Bomber’s Moon – Excerpt
To all those readers who loved the historicals but are taking a chance on me being able to write something a bit different. Thank you!
Volume One of Under the Hill
Ben bolted out of sleep, halfway to his feet before he realised he was awake. What was that noise! Something was wrong—he could feel it pressing under his breastbone. He thought he’d dreamed of a subterranean groan, felt again the rush of sticky re-breathed air and then the smoke. God! The smoke, pouring through the shattered windows of the train…
But this was his bedroom. Look, there—the alarm clock cast a faint green light on the claret duvet and gold silk coverlet, familiar as closed velvet curtains and his suit trousers hanging on the back of the bathroom door. 3:14 a.m.
His breathing calmed slowly. Was that what had woken him? Just another flashback? Or could there be an intruder downstairs?
Tiptoeing to the wardrobe, he eased open the mirrored door, slipped on his dressing gown and belted it, picking up the cricket bat that nestled among his shoes. The closing door showed him his determined scowl—not very convincing on a face that looked as nervous and skinny as a whippet’s. Licking his lips, weapon raised, he seized the handle of his bedroom door, eased it down.
And the sound came again. All the doors in the house fluttered against their frames, the ground beneath him groaned, tiles on the roof above shifting with a ceramic clatter. A crash in the bathroom as the toothbrush holder fell into the sink. He jumped, crying out in revulsion when the floor shuddered and the carpet rippled beneath his bare feet as if stuffed with snakes.
Earthquake! An earthquake in Bakewell? Home of well dressing and famous for pudding? The sheer ludicrousness of the idea flashed through his mind even as he raced down the stairs. You… What did you do in an earthquake? Stand under a door lintel, wasn’t it?
As he reached the living room, it happened again. He clutched at the back of the sofa while the entire house raised itself into the air and fell jarringly down with an impact that threw him against the wall. Bricks moving beneath his fingers, he pulled himself along the still-drying wallpaper into the hall, flung open the front door.
There was blackness outside—the streetlamps all guttered out—and silence, a silence so profound that the pressure began again inside his throat. It was so much like being buried underground. As he strained his ears for something friendly—a barking dog, a car alarm—a wind drove up from the Wye, filling his ears with whispering.
No stars shone above. But in the neighbour’s windows, he could see something silver reflected, something that moved with liquid grace.
The curve of a horse’s neck traced in quicksilver reflected in a driving mirror. A stamping hoof—drawn out of lines of living frost and spider web—splashed in a puddle. Drops spattered cold over his bare ankles.
Coming up from the river, across the bridge, up the sleeping suburban street they rode, knights and ladies. Glimmering, insubstantial shreds of banners floated above them like icy mist. Harps in their hands, hawks on their fists, and now he could hear the music; it was faint, far away, wrong as the feeling that had driven him out of bed. Alien and beautiful as the moons of Saturn.
He clapped both hands over his mouth, but it was too late. The words were out, full of blood and earth and inappropriate, human coarseness. Their heads turned. He caught a glimpse of armour, shadows and silver, as one of the knights reined in his horse, glided close, bending down.
The creature smelled of cool night air. Its inky gaze raked over Ben from head to toe, like being gently stroked with the leaves of nettles, a million tiny electric shocks. His skin crawled with the prickle of it, ecstatic and unbearable, and he gasped, held on the point of a pin between violent denial and begging it to do more.
Long platinum hair slid forward over a face drawn in strokes of starlight. “Which eye do you see me with?”
“I…” croaked Ben, his mouth desiccated, his lungs labouring. “What? I…”
Something in the garden—something huge, covered in spikes, lifted up the house, foundations and all, and shook it like a child’s toy.
Terror goaded him into action. Lurching back into the hall, Ben slammed the door, locked it, shot the bolts top and bottom, fumbled the chain into its slide and reached for the phone. Nine-nine-nine got him a brisk, polite young woman saying “What service please?”
Outside, crystalline laughter tinkled in the starless night. The walls flexed like a sheet of rubber. “Police please! I…” …think I’m being attacked by fairies.
And everything went quiet. Down the street a burglar alarm brayed into the night. He opened the door a crack to see the streetlamps shining vulgar yellow-orange over a score of double-parked cars. There was, of course, no evidence the creatures he’d seen had ever been there at all. He took a deep breath, decided against setting himself up for a charge of wasting police time, and let it out in surrender. “Never mind.”
“Yes? Was it corporeal, would you say, or etheric?”
Ben rubbed his fingertips over the rough paper and vivid blue ink of the advert in the Yellow Pages. Whatever he had expected from a man who helmed an outfit called The Matlock and District Paranormal Investigation and Defence Agency—MPA for short—this clipped, military baritone was not it.
He’d phoned up in the sheer need to talk to someone who wouldn’t think he was a loony. Hoping, perhaps, for a nice old lady who would invite him round to the shop for a stress-relieving chat about accidental exposure to hallucinogens, and what he could best do to realign his chakras. He didn’t expect to be going over the incident like a mission debriefing with a man whose voice sounded as if it came accompanied by a huge handlebar moustache and a nasty attitude towards what he would undoubtedly call “arse-bandits”.
“Um, ethereal, I suppose. I don’t know, I didn’t…” Perhaps he should have tried to touch? They’d looked as substantial as wisps of mist, but what if they were really solid, capable of fading in and out of the visual range of the human eye? “I’ll, um, next time I’ll do tests.”
“Put the kettle on. I’ll be round in fifteen minutes.”
Oh God! Supernatural attacks and suburban disapproval in the space of a single morning. And he was late for work. He tucked the phone into his shoulder and rearranged the keys hanging in the key cabinet into order of size. Not so that he could more easily find them in the dark, just because it was more pleasing that way. What was he doing, phoning a random bunch of cranks like this anyway? It was a doctor he needed.
“Please, just forget it. I’ll…I expect I was dreaming. I’m sorry to trouble you.”
Putting the phone down Ben wandered into the kitchen. Groggy after a sleepless night, he wiped the table and put out cups and the sugar bowl, opened a packet of biscuits and slid a few onto a plate beside the milk jug. Bright summer sunshine poured into the room, glittering from the gold edges of his dinner service, displayed neatly on the pale oak dresser. The walls gleamed, buttercup yellow, and flecks of silver in the dark granite work surfaces pinged the eye with sparkles. He’d just poured water on the tea leaves and set the pot to steep when the half-expected rat-a-tat-tat came at the door.
Ben sighed. Mr. Matlock Paranormal was certainly living down to his expectations. Ignoring anything he didn’t want to hear? Check. Too manly to use the doorbell? Check.
Straightening his tie, Ben took a deep breath, walked down the hall corridor and opened the door with a touch of defiance. His visitor stood half in the porch’s shadow, half in sunshine, backlit by the strong summer light, and for a moment all Ben could process was tawny gold and earth colours. Then the man stepped forward into the shade—a tall fellow with sandy, spiky blond hair, an air of athleticism, and an open, confident face made quirky by a nose once broken, set slightly askew.
He held out his hand. “Wing Commander Gatrell. Call me Chris.”
It was worse than Ben had imagined. Military and hot. A combination that spelled trouble at the best of times—and this was very much not the best of times.
“How d’you do.” He made sure his handshake was firm and brief. “And, well, what do you do, exactly?”
The Yellow Pages lay open beside the phone. Gatrell nodded at the advert without looking away from Ben. “We do exactly what it says. Investigate and defend against the paranormal.”
“Who’re you going to call: Dambusters?”
Gatrell gave him a startled, piercing look before forcing a chuckle that revealed the beginnings of laughter lines around his eyes. “I hear the Ghostbusters one twice a day on average, but that’s new. Not bad.” He shrugged off his tweed jacket and hung it up on a coat hook without asking, as if he were in his own home. “I should paint it on the car. Give me a hand in with the equipment.”
Doesn’t include “please” in his vocabulary, Ben thought, to distract himself from the sight of the man bending down to bring a Geiger counter and something that looked like a short-wave radio with extra tubes out of the boot of his shabby white Volvo. Suggesting he was a man whose fashion sense had been formed by the Famous Five books, the wing commander wore olive-drab moleskin trousers, his lighter green shirt tucked in and topped with a beige-and-russet knitted tank top.
“Take this.” Gatrell dropped a grey scuffed device into Ben’s hands. “As we’re here, we’ll do the outside first. Walk round the house, tell me if it beeps.”
Ducking his head over the scanner, watching the needle tremble as he passed the yew arch his father had spent so much time clipping, Ben allowed himself a small smile. It was good, after a long night spent terrified to look out of the window, not to be alone any more. He knew himself well enough to realise that if he had really believed last night’s incident was a mere hallucination, he would have called the doctor. The fact that he had not done so meant that, on some level, he believed what he had seen was real. He could bear a little contempt, surely, if it brought with it the flesh-and-blood company of another human being. Particularly one who just might know what to do next.
