Tony Blackledge read the case history and almost cried.
All his years in the field of social work had never fully salted the wounds he felt at the injustice that was regularly visited upon many of society’s most vulnerable citizens. He particularly felt the pain of the young who were caught up in cycles of abuse and indifference and rarely had the chance to escape. He liked the words of Elliot Ness from the film The Untouchables, ‘Let’s go do some good’ and kept it as a slightly ironic motto.
Now, as he saw the boy, he could not help thinking that he ought to have felt more than sorry for him. There had been lots of cases where the child had suffered as a result of a bad parent or just plain bad luck. Liam had had both. So Tony should have been able to understand his plight and to show empathy. What Tony did not expect to feel was fear.
From the first moment the social worker had been given the file, he had been aware of a particularly bad headache.
“You need a holiday,” his manager laughed.
Tony had laughed back but that did not assuage the pounding that had begun to vibrate around the lining of his skull. That night, he tossed and turned the hours away and by morning he was feverish and feeling decidedly under whatever weather was waiting outside. He called in sick and meant to get an appointment at the doctor’s. He fell back to sleep before doing so.
What Tony fell into was like nothing he had experienced before. Even sleep, with all its inversions of reality had never come anywhere close to producing something so profoundly unnatural and disturbing as this. For what seemed a decade, Tony literally fell and fell. The helpless sensation pervaded his soul and he gave into the desperation of the powerless. He fell until finally he hit the lake.
He now thought that he would drown in this darkness of a sleep that was not sleep. As he lay powerless in the depths, he sensed the movement of many things around him. Disembodied hands were pulling at him. Some were pushing and some were pulling him towards the surface and he was hopeful that this was the precursor to him regaining consciousness, but that day never came.
Instead, he was deposited on a shore with turgid waters nibbling at his feet. He was sure that he was in Hell. Tony spent time on that black ash carpet and woke to the sound of a serpent-like tune sliding across the lake towards him. The more he listened, the more it seemed that the notes in the tune were in fact separate entities that were raised from the depths to conjure yet more discordance. With each whip of the tune, Tony’s body and mind flinched. Something was being summoned.
“So he found you?”
Tony knew this was Flowers although he had never met him previously. In the semi-darkness, Flowers stood assuredly. He was neither boy nor man, but a being caught in the exaggerated gaze of prime. Dressed in a cloak of dark material, Flowers looked every inch an Old Testament prophet.
“He said that he would bring you before me and, you see, he has.”
“Who is he?”
Flowers fought to suppress a snort of derision.
“He is the darkness itself. He is the plague that blights your dreams. He is vermin and hatred. He is the taker of souls and the giver of dreams. He is The Piper. If you’re lucky, you may get to meet him.”
The boy was waiting for him at reception. Tony almost fell out of his own skin when he saw him. It was the boy of his dream, but here he was different. Here he was still a boy, unkempt and not yet grown into his older stature. He had the look of knowledge about his eyes, eyes that the social worker found almost impossible to avoid.
“Liam? Liam Flowers?”
The young face stared back at him mockingly. Its gaze pierced the thin veneer of the We have never ever metroutine that was being played out.
Yes, we do know each other,Tony thought, but you were something altogether different then. You were not this mere boy.
“Right then Liam, let’s see if we can get you set up with something.”
As the social worker was saying this, he was aware of a tape playing in the back of his mind. The tape was giving him details of the ideal house that Liam could go to. The family at the house was a good family who would help Liam to develop ways that would help him for the rest of his life. He found himself moving to his workstation and typing in the name Harrison. In a few weeks the boy would be in the care of a responsible foster family and on his way back to being a fully active member of society.
The need to find sleep overtook him with a nausea he had experienced before and it was all he could do to complete the paperwork before running to the bathroom and being violently sick.