aldous kept himself hidden away, trying to come to terms with how his life had changed, his father slipped back into the role of the wealthy landowner easily. The old families accepted him back into the fold with open arms as though his sojourn had been no more than a few days. Aldous heard his father laughing and joking from the rooms below as he reacquainted himself with the old friends who had turned their backs on the estate in the dark years but who drank his wine and laughed at his jokes now, confirming the truism that a rich man’s joke is always funny.
On the morning Aldous was due to leave, he confronted his father, the first words he had spoken to him since he had returned; the last words he had ever spoken to him. His voice was stern and he held the waver at bay through gritted teeth, all the years of hurt and anguish bubbling up. ‘I promise you that the next time I lay eyes on you will be when I come back here to see you buried, and I can’t wait for that day. I can’t wait to wipe every trace of your memory from this house, to bury you in a pauper’s grave with a nameless headstone.’
His father had simply sneered and slapped him across the cheek before walking away, quite content to think that he would never see his son again.
Now, the best part of half a century later, Aldous felt the sting of that slap as fresh as ever and felt little joy to think that his promise would be kept. Any one of the tragedies he had lived through – the death of the boy, his mother’s wasting away, his father’s callous abandoning of them – would have ruined many lesser people and Aldous wondered as he stared blankly through the grubby window of the taxi if they had ruined him, if the burdens he’d carried had left everything a little tainted. Whatever the truth of it, he hoped his short time here doing what had to be done, what he had promised, would help to remove some of the taint.
The village had changed dramatically in Aldous’ years away. It was no longer the quiet townland where farmers worked the land for sustenance, this much was clear as he left Magheramourne behind and saw a handful of farms that where prosperous in his youth now fallen to ruin. There was little to stir the embers of his reminiscence as he took in the village proper. The thatched whitewashed cottages and overgrown hedgerows filled with blackberry, the verges full of bluebell and daffodil that had once blanketed the place from end to end, were gone now, transposed by concrete and tarmac. It was only now that he realised how beautiful the place had been.
One thing was certain, urban sprawl had left its filthy handprint here and the place was worse off for it. As Aldous watched the houses pass by in a blur of PVC windows and pebble-dashed walls, he realised there wasn’t a single person walking the streets that he recognised. Why would there be? he thought It’s been half a century.
As the taxi dropped him off by the once-grand and now-gateless entrance to the forest, beside the muddy lane that led past the crumbling ruin of the grounds-keeper’s cottage, Aldous was shocked at what he saw. Where once he had dammed the meandering stream in the summer months with mud bricks and fallen branches, where he had walked his dogs through the mossy paths, where he had built a rope swing in the glade with his young friends before they had drifted away, all that remained was a wasteland, stumps of felled trees jutting from the muddy earth like the remains of rotting teeth, the stream and paths gone.
He saw a figure to his left, an old lady coming out from the ruin of the old cottage with a handful of wildflowers, and gasped as he recognised her, her face familiar to him despite the decades between the last time he had seen it and now. “Miss Cuthbert?” he said, “Is it really you?”
As she looked to him her hand went to her chest, the flowers falling. She was at the very least ninety years old but still held a proud and youthful air about her, a virility that glowed beneath the lines and creases of skin. Aldous felt as though he’d never been away in that moment, that time had frozen the face he remembered, hidden it beneath the lines of this aged version which was peeling back now as she smiled, unfurling like a blossoming flower.
“Aldous? Mr. Finaeus…I don’t believe…” She moved towards him like a woman half her age, brittle hair flowing behind her in a silver-white umbra. Her eyes were strong and bright as he remembered them, glistening with the promise of tears. He opened his arms wide and she ran into his chest, purring like a kitten as his arms wrapped around her. He could feel how much she had missed him in that embrace.
“It’s so good to see you, son. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you.” She stepped back, gazed him up and down, letting a few tears fall before wiping her eyes with the cuff of her cardigan and gathering herself. “We’ll have none of that ‘Miss Cuthbert’ business. I’m Mrs Riley now – have been for thirty-something years – but you can call me Rita.”
“Rita it is,” he said with a smile, realising he had never known her first name. “Suits you.”
“Have you not got any baggage? Aren’t you staying? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, not counting that time when you were in the magazines with your books and what have you… I’ve got all the copies in the house, you know… and we’ve got an awful lot to catch up on. Please say you’ll stay for a while? It’d make an old lady very happy.”
Aldous took a deep breath as he bent to help her pick up the flowers. “I might, for a day or two anyway. I don’t even know if it’ll do me any good coming back at all. This might sound odd, but this is all rather unexpected, you know. I’ve spent my whole life trying to forget about this place and everything that happened and, well... I’d just rather not talk about him right now. I just want to get his body in the ground and move on.” He waved a hand to signify that the topic was to be changed, wondering how much Rita knew about the boy in the pool, the others who had gone missing. He didn’t recall his father being something they had ever discussed and wanted to talk with her about it but wasn’t ready yet, wasn’t even sure if it mattered. All that really mattered was keeping his promise. “Anyway, I need a wash and a shave more than anything. And I could do with one of your fried breakfasts. For most of my life I’ve missed your cooking.”
Rita smiled warmly as she led him down the lane towards the house. “I’m sure something can be arranged,” she said with a wink. “If I can remember how.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. I could’ve lured you back here with no more that the bread in my cupboard, a bit of black pudding and a few rashers of bacon.”
“The way to a man’s heart and all that.”
“Well, whatever you decide, I’m sure it’ll be for the best. And I’m sure your mother would have been happy that you’re back – in fact, I’m sure she’s happy right now, wherever she’s watching from: happy and proud that you’ve made something of yourself. I know ’cause I feel the same way.” Her voice had grown softer. “It really is great to see you, son.”
A smile that Aldous felt was long overdue crept across his face as they left the road behind. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to see some of the old place after all, he thought, to relish the better memories and try to banish those that had hurt him for all these years. If nothing else it would be a step towards closure. Then, once his father was in the ground, a long holiday was in order.
Maybe Wolfgang had been right. We all need a little break sometime.
Aldous gasped as he followed the track and passed the old stables which had once been grand and imposing and were now a mess of fallen bricks and rotten wood, abandoned to the forest decades previously.
“I told you things had changed,” Rita said as she linked an arm through Aldous’. “I think he found it all too much to cope with, what with the price of running the estate and all. He spent most of his time alone in his room, busying himself with god-knows-what. Whole weeks went by without me seeing him, but he was eating his food and leaving out his washing, so I wouldn’t disturb him. I knew if he’d ever wanted to talk he would come to me.” She sighed. “He never really did though. As much as I cared for your father, he was wrong to do what he did – selling off land to the developers and all. But, well, maybe that couldn’t be helped. The pressure of everything must have got to him.”
Aldous could guess what she meant by everything but still he wasn’t ready to broach the subject.
“Anyway, you can stop all that now if it’s what you want, now that you’re back.”
Aldous didn’t reply to the not-so-subtle probe into his intentions. He was dumbstruck and felt a sense of trepidation at the thought of what else might have been ruined. “Well, first things first, I’ll have to get back to the house and make a start on arranging the funeral.”
Rita’s face flushed as she stopped for a rabbit crossing the lane. “Oh, I don’t know why but I thought... Your father made his own arrangements. It’s all set for tomorrow. The minister has sorted it all out. I… I guess your father spoke to him before… well, before he passed on.”
Aldous sighed, and buried the thought that this was his father’s way of toying with him, breaking the promise of a pauper’s grave Aldous had made all those years ago. “Tomorrow? That’s sooner than I’d imagined.” Rita frowned as though she’d done something wrong. “But that’s not your fault. I’ve a good friend coming to visit until I decide what I’m going to do.”
“Is this a lady friend?”
Aldous laughed. “Chance would be a fine thing. He’s my partner – my writing partner that is, before you jump to any conclusions. I’ll have to try and get him on the phone once I’m settled, let him know he won’t have to hurry.”
“Here it is,” Rita said as they turned a corner. “Redwood House.”
Aldous looked up through the gloom of the forest towards the house and gasped. This eyesore was a sick parody of the home he remembered. It looked like a prison or a borstal, and a disused one at best. Or a tomb, he thought with a sigh. Sealed up tight and left to rot.
