PITCHFORK RED: Quantum Stage III

 

NB: If you are looking for earlier chapters, the ‘Pitchfork Red’ story begins on the  HOME page and continues through PITCHFORK RED: Quantum Stage I page and PITCHFORD RED: Quantum Stage II page. Thanks for reading!

 Chapter 13:  WHERE THE SEVERANCE SHALL FALL 

 

Michael stares at the paper. Smoothing it out again and letting his eyes run over each line in case he’s missed something. He had felt an incongruity – a ‘disjointedness’ about the place from the outset. How stupid he’d been not to guess its significance to the Pitchfork three!

Lilith Turpis – the engineer, had refashioned a more compact and updated antikythera device. She had used it to make the appropriate calculations and had found the next likely spot which would harbour the space-time rift. The last rift had taken place near Greece over a millennium ago, but at that time the Pitchfork scientists had been intercepted and thwarted. Lilith had hurriedly discarded the old antikythera device. Built with the ancient materials of the time, it was too large and clumsy to carry. The remains of that old device had been found in the ocean by archaeologists a long while afterwards, and they had been puzzling about its significance ever since.

The Pitchfork three had bided their time for centuries. Perhaps they had even had some hand in the naming of this next place of opportunity – who knows? The name was a marker, a signpost – the place where the ‘severance shall fall’ – the split in time, the rift in space, and at last, the severance from the grasp of the Dei and from the hold of reality itself. Then, when the time approached, when the disjunction of potentialities was boiling under the surface, Lilith had come to Severance Falls to make the final preparations and to clear the way.

So, he must return to Severance Falls. That is where the final scene will be played out. Michael Tego gives a tired sigh, drawing his hands down along his face. Underneath the unshaved bristles, his skin is taut, still young, but he feels old – he feels like he’s lived and died a hundred times over, because he has.

‘Back to Severance falls then – where the characters will assemble. He know where – he doesn’t know when, but judging from the signs – from the intensity of the recent Draconid meteor shower and from the increasing displacement he sensed in Severance Falls during his stay – the time must be close.

Michael drains the last dregs from the coffee cup and prepares to make a move. He needs to get back. He’s not looking forward to it. Severance Falls will be crawling with police and Feds. A dead dog, a dead woman and a dead FBI agent, shot repeatedly and left to rot in a silent house. And too, in Lilith Turpis’s office, an open safe and a significant pool of blood and bone and tissue fragments on the floor by the desk. It wouldn’t be difficult to ascertain that the DNA belongs to another agent – a certain Michael Tego. The wheels will be in motion to solve that little conundrum. They will be searching for him – or for his body, for how could anyone have survived such a loss of blood, such a mess of tissue damage?

He must first find a mode of transportation back. Sariel has led him a merry dance. In his confusion and with his impaired memory he’s been led miles away from where he needs to be. He’d instinctively destroyed the black sedan to evade disclosure and to cover his tracks, even though he hadn’t been sure why he was doing so. He has the feeling that he’s been played, but how exactly? Has he been duped by Sariel, if not by her then by whom? But it’s necessary to start on his way immediately, he’ll have time to think through the events and details later.

In his urgency he starts up, shoving back the wooden chair. It scrapes loudly against the bare, untreated floorboards, shedding splinters and setting up a clucking from the hens milling outside the cabin. He forces himself to pause and take a deep breath to calm himself – he’ll need his wits about him if he means to fulfil the next phase of his mission.

Outside the sun is past its zenith. Michael checks his watch to find it’s already well after three in the afternoon. The air is still. Insects buzz languidly around the drooping vegetation and the hens have quietened their frantic scratching and flapping of the morning. Warmed and made lazy by the afternoon sun, they are now more sedately clawing and scraping at the dirt, or sitting in the grass around the coop and sunning their outspread wings. It seemed a pity to leave them hungry, he thinks to himself. Best distract them with a little food. He takes a handful of grain and opens the door only a few inches at first, in order to scan the vicinity – all clear, he hurls the grain out to the eager, assembling poultry. They hop up, momentarily enlivened by the seeds Michael has distributed.

Slinking along the side of the barn he makes his way to the front where he can get a view of the road, but he feels no trepidation, no tremor of warning to his senses. He already knows the way ahead is clear, but he’s learned to be cautious.

He strides out into the sun and crosses the sawdust courtyard towards the gently heat-hazed tarmac of the road in front, keeping a lookout. He pushes the handgun more firmly down into his waistband and carries his jacket over his arm casually. It’s too hot to wear it and if anyone should notice him, a denim shirt might seem less incongruous than a black suit. The weather is far too warm for the time of year – the air feels dry and starchy. The acrid smell of soot is carried along on a light swell of breeze.

A mile or two along the road, the azure sky of the Autumn heat-wave is muddied by thick spirals of grey smoke. In the distance he can see the sunlight bouncing off the red sides and chrome bumpers of the fire-trucks which clog the asphalt track ahead. The burned-out sedan has been discovered and, he guesses, the local residents have had their work cut out to try and stop the fire spreading across the miles of cornfields – tinder-dry in the unexpected heat.

No wonder there have been no visitors to the barn and hen-coop today – it’s been all hands to the pumps further along the road. He feels a twinge of guilt, but brushes it away. It was just as well for him – a necessary diversion to keep the locals occupied. When he’d burned the car, he’d had no intention of harm, and he finds comfort in the thought that no-one was hurt, only some profit lost.

