Authors: Glenn Cooper
Copyright © 2015 by Glenn Cooper
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information contact[email protected]
Cover Art and Cover Design by Sherwin Soy
Author photo by Louis Fabian Bachrach
Formatting by Polgarus Studio
Note: American spelling is used throughout except when referring to specific British places and titles.
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
Emily heard the footsteps coming fast from behind. Before turning to confront the threat she tensed her muscles and held her breath when her lungs were completely full.
She let the air out hard at the sight of a man with a knife.
Since childhood she had always been taught to flee from danger not confront it, but that was not an option now. He was only an arm’s length away with momentum on his side.
Her training kicked in.
She deflected his knife hand with a sharp lateral movement of her left arm and used her right arm to lunge, striking him in the throat with the heel of her hand.
The moment he started to reel back she planted herself and swung her right leg aggressively, catching him cleanly in the groin.
He crumpled to the ground.
The knife was still in his hand but not for long. She kicked again and when her foot connected with his fist the knife flew away.
Then she ran.
The room filled with claps and cheers.
“Now that’s the way to do it. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s Krav Maga,” John Camp said, his husky voice rising above the din. “Good work, Dr. Loughty. Did you see the way she defended and attacked simultaneously? That’s what I want all of you to learn.”
Emily accepted the accolades gracefully and as she passed John she smiled at his discreet slap to her bottom. She took her place with the other students and the attacker adjusted his protective padding for the next victim.
When the class ended the students collected their belongings and filed out of the recreation center. Emily took her sweet time and when only she and John were left he slowly walked over and tenderly grabbed her.
“I could have fought you off,” she said when their lips parted.
“I’m glad you didn’t give me a swift kick to the goolies.”
“My, aren’t you excelling in picking up new Britishisms?”
“Life is all about continuous learning.”
They made a pretty pair. She was tall but he was a foot taller. He was dark with cropped brown hair as thick as a horse’s mane and matching chestnut eyes. She was fair, a natural blue-eyed blonde with a gentle brogue and a stubbornness that came from her Scottish father, and a complexion and stoicism from her Swedish mother. He was American through and through. They were both fit. His work had always been physically demanding and at forty-three he was still in peak shape with long limbs and a broad back. She was thirty-seven. Her work was sedentary. She had to make an effort to keep fit and John’s class in Israeli-style self defense tactics was one of the ways she got it done.
“I have to run,” she said.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“I’ve got to head back to the lab. Hercules is two-days off.”
“I was hoping you’d stay the night.”
“I’m crazy about you,” she said, “but right now Hercules is making me crazier.”
“What do you think?”
“There was an article in one of the rags yesterday that Hercules was going to create tiny black holes that were going to destroy the world.”
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head,” she said. “We’re not going to blow up our lovely planet. I’m more concerned we’re going to break a thirty billion-dollar toy. That would make mummy and daddy awfully cross. And by the way, why are you reading the rubbishy tabloids?”
“Page three girls.”
“When the experiment’s up and running I want to get back on track with our sleep-overs.”
“They’re getting to be a bit of a habit, aren’t they?”
He ran his large hands over her back. “I’ve got worse habits than you. I’ve been told I have an addictive personality.”
“I believeI’vetold you that.”
“I’ve taken the cure on some of them.”
“Smoking: check. Women: hopefully with the exception of yours truly, check. Booze: well, that one we’re working on.”
“My life, reduced to a checklist.”
She kissed him again and pulled away. “Other than pine for me how are you going to occupy your evening?”
“I’ll probably do laundry.”
“Make sure you separate whites from colors.”
“Coming from a particle physicist, I’ll take that advice seriously.”
At eight in the evening the primary laboratory at MAAC was as busy as it ever was during the day. The collider had been idle for two years and there was intense pressure for a successful on-time restart. An electrical fault in a coil had caused a magnet quench with a resulting helium explosion and fire. It had cost sixty million dollars to replace over one hundred damaged superconducting magnets and their mountings and to purge the fouled vacuum pipes. The political damage had not been as easy to repair. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were baying for blood. Spending billions on exotic sub-atomic particle research was a tough sell at the best of times.
As director of the Hercules Project, Emily had the primary responsibility for running the start-up simulations and to do so she had co-opted a good chunk of the mainframe capacity that evening.
She didn’t take her eyes off her screen.
“Almost, Henry. Another forty minutes or so should do it.”
Henry Quint, square-jawed and unflinching, never praised or disparaged any of his people directly. Despite the reputation that American managers had of being straight shooters, Quint had a more byzantine way of dealing with organizational behavior, preferring to let people know his thoughts obliquely or via others.