A noise disturbed his thoughts. In his hands the grey box vibrated, the needle flickered between red and black fast as a snake’s tongue. As he approached the corner of the new extension, the machine’s buzz became a beep and then a shriek.
“Aha.” Gatrell appeared at his shoulder, checked the readings against his own and gave Ben a triumphant grin. “Inside, then.”
Going indoors, they walked carefully together around each room, scanning the walls. Ben’s apprehension returned as Gatrell’s clear, observant gaze took in every detail of his life from the thousands of CDs to the sheet music, perfectly squared up, on its stand.
“You keep it nice.”
Was it a compliment or a hidden jibe? Ben tightened his grip on the whatever-it-was meter and scowled. “I like neat. Don’t expect me to apologise for not being slovenly.”
Gatrell paused in front of the bookshelf full of gay fiction. As he browsed the titles, Ben waited for the inevitable recoil, waited for him to angrily demand the machine back, invent some spurious excuse to walk out the door, leaving Ben to fight the underworld alone. Oh, here it comes. He swallowed hard, bracing himself. But Gatrell just drew a sergeant-majorly fingertip over the top shelf, raised a sandy eyebrow at the complete lack of dust and said, “You’ll make someone a lovely wife.”
Fuck you! Ben thought, feeling more bitterly stabbed than the little jibe really merited. Get out of my house.
The retort, Why, Wing Commander, I didn’t know you were interested, formed in his mouth. Before he could say it, Gatrell had opened the door, gone through into the newly built living room, and Ben’s anger and sarcasm was foiled. The moment during which he could say something without making it into a big issue passed in silence, leaving him fragile and resentful and looking for trouble.
As Ben came into the room, Gatrell opened the side panel of the bay window and leaned through, looking out at where Castle Road made a sudden swerve, just outside Ben’s front garden. Closing the window, he turned round and brushed his hands on his trousers. “I believe you.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Was that a cup of tea I saw on the table?”
Bloody hell. Ben stopped himself from clasping his hands together and bowing like a genie. It was all too likely this man would fail to spot the irony in a mocking, Yes, oh master. Instead, he bit his tongue again and brought everything out of the kitchen on a tray. Pouring tea, he offered biscuits and tried not to notice that Gatrell’s stiff upper lip meant that when he smiled his mouth actually turned down at the corners.
Once more, tea and biscuits dragged back civilization from the brink of chaos. Gatrell dipped the HobNob, gestured vaguely with it. “Eighty-nine percent of our calls are from lads who think it’s fun to put on a Halloween costume and try to scare the life out of me.” He engulfed the softening half of biscuit before it dropped, dunked the second with a shrug. “Up to and including coming at me with chainsaws. A further ten percent tend to be cases of drug abuse, drunkenness or merely nerves. You’ll have to forgive me if I’ve become a bit jaded.
“However, we do come across something genuine once in a while, and I think this is one of those occasions. So—I believe you. Your house was attacked by…” he tilted his head to one side, sceptical, “…spirits, you said.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Fairies. It was attacked by fairies, all right.”
Gatrell laughed, but Ben cut off his inevitable remark with “Don’t! Just don’t, okay? I know what it sounds like, and I can take a bloody good guess at what you’re going to say next. So let’s pretend we’ve done that part and move on, all right?”
The colour of the man’s eyes was golden brown, flecked with green. They looked hard and old as nuggets of amber as he said, “Far be it from me to attempt to inject some levity into the situation. As a matter of fact, you’re right. I know better than to laugh at these creatures. And how did they attack you?”
“There was something with them, like a giant. It kept lifting up the house, smashing it back down. I thought it was…”
Ben’s tea slopped from his mug over his fingers. He looked down, surprised, and saw he was shaking. With both hands he eased the cup back onto the tray, stood, meaning to find kitchen roll to mop up the spill, and seized up as he had done last night under the gaze of the elfin knight. Able to watch, to think, but not to move.
They had both trodden in dust from the front garden—pale grey footsteps tracked across the aubergine carpet. The sitting room’s newly papered walls rose to a ceiling to which he had not yet managed to give a second coat of paint. His mandola on its stand in the corner stood serenely upright, its strings twinkling. Around the bowl of flowers that partially hid his parents’ wedding photo, screening off the sight of them in traditional Indian dress, the sideboard was dry—the water hadn’t slopped. Not a single petal had fallen.
Ben caught Gatrell looking at it, sceptically. He closed his eyes, breathed in through his nose—catching a lemony cologne with undertones of sandalwood, an earthy, bright smell that rustled something in the recesses of his mind. “I know… Things look too neat. I can’t explain it. Everything shook. I thought—when I woke up I thought at first it was another bomb.”
“A bomb?” Gatrell rose from his seat in a lithe movement and looked at Ben with those penetrating hazel eyes. His gaze was nothing like that of the elven knight—nothing like it at all, but Ben shivered nevertheless. “When was this?”
“I was in King’s Cross station when it was bombed. I’d been at university in London, but I came back North soon after because I couldn’t do it any more. The underground…I couldn’t.” Black tunnels barely large enough to fit the train within them. All those people, crushed up against him, all screaming, bewildering doors and darkness—arches that opened on flames and the slide, the faint ceramic sliding noise of keystones shifting, dirt trickling down like rain, boulders tipping above his head. His chest burnt with smoke as he tried to hold his breath, suffocating. Train tracks live with lethal voltage as they stumbled through the darkness. Up escalators that shuddered with each step. Thousands of feet of rock above him held up by willpower and the klaxons, everyone screaming and he was going to fall…
And my parents. Oh God, Mum. Dad. They came to visit me and… No!
Disorientated, Ben flailed between past and present. Then flames gave way to roses nodding over the window, Gatrell’s face close enough for Ben to see the faded freckles over the bridge of his nose. Ben recognised that the man’s arms were around him, holding him up, just as they loosened their grip. That sage-green shirt that looked so 1940s, looked like it belonged in a world of winceyette sheets and hot Bovril, was soft to the touch as he clutched it while he got his bearings.
“Get them often?”
Reluctant to try walking all the way to the kitchen just yet, Ben mopped up the spilled tea with his clean handkerchief and clutched the damp fabric like a lifeline. “Not since I moved back up North. I thought they were over. I don’t… I like to think I’m not going mad, but…”
Gatrell picked up the grey device Ben had left beside his cushion and ran a comforting thumb down its pitted surface. “You’re not going mad,” he said kindly. “If you were, we wouldn’t have picked up anything on these.”
“As for the flashbacks, I get them myself. Bloody nuisance, but nothing to be ashamed of. Right then. Our next move is, we relocate to the pub and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I’m sorry?” Ben’s distress escaped him in a quick flap of the hands. “I didn’t call you so that we could socialize. All right, you believe me! I hoped you wouldn’t. I hoped you’d tell me I was imagining it all. I’m really not happy at the thought that there’s something…legendary out there coming to get me. But I fail to see how going down the pub is likely to help.”
The upper lip straightened again as Gatrell oppressed another smile. But the expression passed quickly, straightening into something grimmer. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Step one, get out of this house. Continue this conversation elsewhere.” He passed the machine from one hand to another. “You saw the readings go off the scale. Something is still here, and whether it’s residual energy or a more sentient presence, I’m not willing to risk leaving you here with it.” The smirk lifted the corner of his mouth again—ironic, not at all comforting. “You see, I was trying to find a way of saying that which didn’t involve melodrama.”
Ben gazed with disbelief at the device’s dial, unreadable in the shadow of Gatrell’s fingers. Get out of the house? It was that serious? The relief he’d felt at finding someone who believed him peeled away, revealed how very much more he had desperately wanted to be told he had dreamed it all.
Hair like cobweb under dew. If the creature’s gaze left tracks of static electricity painted on his sensitised skin, what would the trailing slide of each strand of hair be like? Would its lips on his taste like lightning?
Imagining lightning hitting him in the mouth, Ben folded up his damp hanky and rose. Better foolish overreaction than that. “You could have just come out and said it. Would I need a bag?”
“Just give me a moment, I’ll go grab—”
Gatrell brushed his hands against his trousers. “I’ll come with you.”
“I think I can find the way upstairs by myself.”
The smile fell from Gatrell’s face and all the lines tightened. He straightened, parade-ground style. “Mr. Chaudhry, you seem to have got the impression I am playing at this. I’m not. You are under my protection. I will come with you.”
The crawling sensation of having stuck his foot into a trap from which he could not withdraw took the containing cap off his panic and a “Fuck that!” escaped almost involuntarily.
“Unless you intend to tell me to leave?”
No! But there was the rub, because everything in Ben leapt in denial at the thought of being abandoned to face either a real threat or his own dreams alone. “Would you? I told you not to come, but you came. Would you go if I asked?”
Silence in the room. Ben’s heart beat hard, the air rasping in his throat as it went down. Beneath the rolled-up cuffs of his sleeves, the sinews in Gatrell’s arms stood out as his fingers twitched. They were, Ben noticed, fine hands, fine arms, it might almost be pleasant to be grabbed and shaken by them.