The Georgian villa his mother had reclaimed from ruin, built around the remains of a sixteenth century tower house, which was itself built around much older ruins, was nothing more than a fantasy that could no longer be relied upon for clarity. The burgeoning decay his mother’s work had held at bay had won through and was running rampant. Now, the once-proud tower which the house was structured around was all but gone. Most of the masonry from the stack had been removed and the remaining stump was topped off with an unsightly mess of corrugated iron and barbed wired. The gables on the west side had rotted through and the roof had buckled and strained under the pressure, some rooms lying partly open to the elements; the sash windows that circled the ground floor had been torn out and the spaces filled with brick and concrete; the once pristine guttering salvaged from a manor house in County Down had crumbled and fell to ruin, only a few shattered remnants of the iron clad pipes remained, rusting and useless; even the once proud gardens had returned to the wild, unkempt and overgrown with no semblance to their former glory. Such was his affront at the sight that the pool didn’t even register in his thoughts, hidden as it was by overgrown bushes.
“I’m sorry,” Rita said, more to break the silence than anything else.
“I can’t fathom this,” Aldous said as he ran a hand through his hair, staring blankly all around. “Why would he have let it go like this?”
“I think he just let it all get on top of him. Turned out he wanted it to be this way, or at least he thought he did. I think.” Rita shook her head as if she’d thought about it often and was no nearer finding an answer. “I’ve asked myself the same question. You know, your father… Mr Finaeus, he didn’t like people coming ’round, walking their dogs through the forest and all. I think he thought they’d stay away if he made the place ugly, at least, that’s the best I can figure. It’s hard to understand, I know, but you have to remember, he was a shadow of his old self for a long time – sick, broken up inside.”
Aldous felt no sympathy.
“Anyway,” Rita continued. “Best not to dwell on it. I’ll go inside and put some food on. You get yourself settled then we’ll have a proper chat.”
“Rita?” Aldous said as she turned to walk away.
“Where did he die? And how? I need to know.”
“Well, he, ah… he fell down the old stairwell sometime during the night. Two days after his ninety-seventh birthday, it was. It’s not going to be of any real comfort, I know, but the doctor said he would’ve died instantly.” She blinked a tear away and continued. “I was always telling him not to spend his time locked away by himself. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why he did it, why he had to live like that. But, like I said, best not to dwell on it; no one can change the past”
She walked off slowly around the side of the house towards her cottage with her shoulders stooped, thinking (although she hadn’t said it) that Aldous looked just like his father.
Aldous turned towards Redwood House and fought against the mists of time to remember the layout of his once-home, wondering dimly why Rita had called the place where his father had died the ‘old’ stairwell; he knew of only one – the grand front staircase, and that didn’t lead to the basement. Just then Aldous thought to call her back and ask her about the White Lady his father had mentioned in the letter. The thought had come to him earlier and now he was sure that Rita had mentioned the name in one of her stories when he was a boy. But that could wait. The ruin of Redwood was enough to claim his attention for the moment. He walked down the path to the back of the house, smiling as he remembered chasing peacocks when he was a boy, climbing up the thick ivy vines that had once covered the western wall.
Aldous wasn’t sure what or how to feel now that he was back: relief that his father was finally gone, remorse because he was glad of the fact, or disgust that he felt any of this. As far as he could tell, his father had never been punished. He still had Redwood. He had lived a long life. It didn’t seem like any kind of justice. There was a benign indifference that sat heavily in his stomach, an empty non-feeling. It was best to just forget about him and the chaos he had created, he concluded, get the funeral out of the way and bring some closure. Presently his thoughts came back to the dire state of Redwood House, and he began to feel surprisingly blank and empty as he made his way through the rear courtyard, dodging pieces of rotted timber and rusted metal that littered the ground. Peacocks stirred from their resting places amongst the gothic arches and eyed him curiously, pulling him back once again towards the distant landscape of his youth, but they seemed smaller now, less magical.
Aldous smiled and let the memories fade, steeling himself and taking a deep preparatory breath as he stepped over the threshold into his old life, into the pages of a book that had been discarded long ago and a story that was yet to be finished.
The inside of the building was in as sorry a state as the outside. Every sight his gaze fell upon hurt him in some way, made anger bubble in his gut. He had expected changes aplenty – it had been so many years after all – but what confronted him as he walked the halls and corridors was nothing short of a travesty. He had never expected anything as callous as what his father had obviously undertaken. It looked like a calculated purging, his father’s way to have the final word.
As he wandered from room to room on the ground floor the same awful sights greeted him. Bricked up windows and fireplaces, rooms stripped of everything but plaster. The furniture, paintings and sculptures that had cluttered the house in his youth, the tapestries that told the history of his family were gone, long gone by the look of it. Carpets, curtains and even the rich mahogany panels that clad the rooms had been torn out – all that was left were the scars where they had once rested. The house had a feel of emptiness, of unease. It felt as though his father was punishing him from beyond death, bringing him home to claim his birthright only to see it ruined. The yellowing scrolls and family portraits that had adorned the walls in the main hall and greeted the visitor of old were gone also. The walls were grimy and bare where once they were lustrous and welcoming, polished and loved by the servants, making every room seem rotted with sickness.
His gaze fell upon a massive gilded frame at the top of the landing as he reached the grand staircase, strips of moulded canvas breaking free by the merest tug of gravity, drooping to the floor where they sat in sombre piles, a corner at the bottom seeming to have been torn free judging by the frayed edges. Aldous felt a tear form as he looked upon the tanned face which he hadn’t seen in such an age, the paint cracked and thick with dust. The man in the painting was Cassius Finaeus, his ancestor who had left his home in Turkey and purchased Redwood forest, half a world away, to start a new life. He had built this place with his bare hands, raised a family in the Antrim hills, then disappeared from the face of the earth, the date of death on his ornate headstone above an empty grave in the far side of the gardens being only an estimate. It felt horrible for Aldous to think that his ancestor’s hard work and sacrifice had been desecrated in such a way, that Aldous would be the last person to look upon that face. He could see echoes of himself in the painting and remembered for the first time in decades how he had looked upon the painting as a boy and told himself that he would grow up to be like Cassius. With his long grey hair and dishevelled beard, he knew it would take no more than a quick trim and a little sun to bring the comparison even closer.
As he made his way up the broad staircase the boards creaked and stretched. The smell of old leather and polished wood filled the dark corridors, sending long-buried memories rushing to the surface - the angle of a door or window-ledge reminding him of some all-but-forgotten moment; the baroque patterns of the dusty carpets taking him back to days spent exploring the house; the gouge in the hardwood floor where he had dropped a marble bust at eight years old; the bright squares of wallpaper where a portrait or display case had once hung. He reached his old room and closed the door behind him, shutting the rest of the house from his thoughts.
As he gazed about the empty walls he realised he was grinding his teeth and relaxed his jaw as he slumped onto the bed, content that his memories had, for now, been left at the threshold. Thankfully, his father was yet to wreak the same havoc here as he had in the rest of the house. The room was bare but liveable, better than what he’d been used to in recent months. He moved to the window and glanced into the overgrown garden below, and saw the pool for the first time, moss-covered and empty. He pulled the curtains tight and forgot.
With the world shut out he reached for the aged telephone and checked the earpiece to see if it was still working. Surprised to find that it was, he dialled the number Wolfgang had given him, squinting all the while. Handwriting like a bloody GP, he thought as he keyed in the closest approximation that he could fathom. After three tries he succeeded and spent the next five minutes waiting whilst his call was connected through the exchange at La Paz, and through a further military exchange, until eventually a distant ringing greeted him.
The phone was answered quickly and Wolfgang’s voice sounded, though distant and muffled, brimming with excitement. “Aldous! Gott sei dank! I’ve been trying to get through all day but, for some reason, well… I can’t deal with the bloody antiquated phone systems in this country.”
“You writing your number in pidgin Aramaic didn’t help. Anyway, you sound lively. Something happened has it?”
