Brigandeers: Chapter 9: Eye of the Storm

 

“Where are we?” I demand of Rift.

He is smirking, satisfied, on the other side of the bars. “What did you do? Where is John? And Jacob, and the others?” I step forward and grasp the bars, shaking them, rattling them pointlessly.

“Oh, you needn’t worry about them,” says Rift, smiling exactly like the Cheshire cat. “My people will be picking them up right this second. They’ll be getting very familiar with bars very soon, pretty much like the ones you’re holding right now. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be staying in prison for quite a long while. Murder is a serious business. Very serious.”

“But Jacob is only a small boy! He didn’t murder anyone! He’s innocent!” says Janice urgently. “You can’t but him in jail. Kids don’t go to jail in this country!”

“No,” agrees Rift reluctantly. “They don’t. But we’re certain to find him a nice new home with some good military people once we’ve…ahh…reconditioned him.”

Brainwashed him!” says Ani in digust, while Janice collapses to the floor with a tiny moan in shock, and Rift gives a tiny, almost imperceptibly nod of acquiescence.

“You’re revolting,” says Ani, wrinkling her nose. “You should be ashamed!”

“However, you three, unlike them,” says Rift, a false, brassy tone in his voice as he changes the subject. “You three have choices. You have options. You have futures. It all depends on how well you behave, now you’re here at our Department Headquarters. And, of course, on how well you co-operate with what we have in store for you.”

“But how did we actually get here?” asks Ani, still in shock. We’re all still in shock. “And where are we? First we were at the hangar, and now we’re here. Not even seconds later. How did that happen?”

“You’re not the only one with Power here,” says Rift easily, squaring his shoulders and standing a little taller. “You’re at our Headquarters, in the main building for my Department – the Department for Unnatural Forces. In Wellington, that is. North island. You know.”

He taps a drumbeat against the bars subconsciously, and continues. “You see, when things went a bit…difficult…and you and your friends started causing trouble, I decided we’d skip the whole uncomfortable flight and airports and nonsense. So I brought you right here. I didn’t particularly want to reveal my..talent…right away, but it did save time and effort, and flight are so costly these days, you know.”

I don’t know what to say. But I’m starting to understand what Rift’s Power does, what he can do.

“But Nigel said that only women can have Power,” says Janice, confused. “How can you…be…what we are? How can you…how are you able to bring us here, like that? So fast?” She shakes her head. “I don’t understand. How did you do it?”

“Young Nigel is just an amateur,” says Rift, almost spitting in derision. “Young Nigel is an idiot. He knows next to nothing. Lives with Ani and Rose here for over two years, and still knows next to nothing about what they are, what they can do, what Power they have!”

He grips the bar firmly, his knuckles turning white. “Look how fast you ended up here. That’s how clever Nigel is! We’ve been watching you all a long while, and the moment we decided to bring you in, you were caught, as neatly as insects in a web. Young Nigel understands nothing. He’s ignorant.”

He gives a grin that might be meant to be fatherly, but seems malevolent against the steel bars and the white concrete of the brightly lit room. “Yes, your Power is for women only. Yes, it’s true that you Power is x-linked, on the x chromosome. But that doesn’t mean we can’t transfer your Power to others. Stem cell technology has been around for a long, long time.”

“So you stole it,” says Ani, a note of derision in her voice. “You couldn’t have Powers of your own, so you stole your Powers from someone else.”

“I prefer to think of it as ‘reassigned’,” says Rift, airily. “Of course, it wasn’t easy. And the transference technique was quite painful. Lengthy. It took several attempts before the transfer of cells was successful enough to ‘take” and adapt to my own body from the original host. I’m not quite the same person I was before the transference.”

“But yes, I have Power over Matter. I can shift Matter – physical Matter, physical things, living things, even people – from one place to another, across space. You might call it teleporting. It’s a rather useful talent.”

“Who is the original host?” asks Janice quietly.

“You mean who was,” says Rift. “It was my unborn child. So I was fully entitled to make use of it, and I did.”

He lets go of the bars, and paces back and forth behind them, on the other side from us, in freedom, a free man, reminiscing.”My ex-wife had Powers too… of a sort. She could teleport herself over short distances, nothing special, nothing useful. Just a meter or so. But some of the studies we did on her, some of the tests, were quite remarkable.”

