A Midsummer Night’s Dreamboat

DREAMBOAT

or

The Poem of the Physicist

 

As I stood upon the land

So the sea destroyed the shore

The glittering huntsman’s armour sank beneath a sea of clouds, which broke in grey and white upon the city roofs.

Perhaps starting that poem was my response to the charge in the air – my equivalent of a gazelle becoming skittish on the darkening Serengeti before the rains come – but Newton and the curse of the particle physicist prevailed. Analysing the spectacle unfolding beyond my window – beyond my transient powers of imagination, it seemed – rather than surrendering to it, I saw Orion morph from a constellation to a misaligned pattern of burning gases beyond which lay an infinity of, well, infinity.

How I bored myself sometimes. Small wonder my empty bed was a void as vast and cold as space. I sighed, turning in my discontented loneliness.

 

I believed sleep, like imagination, would be beyond me on that night. While hot lovers doubtless pressed their lustful claims, I lay there, slave to the rhythm of the sea, yet not part of the tide of humankind.

Instead, waves of drowsiness came, and I nodded off.

****

I’m sitting on the floor of an empty hall, my back against a wall. At the far end, a door opens onto another room, full of people chattering; to my left spirals a black iron staircase; a fire-escape. I’m holding a manila folder, bent open. It’s a script, but I’m struggling to absorb the words.

The murmur of excited conversation reaches me, occasional peals of girlish laughter, the clink of cup on saucer. We’re taking a tea break – whoever we are. Now I sense, rather than hear, the swish of a skirt, as a pair of slim legs makes its way gracefully…towards me!  – unless she’s heading for the fire escape.

She sits on the iron steps. I feign insouciance, my usual defence mechanism, and glance up, intending to give an enigmatic smile. Suddenly, there’s silence, underlined by the wind that, somewhere in the building, whistles through creaking timbers.

Inexplicably, I know that her face will never again change a life like it has just changed mine.

It’s not her features, startling though they are; green, iridescent eyes, strong nose, quirky smile, framed by shoulder length blonde hair. There’s simply no justice in that description because, as always with love at first sight, it’s the indefinable; the molecules and chemical emissions; the valency. Sometimes there’s no escaping the science, even when you push it to one side and forget to breathe; no avoiding the two choices; either we will be together forever, or death will part us – I guess that’s three choices, if you allow each of us a death, rather than some bizarre suicide pact, which is another option I suppose, so technically that’s four choices…

Am I babbling this nonsense out loud? It would be proof, if needed, of why my bed remains empty, but such is the impact she’s made on me, anything’s possible. My jaw drops open and refuses to close. Has rigor mortis already set in? I try to focus.

She’s speaking: “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Struggling with your lines?”

Her smile!

And then I have it, for the first time ever; the killer line. Absolutely the thing I want to say and the right circumstances. Which is precisely when her face starts to lose definition. I panic, trying to tune her in again. I’m losing her. The signal’s going haywire. Traitorous REM sleep ruins everything. My eyes open and I close them again, diving back towards sleep to try to save her as she slips overboard and sinks, sinks. I know I’ve lost her already, but I bury my face under the blanket in the desperate hope that oblivion will come.

But she’s gone.

****

And in the wind an autumn slipped forever from my grasp, elusive as a leaf I may not catch except to crush.

I’d never known such desolation and wanted to stay buried beneath those blankets. Bereft, bereaved, this emptiness surpassed any torture my lonely bed or a stormy night had conjured before. Would I ever sleep again, knowing Fate could even rob me of my dreams?

 

That leaf has fallen, gone to feed the soil of yet another spring, while flowers on my hearth grow white with time.

That shocking image – of beauty too faded to die – helped me focus.

The brain processes just the tiniest part of the data it absorbs. Someone once said: the only reason we don’t have beautiful dreams is because no-one has ever taught us how. I ached for her. Was she still in my head? The chance she might be gave me strength through the daylight hours. The day itself? – I can’t remember. It was wasted on me and I regret that, somewhere in the world, someone will have died, who could have used it better.

 

The setting sun had burned the western world and left the charring embers of a night. But were the clouds, which rolled in black above, a hint of midnight rain, or smoke from wars of worlds awakening beneath my feet?

I had failed to share the paradox that was my life; the most precious thing I had to give, which I loved and loathed in equal measures. For forty years I had struggled with my lines, perhaps because I hadn’t written them myself. For too long, years and spiders had spun their nightly gauze upon the final pattern of my room.  It had to change. I would conjure her again.

I sat on my lamp-lit bed, fixating on the faded memory of her face, somehow finding most of the pieces; the puzzle, at last, incomplete, but recognisable.

Minutes later, I nodded awake. Was this calm night the wrong setting? Maybe the static of a storm was an essential ingredient for this act of creation. Rather than this placid candle-flame, perhaps I needed a fire-moon dancing beyond billowing curtains of wind-whipped clouds and bending trees. Was that the suppressed desire of every mad scientist since Dr Frankenstein?

It wasn’t going to happen then; which makes my dream stranger still.

****

The torrent swirls around me in thick, silt-laden ropes. I’m alone, in a kayak or canoe. Since I cannot swim, it’s strange I’m not afraid – seems I can always swim in dreams. Somehow I’m moving against the current with a God-given dexterity from another life; not paddling, but guiding the boat, at one with the flood, reading it, using the paddle as a rudder and yet moving upstream. I pass through a sandstone canyon. Back in the world beyond dreams I would be terrified; a fatuous reflection, but empowering nonetheless. Here the pattern of my life is more than the black veins of shadow on the lawn that signal another moon; another dying day.

High above me is a distinctive, abstract rock formation.  Suddenly I’m no longer in the boat, but climbing, bounding over rocks, defying vertigo and gravity, leaping from boulder to boulder, crag to crag, till I stop, unable to go further because I’m standing on top of one of the pillars of rock. The enormity of the canyon spreads out before me. Even in my dream, I laugh at the crude, almost clumsy symbolism of it all.

****

I woke, exhilarated for brief moments before I noticed the night was just five minutes older, while I lay curled on top of the bed, cold. Curled and cold.

Beyond the window, the world was silhouetted against a still-darkening sky.

 

An old tree watched the passing of the day; it’s limbs as barren as a battlefield. That silent guardian shadow spoke to me of Armageddon and antiquity.

And so I slept.

 

The next day I couldn’t shake loose the image of that tree. A blaring horn warned me that my distracted driving had wandered over the white lines and I swerved, fighting for control of the car.

Like a lost and treasured possession, which had once disappeared, out of sight and mind, in that unreachable space beneath a car seat, an idea shot forward as I braked.

 

And I had seen that tree upon the seas; a ship’s mast hurled from wave to furious wave.

I slapped my head in frustration, harder than intended, but not with the same impact as I might have seconds before on the windscreen. I pulled over to gather my thoughts.

I’d been a fool. Dreams were simply signals from another world, not doorways into it. The alternative realities existed here and now, surrounding us always, but mostly we turned our backs to them, conditioned to respond a certain way. Hearing a dog barking, I turn to find a single dog. Perhaps it could be two dogs barking in unison, if I allowed it to be. The familiar objects in our lives were made from a whole lot of nothing, when you considered the empty space in an atom. Dreams were images captured unwittingly in the background of a photograph as we focussed on what we were led to believe was important and substantive. My alternative reality, the one my dream girl inhabited, was here for me. I just needed to make it happen.

I remembered something, turned the car and sped home.

 

Having alerted the university to my influenza and cancelled my lectures, I grabbed the basket containing post I intended to re-read, or recycle. Animal charities, children’s charities, third world charities, loans – I would need the latter just to cope with the charities – impatiently I pushed  leaflets and envelopes to one side as if macheteing my way through the jungle from which all that paper came. I was almost sure, but perhaps I’d been imagining it…no, ‘imagining’ was a banned word from now on, to be put out for collection with the next recycling bag.

Success!

‘Stage Right’. A flyer from a local drama school inviting the reader to attend a six-week ‘Introduction to Acting’ course. My eyes scrabbled down the slope for the date: starting September 15th; tomorrow. I’d been considering it, so was this another background image developing in the dark room? I looked at the details; Grove Hall, Henley. I’d attended a symposium there on Quantum Biomechanics years before. It was typical of many properties owned by local gentry who’d fallen on hard times and sold out to the country club or management training conglomerates; magnificent parlours and ballrooms divided into utilitarian cubicles, where would-be power executives brainstormed and role-played their way to marketing nirvana in overheated, theme-named seminar rooms.

I picked up the phone.

 

As I walked through the grounds of Grove Hall that defining September evening, the air smelt damp. The recent storms had fallen on arid, dying vegetation from an unusually dry spell. I didn’t find it unpleasant, as I had never been one for summer’s heat, finding the pregnant mutability of spring and heavy melancholy autumns more to my liking. This smell was redolent of the garden of my youth. Sometimes I wished my life could always be September, when the embers of a dying season wisp and glow.

What I’d overlooked, until I froze in the main entrance – something quite inexplicably driven from my mind by desperation – was my aversion to rooms full of well-heeled, particularly high-heeled, strangers; gatherings that might have a propensity towards the coterie. “So, great idea to join a drama group in Henley, that epitome of chic and clique,” I said out loud.

I closed my eyes. Her image had already faded; just a ghost now; a wisp of steam escaping through the cracks in ancient window-frames on a bitter, frosty night.

I swallowed hard and entered.

Fifty budding thespians had gathered that evening. As we sat in a large circle, the Goodwives of Henley who ran the group addressed us, outlining the course in their peculiarly atonal Thames Valley voices. I noticed, with a combustible mixture of relief and dismay that ‘she’ wasn’t there. Only the unexpected sociability of my fellow hams stopped me from leaving immediately; that, and the sudden discovery of a mystic portal, or ‘door standing slightly ajar at the end of the room’, as others might have seen it. If nothing else, I had to check that out before I left.

Our first exercise was all about hiding on stage in plain sight – we were the Chorus in TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. I tried my best to project a deep, resonant voice – there were mostly women present after all, even if she wasn’t one of them – but succeeded only in sounding bronchial. The subject-matter did little to lighten my spirits, feeding, rather, my unease. Like the Chorus, I still feared ‘disturbance of the quiet seasons’ and believed profoundly that ‘destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen’. I saw the pattern of my life when we declared that:

‘We have gone on living,

Living and partly living’

In the break, while others headed for the coffee machine, I grabbed a bottle of water and made my way to the door, which had intrigued me earlier. It was hardly the cave of an enchantress, but there was no denying the potent spell drawing me in.

Beyond lay another large room, much like the main hall, with wooden floors and a stucco ceiling. But at the far end – Jacob’s Ladder! The stairway to heaven, in the shape of a black, cast-iron fire escape. My heart pounded as if I had already climbed all the way to the clouds. I swigged some water to combat the sudden dryness in my mouth.

I seemed to walk through a tunnel till I stood at the base of the steps, looking upwards. I might have been Hiram Bingham, standing before Machu Picchu, not some sad, middle-aged particle physicist at a local am-dram meeting. If the Goodwives had asked me at that moment to emote – “John darling, give me fear and wonderment” – I’d have delivered.

Surely, whatever circumstances elicit such a response, isn’t that the very definition of magic? When we enter a cathedral, what overwhelms us? Not the gold, but the grandeur of the vision; the humble carved mark of the mason whose rough hands built it; the sawn-off piece of wooden scaffolding up in the tower, which tells us this divine place was once a secular work-in-progress in which everyone believed; the vaulted roof that draws us to heaven even as it mires us in our insignificance.

Gripping the rail of the steps for support, I sat with a thud against the wall, a light sweat on my forehead and rushing in my ears.

Which was probably why I perceived, rather than heard the footsteps that entered from the main hall, walking towards me through the melange of sounds that is the lot of the outsider – clinking cups on saucers, the tinkling of a woman’s laugh, the tidal ebb and flow from a sea of conversation, which the lone traveller hears emanating from behind lit windows and longs, but fears, to join. All the while she advanced, before stopping and taking a seat on the steps. She was saying something. “You seem hard at work, sitting back here on your own. Struggling with your lines?”

It was like a voice crying for help from an island in the middle of a waterfall, so thunderous was the rushing in my ears. Perhaps it was me screaming. I realised I was still holding my script and, bent over it as I was, I must have seemed intent. When I looked up at her, I was caught not only in the eye of the storm, so calm and inevitable did it all feel, but also in the storm of her eyes. Yes, love makes a reality of even the most excruciating wordplay.

But she was waiting for a reply. A reply, you idiot! Your line; say your line.

It came to me – unfortunately, because this was not a dream.

“Yes, I’m looking for the part where we kiss.”

With that her face changed.

****

My galleon world had long since lost its sail of leaves and birds, tempestuously shred upon the storm I hoped would bring us home.

“I didn’t mean to kill her.”

“Explain.”

“You’re the psychiatrist – you explain.”

He raised a hand, palm outwards in a conciliatory gesture. “What did you mean to do?”

“Well,” I hesitated, shrugging my shoulders, “obviously I meant to…kill her.” I sounded so indifferent. “After all, it was strangulation. There’s still time during the struggle to…” – I faltered – “…contemplate…reconsider what you’re doing?”

I was tired now; so tired.

“So why do you think you didn’t ‘reconsider?’” He wasn’t trying to antagonise me, just emphasising my apparent remoteness. “You’re a man with no history of violence. A gentle soul in fact. According to your colleagues, not even someone they suspect has the cork in too tight; likely to explode. That’s why you’re sitting here with me. I want to understand. This isn’t an attempt to find a legal loophole for a psychopath at the request of some sharp lawyer. Indeed you haven’t even requested representation. You puzzle all of us, John.”

I stared out of the window. It was snowing. I had no recollection of the passing of the seasons. Perhaps I’d been catatonic since the…

“Was it jealousy?” asked the psychiatrist.

“I’d just met her.”

He looked at me. “What are you not telling me, John?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I mean, you’re a man with no history of erratic behaviour. Just a few…” Here he looked down his nose through his glasses at the folder in front of him. “ ‘…geekish idiosyncrasies’ , which one expects from a gifted and absorbed scientist if one chooses to believe the stereotypes – though as the saying goes, how does a cliché become a cliché? Yet in the space of two days you called in sick – an unheard-of event apparently – joined a drama group and…” the psychiatrist cleared his throat uncomfortably,” …took the life of an attractive young actress. Since you’ve been here, you’ve been drinking copious amounts of coffee; that I think I can understand. Maybe bad dreams are being kept at bay. The strangest part is the radio in your room. From what we’ve observed, you seem obsessed with finding some signal that defeats the rest of us.”  I became aware I had my hands between my knees and seemed intent on pushing my elbows as close together as possible. “What are you trying to tune into?”

“It was…it was her face, you see…when I said my line.” The psychiatrist said nothing, but I saw his practised hand drop, pressing a button; a recorder of some sort? “She was supposed to…” there was the peculiar sensation of something trickling down my cheek, “…we were supposed to…” I shrugged uncomfortably in that position. “…live happily ever after? But she started to sneer. I just got up and left. But she was the one. There would be no other. I couldn’t let her go.

“It was more than jealousy. She put in her hand and ripped out my heart. I didn’t want it back, you understand. Nor was it within her power to give it. It was beyond either of us.” I stopped; looked up at him. “So I did the only thing that was in my power, to stop her walking out of my life, leaving me with less purpose, less future, than a broken glass. But her face is fading again. The signal’s going.” The psychiatrist nodded slowly.

As I blinked, great gouts of tears coursed down my face.

“But surely it’s better the signal fades. Your last image of her can’t be one to cherish.”

He may have meant well, but he didn’t understand. As my knees squeezed together I saw her again, peace coming to her features at last between my hands, sharing with me, in the dark grounds of Grove Hall where I had waited for her, the most intimate moment two humans can share, something no predator could take from us. Not for no reason is the orgasm known in some parts of Europe as the little death.

 

I returned to my room. Passing along a corridor of toughened glass, I saw that darkness had come, unforgiving, cold, falling with malevolence of old, like dusk-sheets on a widow’s dusty world.

The door to my secured room slammed behind me. I shivered. What would become of me now – consigned to hell on earth without her, or hell? It had been better not caring. I flicked the radio switch absent-mindedly and stared from my barred window. The shapelessness of the static was anodyne; a vast, featureless, snowy landscape stretching on forever. Was that immense frozen wilderness the true alternative reality? A blank canvas for sketching dreams, which I knew now were not signals from a parallel universe, but merely our way of dealing with the emptiness.

Even as I considered this, my mind wandering across the snow, a shape started to form on the blurred horizon. Nothing distinct; no recognisable form; it didn’t start to distil like a tree emerging through the fog. I realised it would never take shape, because I wasn’t seeing it after all, but hearing it; my name emerging from the static, spoken by a woman, repeatedly, urgently. I was cold again, shaking, but knowing that if this was a siren luring me towards the rocks, then this ship was meant to run aground. I had to…

****

But still, this night, and bobbing fitfully, a mast sways in the safety of a cove, and dances on the surge of sensual tides, while flotsam lies with shells upon the strand.

“John…John!”

