After a year of blogging, I am taking three-weeks off to cycle in France.
There, I will also be writing, but not blogging.
Brian’s engine idled but remained alert.
Its throaty humming was reassuring. In front of them was the street onto which she had recently moved with the remains of her family. Now she sat with a stranger who had come out of literally nowhere to help them.
She had been abducted by someone who claimed to have been a doctor and had been lucky to escape with her life. She had been thrown into a world of madness and had seen her dead sister. She had been told that her eldest son was to be her executioner. Her sons were now missing and she was struggling to keep any sense of sanity in place. Within her was an anger that was rising.
Whoever had done this would pay.
“It looks too quiet,” Nick muttered. “Perhaps I should just check to see if it’s okay.”
Laura nodded as Nick carefully opened the door.
“Lock yourself in and keep the engine running just in case. It might be better if you sit in the driver’s seat.”
Laura looked at this stranger and knew that she trusted him beyond reason.
“I want my boys back Nick. I’m not going to desert them for anything or anyone.”
“Laura, we’ll get them back. In the end, we will return everything to its rightful place. Trust me.”
He closed the door and began to walk into the still night. Not for the first time, she was drawn to a memory of Simon and shook it off. For a long while, she believed in him but he had let them all down. Somehow, his death had allowed all this to happen and she believed that she would never be able to find forgiveness. She looked into the dark and prayed that all would be right.
The time on the car’s clock was eight fifteen. A millennium had passed within this day. She was lost in this thought when a hand knocked at the driver’s window. It was Nick.
“It’s okay, the house is empty. I don’t think that they know where you live. Let’s get inside.”
They locked Brian’s doors and left him standing. They took the alleyway leading to the back door rather than use the front. Once inside, they drew the heavy curtains and lit only the most frugal of lamps. If anything was watching, it would have to look long and hard.
The house echoed without the presence of the boys.
Laura was silent. Inside, she was turmoil. Perhaps this was what it was to be mad. Perhaps the world would just slip away and this was what would replace it. In the short course of a day, all that she thought that she had possessed had been stripped away and here she was in a darkened house with a stranger.
“What have you done to me?”
Nick looked across the room to meet her accusing gaze.
“What have you done to us? It’s you isn’t it? You started all of this. Before you arrived, we were doing well. We were a family and now all this. All this madness came with you.”
“Laura, I have come with this, but it is not me that has caused it. It is The Piper.”
The mere utterance of this name stopped her tears.
“Yes, you already know the name. It is he that has caused this and it is he that has taken your boys. It was The Piper who took Simon.”
“But Simon died in a car crash. It wasn’t anything to do with this.”
“It was everything to do with this. Simon knew about that night many years before it was to happen. He was told how it would happen, but was betrayed. He…”
Laura waited for Nick to continue. He didn’t.
“Nick, Nick are you okay?”
There was a flicker and then movement. Now the eyes were staring at her and she could not avoid them. She felt as if she were trapped by their gaze. It was as if they were coming towards her from a great distance yet travelling at a speed that would just sweep evrything before them. Deep within his grey irises were lights that were now cutting through the distance that separated them. She could not move even when she realised that the lights, that were now clinically searching her out, belonged to a vehicle whose trajectory included her. And so it did.
The air was beyond cold.
She found herself in the open with only a blanket to keep her warm. There was a slush of snow that was beginning to freeze with the falling night. Here she was alone. She was standing barefoot at the side of a duel carriageway that was empty of cars. From where she was, she could see the whole of the road running in both directions. On the other side of the carriageway was a wood. She recognised it vaguely. Above her was a footbridge spanning the road.
“Don’t sleep while The Piper wakes.”
Her hairs stood up along her upper back. A shiver of fear ran along her spine and tiny explosions pricked her skin. She knew this voice and wished she did not.
Before another thought could push itself into her mind, she heard the sound of feet running on the muddy earth through the woods. Then they were crashing through the undergrowth in desperation. Something was frightened. Something was running for its life and that something was the slight figure now bursting through the tree line and into sight.
Laura’s heart was racing. She tried to move. She tried to offer help, but could not. She was rooted to the place where she stood.