He looks at us, almost as if confiding a secret he’s rarely shared. “They suggested that, should she become pregnant, the chances of a child having an extraordinarily strong version of that talent were quite high. Very high. I was curious. I was a scientist, working here at the Department. I’d studied such things, and I wanted to know. Here was my chance. How could I turn it down? I might never get the chance ever again! So naturally I impregnated her, aborted the child when it was well-developed, and used the stem cells upon myself, as a test subject for Power transference.”

He grins widely. “As you can see, it worked very well. A perfect result.”

I stare at him in horror, but attempt to cover the revulsion I’m feeling.

“And what happened to your ex-wife?” asks Janice softly, her face pale.

“Oh, nothing you need to know about,” says Rift brusquely. “She was of no use to us, or to the Department, and certainly of no relevance to any of you. She was collateral damage. Something that just had to go.”

He eyes us greedily. “But your Powers are on a completely different level. You’ll be very useful! Incredibly so. And our knowledge has advanced a great deal since that first test case upon myself. We know so much more now. As for her Powers…well,” He shrugs.  “I can barely call them “Powers” at all. But I am happy to say they were enough to lead us to the experiments that made me what I am today.”

“Why have you brought us here though?” I ask, the bile rising in my throat. “You know that nothing can hold us, and we’ll just get out.”

“Not out of here,” says Rift. “Never out of here. Here, your Powers are useless. You’re in an Ensell room, dear Rose.”

I obviously look confused because he continues. “Have you not heard of such a thing? I suppose not. It’s a world within the world. This whole wing is blocked solid, and safe from your Powers. There is absolutely no contact with the outside world in here for people with any kind of Power. Try calling plants, trees, anything you like, Rose. You’ll have no success. It’s the equivalent of a padded cell for people with Powers. You can’t use your gifts in here. In here, you’re ordinary human beings, I’m afraid.”

He laughs smugly, and I hate him more than ever. But I reach out with my mind, and I find he is right. It feels like I’m dampened down, restrained, enclosed.

“And you, Ani,” he says, with a smile that turns my insides to ice. “I’m afraid you’ll have no luck Calling any of your animal friends either. As I said, Ensell room. Encased in lead.”

He taps the steel bars in an annoying drum beat again. “We’ve been studying you for a long time. You might not realise is, but your Powers don’t work through lead. Just as must as these bars keep your body locked away, so too does the lead casing on this wing keep your mind safely locked away. The sting has been removed from your tail, my dear.”

I sense Ani trying to Call, and I can hear her in my mind. Her Power is working withing the walls, but although I can feel her Calling outwards, somehow I’m also aware that she too is having no luck beyond our cell.

And you, Janice,” says Rift, now grinning widely, an evil glint in his eye. “You’re perhaps the most interesting of the three of you. A hippie. Lord knows I hate hippies! They never do any prenatal testing. What a pest that is! I wish we knew the gender of that child you’re carrying. If it’s a female, it may be just as powerful, if not more so, than you yourself. But we’ll find out. It could be very useful, very useful…”

He paces the room outside our cell, and I can sense he is delighted, barely containing the thrill inside him. “But your unborn child aside, your own unique Power is fascinating. Fascinating!

He stares at Janice like a scientist observing an animal at the zoo, admiring her openly like she is some unintelligent thing over which he has complete control. “Geomagnetism. Who would have ever even thought such a thing is even possible? I have to say, the human genome continues to thrill our scientists. They are going to love testing you, and learning all about what makes you capable of such incredible feats. Doctor Papadopoulos and her team are going to love experimenting on you!”

“Your Doctor is dead,” I say coldly. For the first time in my life, I’m glad to have killed someone.

“Oh no!” he disagrees. “No, no, no! As soon as your amazing mangrove roots pulled her under, I teleported her back here. She’s a bit bruised up, and more than a bit…annoyed…with you, but she’ll be absolutely fine in a few days. Right as rain. She’s up in our hospital ward, getting treated.”

His phone beeps, breaking my shocked silence, and he answers it, reading a text that has just come in.

“Now, as I said, you have choice, you three lovely ladies,” he says, beaming around at all of us. “It’s entirely up to you, and your behaviour, how well your friends fare. I’ve just received word that the rest of your little…bastard squad…have just been rounded up by my people down in Dunedin.”