Beyond the windows, leaves swish and branches rattle in the autumn winds. There’s gentle, but insistent pressure on my shoulder. I open my eyes and she emerges from the sea of fatigue; my very own Bond girl, her face beautiful in its urgent sleepiness. I recall how it changed in response to my line that evening, the lips drawing back in a self-conscious smile.

I stare at her now, incredulous, and she drops her gaze before looking up at me again, shy, but unrepentant, with just a hint of brazenness. Our dialogue at the drama class comes back to me.

“The part where we kiss? Mmm.” She reflects.” I don’t think we’ll find that in TS Eliot. Maybe in my workshop…”

“Your workshop?”

She extends her hand. “Adele Greening. I’m taking part two of the class.” The face is familiar and growing more startling by the second, like some centuries-lost alabaster bust emerging brush stroke by brush stroke from the sand.

“Aren’t you…I’ve seen you on TV, haven’t I?”

She looks pleased, but embarrassed. “Possibly, in some bit parts. I’m really a stage actress; prefer the closeness and immediate interaction…the intimacy…” I realise I’m still holding her hand, and she realises that I’ve realised, but doesn’t retreat. “…with the audience.” She pauses. “Anyway, we’re starting shortly. I just wanted to know whether you’re attending. Or perhaps you’ve decided this isn’t for you after all.”

“Not for me?” I raise one eyebrow. “Let me tell you something about particle physicists.” Lord knows where this sudden confidence has come from, except she is the catalyst – the Philosopher’s Stone.

“Maybe later.” She looks coy and I couldn’t care whether it’s a well-practised expression, because it’s my own private show. “I’ll see you in there then.” She turns to go.

“Adele?” I’m emboldened now. She looks back. “What if I don’t find our moment in part two either?”

And here we are; me with the taint of her death on my hands; a bloodstain on the snowy landscape. But the snow continues to fall and will cover it soon.

She places a cool hand on my sweating face. “You’ve been dreaming.”

“I know.”

 

And a heart of stone was damned

To be sand forever more.

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Depression?

I think I gained some insight into this condition yesterday. I suppose its definition is nebulous at best and, like most things that approach through a fog, its shape and nature remain elusive. Yet I cannot help thinking that, if you are standing in your garden on a sunny bank holiday evening, having spoken with people you care about in the previous hours, and find yourself weeping for no reason you can identify, that must fall within the  boundaries of that ‘undiscovered country.’

My life has been stressful in recent months, for reasons that those close to me know. Yet even I was taken aback by just how much I must have been keeping the lid on my emotions. My tears continued through the following hours. How traditionally British I must have been in recent times, suppressing much of what has been eating at my well-being. I don’t suppose that will change.

It did make me realise just how much worse my state of mind would have been without a handful of close friends. It would be very British of me now not to mention them by name for fear of causing them, and me, embarrassment. But Rayne, Sabrina, Geoff, Dean and Ken, you have all been the true friends, listening to me rambling on about my problems and diverting me from the path of self-pity. I thank you for that – very truly.

What a man-trap depression is. I have recently been feeling better about myself. I shudder to think how last night would have felt if I had still been inhabiting that pit of self-hatred and guilt, where I have found myself of late. I have only just scrambled away from the muddy lip of that well of stagnant water. I have no intention of returning, but do I have the final say in that? Perhaps last night will prove to be a necessary giant stride away from there. I guess time will tell.

 

 

 

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A friend indeed

This is something I mentioned on Facebook the other day, but I thought it was worth blogging about too. There is so much bad press about society, and young people in particular, that it was heart-warming to observe something the other evening as I sat in Costa Coffee. Two girls were out for the evening together like any other, but clearly one of them had some health issues – not sure, but it looked like a version of muscular dystrophy. She was having what seemed like a bad turn, or maybe was simply exhausted. Her friend found them a sofa, went and got them both a drink, and then gave her her medication.

It wasn’t just the act of taking care of her friend that struck me about the healthy girl; it was her demeanour. There was a complete lack of fuss, condescension or self-awareness. She carried on chatting as if she had just brought her friend a piece of cake and they were continuing where they had left off discussing, I don’t know, some movie they had just seen.

Perhaps me feeling the need to blog this says something about me. If so, I hope it is something positive, but even I don’t know that.  But I think it is more of a reflection of society that a simple, loving act makes such an impression and compels someone to record it. Yet I don’t want that to overshadow the pleasure of actually having observed someone…..well, just being nice to someone else.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 21)

Over the Scorpion Archipelago, November 5th, late p.m.

“Just keep flying. I’ll tell you when to land.”

It had been worth, well, everything really, all the aggravation, just to see their faces. Jim had reached on reflex for his gun at the sound of the voice behind him, but had seen sense and handed it over.

“Do you really think you’re going to get away with this?” asked Dirk through tight lips that suggested he knew the answer.

“Um,” Pete rubbed his chin in faux contemplation of the question, “yes – I think the odds have swung in my favour in the last few minutes. Considering I was up against two muscle-mutts, one deranged ex-lover, a guy I’d knee-capped and left for dead, who was armed and a bit pissed off with me, and a typical whinging convict with a chip on his shoulder against all things Pommie and me in particular, I think I’ve turned things around quite nicely.”

“For God’s sake,” said Jim. “Okay, the two heavies I can understand. But to pitch her out?”

Pete’s smile faded. “And what precisely were you about to do to her? Don’t forget, it was my wife she killed. Not that it bothers me now. After all, Jane was soiled goods.” He enjoyed watching Jim fight to control his anger. “Bet you wish you didn’t have such a prissy conscience now; hadn’t turned your back on me.”

“Told yer we should have just killed him and pitched him out the door,” said Dirk.

“And you were right,” said Pete. He addressed Jim. “But I guess you, like me, had had enough of death. And because of that, I’m not going to kill you – if you do what I say.” He turned the barrel of the gun towards Dirk. “Just bear this in mind; killing the two of you would be my easiest option. I can fly a plane. I could make you bring this down right now, dump your bodies and fly to a new life. But I’m only going to do two of the three.”

“Meaning?” The hostages spoke together.

“You see that little island?” He pointed ahead towards the horizon. “You’re going to take a short holiday there. Start taking her down.”

“Fuck you,” was the pilot’s pithy response.

“If you’re not careful, you’ll be left with only each other to fuck…for a long time. And I doubt there are any doctors or hospitals down there, so don’t make me shoot you in the arm or anything like that. Now I understand you’re a wee bit annoyed, so I’m going to allow you that one moment of bravado.” He pressed the barrel into Dirk’s neck. “Take her down, dirt bag.”

There were calm waters around the island at that moment and no rocks, a far cry from the Scorpion Archipelago. The plane taxied to a halt. Then Pete backed down the plane and beckoned the others to follow. With his gun trained on them at all times, he said: “You’re going to get the chance you never gave me. Pick up those supplies.” The remnants of the expedition camp were still on the plane. “Go on, don’t be shy; help yourselves. Tents, sleeping bags, food, stove, whatever.” They did as they were instructed. “Now inflate that boat and load the stuff.” Pete saw where his blood still stained the side of the inflatable.

When they were done, and Jim and Dirk sat in the boat, Pete stood in the doorway. “I think this makes us quits.” Dirk opened his mouth to speak, but Jim raised his hand to stop him. “In a couple of days, or however long it takes me to feel confident that the dust has settled after my departure, I’ll call the authorities and tell them where you are.”

“Why would you let us live?” asked Jim.

Pete opened his arms and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s the kind of guy I am. But maybe it appeals to the thrill-seeker in me to know that you might come a-hunting for me.”

“Whaddya mean ‘might’?” said Dirk.

“Tell you what though, I’d keep a nice fire going if I were you, just in case I can’t one hundred per cent remember where this place is. I’m not sure it’s got a name. Now enjoy your holiday. Better get paddling; I don’t think I left any juice in it. As for me, the flying doctor has one more house-call to make.”

“You leave the Professor alone,” said Dirk.

“I hope you’ll return me the same courtesy, though I doubt it. But don’t worry, I’m just going to reclaim what’s mine, and then hopefully move on to live a long, healthy life – a long, long, long healthy life. Toodle-oo.”

With that he closed the door and hurried to the cockpit before they had any chance to try something clever with the wing flaps.

****

   As a door opens somewhere in Perth, a piece of paper flaps in the breeze. It stands on a table by a bay window, next to a half-finished cup of coffee, and weighted down with an object that looks like it is made of brass. A thick skin has formed on the coffee.

A hand reaches for and lifts the metal object, which almost glows as it reflects the early, oblique rays of the sun. The fingers curl around it, caress it, before replacing it and picking up the piece of paper. It seems to be a note, but turns out to be a poem, written in a shaky hand and with a name beneath. A voice whispers the words:

Take the kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow-

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand-

How few! Yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep – while I weep!

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

                                                                         Edgar Allen Poe

 

THE END

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 20)

Over the Scorpion Archipelago, November 5th, late p.m.

 

When Dirk bellowed his instructions about the parachutes down the plane, revealing the determination of the judge to pass sentence, Pete decided to weigh up his options. It appeared to be a rather lob-sided set of scales. The two heavies stepped forward to enforce the instructions. One of them made a point of discouraging any resistance by pulling back his jacket to reveal a Walther PPK. At the same time, Jim turned away to protect his troubled conscience, which made it obvious that they weren’t bluffing. Pete wasn’t used to the taste of fear so, at first, did not recognise the metallic tang in the back of his throat for what it was. They were going to be forced out of this plane. The bastards didn’t even have the guts to face up to what they were doing. Just a quick push, and somewhere down below two people would be left with a catch-22 situation involving living or dying. At least he had had the guts to enforce his own vengeance, and the devil took the hindmost.

Pete started to slip on the parachute, whereas Catalina sat frozen in hers, having made her last play. She looked terrified, so he could not help but admire the strength she had found to display and voice her fatalistic defiance. When she had taken the ‘chute from him she looked at him and something had passed between, but he couldn’t define it. It might have been a vestige of their old feelings for each other, but whatever it was, it had flitted away.

Now Pete’s arm became entangled in the ‘chute. He swore and tried to free it. One of the heavies went to draw his pistol. Pete had just known they would resort to weapons; they were the sort of muscle-bound numb-nuts who would rely on intimidation rather than any agility; who could bench-press three-fifty in the gym – a figure about ten times higher than their IQ. It was why he knew he could kill them if opportunity presented itself, which it had the moment Jim turned his back.

The first one came forward impatiently, still reaching for his gun, maybe with the intention of breaking Pete’s arm with it as he forced it into the harness. He had been so easy to lure in, and the chop to his Adam’s apple left him silent and choking on the floor. The time needed by the second gorilla to process this information was more than enough for Pete to knock him out too, with a taekwondo kick to the temple.

Now he had to act fast. He opened the door, grabbed the man who was still struggling to breathe and, with the roar of the outside world drowning the noise, dragged him to the door and pitched him out. The other unconscious man soon followed, once Pete had helped himself to his gun. He glanced at the cockpit – they were still facing front, protecting their finer feelings and waiting for the dirty work to be finished. He knew they would not expect the door to be open for long.

Catalina, whose nerves were stretched to snapping point, had screamed as each of the heavies took their impromptu sky-dive. Pete signalled for her to come forward, putting a finger to his lips and gesturing towards the cockpit. The comforting arm he placed around her shoulders coiled with the sudden swiftness of an anaconda, constricting her cries. He could have killed her, perhaps should have done for her disloyalty, but hell, she had been wonderful in the sack. With the speed and dexterity of someone quite used to operating in extreme conditions, he hooked her parachute to the static line. His lips pressed against her thick black hair, the scent of which still inveigled in his loins. He kissed her head. “I’m sorry.” She tried to twist round to look at him, but he resisted, not wanting to see into her eyes. Who’s salving their conscience now, Pete old boy? As he threw her from the plane, it was about as emphatic as the ending of a relationship can be. He could see her ‘chute was heading straight for the island. It seemed a suitable wild kingdom for that tempestuous princess.

Though she might not yet have been a lost soul, but there was something horrible and symbolic about her descent towards Hell; a slow drift down to the scene of her crimes, to a place devoid of humanity, peopled only by the souls of those she had killed and the memories of the sins she had committed; in possession of just enough remnants of her sanity for her to suffer. No amount of returning to nature in the vast wilderness of the Outback could have prepared her for the ordeal ahead. And her mind was not yet strong enough to withstand everything to which it had been subjected.

Then Pete shut the door and turned his attention to the cockpit. He had spent more than enough time in the company of Death. Although he could fly the plane himself, if he could avoid any more killing, he would.

****

 

Unbeknown to Catalina, she was echoing Pete’s thoughts – would she have the strength to let herself die? She doubted it, and hoped that her mind would prove fragile, granting her the release of oblivion.

The ground drew nearer.

Oh God, oh God, what was she going to do? Would she be forever cursed with hope, burdened by the will to survive; the same will that prevented her from just shrugging off her parachute and falling to her death. Except what if she didn’t die, but suffered some awful injury?

Was this thought the trigger for her screams, or had she been screaming from the moment she was thrown from the plane, discarded by the very man, the pursuit of whom had brought her to this terrible, desolate harbour, where she was doomed to wait for a ship that would never come?

The survival instinct had already taken over. She had jumped with a parachute before and used those skills now to bring herself down in the bay where she had taken her first real steps towards damnation.

However, it was still more luck than judgement that she landed in the surf just a skimmed stone away from the abandoned camp. She stood shivering, and then turned to watch the Cessna disappear with teasing slowness – she wondered whether this was additional torture and they would circle back – against a blue sky inappropriate to mood and circumstances. Again she cursed hope, knowing that it would be sometime before she would stop looking to the horizon. But she had killed – not once, but twice. Irrespective of the powers of magic, she had broken the laws of the universe they all knew, which had broken again to defy her; reverse what she had done. Besides, it was Pete who had thrown her from the plane. He would kill the others, pitch them into the sea and fly to freedom. It would take more than wishful thinking to save her now; he wasn’t coming back.

She wiped salt water from her face, uncertain where tears ended and sea began. At last she turned and, looking like a drenched crane-fly, dragged her parachute out of the waves; she would need it to make some sort of tent. The last thing she wanted was to shelter within the ruins in the dead forest. She would set up camp here on the beach, light a fire, try to take some comfort from it and hope that she might be seen.

The curse of hope.

She shuffled through the remains of the camp, remembering how she had disturbed certain things at…his instructions. A motley selection of items remained – Dirk must have retrieved most of it when he rescued the Professor – but it was a reflection of how far her world had shrunk that she was almost overjoyed to find a sleeping bag, a stove, most of the tinned food, matches. As she moved near the ashes of the camp fire, she thought the sea breeze carried with it some faint warmth and, putting her hands above the ashes, she could tell the fire had not been standing untended for long. Something tickled the back of her neck; perhaps the tip of a dagger of fear and suspicion.

She turned and saw him standing in the shade at the edge of the trees; His Grey Majesty, frightening to behold. He lifted an arm towards her, as he had done on the water when they had sunk his boat, and she felt the soft, irresistible touch of darkness against her cheek. Then he said something. The words did not pour into her ears, like the honeyed deceptions of a seducing devil; rather they were guttural, as if the very act of uttering them must have raked his throat. But his meaning was all too clear, as was the primal gleam in his eyes.

Catalina’s last screams as a sane woman issued now from her, followed by her first as the deranged queen of a lost kingdom.

****

   He had felt his fading strength building again the nearer he had come to his ancient prize, but then they had used their weapons of the future to sink his boat. For a few moments it had seemed he might still make it, but they had departed in their strange boat and, losing hope and strength, down into the water he had sunk. Above him on the surface he saw them leaving for their world.

But Kaz’khar had forgotten how to die, and long-buried instincts drove him to the surface again, where he headed for the nearest shore, dragging himself through the waves. Without the gift he was doomed, and dreaded the avenging pains of two thousand years. The longer you lived beneath the wing of eternity, the higher you rose with it, but the fall would be deep and fearful.

And that was when he had seen the old man, the elder of these people who had overcome his ancient might. As the old man had drawn near Kaz’khar could tell that he, too, had the gift surging through his veins, and there was no mistaking it in the power of the hand that extended towards him. And the scent of the water was in the air. Kaz’khar had stared into the trees for its source; for his salvation. As if he had understood, the elder had gestured for him to follow and the scent had grown stronger; the ancient scent of memory, the memory of the life that was in the water.

And the old man had shared his gift, allowing Kaz’khar to slake a thirst that could never be denied except at the very end of all things. Strength had come to him again, but different from before. It had been strange and wondrous to feel how the water responded to the manner in which it was given. In centuries gone by, it had been a means of holding a civilisation captive, but that had meant the priesthood became a slave to it too, and to their way of life. Time had passed them by. Here, it was given as a beneficence, and marked a fresh start.

This was marked by the onset of an emotion for which the priest had no name, or at least had long forgotten. It flickered as the old man heard the distant sound of the metal bird, the flying ship, and ran down to the water’s edge in time to see his people  – for it was them – and with them his only hope of rescue, disappear into the distant sky. The night-time that held sway in Kaz’khar’s soul and earned him the epithet of `Ak’ubal had given way for a moment to the glimmering of a feeble dawn. As one who had known the curse of isolation for longer than recorded history, he recognised the old man’s despair, though he could no longer feel it.