As Ben’s lizard brain jerked itself back from the distraction, Gatrell too shook himself, shifted his weight and brought something out from the depths of his trouser pocket.
“No, I wouldn’t. I’ve seen these things before. I wouldn’t let anyone face them without backup.” He reached out and dropped into Ben’s hand an iron nail, its sharp point embedded in a wine-bottle cork. “Here, take this. Be as quick as you can.”
The iron, warm in Ben’s palm, felt anachronistic, hard to believe, like something out of the sixteenth century. It brought to mind history lessons, museum trips, witch trials and savagery—it was the kind of thing the superstitious had buried in the walls of their houses to drive off evil spirits. His mood seesawed back from anger to terror at the touch of it. But he wasn’t going to let Gatrell see that, so he pocketed it, ran upstairs, took out a selection of folded underwear, paired socks, a change of shirt and tie, and packed an overnight bag.
Outside the window the sky shone deep sapphire, shading to indigo. No clouds moved across its gemlike expanse. As he dropped cufflinks into their leather case, the matching raps and rattles brought home to him how silent everything else was. No birds sang. The trees of the garden stood as if painted on a glass backdrop, waiting to shatter. He reached out a hand to straighten the bedcovers, and a voice like sliding water murmured in his head.
Ben recoiled from the sheet, clamped his hand around the nail. As if snapped off at the switch, the voice ceased. Ben’s breath caught in his throat with an ah of shock. God! Picking up the bag, he clattered downstairs without zipping it closed, plunged into the living room. Chris was not there. So much for his fine words. Bastard! But racing out again, Ben found him kneeling in the hall, packing up the radio-with-tubes thingy, a frown between his brows and the corners of his mouth scored deep with suppressed emotion.
“Oh God, I’m so screwed.” Ben skidded to a halt as soon as he felt the man’s presence close about him like fortress walls. “It is still here. I just heard it. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
Chris looked up, his lean face bright from the light of the open door, expression open, hands on his knees. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he said quietly. “I wish I knew.”
The fire was barely bright enough to show Flynn his own hand, and hers atop it, the needle-sharp fingernails making dimples in his skin. Beyond the hand, a rootlike wrist disappeared into a sleeve that smelled of sour earth. Wind brought a deeper scent out of the bowels of the cave—something cold, wet, almost metallic.
The fire burned moss—all smoulder and no heat. A trickle of white smoke wound into the air between Flynn and this thing whose pupil-free black eyes reflected the pale blur of his face. “If you want stronger,” her voice slipped across the dark like the sound of falling dust, “you must pay more. Fifty years.”
The touch on his skin felt frail and chill. Five encircling pinpricks, nothing more. But it was as hard to stand still and bear them as it would have been to endure the touch of five hypodermics loaded with disease. His breath smoked in the air and sweat trickled cold down his spine. “Ten.”
“Do not try to be clever, sky-rider. If you wish what I give you to be worth fifty, you will give me fifty. If you give me more, it will be worth more. I, who was once a queen of Faerie, do not haggle like a common merchant at a horse fair. Fifty.”
Fifty years! Flynn pulled his hand closer to his chest. His heart thudded strong in the cavern of his ribs—he could feel the strength in it, ardent and young, feel the sureness of his own body, swift and sturdy and free of pain.
His recoil brought her farther out of the dark, showed him the toothless sunken arsehole of her mouth, the yellow unsupported cheeks that seemed half-melted from her face. She moved tentatively, as though every step, every breath, took agonising effort—a shrunken, hunched thing in a rotting ball gown so overlarge on her he could have fitted his forearm between the knobs of her back and the fabric.
He’d come in, picking his way over the rubble without breaking a sweat, smooth skinned, handsome, fast and strong. He would hobble out a seventy-year-old. Was it worth it? Take the gamble on the off-chance the skipper would hear him—the even more unlikely hope he could do anything to help?
Those dark eyes were shiny as obsidian as she watched him with the patience of the rocks amongst which she dwelt. She was an honourable thing in her way, giving him time to understand the enormity of his decision, to freely consent, or not, as he pleased.
His final day in the real world came back to him with such clarity he could almost smell it—the air shimmering with the high-pitched kerosene smell of aviation fuel, the departing trundle of the bomb handlers in their tractor. White stars shone over the Lancaster. It was a cloudless night. Good weather for the bomb aimer, maybe, but also good weather for enemy fighters and anti-aircraft batteries down on the ground.
Well, he’d thought even then, if tonight was the night they bought it, thank God he and the skipper had seized the day first. Plugging himself into the intercom, he ran through his preflight checks, firing up the H2S magnetron. Squeezed into the wireless operator’s station, Tolly pushed his helmet earpiece back from his ear to say, “Where were you yesterday? You missed a wonderful dance. You and the skipper find something more interesting to do?”
The creak of his chair beneath him and the rustle of logbooks and sextant as he leaned up to look out of the side of the cockpit and watch Skip come strolling, finally, up to the plane. The man looked good, even in regulation overalls and Mae West life jacket, carrying a packed lunch and his helmet in his hand. Brylcreem slicked back his hair and darkened the blond to a mousy tan, yet all that did was to emphasise the colour of his eyes and the startling, self-satisfied smile.
He walked with a smug gait, a saunter that seemed to have in it some of the hazy, lazy heat of midsummer, transparently well-shagged and happy. Stopping a moment just in front of the wing, he looked up, and the crook of his grin, the touch of fingers to his forehead in a jaunty half salute left Flynn feeling as though the outer layer of his skin had been removed—hot all over and uncomfortably exposed.
“We met some girls.” Flynn gave Tolly his own version of the same satisfied smile and watched the answering leer with relief. “Munitions workers. Very good with their hands, and that’s all I’m saying.”
“Oho.” Tolly clicked shut a switch on the radio and scratched the mix of razor rash and pimples at his throat. He grinned up at the skipper as he made his way past the mid gunner and clambered over the main strut. “Flynn tells me you had your joystick polished last night, Skip. Let’s hear all the gory details.”
The look on Skip’s face! Priceless. He’d almost swallowed his tongue for a second before he added it all together and came back with a laugh and “A gentlemen never tells.”
Skip eased himself into his seat, his back to them and his oxygen mask raised to cover his face. Preflight checks and a clipboard handed back to the erks. Doors sealed and the engine noise building to a deep, rumbling throaty roar. A different kind of excitement gave a matching spinning bellow in Flynn’s belly as he fastened his own straps and felt the gentle roll forward that presaged another long, tense night of tedium punctuated by chances to die.
“All right, lads, enough chitchat. Let’s get down to work, shall we?”
Flynn couldn’t tell any more how long ago it had been. Some period of time longer than a week, shorter than a year. There had been a light from above that he took to be a bogey and then nothing, none of the rolling and diving he expected, no sound of the gunners returning fire. Just light, followed by darkness, and when he woke he thought he must be dead, and in paradise.
Funny to think it now, when he was about to trade fifty years of his life for a chance to go home.
With his free arm, he hugged himself, his leather flying jacket creaking comfortably at the pressure, the sheepskin collar warm against his cheek. The last time that evening, before reporting for duty, he’d worn it as they made love, both of them loving the feel of the leather, the residual thrill of flight and glory, and risk. Even now a faint scent of the skipper hung about the lambswool like a ghost.
Seventy-three years old, and there wouldn’t be any more of that even if he did get home. No more flying, no more fighting the Hun, and perhaps after three tours of ops he’d already done enough, but… Inside him all his buoyant thoughts, the hope that had kept him sane in this malignant world, seemed to draw together, wither into a black lead sphere and roll away.
You always bring me home.
I always will. As long as you give me a heading to steer for.
It was like jumping out of a plane—the long, sick moment before moving a foot, before descent became inevitable—and no one to shove him in the back and make the decision for him. “All right,” he said, screwing his eyes closed, breathing in hard as he tried to fill himself with that ever more elusive smell. “Take it.”
Augh! His eyes snapped open at the squirm about his wrist, the saw-edged slide of something hard and dirty into his flesh, and so he was in time to see her needle-pointed nails lengthen, slick out from her fingertips and drive through his skin, up the veins of his arm, parting the muscle, winding about the bone. Augh! No. No, no no! He screamed, tried to wrench himself away, but it held him fast, the barbed tips of the nails sinking into the joint of his elbow.
Exquisite pain—the kind of pain that shredded reason and left him howling, nothing behind his eyes but the enormity of agony. Then it eased and he found himself human again, collapsed onto his knees, one arm curled about his head, the other still held in that obscene grasp. His breath came in chuffing sobs like the sound of a slowing train, tears on his cheeks that he hadn’t known he was shedding.
The pain shifted, settled into a hot, itchy, infected burn as he watched her swallow his youth as a man might down a yard of ale. Big gulps of it, her form straightening with each swallow, her hair sprouting, her face tightening. She almost filled the dress by the time it stopped, a grandmotherly looking woman in her eighties with the dead black eyes of one of the fae and a smile of delight.