“Indeed. Something big, something once in a lifetime, once in a thousand lifetimes, but it’s still in the early stages, so I’ll try not to get carried away.” Wolfgang came to his senses then and remembered why Aldous had left in the first place. “Oh, I… ah, trust you arrived home in order. How has it been? I mean, do you have to… Is there anything you need…”
“It’s all…” he searched for the word. Fine didn’t seem to fit; nothing about him being here seemed fine. Wolfgang knew that Aldous hadn’t spoken to his father for longer than they had known each other but Aldous had never told the whole story, nor did he feel like getting into it now. “Everything’s done and dusted. Don’t worry yourself. The funeral’s tomorrow so you’ll miss it but that doesn’t matter. Go on with what you were saying. I could do with something to take my mind off things. Something big, you said, once in a thousand lifetimes.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
Aldous tut-tutted. “I told you, I’m fine.”
“Well, where do I start? So much has happened. It’s like a circus out there.” He paused for a deep breath. “Now, have you heard of a research agency called the CNMA?”
Aldous paused for a second to think. “There was an article about them in National Geographic or something a few years back. It’s the…ah… the Chinese National Marine Agency or something.”
“Very good. Well, unbeknownst to us, they have some of their own friends in government over here – the Peruvian government, that is – and have been working on the northern side of the lake at the same time as us. A small party; very hush-hush.”
“Are they here for the mapping project or…?” Aldous realised something else must be going on. If they were here for the map there would have been no need to keep themselves tucked away.
“That’s the official angle – testing new dive gear and waiting on the completion of the map.”
“And you have reasons to doubt that?”
“Well, we’ve had other stories filtering across, a few snippets Huaman found out from local fishermen. It does seem that they’ve been doing more than testing. They’ve been here for as long as us, maybe longer, and have been focussing on one particular section of the bed. It seems as though they’ve been forced into whatever they’re doing because of the mapping project, you know, like they want to find whatever they’re looking for because they know someone else will soon.
“A few of our guys saw a state-of-the-art submersible surfacing out near Putina – if it wasn’t for that glimpse we wouldn’t even know they were here. But, like I said, they’re a small group, no more than ten. Just the right size to go unnoticed – well, with twenty-odd-thousand square miles you might say we’ve been lucky to find them at all.” He paused and ran it all through in his head again. “They were spotted out near Puno a few weeks back, and off the coast of Juli. It makes you wonder why they’re being so secretive when they could’ve joined all the agencies working here.”
“So, what do you think?” Aldous said as he tried to think of something they could have overlooked. Nothing obvious jumped out. It was common belief that the pre-historical inhabitants of South America had crossed a land-bridge from Asia some twenty thousand years ago but the Chinese had always been so secluded and insular that Aldous found it hard to believe they would show any interest in somewhere half a world away. What did they know that he didn’t? “As far as I know we didn’t highlight anywhere of interest on the northern side of the lake. Everything of note’s been found on the Bolivian side.”
“My guess is as good as yours, Aldous, but stop butting in. I haven’t even got to the good part. I did manage to get some details of their last dive from one of the pilots. When I say state-of-the-art, I really mean it. There was all kind of add-ons from what our experts could figure. Exothermic air regulators, ceramic and platinum coverings, pieces of kit the likes of which you and I have never seen. There’s money in this somewhere but I can’t for the life of me think why. Anything in that water belongs to the Peruvian or Bolivian governments, depending on where you find it. I mean what is it, gold or lost riches? That’s all I can figure. That’s what usually drives these secret expeditions. Some treasure hunter who thinks he’s stumbled upon something. But whatever it is, somebody powerful is involved, somebody with clout. They’ve got radio-controlled depth-probes, too – we’ve been picking up the signals and watching – probably with built-in cameras or some kind of sonar if they’re looking for something on the bed. Diving that deep would be a last resort but if anyone had the technology for it, it would be the Chinese.
“Whatever’s happening, somebody’s putting big money into it. They’ve got all the luxuries for a… deep dive… you’d think that nothing… could go wro… the kit they’ve got beggars…. I mean, they’ve got a set-up like… more electro… equip…” Bursts of white noise erupted across the line.
“You’re breaking up.”
“You’ll have to... This has been a lot… as far as we know one of their divers and the submersible… well, they’ve just gone miss… simply vanished… didn’t come back up… dive. That’s the only reason we… this was happening. One of our spotters saw… helicopter making… knew it wasn’t one of ours and... tuned into their frequency. That’s how all this came to...”
Aldous heard another voice in the background and Wolfgang moved away for a brief moment. There was an animated discussion which Aldous couldn’t make out.
“Sorry about that. It’s still happening now,” Wolfgang said when he came back on the line. “It’s still early so I’ll have to hurry up and… out there… Now the word’s spreading, everyone checking back to see if they’ve missed anything. I’m sure it’ll get worse once the military find out… You know what the Americans are like, don’t want to be pipped at the post by anyone, let alone the... Anyway, it’s got to be more than hearsay… by the reaction. Everyone is getting hyped...”
The unknown voice filtered in the background again.
“You know Aleksy, the young Polish lad... with the research team… Now, he called me over early… morning. He told me he’d found an anomaly on the soundings… what is now known as the Chinese Site – about three miles south of Putina, just under two hundred metres depth. He couldn’t figure it out at first… said he made some checks and spoke to one… pilots who thinks he had seen the Chinese… bones out of the water… he was flying at a few hundred feet and was… but he said he’s confid… not just a few… said that there were hundreds on deck... I rushed over as soon as I got the… I think he has definitely found somethi... not right from what he’s shown me.”
“What do you mean ‘not right’?” Two hundred metres was deeper than anything he had thought possible and buildings at that depth would put them at sometime in the Pleistocene, two or three thousand years before the last ice age. He was eager for Wolfgang to reach the point before the antiquated phone system gave up. “Just what exactly are we talking about?”
“I thought that it could’ve… some kind of man-made… a tomb or temple like the one they found off Copacabana… but the shape doesn’t fit from what we know about buildings in this region. It’s just so angular and plain, so square… that’s not the real story… we tried using the sonar signals again… the Chinese Site, and, as crazy as it… they just aren’t coming back… like there’s just a pool of nothing on the readout where… building or some kind of structure is.”
If this is a building, Aldous thought, it could be by far the oldest evidence of civilisation on earth, constructed long before the Andes rose up and formed the lake. Thousands of years before anything discovered before, twice as old as the Mesopotamian cultures which were believed to have been the cradle of civilisation. This was everything they had been hoping for and he was on the other side of the world when it was happening.
“It sounds impossible, but I’ve looked at the evidence and it’s undoubtedly... It’s as if it, I feel stupid saying… but it looks… it really looks man-made, too angular to be natural, too square… it’s very deep, deeper than anything we thought poss… It reminds me of the Cenotes and it could be a tunnel, I suppose, some kind of sinkhole but… just guesswork.
“The sides of it… too straight. You know as well as I that nature rarely works with such… angles. It seems… mapping guys noticed it on the first sweep but… a glitch in the system, that’s why the final map has been taking so long... could’ve got in before the CNMA but nobody… they were looking at anything out of the ordinary.”
“Go on,” Aldous prompted whilst his friend took a deep breath, unashamedly excited now.
“Well, all the systems have been checked and re… all the data is holding… pretty solid. But still, the sonar… doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible, but I’m looking... There’s simply nothing... the reading is just swallowed up and that just can’t… If this is a tunnel, it has no bottom, but… that’s impossible. I mean, it’s sonar… we should be getting something no matter how deep… We’re trying… a team together… tomorrow morning… a big ask until we get the right equipment and clearance. I swear, Aldous, I can’t make head nor tail of... It’s like a black hole or something.”
The images in Aldous’ mind were stark and heavy. He didn’t know what to say, where to begin. “What about the bones? Tell me about the bones? Are they human?”
“We haven’t seen… yet, still working… going to try to get our hands on…”
The phone cut off and a wash of static filled Aldous’ ears. For the first time in a long while he laughed, a small sound that soon turned into roaring belly laugh, then a wracking, fitful sob, borne of the wave of emotions that had taunted him these past few days.