He needs to be moving on. Traces of sound are carried across by the breeze – shouts of men, clanging metal and the faint swoosh of high-pressure water. There is no way now that he can double back along the road, and that would only hold him up. He needs to go cross country to find the shortest route back. He doubles over, keeping his eyes on the commotion ahead. Staying low, he lopes across the road to the field on the other side. There he loses himself in the long stems of gently rustling corn and starts making his way westwards.

He’s been walking for a good hour and forty minutes, he estimates – straight as an arrow to the point from which he came, weaving through the whispering, swaying stalks. The dimness between the rows of corn brings a welcome coolness – it’s a long way back and heavens knows how much time he has before the events in Severance Falls will come to a head.

There is no sound but the crackling of dry leaves as he doggedly pushes his way through – now and again, the intermittent chirruping of grasshoppers as the afternoon heat lingers on into evening. Then nearby, the plaintive wail of a freight-train whistle. Michael stops suddenly, pricking up his ears – again, the lonely sound of a train a few miles back, whistling a warning to an animal on the track or… That’s where he needs to be. That’s what he needs to do. He needs to jump that freight-train!

He starts to run, jostling his way roughly through the dry corn-stalks, cracking them underfoot. The rails must be pretty much straight ahead of him. Those tracks must go through several railway yards going westwards – including Severance Falls. The freight yards are usually in the forgotten part of town, the part of town with the rough neighbourhood, well away from the upmarket passenger train station. Often near big industry, maybe near a river, with giveaway street names like Railroad Ave. Sure, there was an old riverbed in Severance Falls, down over the other side of the hill past Betsy Tranter’s house. He’d glimpsed it where it lay cracked and parched – only the damp haze hovering over the watery trickle in the early morning, and a mile or so along the muddy course of that river – the yellow lights of the freight yard. 

The train is already ploughing its way along the track towards him as Michael breaks through the barrier of corn and into the open ground bordering the railway lines. He quickly slips on his jacket. The air is cooling rapidly now that a hazy dusk is falling and he blinks and shields his eyes as the front headlight of the engine suddenly flares on to full-beam as it approaches. He’s on the lookout for an open boxcar, or the chance to alight onto a rear platform of a grainer or hopper. At a pinch he could ride between the wheels of piggybacked trailers or in the well behind cargo containers. To try to jump on board while the train is moving is incredibly dangerous, from the standpoint of physics, he was aware of that, but the westbound trains sometimes run fairly slowly over the prairies.

He gears himself up, waiting for the last car to pass and then breaks into a sprint alongside it, making a grab for the end ladder. The ladder sits behind the last set of wheels so if he does happen to slip, there should be little danger. He struggles to catch up and, for a moment, Michael is afraid that he might still be too tired and weak to make up the speed. He’d better prepare for the effort of willing himself through possible quantum potentialities to reach one where he has already boarded the train, but that endeavour would drain him of more strength than he can afford right now.

With a final spurt he catches up with the last car and fumbles for the rail on the ladder at the back of the train. Missing it once, twice, he makes a desperate last grab and clutches at the cool metal, getting a firm grasp. Once he has hold of it, the momentum of the rolling train just yanks him up and along. Grabbing at the ladder-rail with his other hand he can feel the rush of wind in his hair as the full power of the engine carries him off the ground. A stinging surge of adrenaline streams into his blood. Then, with a final effort, he pops a foot up onto the ladder and he’s on!

The door to the box car can be slid wide open, and he manoevers himself to the corner of the car and swings around, throwing himself into the dark, open space inside. He falls onto the dusty, plank floor and rolls up sharply against some wooden crates, jarring his shoulder. He feels his handgun fall out of his clothes and rattle across the floor.

‘Ouch, dammit!” he spits out. He sits up, rubbing the ache – just a bruise, no real damage, it will be gone in a moment. His eyes quickly grow accustomed to the dimness. He gets up to retrieve the gun. It seems he’s finally in luck. He finds it propped up against loose wooden crates packed with freshly picked apples and at the far end of the car are sacks of peanuts stacked on top of each other in a pile. He’s going to get a simple, but long-awaited meal.

The odour of wood chip and the pungent tang of fresh apple drifts through the air, tossed around by the cool wind streaming through the door. Throwing a second apple core out through the open box-car, Michael leans back against the bumpy sacks and watches as pastel pinks and greens stream out like ribbons from the westerly horizon and the crisp cornfields and farmlands of golden wheat spin by and darken into shadow.

The freight train speeds past distant red barns looming up from the praries. Neat farmhouses dotted here and there are lighting up their windows as the dusk encroaches across their rustic kitchens and the well-worn, comfortable furniture of rooms inside. People are sitting down to their dinners. Families are laughing or bickering over the loaded table, then, sated and contented, settling down into deep sofas to snooze and nod in front of televisions. Michael can feel them for miles around – feel their warmth, the glow of their life-force. He envies them a little, envies their easy ignorance. He is not part of this cozy world – he never was. He has never ‘belonged’ to anyone.

The freight-train again gives a woeful whistle out into the darkness across the lonely expanse of plains. He was like this train – a machine, plunging headlong along the path set for him, steadfast and alone, rushing into the night, loaded with his burden. His mind, his real self, moves inside this body – the ghost in the machine – trapped and restrained.

Now with the nightfall, the temperature sinks rapidly to release its autumnal chill. He shivers and rubs his arms and shoulders. A tremor of regret shudders through him as he moves his hands behind to lightly touch his shoulder-blades. An ancient hurt pricks deep inside. A wound neglected, but persistent – still aching though long repressed.