“Sure there’s no more to give there, deary? Twenty more years and you would get my gratitude with it.”
He coughed his way back to stillness, fighting the urge to weep. So he was seventy-three now? Maybe…maybe when he’d got hold of Skip they could think of a way to get it back. His lost fifty years, maybe… Laughter came from the same place as the tears. Maybe he could get a refund when the job was done.
Uncurling the arm that had been clamped for protection around his head, he felt his face carefully, frowning when he couldn’t feel any difference. He took his hand away from his chin and looked at it, puzzled. No. Nothing had changed. Bemused, he stood up—no protest from his knees, no weakness, his sight was as sharp as ever—and reached into one of the pockets of his overalls for his cigarette case.
The same face as ever stared out at him from its milled-steel surface—the face that had earned him his nickname, Flynn, from his resemblance to the actor. Not an extra line on it. And yet there she stood, younger by all the years he had failed to lose. “What? What just happened?”
Her nails were still buried in his arm. “My magic is in the sideways places,” she said, with a motherly smile. “In the shadows of walls and the thresholds of worlds. You could give me fifty more and be unchanged.”
The reprieve hit his system like a double shot of whisky, leaving him feeling giddy, expansive, well disposed to all the world and a little sorry for her, that after all that effort she’d only managed to achieve very old instead of ancient. “In that case,” he said, “why not? It seems I’ve got it to spare.”
There were teeth in her smile now, though they were brown. “Lie with me after and I will give you a dream.”
He laughed. “No, I don’t think I can go that far.” Because even if he hadn’t already been taken, he was not going to forget the nails in a hurry.
Outside the cave he took a deep breath of early-afternoon air, permeated with sunlight. Behind him, the landscape continued to rise in tumbled mounds of grey granite boulders, grown over by gorse and grass. Sheep grazed there and watched him from their slotted eyes with expressions of superiority.
A red-tailed kite swung across the deep blue of the sky, and he felt it watched him too, its head hunkered down between its shoulders.
Had he chosen to turn, he knew he would see the white ribbon of path snaking up into the hills, sun reflected in tinsel glints from the motionless figures of the watchers on every corner. Follow the path for a couple of days and one came to a stone lintel and two massive uprights carved with spirals—the doorway of the palace. Fingering the pouch the hag had given him, rough leather filled with dust, Flynn wondered if he should return there. If he did this in a basin in his own chamber, would Oonagh know? In one of the public fountains, at midday when they were all asleep—would she know?
Yes. Almost certainly, yes.
So he kept his back turned on the highlands and looked down the slope to where gorse gave way to silver birch, all gold-green leaves and white stems and flutter. Beyond that flirty edge of its skirt, the forest deepened, darkened, tangled up. When he was new here, and she still acknowledged his existence, Queen Oonagh had said there were monsters there. He had no doubt that she said nothing more than the literal truth.
But he walked down the slope, through bath-water-warm sunshine, butterflies pirouetting about him. Then under the first cool shadow, and on to the deep cold and quiet that made him think of the sea. It sounded like the sea too, as the wind ssshed amongst the leaves over his head and dappled stars of light danced like the butterflies around him.
Monsters or not, down at the bottom of the slope there should be a stream. Or a puddle, even, in the print of a deer’s hoof or a wolf’s forgotten paw.
The air smelled of moss and wet leaves, the hyacinth and honey scent of bluebells, and just as he thought this, the trees drew apart and he found himself bursting out into a glen carpeted with the flowers. The sun shone bright gold overhead, and the littlebells nodded in a sapphire mist about his knees, and the scent of them was reeling sweet. He thought for a moment that they rang—a dim and tingling sound, brighter than brass, more mellow than silver—and he laughed again. This place, this prison, it had its charms.
“Oh!” On the other side of the clearing something uncurled from the long grass, startled and graceful as a fawn. He registered glittering horns, big dark eyes in a woman’s face, bared breasts, bare everything, svelte and poised, before she clapped her hands to her mouth and he wrenched his gaze away, looked desperately down into the sea of flowers, feeling sick with embarrassment and arousal and shame.
“I beg your pardon, miss. I didn’t realise anyone was here.”
She moved, fluid and swift, with the sound of bells about her, running towards him. “Please.” And she stopped an arm’s length away. He could see bare feet, skin the tawny brown of a lion’s mane, ankles encircled by golden anklets, and the central pendant of a gossamer-gauzy skirt pink as a peach.
Blinking, he fixed his gaze on her face, and his self-conscious monolog was interrupted by the realisation that she’d been crying. Cooled, instantly, Flynn looked around for the threat. “What is it? Are you hurt?”
“No.” The long hands that strayed back to cover her mouth were covered with the spiralling shapes of tattooed flowers, her fingers and her wrists ringed with yet more gold. “Yes.”
Looking up, he realised that her horns were actually a towering headdress. A crown of gold. Leaves and bells hung over her forehead and mingled with her long black hair, chiming as she moved.
“I’m not hurt. I’m kidnapped.”
If he lowered his gaze cautiously past her chin, it was dazzled once more by the link on link of heavy gold collar, spangled with gems that covered her shoulders and her chest right down to the rise of those naked breasts.
“Not robbed, clearly,” he said and was startled to hear himself say it out loud.
“Kidnapped isn’t enough?” She sniffed and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, so that she could glare at him. It didn’t have the force it should have done, coming from those liquid dark eyes, but Flynn stepped farther back nevertheless.
“There are monsters out there,” Queen Oonagh had said, and he believed her because she was one of them. Yet Oonagh looked like a spun-glass angel, her breathtaking beauty concealed beneath swinging cascades of pearl. Oonagh looked like whatever she wanted to look like, but it didn’t take long acquaintance to discover the heart underneath was as soft as diamond.
“This world is like an insane sanatorium,” he said. “How do I know you are what you seem?”
She tilted her head and took a step closer. That was all. But it arrested all his attention—something so perfect about it, the way she raised her foot and set it down again, the angle of her leg, the angle of her neck and the way her arms shifted, just slightly, to balance her, fingers spread like wing feathers. “What do I seem?”
All that jewellery—rings and bracelets and armlets and collar, skirt and anklets and earrings. She was as opulently bejewelled as the elf queen herself and held herself with as much nobility. He thought of the women of Fiji, and it occurred to him that she might, by her own standards, be fully dressed. In which case, all his ostentatious modesty and restraint would be going right over her head. “Like a princess,” he said and would have groaned at the cheesy chat-up line if it had not been nothing less than the truth.
She smiled and made a gesture with her hands that even he could tell represented joy. “Oh, you see clearly! I am Sumala daughter of Chitrasen.”
“How do you do.” Flynn held out a hand instinctively to shake. Equally instinctively, he remembered his first and hardest-won lesson. In the land of Faerie, one should never give one’s real name. “I’m Flynn the Navigator. I was kidnapped too, believe it or not. I’m not a monster in disguise… If you’re wondering.”
“You’re a human.” She laughed, the bells in her hair echoing the sound. “That is demon and god enough in one being. But I am lonely and I would rather spend time with a monster than with no one at all. Can you play music?”
“I can tinkle a little on the ivories.” Since she had neither tried to rip off his head yet, nor—as far as he was aware—ensorcel him for nefarious purposes, Flynn risked a smile. “But as I don’t actually have a piano on me, the question’s a bit moot. In the meantime, I don’t suppose you know where I might find a pool?”
The faintly dreamy hunger of her request for music sharpened into understanding and delight. She stamped her foot and set all her bells pealing. “You have a way of looking out! Perhaps even sending a message? I too have those who would rescue me if they only knew where I was. Come with me.”
Out from the meadow, on the opposite side from which he had entered, a ribbon of trampled grass showed where a path wound farther into the forest. It dipped beneath tangled oak bows, and lobed oak leaves rustled on every side. Silently, through the breathing hiss of the foliage above, autumn leaves drifted down upon them like phoenix feathers, red, gold and umber. Yet the canopy itself never thinned, and all the trees stood arrayed in the shining new green of early summer.
Following Sumala, Flynn wondered again whether he had fallen in with some enchantress, some hag in a maiden’s form. Perhaps even the same hag he had left rejuvenated in the hills, who had changed her appearance and come back to try again for that slap and tickle she’d asked for.
Sumala’s hair rippled like silk down her back, the colour of sleep and the infinite night sky. He began watching her back—the slender shoulders, the flex of her spine, the sway of her round backside under that semi-transparent peach-coloured skirt.
It’s been a couple of weeks, old son. I didn’t think you were the kind of man who’d break your promises. Let alone this soon.
It’s been months, Skipper.
In his head, the memory of his lover raised a sandy eyebrow and looked at him sceptically. He couldn’t even remember if they’d promised to forsake all others along with the vow that You’re mine. You always will be.