The days that followed had opened the high priest’s eyes, which had grown accustomed only to the darkness of his kingdom, his thoughts and his deeds. It was not just the wonders of the new age – strange metal eggs containing food; meat with a thin, tough skin you could see through but had to cut away; fire that came from nothing – but also those of antiquity and eternity – stars; air; the ancient need to communicate; the smell of cooked meat. That and the burial of the old man’s concubine had moved him enough to spare the invader’s life. He gave a life where it was given.

Then, two moons later, the metal bird had returned and he could tell by the gesture that the old man – a strange term from one who was ancient beyond his own recall – was inviting him to step forward into this new time. But it would have been a step too far for all concerned – Kaz’khar and the world – so he had made a gesture of his own. He had swept his arm towards the sea and sky, towards the forest that contained the pool of life, all the things that he had rediscovered; his new found kingdom. And the old man had nodded; he understood. He had signalled that Kaz’khar should retreat to the forest. There would be too much to explain. Through the trees he had seen a man come ashore in a boat, reclaiming the camp and his leader. When they had gone, Kaz’khar had re-emerged, carrying in his powerful arms the things the old man had insisted on leaving; the egg-food, meat, fire, the strange blanket like a warm shell. He had made it clear he did not want the tent. Kaz’khar would never again sleep without the sky above his head.

He had watched the bird disappear, his heart both heavy and alive…

 

…and it reappeared two moons later. He hid in the trees and watched in amazement as something floated down. Not something; someone. Could it be? Whatever gods he had once worshipped were to be thanked. It was a woman.

And what a specimen, with her black hair and olive skin! He observed her as she wandered into his camp. Surely this was a gift from the old man; a queen fit for Kaz’khar, High Priest. A woman able to bear a new line as he had pronounced just days before. Despite her strange garb, he saw the beauty of her voluptuous body. And it was just as it had been when he had first defied the gods and taken the gift that was not his to take, become as powerful in knowledge, as eternal as them and been forced to flee. Here was his Eve, and she would bear men who would be gods. He felt the gift flowing – his body being aroused as it had not been in millennia. He stepped forward, saw the terror in her eyes – which was as it should be –  and said: “Welcome – I have been waiting.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 19)

Over the Southern Ocean, November 5th, late p.m.

 

Dirk had pulled a few strings, and the plane, with its brace of unwilling passengers, plus a couple of steroid-enhanced cabin crew to ensure their in-flight comfort, had been able to take off in the early hours of the morning, avoiding any prying eyes.

Jim’s mood wasn’t helped by the Professor’s decision just before boarding:

“I’ve decided I’m not coming.”

“I understand.”

“With all respect, I don’t think you can. I want justice for my daughter,” he squeezed the bridge of his nose in despair, “but can I be sure that this act wouldn’t be more about revenge. I’m afraid I don’t have the necessary heart of stone for dispensing Old Testament retribution; an eye for an eye.”

“And that’s not what we’re doing. I thought we agreed this was a suitable compromise.”

Sutch put a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Nevertheless, I’ll stay away. Some wounds still ache; some will never heal.”

Jim could understand though. The old man had been through enough and he doubted he ever wanted to see the Scorpion Archipelago again. Nor did Jim.

Jim looked at their two guests. No ropes or other restraints had been necessary. When Dirk had explained that their choice was to come quietly or in body bags, they had believed him. Besides, the girl could have changed her name from Catalina to Catatonic now. Jim almost felt pity for her. Her love, or was it purely desire, for Pete had drawn her too close to the flame. But still, cold-blooded murder – twice – could not be dismissed as a crime of passion. He looked at her beauty, corrupted beyond repair in his eyes; such a waste.

“I can guess where we’re going.” It was Pete. “And why. You’re going to execute us on the spot of our alleged crimes.”

One of the heavies looked at Jim. The latter just shook his head and the man settled back in his seat.

Then Dirk spoke from the front: “Think of it as a magical mystery tour. My bet would be, you wouldn’t guess in a million years what’s happening. Having said that, when I tell yah you might have a million years, it’s probably a big enough clue.” He looked out of the window. “Won’t be long now.”

They all followed his eyes and saw the two fangs of rock that marked the mariner’s gateway to the archipelago.

“So you’re just going to leave us there?” At last there was a touch of fear in Pete’s voice; even he could not hide it. This departure from his hitherto defiant tone seemed to penetrate the subconscious world into which Catalina had retreated, as if his confidence was her shell, now breached.

“No!” She looked around in desperation. “No!”

Pete grabbed her arms before she started to scream. Jim knew he didn’t need her panicking now. None of them did. It was never easy when a beautiful woman was involved, not even one who was as guilty as hell. Then the former son-in-law of Professor Edward Sutch turned to him. “So you’ve set yourselves up as judge and jury, and you’re prepared to condemn us to this.”

“Look at it this way,” said Jim, trying not to show the discomfort the words had caused, “once we’ve done this, we’re done with you. If you manage to escape, that’s your business. We’re giving you life where maybe you don’t deserve it. And don’t you talk about dispensing justice. You set yourself up as executioners. I think you’re getting off pretty lightly, compared with what you did to Cobus; the death you condemned him to. But as I said, for what it’s worth, I forgive you for what you did to me. I wasn’t blameless.”

Dirk interjected: “Yeah, and who knows, in a couple of years’ time maybe there’ll be some polar expedition that chugs past and sees your signal fire – if you survive the darkness of the winter.” He looked at Jim, who in turn looked away.

 

Catalina was shaking; on the verge of hysteria. Pete could not blame her. He held her, as much for his own comfort as hers. The full impact of their terrible sentence was starting to hit home and though he refused to show it he was panicking. Surviving alone in that place, on the island of the dead, with only an insane woman for company, was ordeal enough, but he hadn’t thought about the permanent night of the winters that far south. There was a further, appalling, ironic twist. Would he be able to allow himself simply to die? Man clings to life. Would he be able to resist the urge to drink from the pool by the waterfall? It was the only supply of fresh water he knew of on the island, so he would have no choice. With the chances of escape more or less zero, he saw now what had been meant by Dirk’s comment about the million years.

When Catalina pushed away from Pete with force, it came as a surprise to him. But her words came as a shock to them all.

“Men.” She paused, allowing the full contempt with which she uttered that word to sink home, though she seemed to be talking to herself. “Young or old – they promise you dreams you’ll never have; worlds you’ll never visit. But such is their dominant hold on the one we have that you end up believing theirs is the way, and violence is the path.” She looked now straight at Pete. “God knows what journey I thought you were taking me on, but only the devil knows why I wanted to go and where it’s leading me. But know this, all of you; the Scorpion Archipelago is not where my story will end. There’ll be a sting in the scorpion’s tail, I swear it.” She looked at the floor now, finished. Her star had flared before it died.

As one, the men shivered, though whether through some atavistic, primeval fear of witches, or because they were witnessing the breakdown of a once intelligent mind, they could not be sure.

Pete was the first to break the spell. “Nice try Catty; blame the men, and shed a few crocodile tears. But you’re wasting your time. We’re in a kangaroo court with only one outcome. Let’s get one thing straight. I didn’t want you to kill Jane, and I didn’t need you to kill the Professor. My crime was reaching for you when I had no right to. I lit the match, but you lit the fuse. I did what I did out of frustration and anger, but it was wrong, I guess, in the greater scheme of things. You, on the other hand, killed cold-bloodedly; two people who’d never harmed you in any way.”

 

Catalina brushed a strand of hair from her face and said nothing. But Jim saw the look she gave Pete from under her hooded eyes. It was one he neither wanted to interpret nor remember. He, too, felt the need to speak:

“So that would be cold-blooded as opposed to what; the way you left me to die; the way you shot Cobus and did the same to him?” He received no answer.

“Hate to interrupt the philosophising back there,” said Dirk from the cockpit, “but you two’d better put on those parachutes.”

Pete’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m certainly not landing to drop you off. You’ve got ten minutes, I reckon, if you want to hit land.”

“I’m not putting on a parachute,” said Catalina. “You’ll have to throw me out, you heartless bastards.”

“We’re bastards?” said Dirk rhetorically. “That’s rich.”

“What right do you have?” snapped the girl. “By what right do you take life?”

“Hah! You tried to kill a man who was helping you to make something of your life.”

“His daughter wasn’t exactly without blemish, was she?”

“Nothing punishable by death as far as I’m aware.” Dirk looked over his shoulder. His face was an open book and its story brooked no ambiguity. “Now shut the fuck up and put on your parachute, because believe me, if I have to throw you out without it I will.”

At this point Pete got out of his seat and looked at the girl. “C’mon, the bastards mean business. It’s better we take our chances together; live to fight another day, even if it’s only with each other.” He took one of the parachutes and held it towards her despite her disengaged state. At last she looked at him and took the ‘chute from his hand.

Jim had shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the argument he had started raged on to either side of him. Casting the first vengeful stone did not sit well with him, despite all that had happened, because he was not without sin. And now Catalina, whose behaviour was having an unnerving effect, seemed to read his mind. She pointed to him. “You – you’ve seen the horrors of the genocide in Rwanda.” Her voice started to tremble. “And you’ve seen how, even there, people extend the hand of forgiveness and reconciliation. They can forgive; why can’t you?”

He was at a loss for an answer. She had thrown him now. He couldn’t argue with her logic. The bright, if benighted mind was still there after all, an unexpected vein of that most precious metal – wisdom – running through it. Still, it might have been fool’s gold.

Perhaps sensing his discomfort, a weakening of resolve, Dirk looked round from the cockpit and signalled to the two heavies. “Guys.”

Jim turned away as they moved in and stared ahead towards the archipelago. All was not well in his world. There was nothing from Pete. Jim had noticed how he had, if not accepted his fate, at least registered the futility of resistance. But the girl; whether her intention or not, had made this more complex than he had expected. Let it be over soon.

The door at the back of the plane was opened. Catalina started to scream and it went through Jim like the sound of nails down a blackboard, despite the roar of the engines. He could not watch, but heard the changing timbre of the pleas as she struggled. At one point it sounded like she had been forced down on the floor, face first. The screams lost their strength and became sobs. For a moment he was back in Rwanda, watching from a hiding place as militiamen brutalised…no, he had to stop punishing himself. This was very different. Wasn’t it? He put his head in his hands.

Then, as the plane filled with the roaring chill, as the void raced past the open door, the sobs turned to screams again. It reached the point where Jim could take no more, and just as he was about to turn and call an end to the madness…silence. He sank back in his seat, and took a cautious sidelong glance at Dirk. Neither man spoke for some time, both understanding during those moments why the Professor had chosen not to come.

****

   He sat in the wicker chair by the bay window, a ghost of steam rising from the coffee mug at his side, and looked out towards the harbour, where his spiritual home, the sea, flickered in a million places. A long way over the horizon lay a kingdom that he, alone of men, had discovered after years of seeking and dreaming. He should have been so happy – instead he was numb through a combination of painkillers and the mind’s own anodyne. It would kick in soon enough – despair hovered above him like a guillotine blade. Already he could hear the first creaking of its imminent descent and the sound of the executioner’s approaching footsteps as he allowed himself the first dangerous thoughts – the what-ifs.

They were almost as many as the glass shard reflections of the sun on the sea and he squeezed his eyes tight to repel them. In doing so he returned himself to the darkness, where the what-is thoughts lived; the reality that he would have to face; the one in which his naivety had brought so much destruction; the one that would find its true mirror in the face of his darling Candice when she landed today as planned in Hobart, to be told the glad tidings.

He had decided to leave Jane’s body on the island, at least for now. It was not a symbolic gesture. There would have to be an official investigation. Also, he had not been able to face the thought of disinterring her, so soon after the trauma of putting her in the ground. Nor could he stomach the image of Candice standing by the stark wooden coffin just yet. He hoped she would understand. They could decide together what would be most fitting for their daughter; would she have wanted to come back to Britain, or would the thought of being buried at the scene of one of her greatest discoveries have appealed to her?

He would hope for a sign.

Unable, even at the end – and to his utter disgust – to let go of his dream, a part of him had been tempted to fill the amphora from the pool before he had left. He looked across at it, still sitting in the bespoke crate he had made for it. The jug reminded him of the early days, when its image in his memory was all he had to hold onto. For a few moments before Dirk had come to rescue him, he had clung to something else; to the hope that, if he and Candice drank of the water and lived long enough, then time would heal the wounds and they could live again; start another life. But who had he been fooling? He would always be an old man, bereft of a daughter. And she had not even lived a full life. Why should he be granted more than one? Besides, how much more destruction would he wreak if he lived forever? He had failed with the life he was given. That was why he decided not to bring back any of water with him after all, and for once his judgement had been correct. Better to leave things alone.

He heard his heartbeat and…

…feels it trembling in his fingertips. Something has penetrated his subconscious, some sound, but he has no recollection of it. Now there’s the muffled murmur of waves and the warmth of sunlight; just one shaft that’s fought its way through the canopy of trees and beats on the back of his neck. Slowly, he comes round. His body is awakening bit by ageing bit to the purity of sensation. He feels like he could stay this way forever, though he does not yet appreciate the irony of that thought.

Something’s nagging at him, urging him to stand. Now he becomes aware that his hand is wet and he twists his head to see his outstretched fingers partially submerged in the very edge of a pool. It all starts to come back to him and it is as if the water level has risen of a sudden to fill his lungs with a cold, choking sadness. Yet he cannot dismiss the wonder of still being alive, despite the growing sense of horror that makes him resist looking into the pool for now.

He tries to push himself up and a band of pain crushes his chest. Looking down he can see his blood-soaked shirt. At last he is able to stand. The terrible sight in the pool is unavoidable now and drives him to his knees again. Then he forces himself up once again, out of duty to her, and begins the task no parent should have to undertake; retrieving the body of his child. He wades into the water, hooks his arms under her, and the deadweight, combined with the heaviness of his heart, drags him down at first. Yet there is no denying, as he stands in the water, a sudden surge of strength that seems to permeate his body. The wounds also seem to ache less. He finds himself able to lift her and carries her out in his arms, his darling girl, before placing her with tenderness on the ground. He looks at his hands and the water in turn. Something has happened here. Water is memory, and he remembers that he was clutching the k’ib when he was shot. Has it fallen into the pool? For a second he harbours the absurd idea of looking for it, but then thinks of the evil that his dreams and wishes have unleashed. Who knows if that mystery of antiquity has been at the centre of everything? Best to do what he should have done from the beginning and leave it alone. Besides, its hold on Pete and his desire for it had already been evident, so he is not likely to have left it behind.

More important – he has a loved one to bury.

Suddenly he hears gunshots, but who is left alive to kill? He knows now with certainty that Cobus and Jim must be dead, killed by Pete over on TempleIsland – Robbie too, probably. So who is shooting at whom? He contemplates hiding, but then realises that he would rather be dead too. Besides, they must assume he is; that latter-day Bonnie and Clyde.

His thoughts turn to Candice but that brings no consolation. After all, he would have to break to her the news of where his folly has brought them. He wonders if she will ever find out what happened to him and if he will ever see her again.

He sits for a while, cradling Jane’s body. The water did not save her. Water is memory. He remembers her sitting on his lap in his study, but then struggles to recall the previous time she had sat there. Yet he cannot afford to start questioning now the way they had led their lives. He had been proud of her, and she of him – what does pride come before? At last, helped by his new-found strength, he manages to put her over his shoulder and carry her down to the remains of the camp. He is not prepared to bury her here, in the forest of the dead, more food for the roots of that fecund yet sick place. He will lay her to rest down by the waterfront, somewhere he can watch over her and where the sea can come to pay its respects.

He has no idea whether they will ever leave this place.

He finds a pickaxe in the equipment boxes and starts to dig what will be a shallow grave. Though he cannot know it for sure, he feels positive that he will be left alone now and that the killers have gone. He has looked around and can see no-one. They must have a plan for returning to civilisation, and that plan must involve Dirk. The missing satellite telephone would appear to confirm that. Despite the nihilism that suffuses his emotions at this moment, he cannot avoid the chill that the thought of isolation and abandonment brings as it comes ashore with the breeze. As soon as he has buried his daughter he will try to light a fire, for warmth and as a signal. He may be dreading speaking to Candice, he may rather wish that he were dead, but man still clings to life and light.

And then, as he starts to dig something catches the corner of his eye and he turns. Astonishing! A bedraggled figure is dragging itself in desperation and exhaustion through the surf. He races forward and then stops, horrified and fascinated in equal measures, as the figure pushes itself to its knees. His mind is taken back to the dying man Jim and the others brought back from TempleIsland. Not that this man is as emaciated and gaunt, but he bears a similar haunted look in his eyes. There the similarity ends. He does not exude the same air of desperation, or if he does there is a ferocity underlying it – a determination in his sharp, cruel features. The face is truly terrible to behold. It does indeed bear the look of someone who has lived forever in the darkness and forgotten how not to hate. He believes he understands who this man might be and why he is here. It seems the nightmare will never end.

Nevertheless, he feels a certain pity for this creature. Perhaps he should fear him, but he is beyond that. He moves forward and extends a hand to the enervated man, who manages to both look ashamed and exude immense pride, retaining something haughty in his demeanour as he gets to his feet unassisted. The socketed orbs that are his eyes look beyond Sutch towards the forest. That one glance speaks volumes.