“I see. The engineers are standing by. They need a lot of processing power to test the coils.”
“So you said. I’ll have them contact you directly if that time frame is problematic.”
Quint, the director-general of MAAC, ambled off leaving her to mumble unkind things to herself. He had been her superior for six years but she had never warmed to him. Unlike her previous boss who was a dyed-in-the-wool particle physicist, Quint, at this point in his career, was more administrator than scientist. In stark contrast to his gregarious predecessor, Emily never socialized with Quint outside of work. She missed Paul Loomis so much it hurt. The only thing keeping her humming was Hercules and the promise of the merger.
Hopefully everything would be rosier after the merger. At least she’d be reporting to a new director-general.
The Massive Anglo-American Collider was the giant cousin to the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The Swiss collider, a behemoth in its day, had a circumference of twenty-seven kilometers of tunnels deep under the Swiss and French countryside. The MAAC was over six times its size, some one hundred eighty kilometers long. The tunnels, roughly following the contours of the M25, ringed greater London, buried some one hundred fifty meters beneath the motorway. The main laboratory complex was east of London in Dartford in an array of architecturally uninspiring buildings on the outskirts of the city.
MAAC had been built to out-perform the LHC in a mine is bigger than yours kind of a way that only the Americans could muster. When it proved politically difficult to find a home for the program under US soil the British were brought in as partners and, after billions of dollars and a decade of construction, MAAC was once again ready to go online. If all went well Hercules I would send protons from its two 20 TeV beams hurtling underneath the British countryside to collide with far more energy than the LHC had ever accomplished. And if the experiment went off without significant problems then Hercules II would up the energy to its maximum theoretical capacity of 30 TeV per beam. And with that amount of power, if gravitons existed then MAAC had a good chance of finding them.
Sub-atomic particles communicating force had already been discovered for three of the four fundamental forces of the cosmos. Electromagnetism had the photon. The strong force that holds the nucleus of atoms together had gluons. The weak force, responsible for radioactive decay, had W and Z bosons. Gravity was the only exception. All the unified theories of physics predicted the existence of the graviton but it had never been observed. The graviton was the prize.
Gravity was the weakest of all the fundamental forces and the weaker the force the more energy needed to detect it. Enter Hercules. The ATLAS and CMS experiments at the LHC had finally discovered the elusive Higgs boson. If all went well, the Hercules experiments at MAAC would trump the LHC by discovering the graviton.
Emily finished her simulations and released the mainframe to the engineers. She stretched then wandered across the lab to Matthew Coppens’s work station. Matthew had been her first hire at the lab, an earnest young man with a first in physics from Oxford whom she’d met at CERN where they had both worked on the ALICE program. When Paul Loomis recruited her to MAAC she had pounced on Matthew and persuaded him to join as her top deputy. As it happened, it had been an easy sale since Matthew’s wife hated living in Switzerland. Their oldest son was autistic and they had found the Swiss schools rather cold and uncaring.
Matthew, balding and slight, was hunched over a stack of printouts.
“Still fussing over strangelets?” Emily asked.
He looked up at her. “You know me too well.”
“Look, Matthew, I’m glad that with Paul gone, someone is worrying about worst case scenarios but the chance of Hercules I producing strangelets is about the same as winning the national lottery every week for three weeks in a row. Besides, we’re taking it slow. We won’t go to 30 TeV until we know twenty is safe.”
He nodded and turned his head away.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine. A little tired but I expect we all are.”
“Everyone’s fine, Emily.”
His voice had an edge to it so she let him be and headed to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.
John Camp lived in a newish flat only three miles away from the MAAC. He had been there for just over two years, setting the record for his longest continuous residence in adulthood. A certain domesticity had crept into his consciousness and for the first time ever he had started to pay attention to things like matching linen and kitchen utensils. He chalked that up to Emily. Before the Hercules restart had interfered with their routine, she had been staying there two or three nights a week and she insisted on a nicely made bed and a well-stocked kitchen. But the living room was pure Camp with its large Samsung hooked into American sports channels to watch 49ers football and Giants baseball, a well-stocked bar, IKEA bookcases crammed with history and military books and framed photos of him with arms draped around grinning, machine-gun toting comrades in arms.
John was sunk into his sofa, bare-chested in low-riding sweat pants, working on a large can of beer. The TV was on mute and he was reading a book about military campaigns during the Crusades when his doorbell rang.
He smiled and called through the door, “Happy days! Use your key.”
The doorbell rang again and he got up to unlock it saying, “I thought you said you weren’t coming.”
But when he opened the door it wasn’t Emily.
“Hey, stranger,” the tall raven-haired beauty said.