The figure was running towards the footbridge whilst another shape appeared behind it. Unlike the fleeing figure, this one had no definite shape. It was there because she could see it, yet it was as much a part of the engulfing night as it was of the more tangible objects that surrounded it. If she looked too deeply, it would see her. Laura remembered the memories of childhood when the shadows around her bed would form into solid shapes if she looked too long at them. She always looked too long, seized in morbid fascination at the sinister wonder of it all.
The first figure had fallen. It was obvious that it had been running for a long time and had reached the point where its tolerance of pain was telling it to stop. The other thing moved steadily towards it. Again, Laura tried to make her muscles act. She wanted to scream out that behind it was the bogey man. Run, she wished she could scream, but found nothing there. She was watching the death throes of a hunt and braced herself for the inevitable.
Then came the lights.
Looking to her right, along the wintry frieze of the road, she picked out the headlights of a car moving fast. Its engine was roaring defiantly as it raced towards the scene. The figure on the floor also heard its call and made one last attempt of escape. The dark shape rippled and turned to face the unwanted intruder. Before it could react, its prey was up and running with one last bolt of energy across the road. A metal fence separated the two carriageways and this should have been too much to surmount. However, the promise of assistance elevated the prey to the top and over before the dark shape had moved. In an instant, the car was there with the passenger door open and the intended victim was inside.
Before the car roared away, Laura saw, with astonishment, that the driver was Simon. It was escaping and the dark shape just looked on. There was no attempt to chase. Surely, it could have caught up with its victim as it crossed the road. What Laura had first thought was helpless surprise was something else. That was when she heard the crash and saw the terrible mass of twisted metal that had once been a car.
One headlight was still glaring questioningly into the night sky.
She was back in the house looking into the eyes whose grey sincerity she was leaning on.
“You see, Laura, sometimes we get the wrong end of the tale.”
A sound from the back door hushed them into silence. There was a key being turned and then the low creak of the door being opened. Near silent footsteps were making their way inside the house bringing with them the familiar shape of Michael.
His mother ran to him, hugging him in one movement. Again she was streaming tears, but now they were tears of joy.
He had been delivered from evil.
The sound of feet had receded.
The shouting was being swallowed up by the night, leaving Pete to breathe deeply.
For the first time in his life, he felt terrified. He had never been in such a situation before and had been fortunate that the stupidity of his would-be attackers had given him those few seconds in which he escaped their intentions. Now, his temporary sanctuary could easily become his cage. He had to find a way out.
Looking around the loading bay, he could see the large secure metal door where the vans would deliver their goods. This was raised above ground level so that the drivers could just back their vehicles up against them and then walk their deliveries into the shop. To the right of these were three large metal industrial bins. The unwanted packaging would be placed in these before being collected.
Pete noticed that one of the bins was full to overflowing and guessed that, like everything else, someone had not been doing their job right. To all sides of the delivery area was a huge brick wall that was further complemented by an ugly razor wire that ran along its entire length. Pete had only managed to scan his options when he heard voices returning.
He had seconds to make a decision.
In truth, he had nowhere to run and only one place to hide.
The metal bins could provide him with a hope. He could hope that they would not search them, that they would continue to be the stupid thugs that they had earlier shown themselves to be.
The bins were his only hope so he quickly climbed the steps onto the loading platform and lifted the lid off the nearest one. Like the one in the middle, it was obviously full. He replaced the lid and it made the slightest of noises. The night became still. Pete listened for the sounds of approaching feet and heard none. His heart was pounding and his hands began to tremble. The breaths he was taking became shallower and shorter; tears were beginning to form on the lower lids of his eyes.
More than anything else, he wanted his mum.
He’s behind that shop. The one with the van parked at the entrance of the drive.
It was faint yet clear. Pete recognised the thoughts of the leader. He tasted the blood that was still in his mouth and sensed the hatred that coated those thoughts.
There was no time left to wish for his mother. He was alone and needed to give himself a chance to stay alive. The last bin was full too, but when he looked more carefully he saw that one of the boxes had not been properly folded flat. This left a space and it was a space into which a young, scared four-year-old could creep.
Deliberate steps were making their way down the drive. Nobody spoke. For once they were working as a group. Their leader was still holding his wounded hand. His eyes had taken on a black intensity. The others followed him with the same intent. They would get their revenge for the attack. In their minds they felt as if it had been they, not the child, who had been unjustly provoked. In their minds, they had the right to avenge such an insult.