The Professor gives a slight bow and gestures to the priest to follow him. For possibly the first time in thousands of years,the priest does as he is bidden.

As they pass Jane’s body the priest stops. What he is thinking can only be guessed at, but at last they move on.

Their progress up through the forest is slow. The priest seems ill at ease. If, as the expedition surmised, the cult of human sacrifice had been strong amongst these people, it may be that he fears the vengeance of the spirits. As they near the pool and the sound of the little waterfall reaches their ears, the priest’s pace quickens and his dreadful face appears to be contorting itself into something approximating a smile – another old man lost in the wonder of desperation. At the water’s edge he scoops several greedy handfuls and drinks. It is like some warped experiment in osmosis, watching him recover, and the rehydration of his spirits is almost visible. The dust of ages is washed away like a flash flood in a desert. However, nothing can make the priest’s features more agreeable; centuries of corrupt thoughts have shaped them and only the winds of time could ever erode their cruelty. He wipes water on his face and neck, on his arms, and makes gestures that appear to be the observance of some ancient ritual. When he turns and looks at Sutch the Professor is surprised to see that although the despotic malice he expected is still there, some vestigial light of humanity seems to be flickering in the priest’s eyes. Sutch stoops and draws in the earth with his finger; it is the shape of the k’ib as best he can remember it. He points to it and then out to sea. The priest nods and walks past him, heading back towards the camp.

Sutch is about to follow him when he stops and stares amazed at the ground. Despite everything that has passed, the scientist in him is not completely interred, and he experiences a ‘Eureka!’ moment. The shape he has drawn is more or less the same as the one symbol on the amphora that rebuffed all of Jane’s attempts at translation. It was clearly this people’s written representation of home; yet the commoners never knew of the k’ib. It is a conundrum that will never be solved. Even as he makes a mental note to tell Jane, the reality of now rises from his stomach and fills his throat with despair.

At this point a distant humming reaches the Professor’s ears and he hurries past the priest, running the quarter mile or so back to the shore. He reaches for a pair of field glasses and looks into the distance. At last he spots it – Dirk’s plane, but it appears to be heading west, away from the archipelago. In despair he realises that he has not lit a fire, nor does he have time to light a flare, and the noise of the plane is fading. He is desolate. Whatever plan those two hatched for their escape appears to have succeeded.

Then a bony but powerful hand rests on his shoulder. As he looks at it, it turns and beckons him. He follows the priest, who leads him to Jane’s body. Sutch looks on in amazement as the ancient, tyrannical shaman lifts the pickaxe and starts to attack the soil at the margin of the beach.

Together they set about the task of burying his daughter.

 

The day has advanced. Although it is early summer, in the Southern Ocean that does not herald the start of balmy days. With Jane buried, they build a fire. The presence of each other means that they are not quite, yet, the loneliest people in that vast, unforgiving sea. Despite the circumstances, it affords Sutch much amusement to observe the priest, whose name, as a result of their limited communication, he believes to be Kazkar, as he encounters for the first time the wonders of camping stoves and tinned food. It is perhaps one of the starkest ironies of the Professor’s life to be sitting with this fearsome man and welcome his company. He notices how the priest looks at the stars, as if it is the first time in centuries. A wave of pity washes over Sutch. He knows what it means to have been enslaved, but his sentence had lasted only forty years. He also knows how it feels to lose something precious. They break bread together that evening, like fugitives yet to come to terms with the agoraphobia of their freedom, and like partners in grief.

It is late afternoon two days later when the humming returns. The two men stand. They seem to have settled into an agreeable silence, though the Professor senses that, if either of them chose to speak it would be the priest.

Such is the enormity of the emptiness in these parts, a vastness that dwarfs the hardy dust of humanity that has settled this far south, that he knows this plane must be coming for him, and the priest knows it too. Something has happened. The plans of those miserable wretches have gone wrong somehow. As the plane draws nearer, and he recognises it as Dirk’s Cessna, he turns towards the priest. With as appropriate a gesture as he can make, he invites Kazkar to make a trip with him into the twentieth century. Even as he does so, he ponders the magnitude of that step, both for the priest, and for the scientific community of the modern era. That plane would hold a unique place in history, the first time machine, if it brought this old shaman into the future.

Sutch suspects that fear has always been an alien emotion for Kazkar till this point. Now he sees it register on those harsh features. The plane draws nearer, grows louder, the sound of its engines…

 

…dragged him back from his memories and caused his mind to pitch forward hundreds of miles to a desolate place he knew for a brief time: to what would be happening there now.  A part of him – a part of which he was ashamed – believed there had to be punishment for the sins and crimes committed, but that did not sit comfortably with him. After all, a lot depended on one’s definition of sin. He had led an expedition, which had stolen an artefact from a people who, right or wrong, followed the cult of human sacrifice. The high priest of that people had spared his life. Who was he, Edward Sutch, to decree that someone should die? For it did not matter how much they dressed it up; death was what lay ahead for Catalina and Pete. If not from exposure or starvation then…He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then rose shakily from his chair to open the windows and allow a summer’s warmth, containing the sounds of that day to dominate his senses.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 18)

Over the Southern Ocean, November 5th, late p.m.  

“It’s so tempting.”

“Mmm?” She didn’t even break off from kissing his stomach.

“I just want to test it.”

“Me too.” Her mouth continued its odyssey.

“Put it in water and see if this arm heals any quicker.” Now Catalina did stop and looked up in frustration. “Not to stop the pain. I need to be sure it’s not just a worthless piece of junk now that it’s away from the island. I mean, it’s not helping me as things stand and it didn’t do the old man much good as he lay…” He broke off. It wasn’t an image he was comfortable with yet.

Catalina propped herself on her elbow. “Well you daren’t risk it. Dirk doesn’t know you’ve got it and I can imagine his response if he comes back to find your wound healed – or rather, I can’t.”

Pete looked at the bandage. “Certainly feels better. I wonder if that’s because I handled the k’ib in the temple.”

“Well, just keep it to yourself. It gives you a motive for killing the team – that’s what men do for such a prize.”

“Men?” He looked down the bed at her, and then reached across and picked up the k’ib. Both of them looked at it, transfixed for the moment. “There’s something about it, isn’t there?” He weighed it in his hand. “Y’know, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not of this earth. After all we’ve been through these last few days, I wouldn’t be surprised if travellers from some distant, dying world crossed the universe seeking a planet with water where the k’ib could live again, and they with it.” He placed her hand on the cold metal. “Don’t you feel it’s as ancient as time.” Then he gave a little intake of breath. “I wonder if I drowned the last being that understood its power.”

Catalina shrugged. He knew she wanted to get her hands on a different object right then and did not share his growing fascination with the artefact. “Well, I’m sure it’ll remain an enigma.”

He didn’t like the mix of condescension and ennui in her voice, and sat up. “Hey, I might give the impression of being a waster, but I’m not unintelligent. Jane Sutch would never have fallen for me if I was.” The flash of annoyance in Catalina’s eyes pleased him. “Ok, I know the attraction of opposites played a part too. And yes, my public school education was cut short, and my father didn’t hide his contempt for my lack of business nous too well, so I’ve developed a thick hide, but I’m not insensitive. You think I didn’t see the looks of arrogant surprise when I ventured logical and sensible opinions on the island. Well, who’s dead and who’s alive? Who are the fuckwits now?”

As he lay back with a thump he realised just how right he might be. If the k’ib had an intelligence, had it recognised in him a worthy successor, someone more suited for this new age than the old robed shaman, who had brought it so far, but was perhaps incapable of taking it further? He had seen things with a prescience and sensitivity which had surprised even him. And ideas had come to him in extremis. How else could he explain the clarity of thought that had enabled him to formulate plans with such speed and cunning in the midst of chaos and fear?

Strangest of all; where was this innate knowledge of the history of the k’ib coming from, and this peculiar certainty that he was right? For he knew that water was its memory and its blood and he remembered, where others had forgotten, that the Mayan civilisation was reputed to have died out because of drought. Had the high priest taken this treasure into hiding knowing the drought was coming?

“Hey.” The hand on his cheek. “It’s me, remember?” He had been staring at his prize on the table at the side of the bed, rather than at the one lying next to him. “You wanna feast your eyes on me instead?”

She peeled off the shirt she’d been wearing since they’d finished their first session of love-making – if that was the correct term for the ferocious release of tension and pent-up animal desire they had just shared. There was no doubt; whatever her flaws, the sight of this woman was also capable of triggering universal, ancient responses in man.

The two days since Dirk’s absence might have been technically described as a chill-out period, but large chunks of if had been spent in sexual gratification. He told himself to enjoy her now. Who knew what their future held? Her hands and mouth wandered, prompting in him at those very moments the belief that he could never do without her, though he knew only emptiness would follow the temporary sating of his lust.

So it was again now. His body took over, driven by her demands and the intensity of her desires. In some way he welcomed the smothering of the cerebral by the carnal – a few minutes escape from the thoughts that plagued him; doubts about the way forward; mistrust of Dirk. Her body seemed to conjure endless ways to pleasure him. Was this what happened when you combined Latin American blood with an upbringing in a land that was ninety-five per cent wilderness? Or maybe he was just reading too much into it, and she was no more exotic than any cheap slut in the back of a lad’s magazine, making him no less of a slave than any other porn aficionado.

He had a sudden need to control her; dominate this woman who had killed and then demanded sex within sight of the corpses. Just for a moment, resuming his place in the driving seat mattered more than anything, perhaps because even now, he could not be sure he had ever occupied it. Or was this for auld lang syne, now that he realised her intelligence and sensitivity might be subsumed by her need for sex? Was she no longer the way forward for the man he hoped he might be?

He put an arm around her waist and flipped her onto her back. She gasped in a theatrical, cheap way and immediately she pretended to struggle. He knew this game; fighting, but not so hard that she didn’t welcome him with open legs.

And then they began; wave after wave, thrust after thrust. She clung to him, gasped and screamed and dug her nails into his back and scratched and urged him with her words and her hips to fill her, never stopping, even if the graves threw forth their dead. Then his name was on her lips. She screamed it; shook and struggled beneath him, and he seemed to be driving her higher and higher up the bed, towards some volcanic eruption of a climax, when he looked at her face and saw her eyes staring in terror over his shoulder. She screamed, more than once, and started to scrabble against the headboard. Pete turned.

Of the people he might have expected to see, Jim was not very high on the list. In that moment, as his guts turned to water, Pete knew everything was lost, but he could not even begin to imagine how. Was this a trick being played by the k’ib; some projection, some memory?

He must have looked as if he had seen a ghost, because Jim said: “No, I’m not some figment of your fetid imagination.” At the sound of the voice, Catalina started to whimper. “For God’s sake shut her up,” demanded the Pulitzer Prize-winning phantom. As he spoke, there was a weary brutality in his features that didn’t sit easily there, and it had nothing to do with the newly-acquired scars. Despite his plight, Pete could not help but see the irony of it; it was how he had pictured Jim in his mind’s eye as he described the psychotic who had shot the Professor. He looked like, well, someone who had done exactly what he appeared to have done, which was to escape from his own grave and come seeking vengeance.

Pete raised his hand to the girl, signalling for calm, though at that moment he understood how King Canute must have felt.

“He made me…” she cried, “…made me come with him,” she sobbed.

Pete looked at her in disgust, then turned away and shook his head. “Women.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, perhaps the most ineffectual statement he could have chosen, “you think I believe the bitch? I’ve observed for the last few minutes just how much you were forcing her to go down on you, ride you, etc etc.”

Jim pushed himself away from the doorframe on which he was leaning, and that was when Pete saw that, only with difficulty could he put any weight on his left leg. Then Jim produced a pair of crutches from the hallway. He beckoned. “Come through as soon as you’re…dressed. I was going to say decent, but…” Now he grinned, but it was an expression devoid of humour. “There’s someone in the lounge I think you should meet.”

A hailstorm of thoughts and images – thousands, millions of them – came at Pete,  driven by the wind, and he was powerless to do anything other than weather them. Amongst them were, or course, the possibility of escape, and regret that he had thrown away his weapons. Yet, in the end, he was intrigued. Besides, he assumed they had allowed for the chance of him trying to get away and posted some sort of watch. Pulling on trousers and a top, he invited Catalina to leave her trance and do the same. He remembered to pick up the k’ib and then led the shaking girl through into the lounge.

That she collapsed into his arms was not surprising; even he felt his legs shimmy, at the sight of the Professor, sitting in a chair by the window.

Sutch pointed towards two empty armchairs. Pete carried Catalina across and, without words, they sat down. He did not bother asking any questions, knowing an explanation would follow, as surely as life, it seemed, followed death.

Jim sat near the Professor, and it was he who spoke first. “Almost a perfect crime, but let me tell you something about that thing;,”  – here he pointed to the k’ib – “water…”

“…gives it life.” Pete’s interruption was laconic. He might have been on the back foot, but he was not going to let these smug bastards get one over on him. Jim’s ironic smile told him that he had surprised them again. “Believe it or not, I listened along with everyone else to Tariq’s journal.”

“I guess we all underestimated you,” continued the photographer. “Rest assured, that won’t be happening again. A pity for you, you didn’t pay more attention to that.” Jim’s eyes turned towards the window and the past. “Your own greed outdid you. You see, if you hadn’t taken it from its altar, then maybe the bogeyman might have torn me limb from limb in the temple. Instead, he retreated; lived to fight another day – to find his Precious, you might say. And I lived. Killing me took second place to his need to stay alive. Also, if you hadn’t taken the k’ib from the temple, the Professor wouldn’t be alive now.” Pete frowned, unable to work out why, but Jim continued. “Your first explosion wrecked only part the inner sanctum, but it extinguished the torches and I was left in blackness. I crawled blind, knowing a second explosion was coming, and put my hands on a large slab of stone that was probably the remains of the altar; it seemed the bottom of that block of stone survived. The next blast destroyed – as poor Cobus intended unfortunately – the staircase up to the tunnel entrance and brought down some of the entrance itself, blocking it from my end. But still I could hear.” He turned back and looked directly at Pete, blank fury in his eyes. “Gunshots, as you fled. You sacrificed that young guy to save your neck.”

“And you know that how?” asked Pete, staying cool despite how he felt. “You’re fishing.”

Jim ignored him. “The third explosion, the one planned to block the other end of the labyrinth, succeeded, I assume. Then I heard Cobus again. Distant, somewhere in the darkness of the tunnels. He was crying for help. Screaming. And I couldn’t do anything, with my ruined knee and still dazed from the explosion. His voice was faint, but still I could hear too much. And then, those who weren’t killed in the explosions must have come back to him. Trapped in the tunnel, they vented their fury on our screaming friend. I swear I could hear his flesh being torn.” Jim squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then re-opened them. “But no, that must have just been my terrible imagination; an automatic response to hearing tortured cries once more. Some things can’t ever be closed out. The sound of a machete slicing time and again into innocent flesh. The cries of hurt and betrayal.” He looked at Pete. “If the Tutsis can forgive the Hutu’s, I could forgive you your anger at what I did, but I’ll never forgive what you did to Cobus; and what you made him do.”

The two men stared at each other for a long time, at opposite ends of a dark tunnel from which they had both just emerged. Then Pete said: “Guess you’ll be sticking to photographing weddings from now on.”

“And you.” It was the Professor’s voice, quiet lest his rage consume him. He was looking at Catalina, but she most certainly wasn’t looking at him. She stared down at her hands, as she had from the moment she seen seen Sutch, sitting, accusing, like Banquo’s ghost. “My daughter trusted you. Singled you out; held you in high regard, and how do you repay her?”

Catalina made to reply, but Pete lifted his hand. “Say nothing. What proof do they have? Eh?” He looked at Jim. “Oh, I know I said in the temple that I’d killed her, but it was simply to torture you; rub rock salt into the wound, as it were.”

The Professor went to rise from his seat. “Monstrous!” he spat. But even before Jim’s restraining hand was on him he had collapsed again, putting his hand to the left side of his chest, his strength gone for the moment.

“Well, I guess I crept from your torture chamber” continued Jim. “You see, the stream continued to run over the altar after the explosion, and as I lay there in agony, my throat closing with dust and Cobus’ screams still tearing at my senses, I heard the water and followed its sound. I drank, and then, incredible to relate, felt a lessening of the pain. Then it seemed that the knee you smashed started to mend. Not perfectly – I’ll need surgery – but enough that, after a few minutes, I could stagger in the general direction of the tunnels on the lower level. There was faint light from them, which turned out to be daylight – distant, but visible in the intense darkness. And it seemed the water was also helping my night vision. I could see well enough to spot my rucksack lying in the rocks. The Platypus bottle was inside, and intact as ever. I filled it and made my way out.

“I followed the light and found the outside world. The tunnel opened out at the base of the cliffs and there was a precarious, narrow path just above the pounding waves. Incredibly, I saw the dark man, miles ahead of me on the path, but unmistakably him. I forget how many hours I spent on that narrow ledge, battered by the wind, just one slip away from being smashed against the cliff face; my legs healing, but still with a mind of their own.