With no artificial light to distract from them, the stars burn bright against the velvet blackness like tiny beacons. Those glittering pinpoints blazing in their whiteness reflect in the mirror silver of Michael Tego’s eyes. A luminosity begins to gleam behind his icy irises – the glimmer of forlorn and stifled anguish. Here, he is but a speck of matter on a small planet warmed by a mediocre star in the far reaches of a universe. He is far – so very far, from home.

All of them, the Dei and N’geli, stranded on this island in space and locked in a conflict for the control of space and reality that had raged for so long they could barely remember a time before. A time of peace and serenity, a ‘Golden’ Age’ – a time when an untainted Sariel would have had no need to pull the trigger of a primitive ballistic weapon which would messily blast the brain matter from a head as fragile as a pumpkin – splattering a thousand of his memories across a dingy office wall.

How the fight had made them warp their original natures. What kind of creatures had they become? What were they now – the stuff of stories to frighten children and superstitious, fearful people? They slipped in and out of legends and mythologies carried through the centuries by the elaborations of poets and chroniclers. They were the ‘Angels’ and the ‘Demons’ – but the line separating the good and the bad, the light and the dark, was not as distinct as the story-makers had constructed it to seem. It was far more complex. The horizon disappears in the great grey dusk between. He and Sariel were but reflections of each other, standing in opposition, mirrored in silver eyes.

He started abruptly as the train sounded its warning whistle again. Leaning against the large sacks of peanuts, he must have dozed for a few moments. Time now to contemplate this situation and reassemble his memories.

Sariel shot him ‘dead’ to give herself leeway to try to unravel the code that Lilith had left behind. But her copy would be fainter and less distinct than his – how far had she succeeded? Later, still reeling and unformed, he had entered the black sedan with a sense that it was imperative that he follow and find someone. It may have been a vestige of residual memory asserting itself, but Sariel had not ‘cloaked’ her presence. Even in his enfeebled state he had been able to sense her signal – her ‘marker’. She had almost hailed her whereabouts to him. He had been compelled to follow. She had led him away from Severance Falls. To put him on a false trail for as long as possible…or…what?

A dim orange light glows on the horizon – an artificial glare, tainting the skyline – the lamps of a small town. Michael sits up and tenses his body. He’d better prepare to alight from his transport. The faint luminescence ahead is Severance Falls.

The arc lamps surrounding the freight yard are almost blinding after the darkness of the plains as the freight-train chugs down to a crawl. Before it has even slowed to a stop, Michael has leaped off and slid away into the shaded alleyway leading off from the brightly lit yard and into the black backstreets of town, slicked slimy by sudden rain.

He weaves through a maze of chicken-wire fences around scrap yards and abandoned factories – stumbling over the slippery rubble of waste ground and past tumble-down fences between enclosures grown heavy with weeds. A cold wind starts to bluster through gaps between houses and the black, empty-eyed shopfronts as he finds himself at last, on the street opposite Lililth Turpis’s shop.

Michael dodges out of the glow of the streetlamp and into the shadow of the wall between two buildings. There is a dim light burning inside the shop and a shadowy figure can be seen moving about the counters piled high with ceramic ornaments, colourful knick-knacks and shining metal baubles. It moves past the tables systematically, as if surveying the contents, making a mental note of each item and moving on.

Michael presses closer against the wall and hugs himself as the wind begins to bite. He sniffs quietly but continues his observation. Are the feds or the police making a further search of Lilith’s office and inventory? The figure continues its exploration, lingering over some of the objects, as if touching them or brushing off some of the accumulating dust. It moves closer to the window and into the light. Cautiously, the figure comes and stands against the window, looking out with guarded curiosity, absently shaking the dust from the soft cleaning cloth in her hand and inclining her head to gaze along the dark street towards the lights of the police station and the Maybury Hotel in the distance, reflected in the puddles left on the rain-glossed street. Michael gasps in recognition – What? How is that possible? – It’s Betsy Tranter!

“Wait, and take a closer look,” a melodious whisper comes from behind his right shoulder. The air is filled with the scent of warm, woody foliage and open sky.

 

Chapter 14 : THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Michael doesn’t even turn around, but his hand moves instinctively to the inside of his jacket, ready to grasp at the gun tucked into his waistband.

“What do you mean by that, you murderess?” he hisses out of the side of his mouth,

“Well,” Sariel whispers behind him, “I could not rightly be called by such a name, after all, you’re standing right here, right now, aren’t you? I only made you … a little bit …dead.”  Her tone seems slightly offended.

“You went as far as you could to be rid of me,” Michael replies coldly, maintaining his vigil on the shop-front window, but his hand twitches closer to his gun.

“I also gave you half of my life-energy to make sure you’d recover,” she leans closer to his ear, “In fact, I didn’t count on you recovering quite so quickly. I’ve only just recently replenished myself.”

She moves to stand alongside him and gives her attention to the window across the street. The ‘Betsy Tranter’ hovering there seems to be checking the dark road – glancing carefully in both directions.

“Oh, relax Michael, I’m not going to shoot you again,” she mutters, showing uncharacteristic impatience.

“Perhaps, now it’s my turn to shoot you?” Michael ventures grimly, “After all, you have something I need – that is, if you still have the antikythera device?”

“Yes, I still have it,” Sariel replies quietly, ”But it appears that you acquired something also – the top copy of the message that Lilith had been formulating? I suspected as much when I noticed how unevenly it had been embossed into the sheet I retrieved from the notepad. I could hardly make it out. I’m not sure I did, entirely. But your presence here confirms what I’d guessed from the little I had.”