He grins. “Now, as our friend John said a little while ago, it truly is over. Play nice, and your friends may be a little more comfortable. Play nasty, and you can guarantee that you won’t ever see any of them again. Nor will anyone else. We have…places…for people to disappear.”

He looms in close to the bars of our cell, and leers at Janice. “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to that small boy of yours, would you?” he says menacingly. “Jacob, isn’t he? Such a nice, sweet kid. It’d be a shame if anything bad were to happen to him.” He chuckles gleefully.

Janice clutches her stomach, she looks like she’s about to fall over. I rush to her side, and hold her up so she doesn’t fall.

“Get out of here!” says Ani. “Leave us! Now!” And Rift, suddenly obedient and still, turns around almost robot-like and leaves without another word, marching out into the corridor and off.

“Janice sits down slowly in a corner of our empty cell, cradling her head in her lap, and moaning softly. “What are we going to do?

I sink down to the cold concrete floor next to her, and put an arm around her, trying to comfort her although I feel afraid myself too, and am worried about the others. What is happening to John? And Marika and Nigel? And little Jacob? I don’t know what to say, so I just hug her tighter.

“We’re going to get out of here,” I say, finally, after many minutes. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get out of here, and find the others, and free them too. There’s no way we’re ever working for this evil, evil man, and we’re never going to let them do tests on us either. He might have incredible Power, but there’s three of us, and one of him. I don’t believe he can be more powerful than all the three of us if we join forces. He has to have a blind spot – something he’s missed, somehow.”

Ani is still tanding up, and she’s pacing the cell, backwards and forwards, thinking hard. Then I hear her in my mind, like I did back at the hangar.

“Rose, can you hear me?” Her voice is inside my mind, clearer than ever – clearer, somehow, than if she were talking to me.

“Yes,” I think back. “Yes, I can.”

“Janice?” I hear Ani’s mind again.

Janice sits up, raises her head. “Yes, I can hear your thoughts, Ani,” comes Janice’s reply, thinking back.

“His one mistake – our chance – is that he doesn’t yet know we can communicate like this. He thinks I’m just up to animals, and can’t talk to people. But somehow I can talk with you and Janice.”

“Maybe because we all have Powers, so we all share a connection?” I wonder.

“I don’t know,” thinks Ani. “But we need to move fast. I can’t use my Power outside this room – that’s true, he was right. But within the room, as long as we’re together, we can communicate like this. I can also control other people. You saw how he left the room when I forced him to. I also made him think it was his decision to do so. He’s going back to his office. He’ll think he’s been there for ages when he gets there.”

A slow smile spreads across my face. “I’m impressed,” I think back. “Sometimes I love you, Ani. He called us the ‘Bastard Squad’. It’s time to live up to the name. So what are you thinking?”

“Rift is our passport out of here. If I control him, he can get us out of here, and back to Dunedin. He probably even knows where the others are being kept. If he doesn’t know, he’ll almost certainly be able to find out. My plan is: we find him, control him, use him to get home, and then use him to find the others.”

“I can’t think of any other plan,” thinks Janice, her face white as a sheet. “But we’d better move fast. I think I just had a contraction.”

“Oh no, God, not now!” thinks Ani. “Now is NOT a great time!”

“I might have been mistaken,” thinks Janice, relaxing again. Ani groans in annoyance, and together we work out our way home. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the best we have, and it might work.

Maybe.

It’s the only plan we’ve got, so it’d better.

Ani senses someone coming down the corridor outside, and we all sit down in the corner, trying to look as innocent and unassuming as possible. Whoever it is can’t suspect anything. We want to appear useless, clueless, helpless: three young women stuck in a situation way out of our control.

The door to the room outside our cell opens.

They didn’t give us a lot of time. I’d have thought we’d be here for hours, or days even, not minutes. I figured they’d make us sweat. That’s what happens in all the movies. You know, the type of scene where we’re stuck in there for ages, and end up bouncing a ball against the wall, over and over and over. That’s what I thought would happen.

A young woman enters. Just like the doctor back at the hangar, she’s wearing a lab coat and her hair is pulled neatly back, but she’s wearing trousers and a shirt beneath the coat, and flat shoes.

She seems nice. Ordinary and normal. I imagine her going home at the end of the day to her partner, and maybe her kids. Sitting down in front of the TV, having a drink.

I wish people who are our enemies didn’t have to be so nice. I wish they had foreign accents or scary masks on or something.