“At last I made it round the headland, away from the path, too exhausted to care about the dark man or anything else. I assume I collapsed and slept like the dead.

“But my worst moment was waking. In the distance I could just about hear a plane.  I looked for it, thought I could make out a dot in the distance. I guess it was Dirk homing in on your signal. After I’d waved frantically, shouted, and the plane had disappeared, I felt like the only man at the bottom of the world.” He looked across at the Professor. “I didn’t know that a mile and a half away was another man burying his daughter and feeling exactly the same.” He looked across at Sutch. “I think I spent most of the next two days in a state of delirium – hungry, weak, in pain still and unsure whether any of the priests were still alive. I thought the sound of the plane returning was part of a feverish dream. That was when I remembered the waterproof matches in my rucksack and managed to build a fire. I thank God the Professor and Dirk saw the smoke.”

Jim lapsed into silence.

“You were dead, I know you were,” said Pete to the old man, as if Jim’s words hadn’t registered with him.

Sutch had recovered and spoke again, first to himself. “Witness to my own death.” He looked up. “The ironic part is, as Jim pointed out, the same fact you discovered for yourself is what kept both Jim and me alive. You see, when you shot me, I was still clutching the k’ib, and my other hand must have rested in the very edge of the pool. I can only think that I acted as a conductor between it and the water, just before the last of my life could drain from me.” He paused. “In so many ways I wish it had.”

The Professor pointed at the k’ib. “That thing may derive its power from water, but it seems to return it tenfold – a hundredfold – and the touch of that power on my hand kept me alive after you departed– just. It might be better to say it stopped me from dying. I was indeed on the point of death, and my recovery was slow. At last strength returned, long after you’d left the island, and my wounds started some sort of healing process, that continues now, albeit at its own pace because I am old.” He put his hand to his head. “It was too late, of course, for my darling Jane.”

“Yes,” said Pete, “how come she’s still dead?” He knew the answer well enough, but took pleasure in the brutal phrasing and intonation of his comment. Nothing good could possibly come from this situation, so he figured he might as well go down with guns blazing. These men who had treated him with disdain were at last getting what was coming to them.

“You bastard!” Jim was in the process of getting out of his chair and it was his turn to grimace in pain; the Professor’s turn to raise a restraining hand. The latter spoke, addressing his comments to Pete.

“You know well enough it cannot restore life where there is none, and I know enough about dead bodies to know that Jane died from a broken neck. I also know enough about people to recognise genuine surprise when I see it. You didn’t expect to find her dead.” Now Sutch glared at Catalina. “But you…what hellhole did you spring from?”

The girl just sat, ashen-faced and withdrawn. All fight, all passion, seemed to have drained from her at the sight of the Professor.

“Nice. Well, thanks for sharing that,” said Pete, “but I’m afraid I’ve got to be going now.”

Jim looked at him and shook his head. “You’re something else. And you’re going nowhere. What you will be doing is facing up to what you did.”

Pete perched on the edge of his seat and rested his elbows on his knees. “And what exactly did I do? A woman’s dead; there’s no witness to any crime. Another man claims a young female student shot him; again there’s no witness to any crime. Nor is there a victim, if your rapidly healing wound is anything to go by. A young Afrikaner with an attitude goes trying to steal some artefact from its rightful owners and gets ripped apart. Was he shot? There’s no body to check. Again no witness. And you? You fuck my wife, so I bust your kneecap. Again no witness, but possibly it’s an understandable reaction – a crime passionel. How’s all of this going to stand up in a court of law? They’d be more likely to believe that you’re still alive because you’ve discovered the secret to eternal youth.” They just looked at Pete, who pointed to Catalina. “Even if she pleads guilty to anything, that’s up to her. She’s not seen me do anything that she can swear to on oath. Sorry guys, I’m outta here.”

He got up, turned, and stopped in his tracks when he saw the barrel of a gun pointing at him. Ah, that was one little item he had overlooked in all the excitement of seeing dead people – where was Dirk?

Jim smiled. “You see, it wasn’t just you we were ‘sharing’ with. We’ve not had a chance till now to tell Dirk everything that transpired. To be honest – though I doubt if you know what that word means – he never really believed you. He tells me your explanation of what happened was all a bit too slick for him. That and the she-devil’s transformation from the strong, persuasive woman he picked up from the ocean to the little mouse who let you do all the talking, as if by pre-arrangement.”

The Aussie, who’d been standing out of sight in the kitchen behind Pete, motioned with the gun. “Siddown again, mate. Who said anything about a court of law?”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 17)

The Southern Ocean, 6 miles north west of the Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 c. 2pm

 

 

“Look, we’ve gotta get him away from here; he’s lost a lot of blood!” She had to shout above the noise of the engines and the pounding of the sea, which had grown quite a bit rougher in the last hour.

“But the Professor, Jane, the others…”

“They’re gone, Dirk, they’re all gone. The Professor and Jane are dead! I don’t know where the others are.” She decided their story could wait until they were away from here. A surge caught the inflatable and nearly threw it against the floats of the plane. “Look, for God’s sake, get us on board!” They had brought the boat a few miles north of the archipelago, and once the fuel had run out, and the sea had grown wilder, they became genuinely anxious. The edge of hysteria in Catalina’s voice was real enough.

Dirk threw them a rope and reeled the boat in. Catalina saw just how clever Pete had been. He had lost enough blood to look pale and his stained, gory shirt meant the sight of him would prompt Dirk to take action. Nevertheless, she knew his apparent state of semi-consciousness was an act. There was no love lost between the pilot and his injured passenger; Dirk was probably tempted to go look for the Professor, but he could not deny a sick man a flight back to civilisation – he was too professional for that.

When they had managed between them to haul Pete aboard the plane, followed by the deflated boat, Dirk eyed them both up. “What the hell’s happened? How did Jane and the Professor die?”

Catalina saw now that Dirk himself was pale. “Jim killed them.”

“What?!”

“It’s a long story, Dirk,” Catalina started to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, “and I don’t feel ready to tell it right now.”

“And Robbie?”

“Please Dirk,” she sobbed.

“Where are their bodies?”

“On the island – the Professor and Jane at least.”

“Well, I’m going back for them.”

“Dirk, for God’s sake, we’ve gotta get Pete to a hospital. And that fucking maniac could be back at the camp by now. I wouldn’t rate your chances of getting away alive – they’d want your plane for sure.”

“But I can’t just leave my friends there.” The Aussie was looking through the door towards the horizon. There was a mixture of emotions on his face, none of them winning the battle to form an expression.

Catalina saw her chance. “I know Pete’s not your friend…”

He gave her a sharp look.. “Hey, I wasn’t saying…”

She pushed on through: “…but you strike me as a guy who lives in the here-and-now. Well here and now, we’re alive, one of us is wounded, and we’re both possibly just the tiniest bit traumatised,” her tone had taken on a suitably sarcastic edge, “so I, for one, would like to get the hell away from here.”

“I know, but…”

Catalina put a hand on Dirk’s arm. The coldness that sometimes extinguished the fire in her heart wondered how he would feel if he knew that same hand had fired the gun that killed his friend, and delivered the blow that broke Jane’s neck. It would have been happy enough to shoot shot the big Aussie too, if she had had her way. “Dirk.” She turned her tearful, jungle-green eyes towards him. “They’re dead. Come back if you must.”

“Okay sweetheart, I guess you’re right.” He looked at Pete. “There’s some brandy in the first aid box; better bring him some.” Dirk puffed out his cheeks. “To be honest, I don’t think I’d have the fuel to make another landing. Let’s get away from this hell-hole for now.”

****

Perth, Western Australia, November 1st 1997   p.m.

   “So he just turned?” queried Dirk

Catalina looked to Pete for support. Dirk had brought a field doctor he knew to his place that morning, rather than go to a hospital. He thought it best to avoid the publicity just for the moment.

“There was something about that place,” said Pete. “The forest kind of…played with everyone’s heads. It was silent as the grave. There wasn’t a trace of life in there. I don’t know whether it got to Jim a bit. Also to the Professor; he seemed to withdraw into himself. Everyone seemed on edge somehow. But things weren’t helped by Jim going around telling everyone that he didn’t believe in fairy tales, which I guess was a reference to the Professor’s story of the lost kingdom and its secret.”

“Secret?”

Pete winced as he leaned across to pick up the glass of water by his chair. He washed down the second pain killer, it bought him important time to gather his lies into a presentable package, wrapped in half-truths; he knew Dirk would return to the archipelago, possibly find certain things that would incriminate the two of them if the story wasn’t watertight. Also, experience had taught him that the thing a liar needed above all was a good memory. The closer he could stick to events, the less he would need to rely on recall. “After a day of hacking and sweating our way through dense forest, everyone was in low spirits. On the second day, there were two discoveries; we found the ruins of an ancient city, and Sutch found a body, which turned out to be the old merchant, Tariq. He had documents on him claiming that there was still human life on the islands, and implying that those people were some of the original settlers.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“I shit you not. He said that water from one of the islands could give the gift of eternal life.”

Dirk said nothing, but Pete could see it was only deference to his old friend Sutch that stopped him from snorting in derision.

“It was around then that Jim told the Professor he wanted to do his own thing; take one of the boats and scout around the other islands. Sutch said they had already made an important find and should record everything in detail before wasting valuable time and resources elsewhere. After all, it was a preliminary expedition. But I guess Jim had other ideas. He saw fortune and glory.

“He also seemed to have quite some influence on Cobus and Robbie, who wanted to go with him. It’s not surprising really; they’re young and impressionable, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner…”

Dirk frowned. “I don’t get it. The students all held the Professor in the highest regard. Why would they go against him?”

“Like I said, you had to be in that place to know how it felt. It played with your mind. Perhaps they wanted to see if any of the other islands were less…suffocating.

“Whatever the reason, perhaps to avoid a scene, the Professor allowed them to take one of the boats. But he made sure the guns and explosives stayed where they were, under lock and key. Jim tried getting the rest of us to go with him, but my wife’s loyalties were to her father, and my loyalties were to my wife.”

“My loyalties were with Jane as well,” chipped in Catalina. She had left all the talking to Pete, fearing to say anything that might tangle the roots of his nascent story. “After all, she picked me for this trip. Plus I thought we females should show solidarity.”

“Anyway,” continued Pete, “they didn’t come back that night. That was why, at first light, we contacted you. As a split party we were never going to achieve anything. But the Professor was also worried about the welfare of Robbie and Cobus.”

“This is crazy. I can’t quite believe it. Why would Jim do this? He seemed a level-headed guy.”

“Dirk, how many times do we have to say, the island had a peculiar effect on you,” said Catalina, unable to conceal her growing irritation. The Outback messes with your head, but this place hung all around you like a black curtain, as if bad things were just waiting to happen on the other side.”

“Who knows,” said Pete, “maybe it messed with Jim’s mind. He’d seen a lot of bad shit in his time. Who knows what he’d been bottling up, just needing some catalyst to spark a reaction. Really, I can hardly believe it myself. But the worst is to come.”

“Sorry, I interrupted,” said Dirk. “Carry on.”

“Not long after we called you, Jim did show up again…on his own. We were up by a waterfall we’d found, washing ourselves and he came marching up, not making a hell of a lot of sense, with a strange look in his eye. He said that he’d discovered something amazing. He was going to need more guns, ammunition, explosives, and he also wanted to take some kit away to set up another camp. Only thing was, he didn’t seem inclined to share why, or where. But I think he underestimated the Professor. My father-in-law didn’t get to lead teams around the world and be who he is…was…without having a backbone. He told Jim that – how did he put it? – this wasn’t a pick’n’mix expedition. He’d organised it, paid for it, was more than happy to invite input, but he was in charge. He certainly wasn’t about to hand over the keys to the gun-box or the explosives.

“You know yourself, Dirk, there wasn’t a hope in hell of breaking open those boxes and Jim knew it too. So this was where our photographer friend showed his true colours. He claimed to have left Cobus and Robbie doing a further recce on the other island and said that if the Professor didn’t hand over the keys, he’d leave them there. The Prof was shocked, but he wasn’t simply going to back down. Things got a bit ugly, and Jim’s posturing got more and more aggressive. Now Jane stepped forward and told him to back off. He was behaving like a lunatic at this point. He shoved Jane to one side.” Pete looked down in his best approximation of grief; an emotion he’d only truly experienced when totalling a Lotus a few years before. “She slipped on the rocks.” Catalina placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. They were working well together, though it would not have surprised Pete if the hand of comfort was also a reminder not to grieve too deeply. It was the hand of a murderess; was she reminding him of that, or was he simply reminding himself? “Her neck must have snapped,” he continued, still watching that hand. “The next thing we know, she’s lying under the water. I rushed forward to see if she was okay, to pull her out of the pool. I didn’t see what happened next.”

“But I did,” Catalina interjected. “Both the Professor and Jim stood there shocked – I don’t think Jim meant to kill her. In fact Pete didn’t notice it, but he seemed to have taken quite a shine to her.”

Pete glanced at her. It was a look that could have been interpreted as surprise, but he was wondering what the hell she was doing. This was dangerous. It meant he could have had a motive for killing his wife. Was she sending him a message? She continued before he could react further. “But even as Pete was struggling down the rocks to try to get to the pool, the Professor turned on Jim. He might have been an old man, but he came forward full of rage. The next thing I heard was two shots…” She buried her head in her hands and her next words came muffled through her fingers. “…he – Jim – shot that poor man.”

There was silence in the room. Dirk squeezed his thumb and forefinger against his eyes. This was just unbelievable. Just how wrong could something go? How could one old man’s dream turn into this mayhem and murder? What had gone on down there on the island? He looked at the two survivors. “How did Jim have a gun if the Professor wouldn’t allow him access to the gun-box?”

Pete thought on his feet, though he was annoyed with himself for not having covered that ground. “We posted guards each night. It had been Jim’s turn the first night with Cobus. He must have already been hatching his plans, so made sure he didn’t return the gun in the morning.”

“How did you two get away?”

Pete wasn’t sure he liked the tone of the question, but decided to keep that to himself. There was no point giving anyone a glimpse of your cards when you held the aces. “I saw this was only going one way. For a moment after he’d shot the Professor, Jim seemed almost catatonic, as if he, too, couldn’t quite believe what had happened. I saw that was our only chance. I grabbed Catalina and ran. The next thing I know it felt like someone’s hit me on the arm with a rock. I kept running – I think I’m more aware than some of the staying-power you get from adrenaline. When I was in Miami once, I remember seeing this guy being chased by the cops; he was so full of barbiturates they literally had to pump fifteen bullets into him to bring him down. Anyway, I heard a couple more shots rip into the trees around us, but for some reason he didn’t follow us. Maybe he thought it’d be a waste of energy, or bullets. Or maybe he just realised we had nowhere to go. He had access to the keys for the guns and explosives now. Perhaps whatever he’d discovered was consuming him, and he couldn’t wait to get back.

“We hid in the forest for hours, but didn’t hear the boat leave, so assumed he was still around. We knew we’d have to come out; find some way of letting you know where we were. Also my wound had bled a lot and I was feeling weak. I needed to dress it. That was when we had a change of fortune. We crept back towards the camp. It seemed deserted. The guns and the sat-phone had gone, as had some of the food. Either we just hadn’t heard the motor, or he’d decided to save fuel by paddling back. But we couldn’t believe it when we saw he’d left the other boat.”

“Why do you think that was?” Again Pete imagined – was it imagination? – an undertone of suspicion in Dirk’s voice. But wasn’t that only to be expected? People he cared about were dead, and someone he held in ill-concealed contempt had survived. Perhaps it was just despair, not doubt. But there was no denying; Dirk looked like someone who’d been left with a pan-full of dirt when he’d been prospecting for gold.

Pete shrugged, and then grimaced as the movement sent pain through his shoulder. “Perhaps he just wasn’t thinking straight.”

“D’ya think?”

Pete reached for his cigarettes and chose not to take the bait. “I’ll give you that one.” He pushed himself up, wobbled a bit and started to make his way outside for a smoke. He turned at the door. “Whatever the reason, we got out of there, and that was our next bit of luck. So here we are.” He stepped outside and lit up.

Dirk rubbed his chin. “What about the bodies – I mean the Professor and Jane?” He directed the question at Catalina, but Pete answered from the porch.  “They’re still where they fell – or at least that’s where we last saw them. We didn’t get a chance to return to them and bringing them with us was impossible. Of course Jim may have moved them by now. I mean, he’s got to be expecting that someone’s going to come back. In fact he’ll probably be calling you as planned. He won’t know what’s happened to us. And he won’t know we had already called you.”

“Yeah, but he’ll see the boat’s gone. He’ll know there’s a GPS unit in it. I just don’t figure how he thought he could get away with this.”

   “He has the sat-phone. What use is a GPS tracker unit when you’re hundreds of miles from anywhere and no-one’s expecting you to be there? We’re not expected to call in for at least another day. As far as he’s concerned we took our chances with the sea. And if somehow we survived, he’ll just turn the tables on us.” Pete threw down his cigarette, twisted his foot on it angrily and stalked in. “After all, who are you and the rest of the world likely to believe?” He glared at Dirk. “The reputable Mr. Jim Bolton, or the playboy Pete Prince? You don’t like me; I know that. But Catalina and I have just come through a hell of an ordeal and quite frankly, I’m fed up with questions for now. For Chrissakes, I haven’t even been able to bury my dead wife.”