The rule of force would tell.
Without prompting, the gang stood around the bins.
The vain chance that the boy could escape their search was over. They would find him and their leader would exact some terrible retribution for the wrong that had been done. He had stopped holding his hand now. The triumph, surging within him, flooded his immediate thoughts. This would make him feel better. This would make him feel much, much better. He didn’t want to rush it.
“Go back to the van and break in. I’ll bet there’s an emergency supply of petrol in there. You know what they look like. They’re green plastic things with black hoses attached. Bring it back and we’ll have a little bonfire.”
Pete heard everything.
“I know you heard that kid. You’re going to be cooked like a barbeque. Let’s call it an early Guy Fawkes. Shame we haven’t any fireworks.”
That was when Pete really lost control. His bladder burst and the warm liquid ran down and along his legs. His shoulders heaved in a heavy realisation. His whole young body collapsed in on itself and he tried to summon the face of his mother and brothers, but they would not come.
He was alone, in a bin, waiting to be burnt alive and there was nobody coming to save him. His tormentors had won. They were now in charge.
They had found what they wanted.
“Lift the lids and pour equal amounts into each. We’ll have to guess which one he’s in once they take light.”
Dutifully, the others did as they were told. There was no more talk.
At the last moment before the lid opened, Pete controlled his tears. He felt the fluid falling around him and upon him. He almost choked on the smell of the fuel. After some moments, the first stage was complete. The leader stepped forward onto the platform. In his injured hand he held a box of matches. The lids had been taken off the bins and one of his underlings came to stand at his side.
He was holding his camera phone up to record the action.
“This is what happens to all those who defy us,” announced the leader. “Those who dare oppose the new way will die like this.”
He dropped a match into the first bin. He moved to the second and did likewise.
Pete held his breath and prayed.
He prayed that God would take him before the flames. He prayed that his mother would somehow find him and place him next to his father. He prayed that someday this would all be different. He prayed that it would be quick.
The match dropped and went out. Pete heard the word “shit” and then discerned the striking of another flame. It too fell, but this time it caught on some paper that was drenched in petrol. The initial flame rose and gave rise to others. Soon everything was alight.
Pete’s body felt the heat. He prayed some more and was reaching his final ‘Amen’ when his legs were grabbed from beneath. Fingers wrapped themselves around his ankles and pulled hard. The force was so powerful that it made his arms fly up above him. His stomach was in his mouth as he dropped at a speed that defied comprehension.
Later the gang would push over the bins and find only cardboard and plastic. Their triumph would be empty, but they would get over it.
The New Age was coming and they would be a part of it.
Somewhere else, Chris woke to sunshine creeping through the gaps in their tent.
The rest of the family were still sleeping. He could hear his mum and dad through the divider and he smiled. Pete would be sleeping alongside them and they would not wake for a while. The family were back together, Mum, Dad, Pete and himself.
What could be finer?
They had broken their journey the previous night and had managed to get pitched on the campsite. It had been close to dark when they had been setting up, so Chris had not been able to see much. He was anxious to view what was on offer.
He eased himself out of his sleeping bag and felt the familiar aches that always accompanied the first nights under canvas. He stretched, raising his arms towards the tent roof and sent a wave along it. This was life. Now he would dress and make his way outside before anyone mustered.
A ground mist was still clinging to the grass. He slowly unzipped then re-zipped the entrance before standing bathed in the morning sunshine.
For as far as he could see, there were tents with vehicles close by. This was a big campsite and would take some exploring. He wished that Pete was more than just a baby so that he could share the experience with him. He shrugged off the thought. Having a brother his own age could be just a pain. A voice inside played a recording that told him they would be interfering do-gooders who would spoil any fun that could be had. Sometimes these brothers would even try to split up families and make everything just plain wrong.
No, he was better off with the way things were.
It was either the taste of salt in the air or the unmistakeable sound of seagulls that alerted him to the fact that they had camped on the coast.
He had been sleeping for most of the journey and had missed any navigation duties. Mum must have been doing it and she must have done well because he couldn’t remember them arguing.