Reverend Delaney came through the front door, almost tripping on an upturned edge of the carpet as the rains edged across the lawn. He had watched the darkening clouds creep across the sky whilst he had been out on his rounds, visiting the pensioners who lived alone, members of the church who were going through tough times, thinking all the while that he’d be caught in the downpour, but his luck had held. At least it stayed dry for the Gathering, he thought as he took off his coat. He believed he may even have got the message across to some people with his speech about brotherhood and charity, and the turnout had been the highest yet, even if most were too drunk to care who said what by the time he had spoken.
The rain started to beat against the window panes as he hung his coat above the radiator and moved through to the living room to switch on the central heating. His hand faltered at the last. He was having guests for dinner in a few hours, a few people from the church and, if they could make it, Isaac and his family, and thought it would be nice to welcome them with a roaring fire, a nice homely touch. If nothing else it would help in his plans to convince Isaac to stay.
As he was lighting the kindling in the grate and setting a large block of peat on top of the smoking pile there was a knock on the front door, a gentle rap he barely heard. He heaved himself up as the flames took hold and ran through to the front hall, opening the front door to find nothing but an empty step and the dark garden beyond.
He took a step outside and peered along the walls, seeing not a soul, and walked quickly along the side of the house and out to the street, glancing up and down to find only the glow of the streetlights and the rain-slick tarmac, the muddy field beyond.
“I’m going mad,” he chided himself as he dashed back through the rain to the house, shaking drops from his hair as he closed the door behind him.
The fire began to crackle in the front room as the embers settled and the damp block of peat began to hiss and scream, the heady aroma filling the room. As he closed the curtains – taking one last look into the darkness - the only evidence of the village he could see was the few snakes of smoke creeping from the chimney pots of the houses on Main Street, and he told himself he must’ve imagined the knock, thinking distantly that he might get a pet, a cat perhaps, if only for a little company on nights like this.
As he walked back into the kitchen he was totally unaware of the tiny figure peeling out from the shadows of the bedroom, a little girl wearing a gingham dress, the curl in the centre of her forehead bobbing as the brothers stepped from the darkness behind her.
Aldous stared at the antiquated key, wondering for the thousandth time that day of its origin and purpose, wondering why he had been directed towards it, what it all meant. It seemed contrived and unnecessary for his father to lead him on some wild-goose chase like this but he was unable to pull himself away from the questions, unable to forget all he had seen and heard. The bottle of Jameson’s rolling back and forth on the floor at his feet was past the halfway mark and his glazed eyes betrayed the fact that it had been full recently.
The house was oppressively silent above him. He could feel the emptiness as if it were a palpable entity, heavy with the leftover traces of those who had come before. It made him feel small, smaller than the emptiness of the Bolivian plateau ever could, and the grey light that seeped into the room from the filthy window high above was a grim portent of the night to come. His only companion was the steady ticking of the Grandfather clock echoing from his father’s room, marching ceaselessly onward, each resonant second bringing him closer to the truth.
The funeral had been easier than expected, due to the fact that only a few people had been present, most of whom Aldous didn’t know. Apart from Rita, the only other attendees were some members of the Bible Group who Rita said attended ‘everything going’, two scruffy looking men in tracksuits with a young girl holding a rose, and a few pensioners from the village who perhaps had only come out of curiosity. Strangers every one. And Aldous had felt it, their distance from him. No one had stepped forward to offer words of condolence during or after the service but he was glad of the fact, safe in the knowledge that he had nothing more to do with the body that lay in the earth, that any words given would have been wasted. It was best this way. He stayed behind to watch the grave filled as the others drifted away, fulfilling at least a part of his promise.
Looking back on the events of the morning felt strange. The Reverend had seemed disinterested, eager to hurry proceedings along. He had scanned the borders of the graveyard nervously, constantly, as if waiting for someone. At one point Aldous thought the Reverend might faint as his face turned a sickly pallor and his knees wobbled, but he had gripped a gravestone by his side to steady himself and no one else seemed to notice. But Aldous had noticed something. In that second, Aldous thought he had seen fear in the man’s eyes, but when he looked over his shoulder to search for the cause all he could see was the same innocuous faces as before.
“I don’t know,” Rita had whispered. “Not like him at all.” She tut-tutted quietly. “It’s like he’s drunk or something. A man of the cloth.” She shook her head in disbelief.
Aldous realised that it didn’t matter what happened today, didn’t matter what was said or what was done. For all he cared the Reverend might have been drunk. For all he cared the Reverend could down a bottle of poteen at the service and empty his bladder on the grave. He would just be glad when he could leave this part of his life in the earth with the body of his father. He was far more interested in getting back to Bolivia and speaking with Wolfgang as soon as possible to finish the tantalising revelation that had been so cruelly cut off the night before. He had tried to call again a number of times during the night, anchored to wakefulness as memories of the past and promises of the future circled, but the operator in La Paz had been unable to connect the calls, blaming a heavy storm front that had swept in off the mountains.
He shuffled his body across the cold step and stared at the bricked-up passageways, hazy and indistinct with the effects of the alcohol. Too many tenuous links had been witnessed by Aldous these past few hours, too many proximal occurrences swelling the tributaries of his thoughts to go unnoticed. Events that seemed at first separate and unrelated were blending together to create an unseen and unexpected whole. The trio of bricked up passages at the bottom of the secret stairwell were perhaps the most intriguing of these.
After the funeral, he had taken Rita for a quick drink in the pub. Aldous was nervous as he drowned his sorrows, staring about the few other patrons to see if he recognised any faces from his youth. Thankfully, there was none. After a few drinks he asked Rita about the White Lady. He had discarded his father’s letter but being in the house had brought the memories back, and the more he thought of it, the more he became sure Rita could help him. He had found out from her that the White Lady his father had referred to was a distant relative of Aldous’ and had lived in Redwood house for a time during the final years of the eighteenth century. She had been killed by a dejected suitor on the night of her wedding as she rode the forest trails on her white mare, still wearing her wedding dress, and it was rumoured by the locals that her ghost rode the forest trails in the depths of the night. Aldous dimly remembered hearing the story before and Rita had told him that the White Lady’s grave was hidden away somewhere on the outskirts of the grounds, in a section of forest which the trees and gorse had reclaimed over the last few decades and, listening to her words, Aldous knew at once what he must do.
He drank up quickly and told Rita he needed to be alone for a while and would see her later.
As soon as he got back to Redwood he had set off into the forest to try to locate the grave, heading off the beaten track to the rear of the house and struggling through the thick undergrowth beyond the gardens, tearing his clothes and skin as he hacked through vine and branch with a rusted machete but not caring in the least, eager for answers. He soon found the ruin of the old wall - fallen rocks turned green with age strewn about the mossy earth, a dozen graves so old that no words could be read on the cracked and broken headstones – and came upon an ivy-cloaked tomb, grander than all the others. The rust-eaten door sat open an inch or so, the lock which had once sealed it half-buried in the soft earth below. Aldous pushed the door open, wincing at the loud groan from the ancient hinges, and stepped into the dark and musty interior.
The key was hanging by a length of twine from the outstretched finger of a lichen-covered marble cherub, swaying in the breeze that pushed through the door behind him. It was long and black, of a simple design and much lighter than it appeared. There was a small stone carving on the stone sarcophagus directly beneath it, a square block of dark purple stone no more than an inch on each side, narrow concentric lines etched into its rough surface, vague triangles and squares which made Aldous think instantly of one of the ancient cuneiform languages. Aldous picked the box up gingerly between forefinger and thumb as though it might fall to pieces and realised both that it was hollow and that it had a lid, which he slid off to look inside. It was empty but for dust, nothing but a small hollow that reminded him of an inkwell. He replaced the lid and put it in his inside pocket, turning his attention to the key.
It was clear that his father had placed the key and the box there – the cryptic words of the letter gave that much away – but what did it all mean? What was the carved box for? What did the key unlock? Why were they secreted away here by this forgotten crypt when his father could’ve given them to Rita or left them in the house? Did this mean his father had been keeping them secret from someone else, leading Aldous here, ensuring that Aldous and only Aldous would find them? If so, why was there no explanation, no letter or note? It worried him to think that there was yet more about his father which he did not know. Perhaps what Rita said had been right, perhaps his father had simply lost his grip near the end and was gripped by madness. But the stamp on the letter that the publisher had forwarded to him, the stamp with a half penny on it, obviously written, sealed and delivered years ago, long before his father had fallen into sickness, long before any of this…
Too many things had been gnawing away at him since he’d come back, too many inconsistencies and things which made little or no sense popping into his thoughts time and again, each new answer only raising further questions. Why had his father gutted the place like this? Where were the heirlooms that had filled every room and corridor, hung on every wall? What did the blasted letter and the objects secreted away by the old grave point towards? In his drunken haze, he had decided to investigate, knowing if he left without doing so it would grate on him forever.