With that Pete slumped back down into his chair, then put a hand to his shoulder in pain.

Catalina looked at Dirk. “So what happens now?”

“One thing’s for sure, there’s gonna be hell to pay…for someone; Jim by the sounds of it, if we ever catch him. But until we get to the bottom of why this happened I suggest we keep it quiet.”

“We can’t just hush this up,” said Pete. “There’s families to tell. Candice.”

“Yeah, but nobody’s expecting to hear anything for a couple more days. That gives me time to get my head around this; get myself organised so that, at the very least, I can get back out there with a couple of well-armed buddies, bring the Prof and Jane home and…take it from there I guess.” Dirk looked out of the window, as if he couldn’t quite believe his dead friends weren’t standing there, relieving him of the burden of grief. “I’m truly shocked; not just by the deaths, but by how it’s happened. If you’d asked me to name three people who struck me as being steady as a rock I’d have said Jim Bolton, Cobus Smuts and Robbie McCulloch. Didn’t know any of them well, but that was just first impressions, which I’ve learnt to rely on.” He looked at Pete and Catalina. “Anything else leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.”

Pete felt himself tense. “Meaning?”

Dirk looked long at them, weighing up what to say. “That your – our – confidence and trust was misplaced. That the Professor’d got it all wrong. That the others were right to try to search elsewhere. Perhaps my old friend was stuck in his ways and they just wanted to make the most of the limited time.” He paused.

Pete realised he couldn’t just let that observation go. Was Dirk laying man-traps? “And you think that justifies killing the my wife and my father-in-law?” He congratulated himself silently. They weren’t just names; they weren’t just people; they were family.

Dirk looked long at him. “No. Nothing justifies that. Nothing.” He leaned back in his chair. “Anyway, you two’ve been through a lot. I suggest you rest up here for a couple of days while I get things sorted.” He shook his head again. “What a fucking mess. And to tell you the truth, the moment I saw that place I just knew something bad would happen.”

Dirk got up and made to leave the living room in which they were sitting. At the door he turned. “I’m sorry if I gave you guys a hard time.”

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 16)

Off the coast of Temple Island, October 31st 1997

 

He knew that the k’ib was still there on the other island, and his strength had not yet failed him. After millennia taking the water of life, its effect would not fade so soon. Now, the nearer he drew, the more he could feel the dust in his veins stirring.

He had used his ancient wits, where the others had not, and though they might not yet be dead, they were trapped, and their strength would leave them. They were doomed. Perhaps it was best so. They were nothing now but decadent parasites, following him blindly without once questioning their purpose, while their traditions and beliefs neared extinction. But he was the keeper of the k’ib. He needed no other purpose. The k’ib was life. That was why he alone had escaped from the labyrinth, and why only he could reclaim the prize. He had been so close to his prey, but once the thief had used some more of this new world’s powerful magic to block the tunnel, `Ak’ubal had used his knowledge of the labyrinth to find his way back to the far side of the island.

In water lay memory, and though he had not left TempleIsland since that day of arrival long, long ago, some instinct in him seemed to remember that he had once been but a humble fisherman, before destiny had chosen him. It seemed the innate skill with the boat had never left him and he paddled with ease.  

   He could feel the call of his heart from the other island. For an instant, during his escape from the destruction in the temple, he had felt a faint pulsing, just a fluttering, and knew for certain where he must head, though he could have guessed. But it was as if the k’ib called him. Strange; it would survive without him, find a new master, but their fates had been intertwined for so long now, it was as if history would have to start all over again if they were torn apart.

And yet despite that, his senses were almost overcome by a powerful surge of memories reawakening in the daylight. For how long had he denied himself this air, this sea, as he guarded the darkness, scared of the light from a changing world? Once he had reclaimed the k’ib, he would think on the question; what next for Kaz’khar, the last survivor, the final remnant of prehistory?

****

Once they were back down in the camp, as both of them cast anxious glances out towards the still-distant but menacing figure, Pete said: “Kick some things around; make it look like there was a scuffle. I’m going to inflate the other boat.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

As the boat exploded into life, he watched her knock over a few pots and throw some items around. “That’ll do. Now help me put some stones into the spare boat – big ones; enough to sink it properly when we’re at sea. We’ll put the guns in there as well.”

That being done, he instructed her to grab something warm and the sat-phone.

Out at sea the hunter had closed about a quarter of the distance.

Catalina stopped and looked puzzled. “Surely we…”

“Just do what I say. It’s not just His Supreme Blackness we’re racing against here.” Pete searched for and found a first aid kit and a couple of bottles of water, as well as a GPS tracker. He showed it to Catalina. “Dirk’ll pick us up on this if nothing else.”

“But we have the sat-phone?”

“We’re ditching that.”

“Why?” She sounded confused and a bit panicky. “I’m not happy at the thought of bobbing around in a dinghy on the Southern Ocean with no means of communication.”

“They took it with them, Jim and Cobus, along with the guns.”

“Can’t we at least take the dry suits?”

“Nope. We managed to escape, but didn’t have time or the chance to kit up properly.”

A faint light of comprehension started to flicker in the girl’s eyes. “Okay, I get your drift…I think. Jim and Cobus saw what you would call fortune and glory.” She looked at the mess she had made in the camp. “There was a fight; we all ran, but they followed us. Two innocent people got killed; one of them by accident as she tried to escape, two got away, hid, then made their escape.”

“Clever girl. There’s just one factor I didn’t allow for.” He pointed across the sea. “We probably don’t have all that much juice on the boats, and he won’t stop coming after us if we just try to outrun him. So, we let him come to us a bit and then we sink him.”

“Why don’t we just kill him?”

“I’m not sure there’s enough bullets left in this.” He shook the rifle and looked out to sea again. It was not an encouraging sight to see a centuries-old, vengeful shaman coming to take back the holy relic that you had stolen from him, and just for a moment Pete was unnerved. “If the other priests were anything to go by, this one won’t die easy. He’d be like your worst nightmare, refusing to lie down.” He looked across at the approaching boat. “But I’m willing to bet he can drown.”

He turned back to their camp and saw Catalina looking at him. He knew she was pinning all her hopes on him keeping calm. Women, he thought; they believed they had turned things around in the twentieth century – even had you enslaved by sex – but the reality was, in certain situations they were as little use, and had as little power, as the days when this shaman had first stalked the planet.

“Ok, it’s time to move,” said Pete, “while he’s still far enough out.” He had attached the inflatables together with a length of rope. “Let’s get these into the water.” Once out into the shallow water they clambered into one boat. Pete fired the motor, and they skittered out into deeper waters. Soon they were within a hundred yards of the spectre.

The cowled figure stopped paddling.

Fifty yards.

Forty.

Pete killed the motor and they bobbed perhaps thirty yards from that vision of Hell.

With a sudden pseudo-theatrical sweep of the hand, the dark man threw back his hood. Catalina gasped and buried her face in her hands, while Pete felt his body shudder. The high priest reached a hand towards them, the gesture looking like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera when he was unmasked in the old Lon Chaney movie. Pete felt the darkness of that ancient soul touch him as it had in the temple a few hours before.

Now the cruel mouth was moving, and guttural sounds crossed the void of water and time. Pete’s skin crawled. “Catalina”, he said. Her face remained hidden and he nudged her with his foot. “Catalina!” She managed to drag her eyes upwards, but he saw she had put her fingers in her ears. “What’s he saying?” She ignored him and dropped her gaze again, shaking her head.

Then Pete took a deep breath, raised his rifle and, not without a moment’s hesitation, or perhaps even unexpected regret, fired. The semi-automatic splintered the side of the wooden boat below the waterline and it started to sink. For a moment something seemed to drag at their own boat. Pete looked at his rucksack, wondering. Then he watched as the high priest looked around him in panic. His mouth opened, the bottom jaw falling away at an impossible angle, and an cry issued from it, which had no place on that earth, causing Pete to copy Catalina and put his fingers in his ears. With that, the corvine figure leapt into the water and started to swim towards them.

“Fuck!” Hurriedly, Pete pulled the cord of the engine. “C’mon; c’mon!” It misfired. Was it out of juice? Twice, three times – still nothing. And the priest, though weighed down by his sodden robe, was closing the gap. There was a keening sound, which seemed to be emanating from Catalina. Pete almost laughed; felt as if he was standing outside himself for a moment looking at a ludicrous B-movie, where the director was using every cinematographic cliché to crank up the tension. And as if on cue, the engine coughed into life. Pete took off towards TempleIsland. When he turned again, the bowsprit of the little boat was disappearing below the water and their attacker was nowhere to be seen in the choppy waves. He nudged Catalina, who surfaced from the world into which she had been trying to retreat. Pete pointed towards the wooden boat’s death throes, then sank down and started to laugh. He recognised the note of hysteria in the sound, and it infected the girl, who sobbed with relief.

Now Pete remembered something and looked up at the sky to the north and east.

“Catalina.” She looked at him through tear-stained eyelashes and he saw in that look his complete mastery of her. Better make the most of it, he thought, she’ll want to start pulling the strings soon enough. For a distracted split-second he was almost tempted to pitch her over the side, but decided he stood a better chance of avoiding suspicion if he wasn’t the sole survivor of this expedition. “We’ve still got plenty to do. First, let’s sink the other boat. We’re out over deep water now.”

She untied the rope. “Are you sure we should be doing this? What if anything happens to our boat?”

“C’mon old girl, engage brain. Jim and Cobus would have taken one boat for themselves. I can see we’re going to have to work on getting our story straight.” He looked over at TempleIsland; the pall of smoke and dust has cleared. “Remember, we don’t know where they ended up.  It doesn’t have to be TempleIsland they went to. No-one need ever know what they found, or where. They certainly wouldn’t have told us.”

Then Pete fired four shots into the spare inflatable and it was soon pulled down into the depths. “Time to lose these as well,” he said as he pitched the rifle and sat-phone after it. At least Catalina saw the sense of that – after all, the others would have just grabbed a boat and fled – and was about to throw her pistol away when Pete stopped her. “You’re a good shot. Shoot me.”

“What!”

“Remember, I’m supposed to be a bit of an action man.” He was pleased to see a sardonic smile flicker at the corners of her sensual mouth – the old Catalina was already surfacing. “I’d probably have made some attempt to fight back. Shoot me in the arm. I’ll get over it.”

“I knew shooting the heads off snakes would come in useful sometime.”

Catalina raised the pistol and took aim. They looked at each other. Something passed between them. An awareness, perhaps, of the fine thread that tied the twin eternities of life and damnation. By aiming to the right she could sever it with more ease than she had untied the spare boat, and one of them would have been drawn down into the void. The question was, who?

“Perfect,” said Pete through gritted teeth as she hit him in the exact spot he had indicated and the bullet exited, leaving a clean wound. He let it bleed for a while, soaking his shirt sleeve as it would have done if he had spent some time in hiding, then got her to dress it while he swallowed some pain killers. Catalina threw the pistol overboard. “Okay, old girl, now let’s head further out to sea.” He used his good arm to start the motor. “We’ll keep going till the fuel’s out, then we’ll just have to wait.”

“Can’t we go back to the camp and wait?”

“Either we’d have buried the bodies out of respect, or we’d still be hiding, fearing the return of gun-totin’ Jim.”

“You’re right, of course.” She sank back against the side of the boat, and then sat up again. “But there’s one flaw in your plan; why would he have left a boat behind for us to steal?”

Pete scratched his chin, and then said: “Because he got complacent. He took the sat-phone so we’d have no means of communication, not knowing you’d already got through to Dirk while he was off on his own selfish mission. Are you sure he’s coming, by the way?”

“It was a crap connection, but yup, he knows we’re in trouble.”

“So, as I say, our story is that Jim would have intended to make contact later, after he’d come back to finish us off. He’ll have assumed there wasn’t enough fuel for us to escape, whereas we, desperate, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea chose the latter, preferring to take our chances with the ocean than wait to be hunted down.”

“So why wouldn’t he call in, in a couple of days from now?”

“Who knows? Perhaps he dies. Goes mad. Sets off to try to get to one of the islands and sinks. Who cares? Just relax, Catty. As long as you and I stick to our story, we’ll be fine. After all, there’s nothing to link you and me prior to this. We’re just two members of an ill-fated, ill-prepared expedition. If our shared adventure brings us closer together after this, who’d be surprised.”

Catalina leaned back again against the side of the boat and there was a certain admiration in voice: “Well, I have to admit, you seem to have all the bases covered. You thought hard and fast there.” Pete saw her smile become arch. She pushed herself towards him and her hand rested at the top of his thigh. “Talking of hard and fast, have you got any plans for when the motor dies?”

 

Later, Pete enjoyed the unique experience of indulging in a little plane-spotting during sex. Otherwise, even his quick mind would have difficulty explaining that particular scenario to Dirk.

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The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 15)

Scorpion Archipelago Base Camp, October 31st 1997 4am

 

For a moment he had drawn strength from the rising column of black smoke above Temple Island. Had they done it; stormed the enemy stronghold and rescued his daughter? The return of his Jane was all that mattered. And if it meant that Cobus and Jim, and yes, Pete too, had blown to pieces a building or a citadel of astounding historical interest, so be it. But when at last the orange boat had appeared around the headland of the other island and through the binoculars he had seen there was only one person on board, the one about whom he had to admit he cared the least, all strength had left his legs and he had collapsed onto the shingle.

At last he remembered the gentleman within and turned to Catalina. The poor girl, who had come with very high recommendations from Jane, seemed to have withdrawn into herself pretty early on during the expedition. He had expected different from a seasoned trekker with, according to Jane, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. But as with everyone else, this place had proved too much for her and after Robbie’s disappearance, she had pretty much gone to pieces, her nerves fraying. He found himself feeling a duty of care towards her. After all, choosing to survive in the Outback for a finite period with no responsibilities was one thing, but he had brought her to a place upon which God appeared to have turned his back. She and Jane – he swallowed hard – seemed to have been getting along despite the age difference. Perhaps his beloved daughter had spotted some of her own spirit in the girl. For that reason alone he had to get her back and ensure that seed had a chance to grow; nurture it from afar. Jane had picked her out and that was good enough for him.

Now he thought of who was approaching in the boat and realised the grim irony of that last thought; she’d also picked Pete. But there, too, he would now have to adjust his mind-set. Pete appeared to be in genuine distress about his wife’s disappearance and had not hesitated in taking instant action to try to rescue her, heading into the lion’s den with no thought of the dangers ahead. All past disputes and misgivings to one side, Sutch had to try to be fair.

He heard the engine being cut; saw Pete pull the inflatable ashore as far as the rounded pebbles weathered by the sea, avoiding the more jagged volcanic stones, then stagger towards them and into the waiting arms of Catalina. The bleakness of TempleIsland was already mirrored in his eyes. He seemed exhausted. Sutch did not dare to ask, wanting and fearing the knowledge. “We’ve kept the fire going,” he said. “You’d better come over and warm up.”

Wordless, they moved across to the fire. Catalina threw a sleeping bag across Pete’s shoulders; a mug of coffee was placed in his hands.

“They ambushed us in the temple. We followed the route we’d marked before. They were still at worship, but then they left. We crept in, meaning to search.” He stared into the fire. “There was no point searching for Robbie.” He put a hand on Catalina’s. “We found what was left of him.” The girl folded her arms across her chest and shuddered. “I’m sorry.” Now he looked at the Professor. “But there was no sign of Jane.” Sutch looked at him with intensity. “Surely that must be a sign of hope there.”

“Yes,” said Sutch. “There. But where?”

“Do we know they took her?”

“You and Cobus followed them.”

“But it was dark. We can’t…couldn’t be sure. Anyway, we searched some of the tunnels, but in the meantime they doubled back behind us. Somehow they knew we were there. We returned to the inner sanctum, to find ourselves confronted by ranks of angry, evil faces and more of them were coming down the tunnel behind us to cut us off. We opened fire, but they were too quickly onto us. It was then that we saw the effect of this.” He removed and reached into the rucksack, pulling out the prize, the booty, Number 42, the time machine, a treasure not yet understood.

Despite everything – the loss of Jane and the deaths of young men helping him chase his fading dream – despite all of that Pete saw that Sutch was transfixed for a moment; a moment in which Pete’s contempt for academics, which had festered within him since his expulsion from Harrow, reach its zenith; or nadir, depending on one’s point of view. He decided that, for all his many imperfections, he would rather be the selfish, greedy sonofabitch he was; more interested in what something or someone could do for him, with the clarity and focus that brought, than be blindfolded by a concept or idea and lead others blundering to their deaths. At least if he cheated someone, they could live on to hate his guts; and if they cheated him – well, today had been a first for him; an eye for an eye. For Sutch, that piece of metal could be the stuff of legends – those repositories of dead people – whereas for Pete it meant the chance to celebrate life; preferably living the dream, not dying it. The old man held out a hand and, not without a momentary twinge of possessiveness, Pete handed him the k’ib. As he saw the piece turning over and over in Sutch’s hands, it re-emphasised for Pete that often, in the history of archaeological discovery, so many lives, deaths and dreams distilled to a tiny piece of matter so small it might be a pebble on the shore of time. This did not stop him reaching across after a few moments and taking back the k’ib. He noticed the slight resistance of the Professor’s fingertips; it was like pulling a mussel from a shell.