Michael snorted, “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting for me? You made sure to try and lead me as far off the scent as possible. You steered me out into the middle of nowhere with that pointless chase, and I’d still be there if I hadn’t taken that page from Lilith’s notebook and worked out the message,” he can’t hide the irritation in his voice. “I’ve burned up a perfectly good car and a cornfield or two in the process of covering my tracks.”

“That kind of collateral damage is not so bad,” she says, “Some Dei-men are not so fussy about the path of destruction they leave behind,” she adds darkly, “How did you get back here so fast? You’ve recovered from your injuries, but you’re still not in the best of shape. Did you hitch a ride?”

“I jumped a freight-train,”

“Such initiative! I would expect nothing less from you Michael Tego,” Sariel laughs lightly. A slender corkscrew of fair hair bobs over her ear and she brushes it away with the back of her hand.

Michael moves to pat the firearm tucked into the back of his waistband – just checking its reassuring presence. But he senses no danger from Sariel. She appears intent on watching as the woman retreats nimbly into the further reaches of the shop as a lone motorcyclist rides along the street. The woman continues to move amongst the shelves and tables – appearing to be occupied with cleaning, until the drone of his engine fades into the distance. Then she halts and moves back to the window to resume her surveillance of the empty street.

Michael studies her from the shadows. He cannot help but recall the creak of the bedroom door as he’d moved swiftly past it in Betsy’s silent house. He’d glanced in as it stood half-open. There was no mistaking the plump, pale arm hanging out of the bed, blue-veined and flabby. Nails painted pink. The slow ‘drip drip’ of blood from the sodden red sheet beneath – the pool becoming tacky as it dried on the polished floorboards. There had been the faint odour of necrosis. No life-force left in that room, only liquid draining from an empty vessel.

“That woman cannot be Betsy Tranter,” he thought aloud.

Sariel looks over at him for the first time and raises a quizzical eyebrow. “As I said before,” she says, “Take a closer look.”

Betsy’s hair had been vaguely unnatural the first time he had seen her. It had had the dried-out quality of too many dye jobs. A straw-like honey colour. She had also had the soft plumpness of a middle-aged widow who had no more reason to watch her figure, and a nervousness which manifested itself in repetitive actions and a garrulous flow of words.

The woman in the window before him has the same hair colour, her clothes are of the same slightly-worn vintage, but there is less of the plumpness, and none of that nerviness or ingenuous fluster. It had been replaced by a kind of feline wariness. Her movements appear too nimble and controlled.

“She looks like Betsy Tranter – at a distance could easily be mistaken for her, but it isn’t the woman I met a few days ago.” Michael says.

Sariel tilts her head towards him to speak,

“She’s been keeping herself to herself the last day or two. The towns’ people understand of course. They’re giving her some space. After all, she must be a bit upset since her lovely dog died. The poor creature ‘ate something bad’ it seems.”

A faint smile twitches at the corner of her lips. Michael glances over at her,

“Yeah, it ate a load of lead – that didn’t do it any good, I guess,” he scoffs. “So,” he continues, “She’s not had any visitors recently?” he begins to get the picture.

“Not really,” Sariel answers, “She’s been cleaning up in there for the last couple of days, but no-one would see anything unusual in that. She was Lilith’s home-help, after all. She’s just tiding up after all the rummaging around by the police and FBI…”

“I would imagine there was quite a lot of cleaning to do in the shop, particularly in the office,“ Michael adds grimly.

“Yes,” Sariel gives a dejected sniff, “There was a very sad mess in there,”

Michael turns to face her now, “So you’re saying that there’s been no investigation as to the disappearance of the two FBI agents who were visiting town?”

She shakes her head, “There was a generous cheque in payment for the room and the meal the agents had had at the Maybury sisters’ hotel, and a note apologising for their hasty departure. Apparently, they were called away to chase a lead on the Turpis case.” She shifts her footing, “Their belongings were gone, their car was gone. Nobody asked any questions. The townsfolk prefer a quiet life and were glad to be allowed to go about their business as usual,”

“No questions about Betsy Tranter either, I suppose.”

“She’s been seen out and about, albeit at a distance.” Sariel gives a shrug.

Michael sighs, “What about the Feds? Haven’t they been wondering about the absence of communication?”

She looks over at him, “They received a text, explaining about the agents pursuing an elusive lead in the case,” she hesitates, then adds quietly, “From Dan Freeman’s cell-phone.”

Michael’s lips tighten. “Who is behind this cover-up and what have they done with Dan’s body?” he snarls.

“You might ask in whose interest is it to have the town free of police or Feds for the next little while?” Sariel regards Michael closely.

“Yes,” he gives an involuntary shudder, “They’re close, I can feel it – the Pitchfork three. They can’t be together in the same room of course, or even within a certain distance of each other without blowing themselves up, but they are closer than ever before and in communication.”

“Indeed, we’re looking at one of them now,” Sariel nods towards the shop. Michael’s eyes narrow as he observes the woman in the window across the street, “Lilith didn’t go missing for long then, did she?” he says, “That is, if she ever left at all,”

Sariel too regards the woman,

“Who would know Betsy’s routine better? Who could take her place without arousing too much suspicion? With a few minor adjustments – she’s donned that silly wig and gained a bit of weight. For all we know she chose Betsy on purpose, in order to be able to impersonate her convincingly when the time came.”

“But the dog would have known the difference, so he had to be eliminated. Poor creature…” Michael sighs,

“Poor Betsy!” Sariel adds vehemently.

Michael glances over at her, “Yes, poor Betsy. Her being a little ‘light-fingered’ wasn’t something they’d bargained for, I guess,” he adds.