The coast must mean a beach. He loved to walk along beaches, just along the shoreline with the waves tickling his feet. He focussed his hearing and was able to pick out the distant wombing of the waves. Above him, a circle of sea birds appeared to be leading him down towards a path that had been trodden through a rising sand dunes crowned with grass. Before long, he was standing on the sand looking out over the bluest sea that he could ever remember seeing.
The leftovers of the journey were now disappearing. His tiredness had abated and his senses were switching back, encouraged by these new surroundings.
For as long as he could remember, they had made this trip. This, for Chris, was the definition of summer. He had been encouraged to learn to speak some French so that he could communicate with the locals. His dad, who was probably still snoozing, had taken it upon himself to teach him some of the rudiments of the language. Usually, they would both take off some place in the afternoon and, on their bikes, tour the surrounding areas. Chris prized these times above all else and could be a little put out if Mum suggested that they do other things. He sometimes wanted to keep Dad all to himself. He wished he had taken the time to wake him before setting off so that he, too, could experience this.
Before Chris was an endless stretch of virgin sand, uninterrupted by anything other than a rocky outcrop. He slipped off his shoes and made his way towards the tidemark. He walked along the line where the land met the sea and scanned it for anything of interest. It was after about ten minutes of this leisurely beachcombing that he saw the footprint. The gentle incoming of tiny waves was receding when he chanced upon it.
Water was still seeping out of the tiny reservoir, pulling at the definite edges of its imprint, but it didn’t take a genius to make out the heel and toes of a footprint that was some way smaller than his own. Its delicate nature indicated that it belonged to a child. He looked further along for signs of where the owner had gone, but there were no more.
Chris knelt down to examine it further. There was no way that it could have appeared all on its own as if from nowhere. He was sure that something else had formed it: something that would eventually make that ‘Ah Ha’ sense once the puzzle solved itself. It was definitely a footprint, though.
At the edges of his vision, a vague movement made him focus on the small outcrop further up the beach. He could have sworn that he had seen something move. He would have sworn that he had seen something white dance along the rocks, but when he had focussed his gaze, he saw nothing beyond the breaking waves, raising spray into the morning sun. Looking down again, he watched as the tide wiped away the tiny imprint as if it had never been.
A seagull swooped and landed at his side. Chris stared at it and was surprised at its confidence. He splashed water at it and it did not move. The bird was looking straight at him. Feeling a little unnerved, Chris found a pebble and threw it at his observer. It merely skipped to one side without taking its beady eyes from him.
“Bugger off will you,” he shouted.
The bird remained. Chris thought of the French words for bugger off and found that he did not know what they were. He would ask his dad when he got back. Now the bird was turning and wading along the shore. It was heading towards the outcrop and did not seem to be bothered about flying. With more amusement than suspicion, Chris set off in the same direction.
He couldn’t wait to tell Dad about this. Up ahead, the waves were crashing into the rocks, throwing up spumes of white foam.
From the rocks, something else was watching his progress.
Liam sat expecting the worst.
Today should have been the day when he had taken care of old business. It should have been easy with the city in so much disorder. But, things had not turned out that way. The Andrews boy was not the pushover that he had been led to believe; he had power.
Liam had walked home in the rain. He had not cared to cover himself against the elements, but had stripped to the waist. The cold night rain had lashed against his bare skin and had given him some relief. His anger was boiling over and he needed an outlet. For him, nothing arrived. He would have to wait.
When he got back to his flat, he was wearing the maniacal grin of a man returned from battle. Along the way, he had stopped to break a bottle, intending it for use on others yet had turned it on himself. His forearms bled and the rain diluted his life blood and added to its own flow.
He was terrible to behold.
The Leatherman was waiting in his favourite armchair. The replacement television was playing and the lights from it cast animated shadows across the darkened room. Liam was more than a little confused.
“Close the door on the way in. I do hate the cold.”
He recognised the undercurrent of the voice.
“Come in boy. Come in.”
Liam moved slowly into the room. He did not go for the but walked in the semi-darkness of the illumination of the flickering screen.
“This sack of bones spent a long time watching this. Four years of non-stop television and only one channel. It must have seemed like an eternity. He had the commercial side switched on.”
The voice snaked around him.
“So, you have tasted defeat, my boy. And what does that taste like I wonder?”