He continued, taking some resentful pleasure from dragging his father-in-law back to the harshness of this pressing world after the brief escape of a moment’s blissful reverie. “We ploughed bullets into them, but soon it was clear that wouldn’t be enough to stop them. There were too many of them, and they refused to die. As for their leader…well, let’s just say that when I realised our only chance was to steal this and I lifted it from its altar, he turned his gaze on me.” Pete felt a chill; his shiver was genuine enough. “I’d be more than happy never to see him again. By now some of them were dragging Cobus and Jim away down tunnels. I have to say that rock spider was a hero – never thought I’d hear myself say that.” He broke off. “Sorry, have either of you got my cigarettes anywhere?”

“Um, yes, they’re here,” said the Professor, looking around and finding them. Pete lit one with shaking hands and inhaled deeply, an evident quiver in this throat.

“Yes, both of them were heroes. I knew I only had a few shots left and would have followed them, though God knows I’d have been lost in that labyrinth, but Cobus shouted ‘Blow the place!’ We’d planted plastic explosive by the altar and in the entrance to the tunnels by an enormous statue. If they saw us doing it they can’t have understood what we were doing.

“Now I noticed the remaining ones were looking at me. I had their precious brass god and without it they would die. Unfortunately for them they didn’t realise the other object in my hands held the same fate. They began to chase me as I ran. I pressed the detonator first, which brought them right into the path of the delayed explosion. I’m not sure if any of them escaped. I didn’t see what became of their leader, but I could still feel his presence – that’s not something I can explain. When I emerged from the tunnels into the ante-chamber of the temple I detonated a second explosive, which brought down an enormous statue across the tunnel entrance. I’m pretty sure it would have blocked it completely.

“I have no idea whether the others made it out – Cobus, Jim or the priests, but I have a feeling some of the tunnels wouldn’t have taken too kindly to the blast.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled a steady stream of smoke; he was feeling calmer. “It looked like they’d had to shore up some of them with timber when they dug extra passages to turn the caves into a labyrinth. By the way, the statues were made of rocksalt.” He looked sidelong at the Professor. “That, I suspect, was the source of the precious cargoes your merchants were trading. Looks like your pirate captain got that bit wrong.”

“Yes,” said Sutch, “but rocksalt was a valuable commodity in itself in those days.” That the Professor bothered to argue that point only increased Pete’s contempt for him and spoke volumes about the old man’s state of mind.   

   “Anyway, I’m not scared to admit it; I kept on running. You know what; I could still feel him, His Royal Darkness, the high priest, king of the castle. I could feel shadows reaching out from the tips of his fingers, seeking his little yellow idol.” Again Pete did not need to call on RADA level skills. There was a chill in his bones and he pulled the sleeping bag closer around him. He stared into the fire. “If there is anything to this story of eternal life, I wonder if someone can live too long?”

“You mean, can you transgress so far against the laws of nature that you affect them, becoming a part of them, and they of you?”

Pete looked across and saw that the Professor, too, was staring into the fire. “I don’t know what I mean.” He pitched the cigarette into the flames. “I’m so sorry about Jane. Like I say, there was no sign of her. But I just can’t imagine where she could be. I mean…” he hesitated, “…look, I’m sorry to say it, but they’d wasted no time with Robbie.” He looked at Sutch and Catalina in turn. “No sign of her here then, I guess.” The girl shook her head in silence, turned and walked away towards the water’s edge. Sutch tapped Pete on the shoulder.

“I have been a fool,” said the old man, “and in my folly I am become death.” He stopped to reflect on that statement – an echo of earlier times. “A destroyer of futures and families.” Pete said nothing, but tapped out another cigarette. You might have destroyed your family’s future, old man, he thought, but I’ve got mine planned. “Do me a favour will you, Pete?”

“If I can.” The familiarity from his father-in-law rather took him aback.

The Professor gestured with his head towards the troubled beauty by the sea. “Look after her. Make sure she gets back in one piece. This has been traumatic for her. I just don’t think she was ready, or as strong as she believed.”

“Were any of us?”

“I brought her to this place of death; I want her now to have a life.”

“You’re talking like you’re reading your will.”

“Well maybe I am.”

“Meaning?” Pete frowned, but could not look the Professor in the eye. It was not just that past indifferences, as he liked to think of them, might still be revealed. He was scared of what Sutch would see in his eyes. Stranger still, he was scared that in the old man’s eyes he might see someone he didn’t recognise.

“I can’t leave here without knowing Jane’s fate. Perhaps she has wandered off into the forest; got disorientated; lost. She might be lying injured somewhere. This is a peculiar place. We’ve all felt it. I can’t help believing there’s more to this; that the story – her story – isn’t over. Maybe she is alive on TempleIsland; maybe the others are. I’ll paddle across in one of the boats and search. There will be no place that I will not look, on any of these hellish pieces of rock.”

Pete was looking at him now, in amazement laced with a little foreboding. He noticed Catalina was also looking; seemed she had picked up on the Professor’s ominous behaviour, as if the calmness disguised the unravelling of his mind. “You can’t be serious. You’re going to stay here?”

“Yes. When Dirk arrives in a few hours – we managed to get hold of him on the sat-phone, didn’t we Catalina? – I won’t be going with you.”

“Pardon me saying so, Edward, but that’s crazy. What about Candice? You’ve got her to think of. Ok, you’ve lost Jane…” The Professor shot him a look. “…well, it’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“I won’t believe that!” shouted Sutch, his face reddening before he calmed down.  “Can’t allow myself to believe it. My daughter is resilient. She may have escaped and be hiding on TempleIsland. I couldn’t bear to think of her hoping and praying for someone to come and help her, and that person never coming. I’ll search every inch of this blasted kingdom, which met the fate it deserved if it was destroyed.”

Pete stood. “You’re a scientist; think like one.”

Sutch rose to meet his gaze. “That’s always been my burden.”

Pete paced away from the fire, then turned and walked back to stand almost eyeball to eyeball with Sutch. “Do you want to hear some facts? Like Robbie was a rugby player, ex Royal Navy, a tough lad. And he ended up in the archipelago’s equivalent of a fast food joint; skewered, like some antediluvian kebab.” Pete looked across at Catalina, who went pale. He was not in the mood to spare her feelings; took pleasure, in fact, from her distaff weakness. “I mean that in all senses, since they were eating him bit by bit.” Though the Professor had gone pale, Pete fixed him with his eyes and did not spare him. “If he couldn’t get away, what chance Jane?”

Sutch tried his best to gather his wits, rescue them from the wind that was trying to scatter them to the furthest reaches of the Southern Ocean. “Then I owe it to him as well as her not to give up.” He turned and surveyed the rest of the camp. “We’re only three days into a five day expedition. There are provisions enough now to see me through much longer than that.”

Catalina came over. Only her Argentinean complexion saved her from looking paler than the old man. “Professor, this would be madness.”

“It’s my daughter, dammit!” She flinched as if he had slapped her face and Sutch raised his hand in apology before rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not…myself.”

She moved forward, and put hesitant arms around him. “It’s okay Professor, you’re in shock; hardly surprising. That’s what’s caused you to make this irrational decision.” She expected a reaction; instead all she felt was the collar of her shirt becoming damp.

 

It seemed the old man had lost the will to move. Perhaps if he did not, he might even be able to believe he was in the arms of his darling Jane. He wondered if he had lost his mind, knew the very act of wondering proved he hadn’t, but still, he knew he was close to the edge. He needed a rope to haul him back, and searching for his daughter would give him that. Besides, he could not return home, could he? Could not stand in front of Candice and explain how his hare-brained pursuit of a mirage had cost them their daughter, as well as the lives of three other fine, intelligent young people. In his grief he recognised that this was where he belonged. He was the rightful heir to this blighted kingdom. This place was also the fitting home for the amphora, the exotic whore to whom he and Tariq proved worthy sons. So now the circle would be complete; for he did not doubt that he would join his blood-brother in ending his days here. Perhaps that was why Tariq had returned.

Candice would understand why he could not come back to her, at least not until he had overturned every stone, including those in the destroyed temple, or had died in the attempt. He had nothing now but time – ironically not much of that.

He released himself from Catalina’s embrace. “Well, there’s no time like the present.”

“You’re not serious?” said Catalina.

Pete’s Zippo clicked and hissed, and then he turned back to the Professor. “When did you get through to Dirk?”

Catalina answered. “Shortly after you left; a couple of hours ago? It was a poor connection. He recognised me, and I think he got the gist. So what does that give us – ten, maybe twelve hours, assuming he gets fuelled pretty quickly?”

“Look, I’ll tell you what, Edward,” said Pete, “I’ll come with you and help you search this island as best we can in the time available, but then we leave with Dirk.”

Sutch looked him in the eye. “Pete, I appreciate all you’ve done and acknowledge that, in a lot of ways I’ve misjudged you. I always thought you’d be the author of Jane’s misery, not me, and for that I apologise. But I’m staying. In a way it’s where I belong. Hopefully Dirk can send over reinforcements. I’m going to comb these islands till I know, for better or worse, the fate of my daughter.”

Pete pressed his lips together. He looked up into the trees for a long time, seemed to come to a decision, and then nodded curtly. “Ok, we’ll come with you; at least until Dirk arrives.”

“Uh uh.” The sound of denial came from Catalina. She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m sorry, but I’m going nowhere in this terrible place. I’ll stay here and wait for you.”

“We should stay together,” said Sutch. “After all…” Then he noticed that she was shaking. “Ok, you wait here. Try to reach Dirk again. Pete and I will start at the one place we know we can get to quickly.”

“You mean the citadel,” said Pete

“Yes. If you were going to kidnap someone in camp that would be your quickest route out other than the sea – or the best place to hide someone.”

Pete nodded. “You could be right. Ok, the guys in the boat fled because of Cobus and Jim returning, but there might have been others involved who also ran off. And they’d be likely to have used the easiest route – the one we hacked clear to the citadel. I know the words straws and clutching spring to mind, but we might as well start somewhere.”

With that Sutch turned on his heels and marched towards the track leading to the citadel. Pete looked long and hard at Catalina, to which the adjective loving could never have been applied. He slung on his rucksack, though not before remembering to pack the k’ib, and followed the old man.

The gradient was steep and immediate – Pete was soon sweating and panting. He slapped his palm on his rucksack and, his words parenthesised by deep breaths, said: “So much for mystical powers; right now this thing just feels like a small dumbbell on my back.”

Gasping, but pushing on in dogged fashion, the Professor replied: “I don’t care anymore.” His tone told of a man walking in the shadows of failure and so tired, he was ambivalent about the fitful, fading light of redemption.

“It’s not what I expected either. I thought it might be made of gold, or studded with diamonds. Isn’t that what hidden treasure is all about? Been watching too many action adventure movies, I guess.”

“Where was it when you took it?” Sutch could not suppress the inquisitiveness intrinsic to the man he had been.

“Standing on an altar, or some sort of plinth in the middle of a stream of water. It looked like either the plinth had been built there deliberately, or the stream diverted.”

“And how did the…thing look when you first saw it?”

Pete could tell Sutch was remembering Tariq’s letter. He wanted information; needed to know at least that the tenets on which he had based this whole expedition were sound. Undeniably it gave Pete a certain sadistic pleasure to drip-feed the facts. He had found the k’ib. He had seen the k’ib. He had the k’ib. He had the power. “It seemed to pulse with a sporadic light and there was a kind of…” he sought the right word, “…thrumming in the air, and when I picked it up it seemed to be vibrating beneath my fingertips. Maybe the water was powering it somehow. Maybe they have a sort of symbiotic relationship, just like Tariq said.”

Sutch stopped and looked at him – scanned his face in fact – before saying: “Maybe.” Then he looked past Pete’s shoulder, and through a gap in the trees saw Catalina back at the camp. Even at this distance she looked scared. Then she moved away out of his line of sight even as he was lifting his arm to acknowledge her. “As I said at the camp, I want you to look after her. She’s been through a lot. She wasn’t ready for this.”

Pete looked round and saw no-one. “I give you my word – for what that’s worth.”

They had gone another couple of hundred yards when Sutch shouted: “Look!” He pointed to the right. It was the path to the waterfall, but that wasn’t what had caught the Professor’s eye. Rather, it was a piece of red cloth hanging almost motionless in the still air beneath the trees. He hurried towards it, took it from the branch where it had snagged and played it between his fingertips. “It’s not one of the base-layer shirts we’ve been wearing during the day. It’s cotton. Jane changed into this last night, didn’t she?”

“Um, I think so.” Pete knew so; knew she hadn’t been wearing it while Jim fucked her – why did the image still hit him hard, right between the legs, in the middle of the male universe? It had been lying with her other clothes by the side of the lake, but he wasn’t about to admit to having witnessed that deed, for more than one reason, including – a surprise this, to Pete – some curious, belated respect for the feelings of an old man who did not need that information about his lost daughter. Lost indeed; a mystery to all of them. “But didn’t she come up here for a wash? This doesn’t really tell us anything.”

The Professor’s face reflected the hard truth of that, but he appeared determined to clutch at every one of those straws Pete had mentioned. “I remember now; she bought it in Singapore because we left Winchester so early the morning after our dinner. This was her new shirt. And you know women – if she’d torn it, I’m sure even my uncomplaining daughter would have mentioned it when she came back to camp. Let’s go and take a look. She may have been brought here by force.” His voice shook with excitement.

Pete looked at the ground. “There’s no sign of any…” He frowned. “No wait, you’re right. There are drag marks here in the mud.” He led the way as they hurried as best they could through the tangle of roots towards the little lake; the sound of water babbling over the rocks by the falls growing louder, but also more ominous. Despite his age the Professor overtook Pete. He rushed to the water’s edge, then let out a moan and sank to his knees.

Pete approached with caution. He looked past the old man’s heaving shoulders. An image shimmered beneath the surface of the lake, its shape transmogrifying in the disturbed waters, but offering an occasional tantalising, split-second image of its identity. “Oh my God,” he said and it was no feigned surprise.

She was not wearing red. He had wanted to tell the old man that his daughter would hardly have slept in her new shirt, but it seemed such an irrelevance in the overall scheme of things. Likewise, he had wanted to say that Jane would not have drawn any sort of attention to herself, ripped shirt or not, on returning to camp yesterday evening, as she would have believed her shame was written all over her face. So it seemed that fate, coincidence, or the vengeful spirit of this island, had taken a hand and led them to this spot by means of a tiny, blood-red flag.

His stomach churned, and not for all the right reasons. There was a double-edged sword being held out towards him by this lady of the lake and one sweep of its blade could end his problems or multiply them. He stood transfixed. There was something disconcerting about a dead face staring open-eyed at you from beneath water, the ripples causing expressions to flit across it. Pete felt it might have been better, if no less gruesome, if fish or crabs had attacked the eyes, taking away part of the humanity.

Now Pete looked at the back of the Professor’s head. The old man was silent for a moment longer, but then he turned and stretched out his hand towards Pete, making a grabbing gesture with his fingers.

“Give it to me.”

Pete frowned. “What?”

“The k’ib. Give it to me.”

Pete just stared at him, then with a sinking feeling said: “What good will that do? She’s dead. Can’t you see that?”

Sutch got to his feet and snapped impatient fingers. “But who knows how long she’s been here? It might not be too late. Give it to me!”

Pete felt himself drawing back. “It doesn’t work like that.” He knew there could be no harm in handing over his prize, but he was reluctant nonetheless. Was this how it started – standing outside oneself, watching the beginning of one’s enslavement to this ancient artefact.

“What do we know?”

“Remember Tariq’s document; it won’t bring her back to life; it prolongs life. But let’s get her out of there; at least show some respect instead of arguing.” Pete removed his rucksack and bent to untie his boots in preparation for entering the water.

“Respect? You never showed her any while she was alive.”

Pete stood up again. “Hey, now wait a fucking minute. That was a two way street.”

“Maybe, but you did nothing to earn her respect. You never loved her, did you, from the beginning? Just the kudos of being married to someone of worth.”

As far as Pete was concerned, this was just typical of the contempt with which the old bastard had treated him from the beginning. Just because he hadn’t chosen to live his life with his nose buried in books and his arse in sand. “Much good your worth has done you. Here.” He picked up the rucksack and hurled it at the Professor. “I hate to say it, but I want to see you fail. But at least let me get her out of there.” Sutch fumbled in the bag and felt the metallic surface beneath his fingers, inert and heavy. He pulled out the k’ib. “I risked my life twice to try to find her,” continued Pete. “I loved her well enough. But things change. Life moves on.”

There were two loud cracks.

“Or not,” said the voice from behind them. The Professor pitched forward, with the cold giver of life still clutched in his hand, while the barrel of the taker smoked in Catalina’s. “We didn’t have time for all that,” she said to Pete as he spun round, meeting his astonished gaze with one of icy pragmatism.

Pete stood open mouthed, doing his impression of a spectator at a tennis match as he looked backwards and forwards between the assassin and the victim, on whose side two red stains were spreading. “What have you done?” he asked, which might have ranked as the least incisive question of that whole sorry expedition, and got the answer it deserved.