Sariel shakes her head, “No, but lucky for us that she was, and could be spooked into handing over the antikythera device. She’s thought it was a fancy watch, but when she discovered it was some kind of machine she had no idea what to do with it. So, I offered to take it off her hands. I even promised her some money.”

“I see, that’s why she didn’t want to give it to Dan and me along with the message,”

“No, she might have incriminated herself and, of course, she naturally preferred to be secretive and still get something out of the exchange. She got a hundred bucks when she handed it over to me that evening, but,” Sariel hesitates, “She got more than she bargained for when Tabbris and Forcas came looking for it.”

The ‘Betsy Tranter’ in the window suddenly turns her head and looks directly at the spot in which they are standing and they quickly retreat deeper into the darkness at the corner of the side-street.

I’d try and shield us both in an alternate potential reality,” Sariel whispers, but I doubt if it would be any more helpful than just lurking here in the shadows. She probably senses our presence – unless she’s out of practice.”

“She knows we’re nearby,” states Michael, “The question is, what is she going to do about it?”

“What are YOU going to do about it, Michael Tego? “ Sariel asks with a simple directness.

“We both know it is here that the ‘Severance shall fall’ – where the space-time rift will briefly appear,” she continues, “The break in time-space will provide the Pitchfork Three with their only opportunity to enter the rift simultaneously and pool their knowledge to influence the ‘Unifying Field’. What they will do with that influence…who can tell.” her voice tails off.

“But they need the Antikythera device to calculate exactly when that tiny moment will occur, and where they must be positioned in order to best take advantage of their chance. Lilith has no time to fashion another one, it’s too delicate a process,” she concludes.

“The question is,” Michael ventures, “Do they know you have it? Certainly the Dei-men have assumed you do, but do the Pitchfork Three know?”

Sariel looks at him questioningly, “You speak about the Dei-men as if you weren’t one of them yourself? Something has changed you Michael Tego. You have your own agenda now, and you need my help to achieve it,” she states.

“What….do you mean?” he regards her closely.

“Just before I pulled the trigger – just before I blasted out your memory centres – you had one last thought, amplified and fuelled by panic and fear. It was so urgent in your mind even I apprehended it. I think I know what you are planning to do Michael, and it’s very, very dangerous. It’s unprecedented. It was the real reason I pulled that trigger and tried to lead you away from this place. I wanted you to forget that small thought that had formed itself in your mind and to lose that idea somewhere out in the lonely prairie lands, far from here,” a look of concern and apprehension enters her eyes as she speaks.

Michael is silent for a long time.

“Well, I didn’t lose the idea. It is the thing that has brought me back here. It’s the only way I can make amends for a terrible mistake. You must see that Sariel – and you must help me to do it!” he says at last.

She shakes her head, “You are asking me to…to deviate from our mission and to ‘go rogue’ – an N’geli and a Dei-man to form an alliance? To put aside our allegiances to our colleagues, ignore our instructions and formulate a plan of our own in order to bring this conflict to another possible conclusion?”

“More or less, “he gives a grim grin, “But first I need to see what has happened to Dan Freeman’s body. Have you got any idea, Sariel, what they might have done with it?”

Sariel looks up at him anxiously, then turns away abruptly, “Follow me Michael,” she mutters. “I may have an idea.”

They move swiftly through the dimly lit back streets and alleyways behind the shop-fronts of Main Street, weaving between the brightly lit residential areas and back-yards of lighted houses, until Sariel halts on the lip of a hill. Michael looks down along the road as the pavement dips down below him. It looks familiar. He looks across to the other side of the street to a house centred in a neatly kept lot – a garden and yard out at the back. He recognises its peeling Victorian façade. It is Betsy Tranter’s house.

“Not even she can be in two places at once, at least, not without the Antikythera, and not yet!” Sariel smiles at him, ”We know where she is, she’s hunting around in the shop at the moment, but we may not have much time, so we had better take a look inside while the house is empty,”

“Are you sure it is?” asks Michael, apprehensive about another trap.

“You’ve been asking me to trust you Michael Tego, well, you had better make the effort to trust me too, “she stands waiting for his answer.

“A Dei-man trust an N’geli?” he smiles, “It’s been a long time,” “Let’s go.” He gives her a swift nod. 

Michael follows Sariel around the side of the house to the backyard. The expanse of grass appears unnaturally enlarged in the darkness. A few clusters of weeds have begun to poke through the now neglected lawn. Near the back almost under some shrubs, a black pile of debris, made slick by the recent rain, kicks up the vague odour of burned rubber or plastic carried up by a sudden draft of air. Shadows flicker across the grass as the surrounding trees are tossed about in a wind that suddenly picks up and sends the clouds scurrying across the yellow moon.

She stops at the back door, “It’s easy enough for us to unlock,” she whispers, “’I’ll do it,” She stands back for a moment, but gives the old-fashioned lock her full concentration. A momentary glow lights up her pale eyes and a distinct ‘clunk-click’ resounds in the silence of the empty kitchen inside as the old brass key turns itself clumsily in the lock.  Michael moves forward but she flings out an arm to halt him, “Wait, there’s a bolt too!” she hisses, “Were you always this impetuous?” She gives her attention to a spot at about eye-level. A slow grating sound emanates from behind the door, followed by a thud as the bolt slips back.

 “Okay,” she announces breathlessly, “We’re in.”

They tread soundlessly through the kitchen. A gas stove, several models old, stands in one corner, the face of its timer clock disfigured by a small crack. The blank white of a refridgerator door. There is no sound but the in-and-outs of air from their lungs – as they stand catching their breath in someone else’s house.  