The leather torso turned around to look at him and he saw the space where the eyes ought to have been. Far from there being nothing there, he thought that he saw objects, like black diamonds glinting towards him.
“Ha, I see that it did not appeal to your palate.”
The corpse was directing itself towards the blood that was still freely pouring from Flowers’ penitent wounds.
“A form of stigmata,” the thing giggled again. “It will take more than that to atone for this miscalculation. I don’t wish for the blood of my chosen one, but for that of another. Have you any suggestions?”
Liam had a suggestion, but dared not utter it. He did not want to open the door to his thoughts.
“We could make an offering of anyone on a night such as this. If you want blood, then we could find it. The streets are ours and you know it.”
An explosion of frustration shattered the night.
“Have I taught you so little, you fool? Have I invested my kingdom to come in such a crass idiot? You do not understand the gravity of this night or you would not suggest such a thing. The family are not ours. We have nothing. Your incompetence is outstanding. Your underlings have left us stranded on the sands of fortune and you offer empty vessels for escape? I want your man, Liam, I want Podrall.”
Flowers was stunned.
He had never expected this.
Podrall had been with him from the start and there was something about him that was family. Now, he was being told that Podrall should die for the underestimations that had taken place. Was not he to blame as well?
“What about the middle brother? I think we could make an example of him. I remember what you told me about how you put fear into populations. We haven’t got all of the family, but if we showed what would happen to one of their prized members, then maybe we could tempt them out into the open. That would be a better use of resources.”
A snort of acceptance greeted this.
“You learn well boy. You learn well.”
If Laura ever got the chance to think about what had just happened, she would find it impossible to separate reality from dream.
She remembered the boy, Nicholas, and knew that he had pushed her through a wall and into a damp, dark passageway. She remembered the pleading of voices that wished her to join them. Most of all, she remebered crystallised the voice of the doctor who had promised her so very much pain.
They had run, through screams, hisses and squeals until, lungs bursting, they had reached a flight of steps.
These will take you back. I will see you up there.
Then he had pushed her gently in the small of her back and she had wanted to hug him. She wanted to hold the young boy who had been scarred by decades.
Instead she woke to Nick, the man, looking over her.
“So, sleeping beauty awakes. Good. Time to go.”
He had a plastic bag containing her own handbag and held Brian’s keys.
“They tried to impound him, but I persuaded them otherwise.”
He waved them along with a trace of a smile.
“Best to put these on just so nobody will suspect.”
He put her clothes and the white jacket used by doctors on the bed.
“I’ll have to turn my back. I don’t want to leave you on your own again.”
Another smile ran across his face and she wished the young Nicholas could see this.
The hospital was filling up with more casualties of the night. Doctors, nurses and paramedics were stretched in the attempts to stem this fresh tide of injuries. Only the young female doctor, who had first treated Laura had ever seen anything quite like this before. had served in Bosnia and recognised that some evil was at play.
Nicholas and Laura walked urgently through the emergency area, stopped only by a relative of a patient asking about her husband to which Nick pointed towards reception. Then they left through the doors that were to see so much more in the coming days.
In the car park, Brian waited. He started first time.
In another part of the city, Pete had slowed down to almost a standstill.
He had watched as the bus had drawn to a stop outside of a newsagents’ shop. The lights inside were still on yet he could see no human traffic going in and out of it. The bus pulled away revealing the gang. He tried to make himself become invisible. They saw him and grinned with satisfaction before crossing the road.
If he ran now, they would catch him. If he tried to hide, they would find him. If he stayed put, somebody might come to his aid. He prayed that that would be the case.
“You all right kid? Where’s your mummy?”
The leader, a skinny youth with a thin, rat-like face asked him with mock concern.
“She’s in the shop getting a paper,” Pete replied.
His quick lie knocked them off balance for a moment.
“She’s in the shop then,” responded the leader, “that’s nice. We’ll wait here with you till she comes out. Wouldn’t want anything happening to you would we?”
His line had obviously amused the others who stifled their laughter.
“Have you ever thought about being a film star?”
Pete shook his head slowly as the words refused to materialise.
Moments passed and the others in the gang started to become restless. They were anxious to get on with what they had agreed upon.
“Why don’t we just take him? Nobody will know. It’s dark and he wouldn’t put up a struggle. Look at him, he’s only little.”