Besides, I’m just looking.
She’s too good for you anyway. You’d see that if you looked properly.
Sometimes the voice of the imaginary skipper in his head was eerily nothing at all like his own. He shivered and looked up just in time to catch the inhuman grace of her movement as she leapt up from ground to boulder to bough of a fallen tree trunk as high above as the canopy of a spitfire. And sometimes, he thought ruefully as he tried to scramble up himself, slipping on lichen, his hands greened and his arms reminding him it had also been months since he’d suffered through a regular dose of physical exercise, it knew what it was talking about better than he did.
He slipped down a third time, lost his temper, backed away to a decent distance, then ran and vaulted for the top. A cheek full of splinters later, already raw hands rubbed to bleeding by jagged bark, he scrambled finally onto the faintly curved top of the trunk.
Sumala laughed, her hands—held in front of her mouth—not managing to shield the unrestrained amusement. Her eyes shone with laughter, and the giggles shook the many chains of her necklace and produced a shivering metallic echo. His face heated with humiliation and anger, but as he opened his mouth to tell her not to mock, she sobered and looked him directly in the eye.
A moment passed. Something he couldn’t put a name to happened between them, and then he was shaking his head like a dog which has heaved itself out of a stream, trying to dislodge a persistent feeling of remorse. What had just…? It was as though he had been plunged in water, clean and deep. Or had it been only the innocence in her eyes, the kind of innocence powerful enough to lure and tame the unicorn.
And what on God’s green earth was he thinking about now? He shook himself a second time, profoundly unsettled, unable to say why.
That was a little bizarre, Skip.
The craving for a cigarette swept over him. A cigarette and a warm corner of the hangar where he and Skip could lean together, his lover’s rangy body companionably tucked against his as they talked in low voices, passing the roll-up from hand to hand, each one feeling the other’s lips on the warm paper as he inhaled.
Isn’t it all? Come on, Flynn. Give me some coordinates so I can bring you home while there’s still a home to defend.
A wind blew in the treetops and whiffled through his hair. He turned his face up into it and breathed in and out, a long fortifying sigh. When he opened his eyes again, he found Sumala kneeling very demurely two feet away from him. Between the two of them, a fist-sized hollow in the trunk cradled a tiny pool of rainwater, mirror smooth. Holly leaves trembled and glistened darkly overhead, allowing through only the occasional moving star of bright green light. The surface of the water and the sky were the same.
“May I look with you?” Sumala asked, “My father is powerful. If I can reach him, he may be able to help us both.”
Flynn took the rough leather bag from his breast pocket, eased open the stiff thongs that held it closed. He was just about to hand it over when a thought burst upon him like ack-ack. What if this was Queen Oonagh in disguise? That would explain things all too well—the combination of sex and innocence specially chosen to arouse a man’s protective side and lull him into slavering stupidity at the same time. Wouldn’t that be a cruel trick, to allow him to find a way of making contact, to go through that whole appalling business with the nails, and then to snatch the hope for freedom away at the last moment? Oh yes. That would be a trick worthy of her.
But what if Sumala was telling the truth, and she too was imprisoned here against her will? If this was also her last chance to contact her loved ones, what kind of a cad would he be to say no?
Ah, what the hell? It was like an op, wasn’t it? You didn’t know when you started that you’d be coming back again. No reason not to start. “Here.” He held out the pouch and let her dip her fingers in the top. “You go first.”
As pixie dust, the stuff in the pouch was a disappointment—a fine grey dirt with larger reddish flecks and the occasional brown crackle of a disintegrating leaf. Sumala took a pinch, no more, and cast it on top of the little pool’s mirror surface. “Dust of wisdom, dust of time, show me the nearest kin of mine.”
The patter of dust broke up the pool’s still reflection of the canopy of leaves. Ripples travelled outwards and broke on the rim of the hollow, and then it stilled once more and a light shone up out of it. Leaning forwards, Flynn saw the yellow flames of torches, as if in a mirror, and deeper in he made out the intricately curved and carved throne room of the palace under the hill.
Nacreous walls reflected the light. The throne in the centre of the room was bone coloured, and the queen on it as white and shining as pearl. She’s Oonagh’s…daughter? Mother? Distant cousin? Flynn’s breath of betrayal hissed through his gritted teeth. He snatched back his outstretched hand and covered the open pouch with his other hand.
At the same time, Sumala gave a cry of delight, moving to his side and hugging him. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Karshni! It’s Karshni!” She beamed at him as though she’d found a long-lost treasure, scoffing at his suspicious look.
“No, not her, silly. Concentrate. See who she’s looking at.”
That appeared to be Bram, the Captain of the Guard, an elf with hair the colour of flames and eyes like witchfires.
“That’s no better.”
“No, in his hands. Ssssh.”
In the captain’s golden hands a sphere of light trembled. Within it, the altogether prosaic light of electric bulbs lit up the inside of a pub: dirty blue carpet and scuffed dark-wood bar, a man sitting reading a book amidst the empty plates and crumbs of what looked like enough food for a birthday feast.
“Crikey.” It worked then, this magic. Far away, through two different sets of viewers, as if at the wrong end of a telescope, he could see his own world. “Oh bloody hell.” And he wanted it now. He hadn’t imagined the pain of seeing it again, the curling inwards of a grasping, hungry homesickness like the closing of a bear trap.
“My queen.” Bram’s voice sounded tinny and flat, broadcast by the surface of the water. “I will return and put out both of his eyes, and there the matter is at an end.”
“Don’t be a fool. Look at him, my champion. Look at him more closely.”
The water-bubble world expanded, the film of it scarcely visible now as a second layer of shimmer beneath the surface of the pool. Sumala squeaked again with excited recognition, and Bram gasped at the same time.
“You see it? What a blessed chance, if chance it was. I want him captured and brought here at once.” Oonagh clapped her hands and the world-bubble popped, leaving shards and stars floating icy bright through the twilight of the chamber. “Quickly, now, for the threads are beginning to come together and I feel the picture form beneath my hands.”
“What about the girl?”
“Hm.” Oonagh tied a knot in one of her strings of jewels and unravelled it with a flick of the wrist. “You are right, we cannot let the girl run around free. She is forever to be found in the meadow of Narcissus. Have her brought here. I want her under lock and key.”
Sumala grabbed Flynn’s wrist, tried to haul him to his feet. “Quick! Rise. We must not be found.” She was strong, with a dancer’s long, lean muscles, and he swayed forward under the tugging, his shadow falling over the little puddle. At once it showed him nothing but himself.
The stab of loss made him wince. “Let go! I get my turn to look.”
“She is coming for us!”
“She’s coming for you,” he said, annoyed at her assumption there was an “us”. They’d only just met. He had his own concerns and no sort of responsibility for her. And that little view of home had been so keen a thrill, so heartbreaking. “Besides, the palace is two days’ travel away. We have two days before anyone can get here. Time enough for me to look.”
The dust felt gritty and greasy to his fingertips, as dirty as the hag’s mouldy skirt. He had scattered it before turning his mind to the problem of poetry, so the incantation could have been improved upon, but he’d learned at least to be more specific than Sumala had been about who he wanted to see. “Into this pond I…these ashes flip. Put me in contact with my Skip.”
It almost seemed the same pub. He was looking down on the skipper’s bent head. Out of uniform and dishevelled, he sat with an untouched pint in front of him gazing at a flat silver box, like a cigarette case. Flynn bit his lip, forcing down the overwhelming rush of fondness: those ears, that sandy hair—what had he done to it, he looked like a hedgehog. The nape of his neck, his shoulders, his hands, turning the device around and over. I’d forgotten how he fidgets.
Flynn cleared his throat with a strangled, embarrassing sob. “Skip? Skipper, look up.” He coughed, wiped the heel of his hand over his cheek. “For God’s sake, look up.”
Nothing. Skip’s shoulders rose in an inaudible sigh as he put the box down and turned his attention to a stack of papers.
“He can’t hear you.” Sumala kicked the bark next to Flynn’s knee. “Not across worlds. You’re wasting time.”
“But I can see him. So he could see me if he was looking?” Flynn fished out his cigarettes again, angled the case to catch the moving lights of the forest canopy and reflect them down into the pool. They danced over the table and the papers on it, and over the backs of the skipper’s hands.
Come on, Skip. Look up. Look up, damn it!
And Skip did, his eyes almost green in the smoke and gloom of the dimly lit room. Flynn recoiled, shocked. They’d been the oldest members of the squadron at twenty-two and twenty-three years of age. Grand old men, they’d joked, still with puppy fat padding their cheeks. That was gone now. Skip’s face was the face of a man ten, maybe fifteen years older than Flynn remembered, lean and weathered, a little worse for wear, with the beginnings of crow’s feet around his eyes.
Skip rose from his seat, mouth agape, all shock and confusion like he’d just been punched. It was possible to read his lips, across two universes: “Flynn…? “Flynn, is that you?”