Redwood House was a baroque structure, full of boxes and chests, hidden rooms and runs behind walls, doors which hadn’t been opened in decades: plenty of opportunity for answers. He had spent hours exploring the building since the funeral, looking for a long-forgotten door or hidden chest that the key would fit, looking for anything that had the same ancient and simple design, but had found nothing that even closely resembled it, no lock large enough or even remotely similar in shape. As the day wore on and the list of places to search grew smaller and smaller, Aldous feared that his father was doing nothing but torture him from beyond the grave with some sick game, feared that the key would always be a mystery because it could never be anything else. His head ached from trying to draw out some memory that would give him a clue, some instance from his past to help shed light, but all these were tinged now with the doubt that his father was drawing him into the same madness that had claimed his own life.
After scouring the house from top to bottom, every cubby hole and storeroom and long-forgotten place, Aldous was left with only his father’s quarters, and cursed himself for not thinking to start there in the first place. It was in the rooms that had always been off limits that he found the old staircase Rita had spoken of, the entrance covered by a large wardrobe. The passage was open now, but the faded marks and scars on the walls around it showed that the entrance had once been sealed in some way, that his father had felt the need to keep it secret and safe in the one place he had made it so that no one else would enter. Why? Aldous thought as he passed through the opening and into a shadowed hallway of ancient stone, a damp and moss-filled place that belonged to the oldest part of the house. Why?
Aldous had no memory of being aware of the existence of the secret staircase. The bricked up passageways at the bottom of the broad hewn steps – three of them side-by-side – seemed to be the only points of exit, the last remaining place in the house where he might find the secret the letter and the key had pointed him towards. He couldn’t help but think that the place had been hidden away like this for some terrible reason, that his father was leading him to something dark and awful which he had no wish to see.
Now, as darkness was seeping into the sky outside and the shadows in the stairwell began to creep across the stone floor, Aldous made the decision to break down the walls to see what secrets lay hidden behind, hoping to uncover something, anything, that would put his mind at rest and bring the pieces of the puzzle together.
A cloak of mist emerged from behind the hills and crept across forest and field as night settled on Ballycarry, taking the village in a cold embrace. Every house was silent and sleeping, every light extinguished and door closed, every street empty but for dew and shadow as inhabitant and visitor alike rested after the Gathering.
Tucked away amongst the long grass and stunted hedges in a corner of the waste ground, draped in shadow beneath the branches of the old oak tree, a door was opening in the side of a caravan, slowly, no more than a crack so the cold of the night wouldn’t dispel the warmth inside. A small figure ducked out and pulled his collars up before closing the door, holding his hand there for a moment like a worshipper at some holy relic. He said his silent goodbyes and set off across the rain-slicked tarmac towards the hush of Main Street with its painted kerbstones and coloured bunting fluttering in the wind, choking back the tears he had always known would come, fighting against the urge to go back.
A part of Dylan didn’t want to have to leave this way, didn’t want to steal from this place that was his only real home like a thief in the night, leaving Isaac and Cleona with nothing but an empty bed and a few photographs to show he had ever existed, a hastily scrawled note wet with his tears taped to the back of the door – I will always love you both, it read. Run from this place and never come back – but that part of him was easy to ignore when he thought of what might happen were he to stay. He had written the note almost two weeks ago when they were staying in some farmer’s field outside the village, the first time he had made ready to leave this place, but that night had not turned out how he had planned, and he had made it back to the caravan in the dark hours of the morning, removing the note from the back of the door, crawling into his bed and lying wide-eyed until Isaac and Cleona awoke, neither of them suspecting a thing, gathering their possessions and moving onto somewhere new when he told them it was no longer safe. Now the same dark presence which had been on his tail for as long as he could remember was closing in and Dylan had no wish to risk the lives of the only people who had ever loved him, no wish to bring them more pain than they had suffered already.
After this time, after tonight, he knew, there would be no more chances.
The knowledge had always been inside him, ever since he had been old enough to give voice to his questions and they had sat down with him and told him in simple terms of the night they had found him, the night he had been given to them. He had visited his own blurred memory of that night countless times – a cold and heavy blackness then a warm and blinding light, Cleona’s wide-eyed face staring out at him, a pale smear in the snowy darkness – but it was only when they told him their own stories of that snowy night in the muddy field that he began to make sense of the broken flashes, bring form to them. The tale they had recounted merely confirmed what Dylan had long suspected – that he was different, that he did not belong here – and the sad truth was that it was always going to end like this.
And so it had happened – the muted flares of recognition that had been coming to him for years and which had led him this way once already, the thousands of places he had visited and discounted, been driven away from by that dark, following presence, searching for something without knowing what it was; all of it had led to this place. The moment he had waited his whole life for, that all the broken dreams and fractured thoughts had led towards, had called out to him suddenly as he sat on his perch on the gnarled branches of the old oak tree, watching the stars of the firmament reflecting on the Lough, the din of the pub drifting down Main Street on the summer air behind him.
One minute he was idly following the path of a satellite blinking on and off high above the horizon, thinking distantly as he had so many times in so many places that his search would prove fruitless yet again, that all the thoughts and sensations that drove him were nothing but figments of his imagination, dreams he had latched on to and branded as truth; the next, he knew more surely than he had ever known anything that this was the place, that the time to make his choice was now. Both the one he was running from and the one he was searching for were close; he could feel their proximity now – a knotted tension that seemed to fill his torso, a sudden weightlessness – and knew that he could not let the former find the latter. Were that to happen, he might never learn the truth of who he was and the reason he had come here – whatever that might be – would always remain a mystery.
He had sat down for a last supper with Isaac and Cleona once the knowledge had settled in him, neither of them realising that everything had changed, that everything they had built together would soon be broken by Dylan’s leaving. They drank the tea he made for them after the meal as they had two weeks previous, falling asleep in their chairs as they had two weeks previous, Dylan watching and saying nothing, trying his best not to cry as he covered them with blankets and placed cushions behind their heads. It would be four or five hours at least before they shrugged of the effects of the sleeping pills and by then it would be too late – they would have lost him but at least they would be safe.
And so he had left them, kissed them each on the cheek and left them.
The sense that danger was near was rising within him as he made it to the glow of the streetlights, the vibrations that seemed to come from his very bones stronger and more potent than they had ever been before. He knew there was no time to waste as he glanced up to the top of the village and felt the darkness lurking there, pulsing out towards him as though the night was comprised of flesh and blood. Moving with the rising wind that swept down from the graveyard, Dylan left the waste ground behind and began to move down Main Street towards the entrance to the forest, homing in on the distant thrumming that had burst into life this night and which awaited him there, hoping that this time it would be different, hoping that this time death would stay away from his dealings with Redwood.
Aldous had spent the past hour or more breaking through two of the three passages and exploring the low-ceilinged spaces inside, finding nothing of note. They were, or had once been, storage rooms or perhaps coal bunkers, small spaces no more than ten feet deep, filled with dust and debris and stale air. The torch he had found in the kitchens was flickering on and off as he poked and prodded through the detritus of the second chamber, fearing with every scrap of wood or rock that he moved that he would uncover something he had no wish to see, but there had been nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but rot and rust and the filth of years.
As the heat and dust was beginning to overwhelm him and the last of the bricks fell away from the third passage, Aldous heard a distant sound drifting down the stairwell and cocked his ear to listen – it was frantic knocking on the front door, distorted by the winding corridors of the house. He dropped the sledgehammer and gazed into the heavy darkness through the breach as the dust motes settled, caught between one pulling force and another. The cool air from the cleared passage licked at his skin and beckoned him in. It suggested a means of egress lurking somewhere in the darkness, a draught which had been absent in the other rooms, but the knocking from the front door only increased with each second and he knew he would have to go to it, supposing that Rita had locked herself out and needed him for something. His answers could wait for a few minutes longer.