“Hello Rose, Ani, Janice,” she says pleasantly, looking around at the three of us huddled in the corner of the cell. “I’m Cheryl Dodson. I’m here to take you up to the medical wing. Come with me, ladies.”

She unlocks the metal bar door to our cell, and I notice that no security guys have come with her. She doesn’t appear to have any weapon on her either. That meas these guys are either really, really certain we can’t escape, or they’re really really dumb.

I’m guessing they’re really really certain we can’t escape, and I wonder what the chances of our plan working actually are. Probably not good.

I get up with a sigh, and walk across to where Ms Dodson is standing waiting, just outside our cell. Janice and Ani follow me.

Ms Dodson leads us out of our cell and down a long, sterile, concrete-floored white corridor. There are doors with high metal-barred windows leading off at regular intervals, and I have the distinct feeling we’re not the only prisoners being held here. If this is the Department For Unnatural Forces, I can’t help wondering who else – or what else – is being held here against their will.

At the end of the corridor is a solid metal door. Ms Dodson taps in a security code to a panel on the side of the door, and with a beep the door opens.

We pass through into a huge wide room with a massive ceiling that must be at least three stories tall with huge wide metal beams crossing from one side of the room to the other, supporting the whole structure. There are no windows.

We’re seeing security staff again now, after a striking absence of them in the previous corridor and cells. On the other side of the door, on each side, there are two men in uniforms and berets with rifles, standing ready, and at regular intervals, maybe five meters apart, there are more soldiers, dressed the same – combat uniforms, berets, rifles ready – standing still and weapons raised. They’re dressed exactly the same as the guys we same at the hangar.

Ms Dodson nods to the guys at the door as we enter, and as she leads us across the floor to a door on the far side, two of the guys standing against the wall peel off from their positions and follow us. They’ve been expecting us, and are clearly going to be our escort.

I’m starting to feel like escape is even more unlikely than it ever was.

We’re marched through this huge, wide room into a smaller office at the far end.

Sitting down at the end of a very long, glossy black glass table surrounded by a dozen chairs, is Rift. There’s a huge, floor-to-ceiling window behind him that spans the width of the room. It’s the first window we’ve seen in the entire building, and I realize we’re high up, at least five stories, overlooking the Beehive, at the heart of Wellington.

Rift leans back in his chair, silhouetted by the view through the windows behind him, and surveys us thoughtfully.

“Thank you, Ms Dodson,” he says briskly. “You may leave.” She nods, turns sharply on her heel, and departs, shutting the door silently behind her. Our security guys take up their positions by the door, one on each side. The whole thing is way too familiar.

Haven’t we done this already? I think. Are these guys really that predictable?

Then I wonder just how predictable we are in our own habits, and I feel sick at the thought.

“Sit down, ladies,” says Rift. I almost expect him to pull out a cigar next and light it, but he doesn’t. He simply stares at us, across the distance of the table, his gaze boring deep into me. I feel pretty uncomfortable, but am not going to let him win, so I stare right back. His gaze drops first, and he chuckles. “Ever the fighter, Rose,” he says, laughing humorlessly.

I get the very strong impression he really doesn’t remember that we only saw each other minutes before. I wonder when he thinks we actually did last see each other, and in what circumstance, but I’m not able to focus on the present and ask Ani about that, so I let the question drop from my mind.

“What do you expect?” I say coldly. “You’re holding us here against our will. You haven’t actually charged us with anything. We’ve seen no lawyer, or legal representation. I’m guessing we’re not going to get any. So are you surprised that we’re not exactly joyful?”

“No,” he says frankly. “I’m not. But,” he adds. “You don’t really have a choice, do you – not unless you want to end up on death row for murders you absolutely did commit. So now we need to bargain.”

“We’re not bargaining,” says Janice flatly. “No chance. Not going to happen. So forget it.”

I hear Ani’s voice in my head: “Keep him talking…just keep him talking…”

Janice goes on. “From what we understand of you and your lot, you’d have no hesitation in doing…experimentation…on us. So why should we trust you? I have no plans to trust you. You’re about as evil as it gets.”

Janice looks him squarely in the eye. “There’s no way in hell we’re going to co-operate with you. And we’re certainly not going to let you do any experiments on us. So I don’t know what your idea of ‘bargaining’ is, but unless it involves letting us go and get back to our lives, we’re probably not going to be interested a whole lot of bargaining with you.”