And all the lights went out as something blocked off the sun above him, thrust metal claws through the treetops. Boughs shattered and fell. The down draught of air was like standing beneath a helicopter. Flynn’s ears popped as the wing beat changed and the air streamed upwards past him. Sumala yanked hard on the collar of his jacket, trying to get him to move. Her hair and skirt pulled upwards into that turbulence like flags.
Damning them all, Flynn looked back down for a last glimpse just as she got her foot into the angle of his bent knee, simultaneously levering him up and shoving him in the shoulder, hard. He lurched sideways, and the mossy, slippery bark of the huge trunk slid beneath his legs. He made the mistake of trying to stand and his boots skated on the damp wood as if on ice, pushing out from beneath him. A scrabble and a curse later, punk bark came off in his hands as he grabbed to steady himself, and he fell sideways, outspread like a starfish, straight to the forest floor.
Made up of wood so rotten it was all fibres and air, the ground beneath was soft as a mattress, carpeted with the white stars of wood anemones and the purple heart-shaped flowers of violet. He hit it with the reflexes trained into him while preparing for bailout, rolled, and was on his feet again in seconds.
It was just fast enough to let him know he was too late. Something black and feathered had punctured the canopy of the trees. Beams of bright sunshine swept across the forest floor as rhythmically as a searchlight while the great wings lifted and lowered. The talons of the thing closed about the fallen tree, spanning it easily in their huge grasp. Its eagle-like head bowed down, its mad gold eye taller than Sumala. Its metal-shod beak might have snapped her up whole, but all her concentration was aimed at the elf riding the great beast, wickedly gleaming silver spear levelled at her heart.
Rather than run, Sumala had grasped the spear about the socket and stood straining to hold the head away from her heart. A cold gleam ran along the blade, but Sumala looked more furious than afraid.
“I am a hostage here, not a prisoner. You can ask me to come and I will come, but I won’t be treated like a slave.”
The elf above her, not Bram, but one of the palace guard, slipped the butt end of her spear into a socket on her saddle. She spoke a few quiet words to her mount and smiled very sweetly. The eagle shrugged its powerful wings, and the thrust powered the spear tip forwards until it just touched the central ruby on Sumala’s necklace. She jerked as though electrocuted. Her knees buckled and she slipped off the tree trunk. With a cracking, whooshing blast of air, the eagle pounced and clawed her out of the air as she fell.
Flynn dived for cover, rolling under the spiky curtain of a holly tree’s shade. But the elf knight spared him not a glance, any more than she might have paid attention to the work of the worms in the soil. With four powerful, lung-blasting wing beats, the eagle rose into the sky, Sumala visible only as a glimmer of gold in one curved claw. Sunlight touched the black feathers with glints of blued steel and made its rider shine like silver as she turned in a great sweep and flew off, back towards the palace under the hill.
Flynn unclenched his fist and looked at the pouch still held tight within. Some grains had spilled on his palm and stuck there in the sweat. He brushed them back inside and tied it tight. Now he could look properly. Now he could concentrate on his own rescuer, on finding out what the hell had happened to Skip to make him look like that. Skip had seen him, no doubt about it; he only had to get back in contact and they could plot together a way of getting him home.
She wasn’t his responsibility, after all. They’d barely met. And she’d pulled that thing on him—the thing with the eyes. God knew what she’d already done to him. She could look after herself.
Damn and blast it. He combed the dirt and leaves out of his hair, brushed himself down, and set off on the long walk back to the hill. Because, with all of these things, she was still a friendless girl who needed help and you couldn’t, you just couldn’t, turn your back on such things.
Chris watched Ben Chaudhry brush the crumbs and dust from the Red Lion’s velvet settle. He did it with a neatness and thoroughness that appealed to Chris in these days of general lax standards and mediocrity. The young man seemed self-possessed and calm, reserved, unruffled.
But he’d have to be an unusually thorough idiot to be genuinely undisturbed by a brush with the Good People, so Chris gathered that what he was watching was an admirable performance of putting on a brave face.
That faltered a little as Ben slid in behind the artfully aged dark wooden table, placed his bag between his feet and lowered his head into his hands.
“Here. Get this down you.” Chris slid a pint of Dutch courage towards him, put down his own beer and the couple of packets of peanuts he had tucked into his pocket, and looked about for a seat.
“What am I going to do?”
Dragging over a plush-topped stool, Chris sat and concentrated on cutting open the foil packet of nuts with his penknife while he wondered what to reply. A familiar ache groaned in Chris’s belly like the twinge of an old war wound. Yes, exactly like that. He thought of saying, Panic. Abandon all hope that your life will ever be your own again.
Chris poured himself a handful of peanuts and chewed on them in an attempt to disguise the long, pessimistic pause. Ben had eyes like mirrors of obsidian, and Chris knew just from glancing up that he wasn’t fooling the boy one bit.
But not every case is the worst case. Let’s rule out the easy answers first.
“Here’s what I think has happened,” he said. “You’ve built your new extension out into a Faerie Rade. That’s…” …a path between worlds. The only way they have of travelling from one dimension to the next, from one reality to another. No, best not to go into his multiple-universe theory at this point.
“That’s a traditional processional route. Very important to them. A path they’ve been using for untold thousands of years. You’ve planted a pile of bricks in the middle of it and painted it magnolia—”
Chris looked up, met a bland look. With that lack of expression, the boy could have been a statue, or a still from one of those Bollywood films—the young hero, the questing prince. And that was not an appropriate thought to entertain about a client.
“I’m quite happy to say I don’t know the difference. But, if you can tear your sensibilities from interior decorating for a moment, I have a sledgehammer in the van. The plan is to get some protection, go back, knock down the corner of the extension so as to free up the rade, leave them some bowls of milk and honey by way of apology, and Bob’s your uncle.”
Ben’s blank expression became blanker for a moment, like a man trying not to show he’s just bitten into a lemon, and Chris kicked himself internally yet again. Ben seemed to bring out his worst side—a side he wasn’t too happy to discover he had. It was despicable of him to needle this young man who’d come to him for help, and who probably got this sort of thing on such a regular basis for being gay and Indian (and how did that work, anyway? Were they more accepting or less?) that he’d learned to shut it all off behind that frozen face.
Ben looked away, surveying the cheerful room, the mahogany bar that propped up a dozen tourists. The blackboard on the wall said Welcome in big blue letters. Outside the door, under the blossoming hanging baskets, families with children were eating ice creams. Chris could tell when Ben set it behind him, moved on, by a tiny lessening of tension and a sigh.
“I can’t afford to have my life disrupted like this. The bank’s been extremely understanding, but I’ve already had so much sick leave, I feel like the world’s worst employee. And I have a business plan, an investment plan, a mortgage on fixed terms for five years. Things I have to do to keep on track for my retirement…”
Chris snorted. A tidy mind to go with the tidy habits, and the assumption they all seemed to make these days—that they would live to grow old. Chris himself hadn’t been able to believe that one since he was a child. “How old are you? Twenty-five? And you’re worried about your retirement fund?”
Chris leaned forward, both his hands on the table and all his weight on them, just as Ben cursed beneath his breath, shook his head and tried to stand. Between them, the table lurched. The beer glasses plummeted towards the floor. Chris’s glass hit, bounced off the carpet, spraying beer over his ankles. He caught Ben’s glass mid-fall, placed it back on the table with a strange feeling of satisfaction. He’d deserved that, no doubt about it.
Leaning down, he poured a small stream of brown liquid from the cuffs of his trousers, pleased as he might have been if he’d got fresh with a girl and she’d thrown her drink in his face. Not that that was ever likely to happen. But if it had, it would show character, and he liked character.
No! The tendency of his thoughts distressed him. He stamped them down hurriedly. “Mr. Chaudhry, you’re a man who needs to be in control of things, I can see that. But the fact is you’re not in control of this. Complaining about it does as much good as complaining about being on a crashing train. We must appease them now, or you stand to lose a great deal more than a mortgage. Maybe your life. Maybe something worse.”
“You’re trying to frighten me.”
“Damn right I am. Scared is the correct response to these things. If you’re not scared, you’re not thinking straight.”
“And you’d know all about straight,” Ben snapped. Standing, he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, cheekbones like razors and his mouth like a blade. Spirit was one thing, but Chris recognised that he’d pushed too far—that his charge was about to go AWOL. Now all he could do was apologise or hand things over to someone else. Someone who wouldn’t jam his boot in his mouth every time he spoke.
Or she, as the case might be. He fished out the mobile phone Stan had made him carry and looked at it in suspicion. Sleek, silver and thin as an After Eight mint, it looked more like something dreamed up for Buck Rodgers on Saturn than a decent appliance to him, but at least Stan had fixed it so that he only had to hit two of the tiny buttons to get through to Grace.
“Hullo?” There seemed a note of strain in her voice, but he could hear a baby caterwauling near her, so that explained that.