He made his way groggily up the rough-stone steps in growing darkness with lactic acid burning in his forearms, cursing as he stubbed his toe on an uneven step. The knocking assailed his ears again as he reached the top of the grand staircase – it had been going on constantly for almost a minute. He could feel the first signs of an approaching migraine niggling at the base of his skull as he moved down the corridor, the effect of too much drink and too much worry.
“Alright, I’m coming,” he mumbled as he looked down upon himself. His black suit and tie were speckled with masonry dust and his brogues had been scuffed to within an inch of their lives. “Hold your horses.”
As he dodged the patches of rot in the floorboards in the hallway and swung the main door open a sheet of lightning flashed across the roof of the canopy, limning the field and the trees and the figure before him in a coat of electric white. Aldous gasped and stumbled backwards into the house, mouth agape as the living world and the world of his dreams collided violently.
No, he mouthed silently. No.
It was the child from his dream.
“Quick!” the boy said. “Inside!”
Aldous looked through the doorway and saw the two men in the second before the boy slammed the door, their thundering feet throwing up gouts of mud and rainwater as they ran across the potholed lane towards the front of the house. The terrible purpose in their hooded eyes shot a jolt of clarity through his system and he knew they bore only ill intent. He pulled the boy in behind him and flicked the deadlock on the front door before running up the creaking staircase with the boy in tow, his drunkenness of before blown away by a sudden flush of adrenaline. As he opened the door to his room, the lights stuttered for a moment then flicked off – it was not an accident he realised as he looked back into the hallway to find the lights extinguished there, too; whoever these men were and whatever they wanted, they had known exactly where to go to shut off the power. He set the boy down on his bed and moved to the telephone, hoping luck was on his side. As he dialled the third nine the line went dead.
He looked to the child – the pale face which he knew without knowing – and was fascinated by the calmness in those young eyes, so at odds with the situation. There were so many things Aldous wanted to say in that moment, so many questions he wanted to ask, but he was pulled away by the blast of a shotgun and the splintering of wood from somewhere at the back of the house and knew he must act swiftly if there was ever to be a time to learn and understand what was happening here.
“First things first, what’s your name?” he whispered as though the walls might overhear.
“Dylan,” the boy said with a smile – a smile that was too calm, too collected – and Aldous shuddered as he recognised the crisp tone of the voice from his dream, dredged up from memory as clear as crystal. It was the same child, he was sure, but the knowledge of how sure he was merely vexed him further. Had he had some kind of premonition or vision? Was that even possible? Or was there right now a tumour festering in the grey matter in his head, turning his thoughts to mush? He had no time to work through any of it as he heard another crash from downstairs.
“Well, Dylan, I’m Aldous, Aldous Finaeus, but we’ll save the rest for when we’ve got to safety.” He moved to the window and peeled back the curtain, searching for a safe way out but finding none – Dylan could make a decent go of climbing down but the effort would be beyond Aldous. “Now, it’s too dangerous to go downstairs, and we’re too high up to jump from the windows. First we have to find you somewhere to hide,” he said, thinking through the nooks and crannies of the house, the secret corridors and hidden rooms he had played in as a boy and had uncovered in his exploration earlier that day, but he found his brain muddled with panic and nowhere he could think of seemed safe. This boy was in your dreams. He pushed he thought away. “Right, we’ll get across the corridor, nice and quiet, and into the library. There’s plenty of cupboards and chests in there. You can find somewhere out of the way, somewhere nobody will find you.”
“I need you to give me the key,” Dylan interrupted.
“Yes, you’re right. You can lock yourself in…”
“No. The key.”
Aldous stood stock still and gaped at the boy. An image of the White Lady’s crypt came to him, the key swinging gently in the breeze.
“The key your father left for us.”
The key your father left for us. Aldous heart seemed ready to burst through his ribcage. What is this? How could the boy know? He was about to speak as the questions formed but Dylan held up his hand and said two words: “Trust me.”
Those words; those simple words.
Aldous reached into his pocket and handed over the key, hands shaking, trying to pinpoint the moment when reality had gone awry. He cleared his throat, wary of the sudden silence from the rooms below – the same stuffy silence that had reminded him of the emptiness of the place before now made him feel as if every tiny groan and creak was a sign of the intruders. “I want… I… Why are those men chasing you? I mean, what have you done?”
“I haven’t done anything,” Dylan said, his voice calm and level. “What is important is that they intend to kill us, to take our lives before we can fulfil them, to see that we are forgotten.”
A roll of thunder shook the house to its foundations, pulling Aldous to his senses before he could think to question the boy further. He ushered the child through the door and across the hallway, throwing the door of the library wide to reveal a cavern of shadows. Dylan’s words were circling in his head as he ushered the boy inside – kill us… take our lives before we can fulfil them... see that we are forgotten. He wanted nothing more than to ask the boy what all this meant but all he could bring himself to do was smile weakly and tell Dylan that everything would turn out just fine as he closed the door and locked Dylan into the library.
He held his hand on the door for a moment then strode towards the storeroom at the rear of the floor, hoping against hope that the gun cabinet would still be in the same place after all these years.
If not, Aldous knew there was a good chance he might die tonight, that the secrets which had come together and were gathering around him now would be lost forever.
Aldous crept slowly along the wall towards the top of the staircase, fingering the Luger’s trigger nervously, aware he had only two bullets which had last seen daylight in the Great War. The gun cabinet was stocked full of shotguns and hunting rifles, but there were no cartridges, and Aldous had been forced to make do with a pistol his grandfather had taken from a German prisoner on the Somme, not knowing if the mechanism would even work after all the years without care. He could hear the sound of glass breaking and wood splintering, doors being forced open, guttural growls from the lower floor, and decided that his best bet was to lie in wait, covering the staircase from above until he could assess his enemy.
In spite of his worries and the fury from below Aldous tried to keep a clear head. He knew the territory, and though it had been the best part of his life since he’d been here, this was his sole advantage. He would have to use it if he was to survive. Running in gung-ho would be a death sentence and he had no intention of dying here, not when it seemed that the tattered strands of his life were beginning to weave together. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to let anyone kill a child in this house, not another one.
He lay down and peered through the carved frame of the banister, brushing away strands of cobweb with the stock of the pistol, thinking dully that he had never killed another man in all his years in the army and he wasn’t happy to start his tally tonight.
He could see four of the five passageways running off the large entrance hallway at the bottom of the stairs; the doors were closed on all but one and there was a jagged patch of shadow creeping across the floor from within the room. Aldous gripped the pistol tight and aimed, focussed on the spot his prey would wander into, finger resting on the trigger. The last thing in the world he expected was for the blast of the shotgun from one of the other doorways to tear the banister above his head to pieces, filling his eyes with dust as he rolled away from the edge of the floor. As he spread himself flat and tried to get his bearings, his gaze fell upon the most unlikely sight, glimpsed through a watery prism – the briefest glimpse of Dylan moving through the doorway of his father’s room.
Aldous wanted desperately to shout out but was dumbstruck, and the sounds of footsteps echoing on the floor below gave him cause to keep his silence. He considered firing a warning shot but he was ever aware of his lack of bullets and the evil intentions of the two men, and so made do with cocking the pistol, hoping the sound would be enough to deter them, if only for a few moments. They had guns, plural. He had nothing but the uphill advantage and the element of surprise. Two shots for two men with a gun older than Aldous. Suddenly his position didn’t feel so advantageous.
Heart racing, Aldous ran back across the top floor, past the many locked doors, noticing that the library door was still closed. He checked it and found that – of course – it was still locked. His mind raced as he moved towards the back of the house, Dylan prominent in every thought. The boy has been here before, he realised as he thought of the hidden passages and runs behind the walls. How else could he have found his way?
He ran to his father’s bedroom and through the once-hidden doorway. Any thoughts of hiding his presence from the intruders were dropped as he made the first turn of the stairwell, feet skidding on smooth stone. Allowing Dylan to go to that place below would be a death sentence. Twenty minutes ago, drunk on whiskey and old memories, Aldous had wanted nothing more than to see what lay behind the broken wall, but now he felt a strange unease with the thought of where the boy was going, where he was leading him. Aldous knew absolutely nothing of what waited through the breach. He could just as easily run into a cul-de-sac within a few feet or lose his way in the darkness as find death waiting in some rotten tomb or open pit.