“I thought it was pretty obvious. I didn’t want to stand here listening to whether you did or didn’t love her.”

Pete pointed towards the lake. “I meant why did you kill her? Why? Why!? You knew the plan.” He sounded desperate. “What did you do? Give her a ‘goodnight sweetheart’ dose of adama; just a tiny bit too much? I just wanted her out of the way for a while; long enough for everyone to go a bit nuts and give me the opportunity to kill that fucking photographer. She was still alive when I took her up to the citadel.”

“Yes, leaving her alive was the bit of your plan that didn’t appeal to me.”

He nodded in recognition of something. “I thought your behaviour was a bit strange today. You seemed distracted; edgy. I put it down to your nerves at having to get involved in something like this at all, but now I see you were just like a cat on a hot tin roof.” He heard the pun on her name – strange how the perverse mind grasped at irrelevant minutiae in moments of stress – but for once he was not in the mood to be flippant. “No wonder you didn’t want me coming up here just now. But what did you think – I wouldn’t find out? The Professor wasn’t the only one keen to take another look up here. When I saw that she hadn’t returned to the camp by the time I got back, I had a feeling something had changed.”

She came and stood in front of him, green eyes blazing. God she was beautiful, but he had failed to recognise just how deep her passions ran. “Did you think I was going to let the two of you kiss and make up? You’re mine,” – she hissed the words – “and you told me I was yours. Why should I have let her live? I call it a win-win scenario – for me; I might have lost you to her, but now I can’t, even if you hate me forever.

“After we’d reached Dirk on the radio, I came up here and broke her neck. She told me you were a bit of a martial arts expert. In that case you’d have been proud of the karate chop I used. Then I thought, where could she have slipped? She’d already done it here once in front of everyone, so it seemed perfect.”

“Remind me never to piss you off.”

“Exactly.”

“I thought you seemed less distraught when I told you about Robbie’s death than you were when he first went missing. You’d killed by then. Must have toughened you up.”

“No, I just didn’t need to try making you jealous anymore.” He looked at her and she looked him straight back in the eye, then put her hand up and placed it on his chest. “But isn’t this what we wanted? And am I any worse than you? You killed them – I killed her.” She squeezed her fingers like claws against his chest and her eyes smouldered. “The jealousy you felt when she fucked Jim – multiply it by a hundred and you’ll know how I felt when I saw you were jealous.”

He took her hand from his chest and saw the hurt register in her eyes. “But it was all falling into our laps. Yes, I felt a twinge of jealousy, but only in a selfish way. There is… ” he looked into the lake, “…was no love there. It was who she chose to fuck that did my head in, and the way she threw herself at him.”

“Then what’s the problem,” she protested.

“I’d photographed them. I could have used that to get a very favourable divorce settlement. She’s a wealthy woman. Now, until her body’s found, or at least they agree that it won’t be – which could be a long time – there’ll be no inheritance. She didn’t know you’d drugged her food. I just wanted her out of the way. It was all falling into place so well. Fate had even dealt me a couple of kind hands – finding the k’ib and getting the chance to turn the Afrikaner prick into a piece of collateral damage. All it needed now was for her to wander out of the forest, or for us to find her. She wouldn’t have been any the wiser; would probably have thought she’d been kidnapped by some of our shaman friends. Now there’s every chance a search party will come and find the bodies.”

“Well nobody knows to find them here, thanks to the Professor.”

Pete noticed that her eyes didn’t even flicker as she mentioned the man she’d just shot in cold blood, whose body lay no more than ten feet from where they now stood. Then he frowned as he mulled over her comment. “No, the best form of defence is attack; if we try denying something and it turns out we lied, how’ll that make us look? Besides, Candice knows something – I’m not sure how much, but I can’t take any chances. I’m sure there’s enough evidence in Sutch’s study to lead someone here eventually. Then there’s Dirk.”

Catalina gave an abstract smile, devoid of humour and warmth. “You can fly a plane.”

Pete actually blinked in surprise. “Like I said, remind me never to piss you off.”

“Hey,” she responded, “have you forgotten? We’ve killed already. The way to Hell beckons. What’s one more?”

“The blood-lust’s getting to you. Don’t forget, the airfield will know where Dirk’s heading.”

“But it’s a huge ocean. He could’ve ditched anywhere.”

“He’ll have given his route. They’ll know what direction he was taking, and they won’t assume it was Antarctica.”

“You’re being very cautious. It’s not like you.”

“I wasn’t a murderer before. Nor sleeping with one.”

She grinned again. How could cruelty look so fair? The twitch in his loins caught Pete off guard.

“We could fly off somewhere,” she ventured, “till it all dies down.”

“We’d have to refuel and they’d want some I.D. It’s not so easy to just disappear in this day and age.”

“I know some people in Oz. They like bypassing the law whenever possible. They could help us.”

“Like I said, I don’t think we could get back to Oz without refuelling. But even if we could, I don’t want to involve anyone else. Our strength lies in the secrecy of the original expedition. No, I’m going to stick with the idea that’s forming.”

“Pete?” He’d turned his back on her and walked off.

“Just let me think for a minute.”

It was clear from her voice that she was stung. “Hey, I’m sorry if I spoiled your plan to play happy families again.”

He spun round. “I told you not to come; when you phoned me that night at the dinner party.”

“She’d asked me. I didn’t plan to kill her. Besides, when I called I didn’t know you’d be on the expedition; didn’t even know what it was all about. I just wanted to get closer to the enemy; find out about her, and through her find out what really made you tick. Seems I was harbouring the false hope that you might want me forever.”

Now a thought struck Catalina. She went across to the Professor’s body and took the k’ib from his hand. For a moment it seemed to vibrate beneath her fingers, but then stopped, so she guessed it was her passion. She held it up, saying: “And forever is what we have in our grasp. I heard your conversation with the old fool. You believe in this, don’t you?”

Pete’s eyes narrowed and he came forward. “Give me that.”

She pulled it away from his reach, held it in teasing manner behind her back. “I see you do.” She smiled, and then handed over the k’ib. “You never really had a plan, did you? You came here seeking…what, another adrenalin rush?”

He looked down – she was wiser than he had imagined. “Yes, I came in curiosity, I’ll be honest; I also needed a bit of time away from the hurricane of our affair just to think – work out where you and I went from there. We couldn’t have carried on like that; we’d have burnt each other out. That’s why I was so pissed off when you disobeyed me and showed up. But then things just started to fall into place. Her unfaithfulness gave me the chance I needed to be rid of her and that prick the photographer at the same time. Like I said, the rock-spider was collateral damage; whether he had insulted me or not, he had to go. And fortune and glory showed up as well.” He brandished the k’ib to emphasise his point, then retrieved his rucksack, dug into a side pocket and, pulling out his cigarettes, offered her one. She took it. He saw her hands were steady – they must have been, to shoot the old man with such clinical accuracy. As they stood there, Pete wondered just for a moment whether this was a dream conjured by the island; two hedonists drawing deep on cigarettes amidst carnage of their own making in a forest in the kingdom of the dead. If Dali had nightmares, this might have been the stuff of it.

“So I didn’t really figure in your plans,” said Catalina, breaking the thoughts. “You didn’t really need me,” she paused, “until you did. Till I happened to mention  that one of the plants flourishing in this dead place was adama. Only then did I have a use, other than as your fuck-buddy.”

He stepped up to her and saw sadness flit across her eyes. No way was she a child of Australia. Her face reflected the moodiness of Tierra del Fuego, not the constant heat of the desert. There was sweat on her top lip and in the hollow of her neck. “How can we trust each other?”

“Look around you.” She made an almost casual gesture with the cigarette. “How can we not?”

“How do you know I won’t just kill you?”

“Ditto.” She threw down the cigarette and ground it with her shoe. Then a lascivious look gleamed in her eyes and she started to unbutton her shirt. “But I know you won’t harm me – you prefer fucking me. And if your fuck-buddy for life is what I must settle for, that’s cool.” Her cleavage appeared in the opening of the shirt and she gestured with a disdainful toss of the head towards the pool. “Why did you want her kept alive? Did you enjoy betraying her?”

He was aroused despite everything around them, and her eyes took in that arousal. She dropped the open shirt over her shoulders. She looked magnificent. He grabbed the front of the shirt to pinion her arms and they kissed each other as if it was an act of brutality. Then they pulled apart, breathless.

“Did it turn you on to fuck me and then go home to her?” she said. Then she looked at the lake. “Well now let’s do it in front of her.”

Pete was teetering on the edge of a black gorge that might have been the rest of his life. He had free-fallen into deep caves in Mexico where the bottom was hidden in shadow hundreds of feet below. Being the lover of Catalina, he could see, was like doing it without the parachute.

He could not have guessed, right then, at the irony of that image.

For now, he was left to wonder whether she had him drugged with some other plant known only to her. How else could he explain enjoying the fuck of his life with the woman who killed his wife and father-in-law, while they lay dead just a few feet away?

****

   After the unreasoning madness of sex had passed, he waited for the shame to kick in, but it did not. Then he looked at the k’ib and wondered whether it would decide his fate from this moment forth.

He watched Catalina smoking a post-coital cigarette. He guessed they belonged to each other now, but if greed and lust were the twin pillars of the temple at which he worshipped, then this raven-haired, green-eyed, uninhibited killer might as well be the goddess. And neither of them could risk leaving the other; whatever the nature of the prize he had stolen from the universe, it would not keep either of them out of jail, so he guessed they had an understanding there.

As fatigue started to hit him, the pendulum of his thoughts swung from the future to the past; to the day he had first set eyes on her, at that university Freshers’ Ball, which he had attended under duress at Jane’s bidding.

They had caught each other’s eye too many times not to speak at the bar afterwards. Her brazenness had thrown him; a combustible mix of her South American fire and Australian forthrightness.

 

   “So what are you studying?” he asks.

   She raises one eyebrow. “You. And botany.”

   She has caught him off balance. For one absurd moment he is tempted to come back with a stupid rhyme about being lost for a riposte, but regains his senses. They look at each other for an eternity of slow seconds, and then he places his drink on the bar and says: “Well, I’m not very good at this sort of thing, so I’m gonna shoot.” But he does nott move.

   “Eats, shoots and leaves,” she says.

   “Something like that.”

   “We could change that paradigm.”

   “Meaning?”

   She leans up on tiptoes. He smells smoke and shampoo from her hair. “Meaning you could fuck me.”

   The ball is being held in the debating chamber on the campus. They leave separately and meet up in the darkness of the Arts Faculty building. From the first lecture theatre theyare about to enter comes the throaty, rhythmic grunting of somebody already part-way along the path they themselves are intending to take. They look at each other and stifle drunken laughter, then head along the corridor to another room. Once inside, he has his first taste of her; the hunger in her kiss is almost cannibalistic. Then she breaks off, urging him to: “Wait, wait.” As if he’s going anywhere. She delves into her clutch bag and produces a mirror, though it soon becomes clear how she intends to powder her nose.

    He grabs her wrist. “What are you doing?”

   “Don’t worry,” she says, “I only use it during sex. Boy, does it make me come!”

   He feels unexpected rage; an irrational jealousy, as if he’s having to share her. “Somehow I get the feeling you restrict sex to days that have a ‘Y’ in them. But if you want me, you do it without that shit. I don’t sleep with coke-heads.” He stuffs the items back into her bag and tosses it across the room.

   “Who the fuck…?” She raises a hand to strike him.

   He grabs her wrist. “You wanna come, I’ll make you come.”

   He is as good as his word. But not once, even when it has become almost unbearable for her and the sensitivity of her nerve-endings has her thrashing like a speared fish in its death throes, does she plead for him to stop. 

His is not the only seed sown that night. A pattern is set; the need for danger. Jane’s frequent absences make life easy for the lovers, but it takes away the thrill of deception. They find, like countless generations before them, that the chance of discovery gives their physical relationship an edge. So for those times when his wife is back from her travels, his addiction to gambling is born. It’s the perfect excuse; back in the early hours and always short of money. But what gives him the biggest kick of all as he slips into bed beside his wife is the knowledge that he has deceived both her and her patronising prick of a father. On those rare occasions when she welcomes him back with more than just open arms, he savours the knowledge that she is, literally, up against stiff competition.

   Though there is no denying that sex with Catalina registers on the Richter Scale, she develops a worrying trend; an increasing need to be told that he loves her. When he discovers that she switched from Botany to Archaeology to get closer to him via Jane, he starts to hear the sound of bunnies boiling. So when she calls him at the Professor’s dinner party on the eve of their departure, to tell him that she has been asked to join the expedition, he instructs her not to accept and determines that he will go – it’s the perfect opportunity for a few days’ break from her. Besides, the stab of possessiveness he feels at his wife’s ill-concealed flirtation with the photographer has surprised him. However, it does not blind him to opportunity. He can kill two birds with one stone.

   Except Catalina arrives at Heathrow Airport after all. He punishes her in the only way he know; by freezing her out. She tries hard to conceal her dismay, but he knows her eyes well enough by now.

   Then things start to happen, which he guesses are typical of a man.  Like a dog in the manger, he grows jealous of the burgeoning friendship between Catalina and the other two students. They won’t be tasting that honey pot if he can help it. And when he catches her furtive glances in his direction, his confidence grows. There had been a time during their…he guessed ‘relationship’ was the only word that fitted…when he’d felt he was losing control, but now he has it back. At one point during the flight he makes a discreet gesture towards her neck, reminding her of her love of being choked during sex. She blushes uncontrollably. He has the power.

   Then such jealousy as he feels for Jane turns to contempt when she surrenders her body to that cunt no more than half a mile from the camp. A plan forms. The rest – of the team at least – is history.    

 

“What’s the matter?”

She said it with such insouciance – almost a weariness beyond her years as she exhaled smoke – that he was taken aback. She had known he was watching her. That scared him. As did her apparent ability to read his mind, as she continued:

“You wondering what an eternity with me will be like?”

He watched with envy as she took another calm drag on her cigarette. How could she be so at peace when minutes before her cries had threatened to wake the dead?

“I knew the answer to that from the very first time you whispered your dark longings in my ear.”

She turned and looked at him. “Meaning?”

“Meaning you’re a mirror in which I see own soul.”

The reply seemed to appeal to her and she turned away smiling. But for Pete, there was no pleasure in what he saw – his reflection revealed damaged goods, and she was the price.

Despite, or perhaps because of everything that had happened, he found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. Maybe Morpheus was being merciful.

****

 

Sleep must indeed have taken him, because he felt himself being shaken awake.

“Pete…Pete! I think we need to move.”

“What?” Lumpy concrete poured from the mixer in his throat. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Six or seven hours, I think. Me too. But…”

“Shit!” He rubbed his eyes, sat up and looked at his watch. “We’ve got to get…” he hesitated, “…things sorted out before Dirk arrives.”

Catalina was looking pale. “That’s not really my concern right now. Look. Can you see it?”

She seemed to be pointing into the trees and his eyes were still gritty. “I can’t see anything.”

“There,” she wiggled her finger for emphasis. “Through the gap.”

He could just make out the sea if he peered at a certain angle between the branches. The waves were not as choppy as before. At last he saw what she was pointing to and though he could not make out the detail, his heart froze. It looked like there might be a boat coming round the headland of TempleIsland.

He sprang to his feet and rummaged in his rucksack, pulling out a pair of field glasses. At first all he could see were the swooping blurs of the furthest branches moving in the sea breeze, but then into focus came a very bad dream.

“Shit!” He fired out the word several more times in rapid succession, like a rocket launcher. Still looking through the glasses he said: “We have to move.”

“That’s what I just said,” was Catalina’s testy response.

“Yeah, but you didn’t know why.”

“Well what is it then?” She’d guessed it was a boat, but hadn’t thought to use the binoculars. “Cobus? Jim? Are they still alive?”

Pete lowered the glasses and looked at her; for the first time since she had known him Catalina saw fear in his eyes. “It’s worse than that. Better get a coin ready; it’s the fucking ferryman.”

He handed her the glasses and she saw what he meant. “Oh my God! Is that him?” Catalina knew the answer to her own question already. Pete had spoken of the high priest as if he were the very embodiment of ancient evil; that seemed like a good description of what was making its way towards them now. Even from this distance his sense of dark purpose was palpable.

“I thought…he must have had another boat.”

The cowled figure stood in the boat, propelling it forward with long, easy strokes of a single paddle. Then he looked up and Catalina caught sight of a hard mouth and a wicked contortion of the jaw that might have been a grin, a grimace or a death rictus, set in a dark face both young and of immeasurable age. It was a mercy that the eyes remained hidden, but there was no doubting his intention.

“There’s not much time,” said Pete with urgency. “C’mon, back to the camp.”

He looked around in a panic, before seeing the k’ib and placed it back into his rucksack, almost unable to believe that lust had caused it to slip his mind with such ease. There was a salutary lesson to be had there.

“What about the bodies?” asked Catalina.

“No time for that now, and no need.

“You have a plan?”

“Hey – it’s me.” He looked up at the sky. “Let’s hope your fellow countryman’s on time.

She was too scared to find his self-confidence reassuring.

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