“Hello, Grace? It’s Chris. Can you get over to the Red Lion ASAP? I’ve got a lad here who needs protection, and if I’m not much mistaken, he’s about to run out on me. Could be a matter of life or death.”
Ben paused behind the table, allowed his bag to touch the tabletop, taken aback.
Grace’s sigh was all but drowned out by the crying. A racket of metal sounded like a saucepan falling on a tiled floor. “Chris Gatrell, have you been insulting your clients again?”
Did he always do this? Surely not. He’d thought it had been particularly acute with Ben because the young man was so calm and poised and perfect he made Chris feel inadequate. Besides, he didn’t think that Grace was getting the point. “No,” he said. “No, I’ve been perfectly polite. So we can expect you in…?”
He looked at his watch—ten to twelve—just as a muffled clunk and the sound of Grace shouting something indistinct to an onlooker on her end of the line segued into her saying, “I can’t come at all, Chris.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know what else to do; he couldn’t let Ben leave and walk outside where they could do whatever it was they intended to do to him. He reached out and took hold of the straps of Ben’s bag, the one that, he knew, contained Ben’s phone and laptop and electronic personal-organiser-come-nanny. He didn’t think Ben was narked enough to walk away from several thousand pounds worth of stuff, not when he got over his annoyance and remembered for himself what could be waiting out there.
Sure enough, Ben glared at him, then picked up the empty beer glasses and headed over to the bar to refill them, and Chris lowered himself to pleading. “I really need you to give this young man the full works as regards protection, Grace. There are some powerful entities showing an interest in him. And he’s… Well, I admit we haven’t exactly hit it off.”
“I can’t. I’m all the way down in Devon at my sister’s baby’s christening. I told you this on Monday, Chris. I won’t be back until the weekend. You’ll have to deal with it until then. You don’t have to be offensive. You can be nice if you try. Why not try it?”
“I…” …don’t even know I’m doing it until too late. No, that was too much to admit, even to the padre. And beside the point too. “I can’t leave him alone until he has some defences. And I can’t expect him to kip down with me or one of the other team members until the weekend.”
As he swivelled slightly in his chair to keep an eye on Ben, the barmaid pinched her lip between her teeth and said, in a whisper that carried as well as a shout, “You know the wing commander well?” Very up to the minute in 70s retro-chic, her blouse rioted with big pink and orange roses. But her hair was a snake’s nest of white dreadlocks, and he could have put his index finger through the holes in her ears, stretched as they were over flesh tunnels of amethyst.
“I only met him this morning.” Fortunately Ben did not look over his shoulder and catch Chris eavesdropping. “He seems…interesting.”
Chris eased forward on his seat so he could hear the conversation better. That was one thing wartime intelligence did you—gave you an appreciation of hearing the other side talk when they thought you weren’t listening.
Grace made a tutting noise through the gap in her teeth. “You could ask Phyllis to put him up for a couple of days. She—”
“I wouldn’t dream of asking a respectable woman to take in a young man she doesn’t know. Besides which, the client won’t take it. I’m telling you he’s this close to walking off.”
Over at the bar, the barmaid laughed and shot him a small, pitying glance. He dropped his gaze to the phone before she caught him staring, looked up again to hear her tell Ben, “Oh aye, he is that. Can’t be blamed of course, but…”
“I don’t like to carry tales, but he was medically discharged from the RAF, in the nineties. Grounds of insanity. He has a little group of UFO watchers who meet up in here once a month. Potty, of course, but they’re a harmless bunch. We watch out for him, poor man, but we don’t encourage the customers to take too much notice of his stories. All right, sir? I thought I’d better warn you.”
Chris quickly moved his seat closer to the table and turned his back on the bar with a feeling of vindication. “And the barmaid’s just told him we’re all lunatics. When’s the soonest you can get back?”
He could almost hear her shaking her head, a Doppler effect at the other end of the phone. She breathed in hard, let it out soft. “I can’t miss the christening or the party after. But I’ll get the last train up and I’ll be at your door first thing in the morning. Will that do?”
“You’ll get your reward in heaven, Padre.”
She laughed. “You know I was thinking of a box of chocolates as a down payment.”
“You’ll get that too.”
“So easily bought.” She snorted and rang off as Ben returned.
“So that’s it.” Ben swept the empty peanut packet off the table, dried off the surface with a bar towel, scrubbing at a spot of gravy that had congealed in the corner. He took the detritus to the bar, came back and grabbed his bag. He looked hopeful, rejuvenated, full of new zest. “You’re mad. So am I, of course. Barking mad. I saw something that wasn’t there, and I phoned the local loonies and got you. I imagine you really are trying to help and thank you for that, but I think I’ll just go home and phone my therapist.”
A rambler, coming out of the toilets behind their table swung his backpack in a great arc to try to get it back on his shoulders. The side of it collided with Chris, knocking him backwards for a moment. Ben took the chance to draw his own bag out from under Chris’s hands and make a break for the door.
Chris scrambled to his feet, pushed the hiker aside and launched himself after.
The door stood open, framing a rectangle of blazing gold, green and silver as the summer sunshine outside made the grassy peaks and grey stones of Bakewell glisten. Lazy blurs of engines and colour idled by as cars drifted slowly through the tourist throng.
“Ben, don’t!” Chris caught him by the arm as he was about to step from the doorway into the light, hauled him physically back into the snug of the pub. They were evenly matched—Ben perhaps had the advantage of youth, but Chris was the one trained to apply leverage in unarmed combat. He tightened his grip, settled his weight and stopped Ben in his tracks. Ben cursed and pulled at his arm, trying to break the grip just as the barmaid got between Chris and the door.
“Shame on you, sir! And when I was just telling this gentleman…”
She had stones in her ears—stones with holes in the centre of them. He looked through them automatically and saw them. He saw them, for the first time since the fireball, the crash. For the first time since that insane time he’d tried so hard to forget, he saw them. They were still there. They were everywhere!
Chris’s grip slackened. A wave of cold pressure and fire swept over him beneath the skin. He could feel his lips and his fingers go cold and white, his mouth dry, his eyes bulge. Ben pulled his arm away, rubbing it, but his flight had stopped. He looked in Chris’s face as if he could see what Chris was seeing from the reflection in his eyes. His mask of confidence flickered for a second, and there was terror under it.
That glimpse of someone else’s need snapped Chris out of his own panic. He lunged forward, grabbed Ben by the shoulders and turned him to face the door. “Look. Look!”
“I don’t want to.” Ben shook his head frantically. “I don’t…I don’t want to see. I don’t want it to be real.”
Chris would have said the same thing, if he could. His heart went out to the boy. But there was no time for all of that. “Don’t be a coward, Mr. Chaudhry,” he said. “Look.”
Ben’s shoulders stiffened under his touch. He pried his eyelids open, winched his head up and confronted the open door. Nothing for a moment, only a street and a grey terrace of shops and houses on the other side of the road, and Chris had time to entertain a terror that they’d gone into hiding, they’d shown themselves to deliberately make him look more of a madman than he already did—and that they would now hide, and Ben would see nothing after all.
But the flint dressing of the walls shouldn’t move like that, surely? Shouldn’t spin and drift like particles in Brownian motion? “Is it really doing that?” Ben whispered, leaning back now against Chris’s hands as if he needed them to hold him up. “Is it swirling, or am I just going to faint?”
“I see it too.”
The rest of the world stood still as always. Only the nodules of flint in the walls of Barclay’s bank across the road stretched themselves, unfurled into ugly little hunched creatures with long fingers, opened whiteless eyes, blue as sapphires, and looked straight at Ben.
“Ah!” Ben yelped, staggering back out of the sunlight of the door into the dim, stale smoke and spilled-beer refuge of the pub. Chris caught him and steadied him, and eased him down onto a seat in the centre of a circle of disapproving gazes.
The barmaid gave a sniff and tossed her wormlike hair just as Chris knotted his fingers together to still their trembling. “How about a cup of coffee, love?”
She glared at him and looked down with something like betrayal at Ben. “You might have told me you were another one o’them. At this rate we might as well call ourselves the Space Invader’s Arms.” But she disappeared for a moment and the slosh of a percolator later returned with a cup of coffee and an individually wrapped packet of burnt caramel biscuits.
One coffee. Chris watched Ben sip it, hands cradling the bowl of the cup, hunched over it as if for warmth, and he wished he’d had the presence of mind to ask for one for himself. Or whisky. Whisky would be good.
Ha. Well, he could worry about his own reaction later. He couldn’t afford to lose it while he was still in the pilot’s seat of this conversation. He grabbed a chair, sat down next to Ben and waited for Ben to recover. It wasn’t until Ben reached out and stilled his hand by force that he realised he’d been repeatedly brushing ash off his knees—ash from the burning cockpit. Imaginary ash. He’d been covered in it, black and greasy with the burning fat of the flight engineer who’d gone up like a candle when the first incendiary struck.