He fleetingly saw Dylan as he ran down the steps, emerging in flashes from the heavy darkness, striding across the pile of bricks, ducking through the open passageway. Aldous leaned over the banister and made to shout but the words choked in his throat as he heard a tenebrous voice skittering up the bare walls from below.
He lost his grip and dropped the gun as he heard an inhuman roar from somewhere behind him. The Luger spun through the open air and plummeted to the stone below, echoing loudly as it fell to pieces by the empty whiskey bottle that Aldous was beginning to think had started all this. He gathered himself and ran on as he heard the clatter of heavy-booted footsteps in the confines of his father’s room. They were close now, very close, but they would’ve seen the open gun cabinet and thought Aldous was armed, if he was lucky. That would give him some time to think of a plan as they held back, but what the plan might be he had no idea – aside from hiding in the darkness and hoping for the best, there was only one place to go. Dylan had made it that way.
The smell of burning hit his nostrils as he became aware of a distant crackling from the far side of the house. His heart leapt. They’re burning the place. Destroying the place and trapping us, trapping themselves.
He continued on, taking the steps two at a time, keeping tight to the inside wall. The men had him cornered. They could take their time with whatever they had planned once they discovered their prey was unarmed and helpless. His last hope – his only hope – lay through the darkened passageway. He passed the last section of stairs, mere feet from the piles of bricks, as a weapon discharged with a flash of silver-white from above. A wave of pain blasted through Aldous as he fell to the ground, filling his every pore with agony.
The balls of buckshot had torn away a section of the banister alongside him and a few pieces of shot had burst into his torso, lodging in his stomach wall, burning like pellets of acid in the tender muscle. Another spray rained down as he slumped down the wall and a tiny fragment of hot steel seared into his left eye, freeing the juices within in a sharp flash of intense fire. The pain of before was nothing compared to this. He screamed in agony as he threw his hands to his face and fell down the last few steps, banging his head on the rough stone floor.
He knew now that any fight would be hopeless and could end only one way. The men would not hold back if they found him and knowing they had wounded him would only spur them on. He pulled himself along the floor, leaving a smear of red on the stone beneath him. Survival in the shadowed space beyond the wall was his one shining light and he hoped it would not turn out to be a tomb – his tomb, Dylan’s tomb.
With the gritting of teeth he raised himself up and made for the opening, stumbling, running on nothing but adrenaline and the fear of extinction, fuelled by contempt for the nameless men who wanted to consign him to darkness with his father.
Aldous knew Redwood was an ancient house, full of architectural quirks, knew there were secret rooms and hidden follies laced throughout the structure, narrow corridors and mazy runs trapped behind walls, starting nowhere and ending nowhere – how else could Dylan have escaped the library and made it here? – but the maze of catacombs and tunnels he found himself in when he ran into the darkness through the doorway beggared belief.
It seemed as he moved that the place had been designed to confuse and disorientate – paths that drew you onward but led nowhere, sudden walls that jutted from the darkness, blasts of cold air from god-knows-where. He had chosen, wisely, in favour of walking tight to the walls rather than running in the darkness in the vague hope that his pursuers would lose his trail, turn into other passageways he had decided to pass. He hoped he had outfoxed them for there had been no sound of the men since he entered the breach in the wall.
The path he followed now – far from the entrance; too far for the rooms still to be under the house – was jagged and precarious underfoot and the heavy darkness offered no respite from the fear and panic that clawed at his insides. There were sudden drops and dips in the floor, there for no reason that he could fathom; sections where the walls were so close, warped and twisted by the weight of rock above, that he would not have found passage were it not for the blood to lubricate him; paths that led nowhere, or worse, to holes in the ground that yawned with a blackness so much greater than that of the tunnels he blindly wandered, a few of which had nearly claimed him already. With every obstacle he slowed his pace, wary of what was to come, weakened by loss of blood, broken by all that had happened.
In his concentration on every step, every tiny movement, he became utterly alone with his thoughts, insulated by them. He tried to think like the men who had burst so violently into his life and threatened to bring an end to it, to picture what drove them, thinking there must be a reason. He began to work out a story in his mind as he stumbled on, one hand held against his stomach to try to stem the bleeding and to keep him from crying out. They had come to this place expecting riches, expecting easy pickings. Perhaps they had read the obituaries in the local paper; perhaps that was their usual motive. It occurred to him suddenly – and the thought felt terrifying in the darkness – that they were relatives of the boy they had found in the pool half a century ago, here to seek revenge. He gulped loudly, pushing the thought away.
Another thought came to him as he picked up the courage to call out for Dylan. He began to seriously consider the idea that the boy was in league with the men as he waited for a reply. Perhaps Dylan had promised the men the house would be empty. Perhaps everything from the boy was an act, a way to reel Aldous in and lead him here, to wander blindly in the darkness whilst they bricked up the passageway. Yet, the more he thought on it, he realised that his thoughts were being driven by fear – none of it made sense. If the men had meant to come here and kill him why would they need Dylan to do so? Aldous answering the door to the boy, seeing the men running down the muddy path, had ruined any element of surprise they might have had. Why need the boy be any part of this when his presence seemed to offer the men no help? But more than this, screaming out to him against every thought that Dylan was somehow involved with the duo, nothing on this earth could have explained the boy’s presence in his dream. Nothing could explain the way Aldous had felt when the boy had used those two words: Trust me.
He moved on, shouting louder, ears pricked for any sounds from his pursuers as the echo of his voice skittered up and down empty passages. The men would hear him but the shouts would sound like they were coming from everywhere. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, sliding down the wall in the darkness, focussing on the cold throb from his eye and the acid burn in his stomach. When he summoned the strength to stand again he realised he did not know what direction he had been moving. Empty blackness waited either side – one way towards the men, one way away from them. He heard a distant shout from somewhere behind him and stumbled on through the darkness, wondering when and where this place would end.
The scale of the place really was breathtaking. Some rooms were undoubtedly created by nature (cathedral-sized pockets and sinkholes it seemed by the echoes of his shuffling footsteps, the sudden sense of empty weightlessness), some hewn out of the rock to permit passage to farther reaches, harsh and angular, marked by the deep parallel gouges were some forgotten man or forgotten men (Finaeus men, perhaps, or men who had called this place home centuries before) had broken through. It felt somehow better that he could not see the scope of it, safer to not know. But still, even with his growing doubt that this place had no purpose, he sensed the chance, vague as it was, of escape. The breeze he had felt intermittently was coming from somewhere ahead, licking across his skin, bringing his wounds bursting back to life.
As the aches of his wounds began to settle again to a dull throb, Aldous came into a narrow passage with countless means of egress, gusts of wind blowing here and there. Water dripped from somewhere high above and came to him like rain on a breeze. At that moment he had a vision of the house as he had never imagined it before, like a huge iceberg, most of its bulk hidden from view, lying secret and unseen in the bowels of the earth. He might get lost here, he knew, die in some horrible way without ever seeing sunlight again, without ever finding Dylan, without anyone ever knowing what had happened. He shivered involuntarily at the thought as he felt the gripping cold seep deeper into his bones, intensely aware now of the fresh spurts of blood that soaked his torso and the sticky mess congealing on his face. I might never use that eye again.
He remembered then that he had a lighter in his pocket, an old Zippo engraved with his initials, and reached inside to find it, cursing himself for not thinking of it earlier. It almost slipped from his grip as he tried to light it, so slicked with blood were his hands, but he tried and tried again, cupping a hand against the breeze – much stronger than he had thought – until the flame caught. He moved the lighter up and to his side as his head filled with light, and found in front of him when the dancing flecks of white settled a foreboding and shadow-draped doorway, yawning in the gloom, well-worn steps leading further down into inky blackness, breathing out a cool wind that licked across his skin and danced around his cupped hand to extinguish the flame. When the flame died the darkness scared him more than it had before. It really was dark down there, almost solid, swathes of invisible space as impenetrable as tar. He tried the lighter again but the flame would not hold and, after half a dozen failed attempts, he relented, thinking that perhaps it would be better if he grew used to the darkness.