Rift rises from his chair, menacing. “When I said ‘bargain’, I meant it,” he says, attempting to be mild but with an edge of steel in his voice. “I was intending to be pleasant. I was intending to be…humane. I was even intending to give you all some semblance of control over your futures.”

He begins to walk very slowly up the room, hands clasped behind his back, behind the rows of empty chairs, moving closer to us.

“Your futures here at the Department could be excellent. Quite excellent. We have a number of other… subjects… lined up and prepared, and we’d be very interested to see what happens when we blend your Powers with theirs.”

He’s even closer, and his voice is low. “You could have been Patriots. You could have assisted in a Program that would give New Zealand incredible military strength, with an army of amazing super soldiers unbeatable on the battlefield.”

“Is that what this is all about?” says Janice, shaking her head in disbelief. “Is this all about war?”

“Of course,” says Rift. “What else? You must know the world is gearing up for major confrontation. It’s only a matter of time, with resource scarcity being what it is.”

He’s getting louder, as the excitement increases in his voice. “We’re a small country. We can’t hope to hold our own in arms or military might in advanced technology. But a race of soldiers with the Power that you three have?”

He’s standing over us, looking down at us, and I’m really aware, for the first time, how much taller he is than me. “Think of it! You could control the battle from afar. In fact, battle would be unnecessary. No one could fight you! No one would dare try. Within a few short weeks, we’d control the entire planet, with no death necessary.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder, and I try not to flinch. “No battles, no civilian casualties. Just an end to things, and a new world order, with our country – our leaders, our government, our religions, our people – ruling the less…enlightened…in the world.”

He stops his pacing and turns to face us. “The three of you could create a world of peace. The first true peace this world has ever known.”

I listen to what he is saying, and I think about it. I imagine the conflict in the Middle East ended. I imagine no more terrorists. I imagine no more wars between India and Pakistan. I imagine refugees returning to their homes safely. I imagine all the skirmishes and wars of Africa at an end.

I imagine no more nuclear weapons, no more chemical weapons.

Then I think about my great-grandfather who fought in the second world war, and my great-uncle who fought in the Seige of Malta and who was a hero and had to live on rats to survive. He gave his rations to street children so they wouldn’t die.

I think about my Jewish relatives who suffered, and all the empty spaces in my family tree, where people just…disappeared. All those names and lives that were torn apart.

It could all end, if we decided to stop it.

I realise for the first time what true power is. I understand for the first time what a huge burden my Power – the ability to control green living things – is.

Then I think about Janice and her Power to control geomagnetism, and to stop people and animals even knowing where there are in the world.

Finally, I think on Ani’s Power, the Power to control and influence what people actually think and do – and I shudder at the thought of what it actually means.

Whole armies, at the whim of one person.

Whole countries, controlled by one person.

And the three of us at the centre of it all, like the eye of a storm. Calm, and quiet, yet the center of a maelstrom if we so choose.

And I know Rift’s plan for what it is.

I see it for what it is.

And I know the part we must play in it.

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CHAPTER 9: Dead men sing no psalms

If you’re coming in late, the novel starts here: CHAPTER 1: Some bugger steals my sushi

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st paul's cathedral dunedin

For a long while Daniel and I just looked at each other, both of us attempting to absorb the meaning of Daniel’s suggestion, and its implications. Then I laughed suddenly.

“But you’ve got to be wrong! That can’t be right!” I said, feeling a huge weight lift from my gut, almost dizzying me with relief. “That’s impossible. I mean, things like that just don’t happen in real life.”

Daniel didn’t smile. “Neither do nanobots. Or evil twins.” He sighed, and pulled up a clump of grass; started ripping it to pieces, blade by blade. “Look, I’m not suggesting it’s sensible, or I understand any of this at all, and I’m a pretty smart guy..”

“…with an ego to match,” I muttered.

“…but it makes sense.” Which is why we should head to the Octagon, to the old Cathedral. The place has been pretty much closed down for decades, but I think someone still keeps an eye on the place, even since the earthquake, and keeps squatters out. There’s a chance if we go take a look around, someone might be able to fill us in on the history of the place, and tell us if what you saw this morning was real, or just your imagination.”

“It must have been my imagination,” I said stubbornly.