A general agreement ran through their ranks and the leader placed his hand upon Pete’s shoulder.
“This can be easy or it can be hard. It’s your choice. I’d prefer it to be hard. Make your mind up.”
Pete made his mind up and bit into his would-be assailant’s hand. He bit deep and went through the skin. He bit further and tasted blood. He felt sick at the thought, but went further. He knew that bites were better when they twisted the skin, so he twisted violently and then he was off.
The rat-faced boy was shocked at what had just happened. The pain in his hand was excruciating and he saw blood pouring from the wound that looked as if it had been caused by a knife rather than some runt’s teeth. The rest of the gang stood. Without direction, they were blind and useless.
Eventually, ‘rat boy’ focussed himself on the revenge that he immediately wanted. He would enjoy what he was about to do and would do it all himself. The kid was going to regret not coming along quietly. He would take his time and make his last hours the most painful anyone could remember.
“Stop standing around. Get the little bastard. Get him and bring him back.”
Pete had a good start.
His short legs were working as hard as they could. He knew that there were just moments separating him from something horrible and he pushed himself some more.
The road was strangely empty of people and cars. The water was lying in undisturbed pools that reflected an indifferent moon. He could not outrun them. He had to find some other way.
Up ahead, a van was parked lazily in the entrance for deliveries to small a line of shops. It was partially blocking his way. He could not see beyond it and summed up his chances. If he ran around the van and then turned a quick left into the delivery area, he could be able to hide. He would need to hide well as they would come looking for him. They may have looked stupid, but there was something else about them that suggested they were instinctively capable of tracking him down.
The running feet were now splashing along the pavement. The gang was shouting things and Pete could not work out what they were saying. It was as if they were just issuing some savage howls that were intended to scare him into a mistake.
He made the van and darted left into the darkness of the alleyway.
He got as far as the loading bay when he heard the hunters charging along.
Pete had stopped running.
Nobody was following him.
He pulled his coat around his small frame and he felt a little warmth that fought off some of the cold night’s attacks. It started to rain and Pete pulled his hood down further. He had not escaped danger just yet.
The streets were unfamiliar places for him. He had always been with his mother or his brothers when he had been outside of the house. Then there was Brian whose comforting bulk could generally be relied upon to take them to their preferred destinations. Since Nick had fixed it, it had been running well.
Mum was another matter altogether.
When she had dropped him off this morning, she had been haunted by her dreams. She had been dreaming about the dark man who had shown her things that were not real. His mother, however, had believed him. She had dreamt about Michael, a Michael who was a danger to them and, when she had looked at Michael in the morning, she had shown her youngest son that she still believed what the dark man had said.
The dark man spent a lot of his time in other people’s dreams. He made his way through the corridors of their thoughts and planted doubts. His greatest gift was the gift of mistrust.
The woman at the nursery had been one of his. She, too, believed everything that he had told her and clung to the promises that she had been given. In the new world, she would have all that she wished for. Pete hoped that the new world would not come.
A fresh sweep of rain pushed him backwards.
He was a small boy, a boy of four, tiny in the night and the whole scheme of things, and he was alone in a city that was rapidly losing its souls. His escape from the nursery had been inspired by fortune more than anything else. If he came across any other danger, he did not think that he could get away with it again. His mum was in trouble, Nick was in trouble, and Michael had been cornered.
Chris was someplace else and Pete could not see him. The dark man could be winning and no little boy would be able to stand up to him.
A bus rushed past and threw the contents of a dirty puddle at him. From the back seat number of youths laughed at the sight of the little kid, soaked. Then the laughter stopped. Pete heard their thoughts that came in the form of a missile. They were wondering what it would be like to do him in.
The next stop would see them dismounting. They would wait for him and there would be nobody to stand in their way. The dark man had done this. He had made it all possible and his minions had created the perfect vehicle for transferring the message.
The youths on the bus had been travelling the city looking for something to film. They had talked about slappings and beatings. They had studied similar videos on the site and had been inspired by things that appeared to go right to the edge and beyond.
Murder was a serious option and the great thing was that the police didn’t want to know. It was happening all over and more and more videos were being posted. If you were out at night, you deserved what you got.
The little kid would make a good subject. It would be just mint!