Slow and steady, Aldous. Slow and steady.
Without time to pause for a second thought, he took a deep breath and began the descent, turning tight with the curve of the tunnel, deeper into the living rock and the grasping coldness that lurked in moss-filled cracks and stroked his bloodied fingertips as he ran them along the damp walls, feeling as though he was descending into the gullet of some vast beast, somewhere from which he would not return.
Time was lost in the clinging darkness, his shouts to Dylan growing quieter with each attempt without response, the blood seeping from him draining his last reserves of energy. After a while he fell silent. His stuttering footfalls and the subtle rasp of his fingers on the rock were all that linked him to life now. It felt as though he was disappearing. The steps seemed to go on forever, and every one sent a bolt of pain through him. Counting the steps had been of little help. He had given up after the first fifty and still the end was nowhere in sight, so he focussed instead on the pain, counting the seconds between each stab, waiting for the steps to fall away.
Then suddenly, as if a flame had been lit around a distant corner, a diffuse light began to paint patchy streaks across the walls of the stairwell below – bright yet black – drawing him onwards. Within moments Aldous emerged from the confines of the stairwell into a wide clearing, its distant walls somehow visible despite the darkness. He collapsed onto the cool earth floor as he left the stairwell, every breath a stab of agony.
He lay there in the darkness, the cool of the earth refreshing against his wounds, staring into the emptiness to his front. The far reaches of the cavern dwindled into the blackest of shadows and he could only guess at its true depth, but from where he lay, the space felt impossibly, dangerously large, so gargantuan in scale that it seemed too much to believe it was here at all. The imagined weight of the earth above seemed to weigh down on him and he pictured for the merest of seconds the instant when everything above would give way and swallow the whole of Redwood into this terrible pit. It would happen sometime so why not now, with the fire raging and the house collapsing far above?
He struggled to his feet and moved on.
Dripping fingers of rock and winding tree roots burst from the ceiling, the latter running taut like steel cables, and he moved away from the wall and followed their unnatural path along the cavern ceiling, stopping dead when he found the place the roots were drawn towards. Directly in the centre of the ancient pocket of earth lay an object that pulled hard on the strings of his comprehension, spiralled him closer to the centre of that yawning chasm that had threatened to break his will ever since the knock on the door – a huge black cube glimmering in the darkness, fully twenty feet across, formed of a liquid blackness, a blackness that throbbed and glowed, flowing outwards like a marching wall of treacle. For a moment, Dylan and the men and the burning house were forgotten.
He walked falteringly towards the rock with its glittering depths, reaching out a bloody hand slowly, eager to touch the surface to verify its existence, drawn in by the way the rock seemed to bubble and swirl. A trick of the light, that’s all. A trick of the light.
The distant echo of running feet drifted down the stairwell and through the entrance to the chamber and when he turned to listen he felt the wounds in his stomach open wider, spilling a fresh stream of blood through the dark crust on his shirt.
“Dylan,” he shouted weakly as he pressed the wound tight, vision wavering as he fought against the blinding pain. “Where are you? Please, I… I’m dying.” Fresh stabs of agony hit him with every word and he had to grind his teeth to stop from screaming. “Dylan. Please. I can’t... I can’t...”
There was no answer, no sound at all save the dripping of water from above and the rush of blood as it coursed through his veins and wept onto the floor. No one is coming, Aldous. It’s just you. He suddenly felt stupid for believing the boy could do anything.
The beating of his heart began to reach a crescendo as he heard the footsteps again – they were close, coming down the stairwell. He turned towards the doorway, gripped by panic, a crippling sensation that told him whatever came through the doorway would be the end of him. The gloaming there was filled with motion, hazy with the distance between he and it. Aldous felt his last reserve of strength drain from him as slumped to the floor. In an instant it was as if the cavern had filled with light, as if, suddenly, his eyes had learned to pull the blackness apart.
Lithe as a panther, moving out from the darkness of the stairwell, came Dylan. Somehow Aldous had passed him. How did not matter. Nothing mattered now.
The boy walked a few feet into the centre of the clearing then stopped, tensed like a hunter sniffing out its prey. Aldous made to shout but all that came out was a throaty gurgle. Perhaps it was for the best for he heard the clattering footsteps of the men and knew they were somewhere close behind the boy, would be bursting into the room in mere seconds.
Every part of him became frozen and alert. The boy’s eyes (glowing, it seemed) darted from left to right, up and down. He can’t see me, Aldous realised. All he could do was stare helplessly, silently, will Dylan to move, to do something.
The boy turned back towards the doorway, stood still, and waited.
What the hell are you doing? Aldous thought
The footsteps stopped. Aldous heard a chilling noise he knew well, a noise he had heard countless times, though at no time more ominous than this. It was the heavy click of a shell being loaded into a shotgun. The thought barely registered before a blinding flash lit up to the chamber, the ferocity of the blast causing the muscles in his stomach wall to contract, pushing out a fresh wave of blood, darker he sensed, richer than that which had gone before.
And at the pinnacle of his agony, head lolling, Aldous saw everything that he had feared in the few seconds since that fateful click, an image that would stay with him until the bitter end, an end which was closer than he ever would’ve imagined when he awoke this morning. He saw Dylan caught by the shotgun blast as the flash of light blossomed; saw the moment frozen, blazed upon his retina in a flash of silver-white; saw the child’s frame catapult backward against the rock wall where it slapped like a slab of meat before falling lifelessly to the floor.
Before the echo of the shot had disappeared the beam of a torch sliced through the darkness, illuminating Dylan’s body on the floor. Aldous watched as the scar-faced gunman emerged from the narrow stairwell, stooped to the ground and rifled through Dylan’s pockets, the boy making not the slightest sound. After a moment the man stood up and held his prize aloft – the key, spinning slowly on its length of twine. The man turned then and peered into the darkness, shaking the dying torch whose light was flickering continuously. He knows I’m here, Aldous thought as he ground his teeth to keep from crying out, watching the beam of light skittering across the walls, grimacing in expectation as it crept towards him. He must know I’m here.
The light wavered and dimmed.
There was silence.
He looked up and the man was gone.
Some time later – seconds or minutes; he did not know – as Aldous tried to stand the ebon gullet of the stairwell belched out the echo of a great shattering rumble. He could hear the terrible noise of untold tonnes of mortar and stone tumbling down passages far above with a roar like the voices of a thousand screaming madmen, filling the room in the seconds afterwards with a marching cloud of dust that billowed through the emptiness in a solid wall of grey, sealing him off to die alone, locked in a great tomb like the men of old he had offered his life to understand.
Aldous sunk back towards the jet blackness of the cube and fell into it at once, through a portal in the wall so effortlessly concealed he had not noticed it before. As he landed heavily on his back and his hands touched the inner confines he found to his shock that it was warm to the touch, vibrating and purring softly, thrumming as though blood flowed within. The alien sensation – arisen in his mind alone, he believed, borne by his dying fever – triggered a frenzy of movement inside him, a comforting sensation that begged him to stay, and for the moment he forgot about Dylan’s murder and the pain of his weeping wounds, forgot about the presence of death that lurked so near and the ruin of the house above, content to be carried away in the feeling of euphoria as light flowed into his veins and wrapped him in its bosom, the sombre piles of bone beneath him crumbling to dust at the slightest touch.
Dylan crawled slowly across the dusty floor towards the centre of the room, the copper tang of blood harsh on his tongue. Each inch felt like a marathon, each movement a world of agony, yet he moved on regardless. He tried to shout for Aldous but all that came out was a wet gurgle that tasted of bile and copper, and he knew then that he was going to die.
With his last few breaths wheezing from his burning throat he pulled himself through the opening in the cube, feeling the still body lying in the centre and hoping it was not too late. It was darker in here, darker yet, somehow, lighter. The warm trickle of his blood traced its way towards the heart of the cube, turning strands of the old man’s hair a sodden pink as it pushed past. Dylan watched the trickling stream with dancing eyes as it crept along the black surface, watched his lifeblood pooling together with that of the old man amongst the crumbling bones, writhing and boiling below his resting body, and, at the very last, he smiled.