They walk on through an archway which opens onto a long  hallway leading towards the front door by which Michael and Dan had entered only a few nights ago. The bloody track that had been left by Betsy’s dying dog has gone. Only a checkerboard of black and white tiles gleams in the moonlight that is streaming in, coloured by the stained glass window in the door. The blood-soaked carpet has been taken up and discarded, probably burned in the back yard.

Instead of walking ahead, Sariel steps lightly to the right where there is another small corridor leading off towards a small utility room. At the far side stands a deep ceramic sink with a tap, a washing machine and tumble dryer to one side and then Michael notices, in the side wall, another door. Plain wooden planks with a big brass knob.

Sariel pauses for a moment, “That’s where we need to go,” she whispers unsurely.

Where does that lead,” he asks, “To the garage?”

“No,” her voice cracks slightly, “It goes down to the cellar….”

 

Chapter 15:  A BODY OF EVIDENCE

The moon is low in the sky. The brass knob of the plank door gleams coldly in the blue light, slanting through the narrow window above the sink. Michael reaches out tentatively – the knob beckons, tantalizing in its metallic lustrousness. It is slightly slick to the touch, as if recently oiled. It turns easily and the door swings back silently on well-lubricated hinges, opening out into a rectangular tunnel of blackness.

Michael stares into the blank hole for a moment, before a prod to his shoulder from Sariel draws his attention to a slender cord on his left, swinging in and out of the shadow beyond. It is an old, white nylon pull-cord, mottled with a dusty mould – when he gives it a sharp tweak, a solitary bulb somewhere below flickers into life. He can now see beneath him, not a wooden staircase, but brick-built steps leading down at a steep angle, neatly swept of dust, obliterating any tell-tale footprints.

“Either Betsy kept a meticulously clean house, or someone has been here very recently,” Michael whispers over his shoulder.

“I can guarantee it,” he feels Sariel smile behind him.

“After you…” she adds, indicating the gloomy steps.

Taking one step at a time, Michael’s nostrils are immediately assaulted by the odour of mould and fungi, over-ridden by the pungent tang of citrus-fragranced detergent, newly applied. There is also something else, something that might escape the casual observer. There is the furtive trace of a scent, unobtrusive, yet familiar enough to cause Michael a pang of regret as sharp as a needle point jabbing into his ribs – an underlying tinge of Hugo Boss ‘Homme’ aftershave – Maggie had bought for Dan on his last birthday, and Dan had dutifully worn it every day, so much so that Michael could ascertain his approach before he entered the room… until… Michael’s lips harden to a grim line. He swallows the dryness in his throat and continues his descent down the steps.

The basement is not as large as he’d expected, bigger in width than in length. It is lit by a solitary, begrimed light-bulb hanging from the ceiling. The floor is concrete, cracked in places and stained with black mould in others, but swept clean. The bricks of the back wall are hidden by a tall wine-rack which still holds around fifty bottles. The bottles have not been touched, the dust that blankets them lies undisturbed. The remainder of the floor-space is empty, apart from an old-fashioned leather-covered trunk on the left-hand side, and the long shape of a large, white freezer unit pushed up against the right-hand wall. There are faint scuff marks still visible on the concrete, despite obvious efforts to scrub them away.

Michael hears Sariel’s light step as she descends to join him within the cellar. The heavy silence is pierced by the shrill hoot of a night-bird outside – the sound muffled by the thick stone walls of the underground chamber. Sariel regards him intently as he gives his attention to the trunk to the left. He looks puzzled. The trunk appears heavy and outmoded, with a large metal lock and two leather straps lying across it unbuckled. Certainly, it is big enough to hold a man, if his knees were tucked under his chin. Something feels wrong about it – Michael feels certain that it hides a secret. He glances at Sariel, to find that she is smiling strangely. He moves over and squats down in front in order to examine it more closely. The lock won’t be a problem if he and Sariel focus on it together. He looks over to her again. Understanding his intention, she nods her agreement.

In unison, their minds delve deep inside the metal structure of the lock – plunging further and further through the layers of its being. Their consciousness drops into the spaces between its metallic architecture – deep into the network of atomic structure. They observe the almost crystalline beauty of metallic bonding – ions floating in their sea of electrons. The electrons are only loosely held – they slip and slide, they are malleable – atomic vibration easily passes from one atom to the next. With their mind-focus combined, the electrons excite immediately and the lock glows bright orange. A moment later, it is a bubbling blob of molten metal which slides lazily out of the hole it occupied and streams onto the floor in a glowing pool of heat. Michael and Sariel relax their concentration. The give each other a quick glance of satisfaction, and allow the puddle of metal to cool.

‘Do I really want to look in here?’ Michael thinks to himself, yet senses no real fear.

Sariel steps forward suddenly “Let me do this,“ and with one fluid movement she grasps the lid of the trunk and heaves it open, revealing its contents. They stare at a cornucopia of shiny objects: watches, brooches, belts, bags, pendants, bracelets – jewelled boxes and ornate silver frames surrounding pictures of children and relatives of strangers.

“Oh my! Here we discover Betsy’s little secret!” Sariel exclaims.

Indeed,” Michael snorts, “A lifetime’s worth of kleptomania. Some of these things date back decades! No wonder she couldn’t resist the Antikythera device, with its intricate gold clockwork – tiny wheels spinning within wheels,” he adds.