“That’s possible,” said Daniel, trying to be reasonable. “It’s also possible that you, like me, had heard about the whole Regent fire thing. It’s pretty well known to a lot of people: I’m amazed it didn’t click in my head before, but it’s been a bit of an insane day.”

“You’re dead right about that,” I agreed.

“But if any of the stuff that you said you saw in the Cathedral happened at all – like, any of it,” said Daniel. “Then maybe it wasn’t a trip, is all I’m saying. Maybe it was real. You’ve got to agree with me on that, right?”

“I suppose so,” I said, a feeling of dread rising in me again. For a lot of reasons I understood in my gut but I really didn’t want to explain to Daniel, I really, really didn’t want to go back to that Cathedral. It had a bad vibe about it, worse than any graveyard.

And no, I’m not superstitious. Not generally. But this morning’s experiences, topped off by the Evil Twin Doctors of Doom at the hospital, had creeped me right out. If it had been possible, right now I’d be leaving Dunedin as fast as I could, and I wouldn’t stop running until I hit Africa.

Except these days, with no transport except a few trams, horses, bikes, and our own two feet, running away is really hard.

Okay, there’s that little ocean problem in between New Zealand and Africa. And Australia. But you get my point, right?

“So we need to go suss out the Cathedral, and see if we can find out if any of the stuff you saw actually ever happened. Right?”

“Right,” I agreed, unhappy.

Daniel stood up, and took a look around. It was completely dark, and there was no sign of anyone around. I stood up next to him, feeling dwarf-like, as usual, by comparison. “If we’re going to go, let’s go now,” I said.

Most of the street lights in Dunedin haven’t worked since I was a kid, and if you’re careful to stay out of the way of the few that still operate, you can get around after sundown pretty well from one end of town to the other without being seen.

The sidestreets are best, of course, because then you don’t run the risk of any late night authorities on the tram system, keeping a look out for troublemakers. Which is us. Not that we cause trouble, but as most of our earning capacity involves stuff that isn’t exactly legal, we’re not really in favour with the law. So we keep out of their way, make sure we have a fake ID on us at all times (just in case) and generally life runs smoothly.

The sidestreets are also easier to dump any goods on, if you happen to be chased or questioned suddenly. Dump pretty much anything of value, and chances are it won’t stay long on the kerbside, and its disappearance will be untrackable. Not good for us, and Daniel’s runners have had to dump coffee and other, more precious commodities more than once when doing their deliveries. But better to dump and lose than be caught with the stuff and pay, and Daniel knows that better than anyone.

The Octagon was a half hour’s walk, as the crow flies, from the Waters of Leith. As the sore and aching fugitive travels, it took us just over an hour. The town hall clock was striking ten o’clock by the time we arrived at the Octagon.

The Cathedral stood in shadow, tall, cold and imposing, at the topmost edge of the deserted Octagon. It had never struck me as a friendly place, and now, in the chilly wind that was whirling around the circuit that was the Octagon, it seemed more foreboding than ever. I stood at the side of the building, hidden in the overgrown wasteland that had always lived between the town hall and the Cathedral – who knew why? – and from my vantage point I could see the same wall over which I had looked earlier in the day, and could just make out the top of the wooden side door into which I’d run, in my attempt to escape the cop.

I wondered, suddenly, what that cop had made of everything. Whether he’d noticed anything unusual. Or if his experience of the morning had seemed normal?

“Come on,” urged Daniel, sensing in me a reluctance to get any closer to the building.

“Yeah,” I said, pausing. “Yeah… right.” We made our way up the incline of the Octagon, and around the side of the Cathedral, careful to avoid the orange pools of light from the few operational streetlights in this area. We were also cautious about avoiding the few CCTV cameras perched on their various vantage points – at the top of the town hall, on the left side of the front stairs of the Cathedral, on the top of a nearby street light post, concealed in one of the trees.

The side door to the Cathedral was shut.

“Locked,” I said, trying to push the door open and failing. “Now what?”

Daniel answered by pressing an old plastic doorbell, suspended halfway up the door frame. After several moments, when no-one answered and nothing replied to his ring but silence, he broke the quiet by knocking three times in rapid succession on the old wooden door. I was already edgy, and physically jumped at the noise.

After a long while, and just when we’d thought that no-one was going to answer, the door suddenly swung open.