When he looked down now, Ben’s long, slim hand curled reassuringly over his own. The nap of his trousers changed colour depending on which way it was stroked, and his repeated brushing had left it in stripes of green like a well-mowed lawn. The fruit machine twittered to itself in the corner. Sunlight lay on the floor like a solid block of heat. And over in the games room, the jukebox clattered as it flicked through its library of CDs.
“I saw you see them,” Ben said at last, raising his head with an expression that pleaded for reassurance.
In response, Chris pulled himself as tightly together as he could manage and smiled. “She has no idea I use her ears for surveillance devices. Stone with a hole in it, you see. Very useful. Normally I can’t see the buggers at all. I’m not sighted like you are.”
“It’s hard to believe, in here. Even now…” Ben pushed at a cigarette burn in the blue-and-pink-floral carpet with his toe. “It’s all too normal. I saw them. I know you saw them, but I can’t… I still can’t bring myself to finally accept it.”
“That’s partly my fault.” Chris reached out and touched him lightly on the arm. The pressed and laundered linen suit looked so clean it would repel even imaginary ash. “She’s right, the barmaid. Normally we work out of the church hall, but once a month we’re double-booked with the ladies’ flower club, so we meet here instead. ‘We’ being Matlock Paranormal.
“I brought you here because this is a safe place. Grace, that’s our priest, she did the full blessing, protection, whatnot. They can’t get in here. It’s…” Chris smiled, as reassuringly as he could. The expression Ben gave him in return—hesitant, brave, ever so slightly warm—tugged something inside him, maybe groin, maybe higher. Hoping it didn’t show, he retreated swiftly into business. “It’s a fortress of the mundane. Has the disadvantage of making you complaisant, mind you. Makes it all that much harder to believe. We haven’t worked out a get-around for that one yet. Have to rely on your mental toughness, Mr. Chaudhry.”
“Speaking of which.” Ben got up, took his coffee cup back to the bar and returned to the blue settle. Sliding into the corner, against the wall, he put the table between himself and the world. “Are you insane?”
Chris shrugged. It was a complicated question and rather, he thought, beside the point. When faced with paranormal threat, what’s better—the sane man who doesn’t believe you or the madman who can help? “Are you?”
“I see fairies. Yes, I probably am. But that wasn’t the question.”
Sighing, Chris returned to his seat. Perhaps intrusive personal questions did come with the job. Perhaps Grace was right, and he should roll back the defences a little in the name of establishing some kind of trust.
“Well then. I was a pilot. Stationed at Downham Market.” The fen country. The endless skies had seemed bright to him, the flatness of the land bracing, masculine—a landscape with nothing to hide, everything on it visible for miles and miles. Afterwards it gave him the creeps, being so exposed, and he’d retreated up here, to the hills, where there were more chances to hide.
“Did regular night flights over Germany. Fourth of August we pick up an unidentified bogey. Turns out to be a classic UFO.” Light on his face. Light in the corner of his eye…
Chris gathered himself. Decided to make this fast and short. He’d open up about something else, if necessary. This—this wasn’t fit to be touched.
“They shot me down. Us down. They shot us down. Seven of us in the plane. I was the only one who got out alive.”
“God! I’m sorry!”
“No…” Chris gulped a mouthful of beer, and another, feeling his dried throat moisten, washing away the taste of roast pork. Wiping his condensation-wet hands over his face, he tried to wash that clean too, scrub away the thick coat of ash. “No, it’s fine. I woke up in hospital some time later. My memories of what had happened in the intervening period, well, they made no sense—typical abductee stuff, except with elves.”
He was able to smile now, albeit bitterly. “‘Shot down by UFO’ didn’t go down well with the higher-ups, but…well, there was some stuff they couldn’t ignore. All very awkward and embarrassing. The upshot of it was they gave me a pension but officially discharged me as insane. So here I am, trying to protect the world from things I can’t even see, with a curate, a geek and a twitcher on staff. Could use a man with the Sight, if you ever fancied leaving the day job.”
Ben pulled his suit jacket close about him, sinking his chin into the collar like a tortoise retreating into its shell. He had not let go of Chris’s wrist, and the touch felt heavier than it should, as though the fingers were made of warm gold. Chris believed he should pull away but made no move to do so.
The waitress passed, carrying bowls of ice cream with chocolate sauce and fan wafers, a wash of vanilla scent fell cool over the table.
“I feel…cheated,” Ben said quietly, still hiding his face as if the confession embarrassed him, as if he offered a vulnerability in fair exchange, having seen too much of Chris’s pain. “I’m a proper Indian seer, but even the spirits I see are British. My parents would be proud. It seems I’ve completely naturalised.”
And wasn’t that a minefield? Chris hauled in his scattered wits, tried to recompose himself enough to pick his way gently through. Trouble was, he didn’t do subtle, didn’t fully understand what was “PC” and what wasn’t, couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t open his mouth and put his foot in it. Mate, I appreciate you opening the subject up. Trusting me. I’m not sure I’m worthy of it.
In the end he chickened out and just shrugged. “Stands to reason you’d see British fae in Britain. They’re a conservative lot. Fight over their territories like nests of ants and don’t mingle. Grace tells me the Sidhe in her own part of the world are different again. And the same—treacherous little bastards. Just like people all over are different and the same. And speaking of Grace, we have a problem there.”
Ben gave a huff of amusement through his nose. Cynical amusement, perhaps, as if to say, I see what you did there, shutting the conversation down before it could start. But he yielded to the turn and said, “What about Grace?”
Over in the snooker room, someone put Paul Oakenfold’s “Southern Sun” on the jukebox and turned it up loud. The stuffy summer room filled up with drowsy music, like the whining of insect wings.
Chris drew an arrow in the nap of his trousers, smoothed it out again, looking down. It seemed there were no safer waters in this relationship—he merely floundered from one tricky subject to another. “I’m afraid you won’t like this.”
“I haven’t liked anything you’ve said so far. Why break the habit now?”
That was better than a vulnerability Chris didn’t know how to deal with. He beamed as normal service was resumed, and Ben caught the smile and echoed it.
“It so happens that Grace is in Devon today, all dressed up in her Sunday best for a christening. She finds herself disinclined to skip the reception and rush back in the middle of the night, when as she so truly observes ‘I can deal with it my bloody self.’”
“So you expect me to sit here all day long and wait? What exactly can they do to me if I choose to go out and face them? Will they rip me limb from limb? Eat my brains?”
“The question is more, ‘What can’t they do to you?’ And my answer to that is ‘I don’t know. Do you really want to find out?’ There are limits to their power—they don’t come up well against the church, for example. But on their own territory they are unstoppable, coldly intelligent and devastatingly cruel. Whatever they did, it wouldn’t be quick or clean. You don’t want to test them, Ben. I mean it.”
He stopped himself. Browbeating the man was not going to help. Ben too was clever, subtle. He knew himself that he couldn’t go up against these things alone—or he wouldn’t have called for help. He was just pushing, testing, finding out what he could trust and what would crumble under him.
“I’m afraid this does indeed mean that you’re stuck here for the evening. And when they throw us out at last orders, you’ll have to spend the night at my house.”
“Your house?” Ben pressed his fingers to his eyes. His voice fuzzied at the edges with cynicism and weariness. “Not the church?”
“I don’t have the key to the church.”
“Why does this suddenly sound like a bad chat-up line?”
It sounded like that to Chris too, and he knew it wasn’t. He refused to let his mind go there. Or, at least, to let it go any further than it had already drifted.
“I’m flattered to know you’re thinking of me that way, Ben.” He gave the sentence the most dismissive turn he could manage, thumbed open his phone. “I’ll get the others to come over, you can pick which one of us you want to kip down with. Sound fair enough? If you really don’t trust us, draft in a friend to come with you, guard your virtue.”
Ben’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed a retort. It must have tasted bitter, if the hardness of his mouth was any indication. “I don’t need a chaperone, Mr. Gatrell. Your attitude is quite off-putting enough. I just…”
He fell silent and Chris answered for him. “You’ve just had your life turned upside down, and you’re looking for a good excuse why it isn’t as bad as all that.”
The understanding startled a small smile out of the young man. It was like the touching of a match to the wick of a candle; it lit up everything about him, made Chris want to draw close and warm himself at the glow. “Can’t say I asked to be involved in all this either. But what was it that film said about not choosing the time we live in, but having to do the best we can with what we’re given?”
Probably a good idea to leave now, before he wrecked the fragile moment of peace. Or, worse, gave Ben cause to suspect that if he baited his requests with that smile, Chris would be hard-pressed not to give him anything at all that he asked for.
Pulling a pebble with a water-bored hole in the centre of it from his pocket, Chris opened the door, checked the street outside. “At any rate, you should stay here today. Let me take a recce to the library, get you some books. Grace’ll be back tomorrow morning, then we can get you sorted out and independent again. In the meantime, next time you’re tempted to run your internal conspiracy loop, try remembering that you phoned me.”