“Our Betsy was quite the magpie,” Sariel agrees as he scoops up a handful of trinkets and lets them slide back into the open trunk. She turns to look at Michael,

“Lilith spent a long hours sifting through this junk to try and find the Antikythera,” she gives him a wink, “To no avail, of course. But she could not shake off feeling that she was close, and indeed… she was,” she adds, matter-of-factly, slamming the lid of the trunk shut with an air of disregard.

Michael regards her steadily, “What do you mean, she was close? Where is the Antikythera? he asks, struck by a similar intuition to the one that must have tormented Lilith.

“Oh, it is here, down in this cellar,” she watches for his reaction. Michael glares at her in consternation, “Well?” he raises a quizzical eyebrow, “Are you going to help me, or are we going to waste time playing a game of ‘you’re hot’ you’re cold’?”

She makes a soft snort of amusement and regards him thoughtfully, then gives a sidelong glance at the refrigerator against the opposite wall.

“Strangely enough,” she sighs, “When you started getting ‘hot’ – you’d end up getting cold,” and she walks towards it. Michael looks after her as she stops beside it before turning back towards him.

“You’d better come over here,” she says quietly – a sombre softness enters her tone.

Michael obeys, his heart sinking. His senses give a jolt as he apprehends what it is she must now show him. He steels himself for the moment, and joins her by the long, white casket.

“Ready?” she looks up at Michael questioningly. He nods dumbly. Her fingers fold below the heavy lid and as the seal unsticks, there’s a crackling hiss as cold air within is sucked out. She lifts the lid up slowly, reverently.

Michael looks inside for some moments. He is not shocked – it’s not as bad as he’d thought. Dan’s body looks cold, but not grey or stiff. White flakes of ice fringe his lashes and brows, and the tips of his strawberry-blond crew-cut stand rigid, sparkling crustily. A crystalline ice-dust gilds his suit and sleeves. Dan’s resting place is here, in the freezer, deep in Betsy’s cellar. Michael nods and gives a sigh of relief,

“He’s intact, and they didn’t drag him off and bury him.”

Sariel is watching him closely,

“No, although there IS a grave in the garden outside. No-one was surprised when Betsy’s beloved dog was buried under the trees – what they don’t know is that she shares the grave with him, under a small stone marking the spot. Two mounds however, would have raised questions, so they quickly dumped Dan in here. But that was just as well, wasn’t it?” she tilts her head as she asks the question.

“Yes, it was,” Michael answers simply. ”It will serve us well.”

“It already has,” Sareil comments, “Dan has helped me out,” she waits as Michael turns curious eyes upon her, then reaches a hand over into the freezer and pats across the left side of Dan’s body. The warmth from her fingers melts faint liquid spots as they touch lightly on the icy fabric of Dan’s jacket. Then she rests over his left pocket. There is a small crunch as her hand forces the frozen fabric to widen the slit of the opening to let her slip inside, and a further faint icy crackle as she withdraws it again, with something clenched in her fist.

“He’s kindly been keeping it safe,” she smiles and opens her fingers to reveal a golden sphere about the size of a plum, glittering with frost. It has a flat plane on one side where it rests on her palm and is covered with intricate, mystical engravings.

“Dan always could keep a secret,” Michael breaks into a slow smile and bends closer over the object, “I had forgotten how wonderful an Antikythera could look.”

“Lilith’s engineering was always renowned for its beauty as well as its efficiency,” Sariel agrees, and they stand transfixed for a moment as the fragile icy coating melts from the glowing, golden device. Sariel’s thumb searches for a tiny catch, and then the rounded lid of the Antikythera flips open. Inside is a complex and wondrous mechanism.  

The mechanism has three main dials fashioned from gold – one on the front, and two on the rear. The front dial has two concentric scales. The outer ring marked off with the days of the 365-day Egyptian calendar, based on the Sothic cycle. Inside this, there is a second dial marked with the Greek signs of the Zodiac and divided into degrees. The front dial includes a parapegma, used to mark the rising and setting of specific stars. Each star is identified by Greek characters which cross-reference details inscribed on the mechanism and are marked by tiny diamonds. The upper back dial is in the form of a spiral, with 47 divisions per turn, displaying the 235 months of the 19-year Metonic cycle. The lower back dial also in the form of a spiral, with 223 divisions showing the saros; it has a smaller subsidiary dial made from platinum, which displays the 54 year ‘triple saros’.

On the flat side of the mechanism is the engraving of a planet, lit by two small suns and with four moons in elliptical orbits. Sariel runs her thumb over the raised form and there is a tiny musical click – immediately the delicate gears and wheels of the mechanism whirr into life. Michael and Sariel stand fascinated as the layers of minute cogs and clockwork hum in a complex dance of mathematical calculation.

“Surely she could have used a microchip or two?” Michael chuckles in delight at the intricate workings of the elegant machine.

“What makes you think she hasn’t?” Sariel grins – glints of the spinning circles reflecting in the shining irises of her eyes, “It’s the only way she could have made the mechanism so compact, but Lilith just couldn’t resist displaying her astounding workmanship.”

Michael nods. They stand mesmerised as the shining device clicks quietly. Four graceful hands like those on a clock-face spin around to align almost vertically – then, there is silence. The device freezes.

“Is that it? Or has it been damaged? I can’t remember how to read it!” Sariel’s voice betrays her frustration and concern. Michael places a reassuring hand on her arm.

“No, hush Sariel. I think it’s finished.”

The calculation was the work of a moment, but now they must interpret what the device is indicating.

“The hands are all almost aligned, only one is less than a degree away from the others!” Michael gasps, “That means – “

“Yes!” Sariel concludes breathlessly, ”We’re in the appointed place. The time/space rift is hovering over – it is almost upon us!”