We found ourselves face to face with a middle-aged man, his frame dark in the doorway against the glow of candlelight. He wore old-fashioned glass spectacles, with round black rims, and he had a long black beard, which was starting to turn grey. His hair on top of his head was thinning. He wore a long woollen coat, buttoned from the knee right the way up to his chin. He was thin – thinner than normal, even, and his long fingers and hands gave me the strong impression of a spider in human form.

“Yes?” he said, seemingly annoyed. He peered into the darkness at us, frowning.

I was taken aback. I don’t know why, but I guess I expected someone at a Cathedral – even an abandoned one – to be welcoming.

“Hi,” I said, trying to sound confident. “I was wondering if we could talk to you – or to someone who knows – about the history of the Cathedral?”

“What? At this hour?” he asked, incredulously. “You’ve got to be joking. Come back on Sunday, late morning, 11 am. We run a small service then, all unlisted of course, but the government just turn a blind eye, they know we don’t have any money. Yes, 11 on Sunday. Goodnight.”

He was just about to close the door, when Daniel put a hand out, stopping it from closing, stepped forward onto the threshhold, and said in quiet, intense voice, looking down into the bearded man’s face, “We’re here about the suicide.”

The man’s face paled visibly – I could see that, even in the shadowy light – and he said quietly, slowly, almost meditatively, “I see. I think you’d better come inside.”

**** **** **** ****

For the second time that day I found myself inside the Cathedral. However, instead of going to that choir room I’d hid in earlier, trying to escape the cop, he led the pair of us straight across the tiled floor of the portrait room to a small, glass enclosed office.

He shut the door to the room behind us, presumably by force of habit, because some of the panes of glass partitioning the room from the portrait hall were cracked and broken, and I had no doubt that anything that might be said in this small room would easily echo through to the larger, exterior gallery.

The room housed a large rectangular wooden table, surrounded by rickety plastic pre-form chairs. The man motioned for us to sit down. The neon blue plastic chair I selected squeaked and bent backwards under my weight, almost giving way.

The man lit a couple of candles in wall sconces, then sat down, taking a good look at our faces in the light. I didn’t like being observed in this way, by a stranger on his own turf, but there wasn’t much I could do about it: we’d knocked on his door, after all.

“So,” he said, slowly. “What’s this about a suicide?”

After his initial response at the door, and the way he’d let us in, I was surprised at the caution in his voice. Then I realised we’d caught him by surprise, and now he’d had a few seconds to think things through, he was just as nervous about this sudden meeting, late at night when he’d probably been just about ready to go to bed, as we were. He’d let strangers in, and now he didn’t quite know how to deal with us.

“We know about it,” said Daniel. “We know how it happened, and we need to know when and why.”

“How could you know about anything that has happened here?” he asked suspiciously. “And why would a suicide in a Cathedral interest a couple of young men like you two?” He rubbed at his beard, unconsciously pulling at the hairs.

“Why could it possibly have anything to do with you, and how could you know about it? That doesn’t make sense.” He looked deep into my face, and I got the impression he was searching for any trace of a lie, or of my trying to catch him out, or cheat him in some way. He was searching my expression and my eyes, to try to learn who I was, why I was here, and whether I was lying and intending to steal from him or rob him. Then, obviously unsatisfied by what he found in my face, he turned to Daniel and started examining him.

“We know about the man who shot himself in the choir room,” I said. “Just over there.” I pointed at the wall, indicating the room just beyond it. “And we need you to tell us who he was, and when it happened!” I said, becoming exasperated. Then I looked hard at him. “And I want you to tell us. We want to know.”

“But why?” said the man. “Why do you come to me, late at night on a Friday night, to ask all this? You both look exhausted. Are you fugitives, or is this some sort of a ploy? Why do you want to know?” He steepled his fingers together. ” I might be able to tell you what you need to know, but if I’m going to tell you anything, I need to know why.”

I looked at Daniel. “We don’t even know who this guy is,” Daniel said, in response to the query in my face. “Or whether we can trust him. He could be anyone.”

The man unbuttoned his woollen coat at the neck, revealing a white collar and, below it, a rich purple shirt, a Bishop’s shirt. “Now you know who I am, and what I am. But just call me John.”

**** **** **** ****

READ ON:CHAPTER 10: The Bishop’s tale

Image of St. Paul’s and the town hall by Edwin 11