“It can’t be more than twenty-four hours before it rips into our present, and linear time and reality will dissolve for a few moments, and the Pitchfork three will be able to come together without harm,” Michael snatches the device from Sariel and snaps it shut,

“And we have to let them do just that!”

Sariel stares at him, taking in his statement. She hesitates, unsure of her next action. Michael sets his jaw in stubbornness. “You can fight me if you want, but I’m determined to go ahead with my plan – you know I am. So, Sariel – are you with me, or against me? Now is the time to decide!”  

Suddenly Sariel clutches at his arm, her eyes widening in alarm. Michael too tenses up, as the tell-tale sound of a door being unlocked echoes through the empty house above.

“Damn!” he hisses – they have nowhere to run, trapped inside the windowless basement. Immediately he bounds up the brick steps to tug at the chord in order to douse the light and then pulls the wooden door shut, turning the knob on the inside softly. He stands on the top step in total darkness and listens at the door, but he already knows – the footsteps clicking through the tiled hallway are on their way to the cellar.

Even with enhanced abilities, it will take a few moments for his vision to adjust to total blackness. He begins to feel his way back down the steps. Then below him, two points of silver light begin to glow, dully at first, then more brightly – Sariel’s gleaming eyes are a reference point, leading him down. He realises he is still clutching the Antikythera device. Hurriedly, he throws it away into the darkness. He hears Sariel’s catch her breath and her glowing eyebeams disappear for a moment as she turns to follow the trajectory of the precious object. But he is now upon her and he grasps her arm firmly and drags her back into the corner where he remembers there is a small hollow beneath the brick steps. The door above opens, allowing dim moonlight to enter the blackness of the cellar – he has just enough time to pull her back with him into the small space.

She glances at him meaningfully, and he senses her concentration and effort as her energy surrounds them, she is willing them into an alternate potential reality, in order to cloak their presence in the cellar. He would help her, but he’s still weakened from lack of food and sleep – his energy reserves are low. 

There is a moment’s pause, as a black figure stands outlined in the moonlight flooding through the open door above them. Then a slender arm reaches up and tugs the cord at the top of the stairs. The yellow light of the bulb illuminates the underground room.  

A pair of black patent high-heeled shoes begin to click their way down the brick steps, in them are a pair of shapely legs clad in expensive nylons. A woman with sleek dark hair, wearing a well-cut business suit, steps gingerly down to the basement floor. At the bottom of the steps she stands silently. Michael can feel Sariel falter next to him – she shoots a desperate glance at him and he understands – the elegant woman is Dolores, the colleague Lilith insisted be released from imprisonment by the Dei-men in her coded message. It will require a greater effort to conceal them from one of the Pitchfork three – from one of their own kind.

As he is thinking of this difficulty, Dolores turns her head around slightly, her glossy hair swinging back. From where they are concealed they can now see the refined profile of a pretty woman in her early thirties, dark browed and dark eyed. Dolores inclines her head, as if listening to sounds behind her, where the two if them are concealed, but then something ahead arrests her attention. She suddenly rushes forwards towards the wine rack against the opposite wall and bends low. She scoops something up in her hand and gives a low chuckle of triumph, “Well, well…” they can hear her whisper. Then she stands up to her full height, and they hear the soft click and whirring of the Antikythera device being activated.

After it becomes silent again, she turns around to face the corner where they are hiding. She cuts a slender, chic figure, tall and erect. Slowly she begins to pace closer towards them, her eyes narrowing as she approaches,

“Well, well…” she whispers again, “Is this what you were looking for?” she holds up the golden device in her hand. She is peering into the corner where they are crouching, her eyes glow silver in her concentration. She is clearly addressing them, but not yet entirely able to see them, merely sensing their presence. She holds the mechanism out to them, tauntingly,

“Well, I’ve got it now and I can…” she begins, but then abruptly, she falls to her knees with a short wail of pain, dropping the Antikythera, which rolls away and rests at the bottom of the steps. Dolores is bent over double now, clutching her head and giving short gasps of agonized distress. She braces herself with one arm on the ground and looks up towards them with pleading eyes,

Help me…” she groans hoarsely, “Get me away from here! He’s coming – and he’s getting too close. Can’t he feel it? It’s agony!” she stammers and collapses on the ground panting.

Sariel decloaks immediately, jumping forward out of the hiding place, and rushing to Dolores – lifting her head gently onto her lap. Dolores has become pale and clutches at Sariel’s arm, ‘He’s getting too close…” she mutters again. Sariel looks over to Michael,

“Her eyes Michael – they have the darkening upon them!” she yells. Michael crawls over to her side and looks down into Dolores’s drawn face. Her eyes look back at him. They have become like two spheres of night-black marble.

“The darkening is coming…” she whispers weakly, “You must get me out of here now!” her voice strengthens into a command, “Unless you want nothing left of this house, this street – nothing but ashes in a blackened burning pit!”

To be continued…

Comments
  1. spookyspeed says:

    Oooh! What is happening now?

    Great descriptive chapter. Nice to see an update. Looking forward to what is going to happen next.

  2. spookyspeed says:

    Fab update! I really enjoyed this chapter. I am feeling mini influences from Dr Who, Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials, and that isn’t so much to the story itself, but the little things in this story.

    Great writing, I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

  3. Jason says:

    I love the detail. I want one of those Antikythera devices. So cool.

  4. spookyspeed says:

    Great chapter, and also, good to read you again.

    What is going to happen? Looking forward to seeing how this story ends.

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