“Christ, Darlene,” he said, hiking up his pants.
“I hope I’m not intruding. Alone?”
“Yeah, at the moment. This is a surprise.”
He ushered her in and gave her an obligatory hug.
“I had a shoot in London today. I go to Milan tomorrow. I thought I’d take a chance and here I am.”
“How’d you find me?”
“Vic had your address but not your new number. You’re unlisted. I didn’t realize Dartford was so far out. I’ve got a hundred sixty pounds on the meter.”
He shook his head. She actually took a taxi from Piccadilly. Typical Darlene. The taxi was still waiting at the curb in case she needed to turn back to central London. She paid the driver and John took her bags.
Inside, she looked around and said, “Your last flat in London looked like a frat house. Is there a lion tamer in the picture?”
She peeled off her buttery leather jacket. She was long and shapely and expensively dressed. The modeling business appeared to be treating her well.
“I’m seeing someone, if that’s what you’re asking. Drink?”
“Remember the way I like my martinis? Can you make one?”
“I do and I can.”
He got some ice from the freezer and filled the shaker while she draped herself on the sofa.
“Surely you’re not watching cricket.”
He turned the TV off and mumbled, “Any port in a storm.”
“You don’t seem happy to see me.”
“Actually I’m not best pleased.”
He poured the martini into a tumbler and apologized for not having olives or proper glasses.
She took a long sip and asked, “It’s all a bit hazy. Did I break up with you or did you break up with me?”
He cracked another can of beer. “You were cheating on me and I was cheating on you. But I recall that I took more umbrage.”
“I always hated it when you used words I didn’t understand.”
“I was more pissed off.”
“Men are so delicate,” she sniffed. “What’s she like?”
“Your new girlfriend.”
“None of your business.”
“Okay. Why’d you leave the diplomatic corps?”
“On reflection I decided I really didn’t want to take a bullet for the ambassador. He’s a dick.”
“Can’t you give a real answer to a real question?”
“I hit twenty years and took my pension. A private job opened up here. Besides I’ve developed a taste for English beer.”
“And your girlfriend? Is she English too?”
“Like I said, none of your business.”
“Can I smoke?”
“Outside is that way.”
She downed the martini fast and asked for another. There was one more in the shaker.
“You don’t mind if I stay, do you? It’s a long way back to London.”
He shrugged. “The sheets in the guest bedroom are clean. I leave for work early.”
“Is there a shower I can use?”
He pointed. “Through there.”
She smiled and took the martini with her.
He listened to the sound of running water and found himself remembering the way she looked naked. She was thin but unlike many of her runway brethren she was ample and curvy where it counted. In the old days he used to climb into the shower behind her for a bit of wet fun. Then he remembered what a bitch she was and he shut off his mind-porn like a spigot.
When she reappeared he swore out loud because she had chosen to emerge in a black bra and thong, her wet hair in a towel turban, looking like some sort of darkly exotic goddess.
“Christ, Darlene, I’m just not interested in re-engaging with you.”
She came closer. “Is that what it’s called? Re-engagement?”
He stood his ground. “Look. You don’t like me and I don’t like you. That’s the way we left it. Remember?”
“We’re two consenting adults. I’ll be gone tomorrow. What’s the big deal? Did I mention I missed you?”
“You don’t miss me. You’re a little drunk and a lot horny.”
She closed the gap between them and ran her hands down his back and under the elastic of his sweat pants.
“What happens in Dartford stays in Dartford, right, John?”
He closed his eyes and smelled the fresh perfume she’d applied between her cleavage. It would be so easy to let his hands do some roaming.
But his feverish thoughts crashed to a halt at the sound of a key in the lock.
He managed to separate himself from Darlene but she was only a foot away when Emily came in, her smile melting as fast as butter in a hot pan.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” he croaked.
“You can’t be serious,” Emily said.
Darlene made no attempt at modesty. “Hi. I’m Darlene. I’m an old friend of John’s.”
“She arrived unexpectedly from New York,” John said weakly. “Emily, I had no intention …”
Emily wasn’t going to let him finish. She delivered a furiously cold stare and without uttering another word, turned her back and slammed the door behind her.
Darlene crossed her arms and said with a sly smile, “She seemed nice.”
John started for the door but decided it was pointless. She’d never believe him. She knew all about his reputation and regularly chided him about it in jest. There wouldn’t be any levity tonight and no forgiveness. To be truthful, he didn’t even believe himself. For all he knew he might not have been able to tear himself away from Darlene’s fragrant curves. He slumped onto a chair, his face in his hands.
Darlene pulled a throw off the sofa and covered herself as if suddenly ashamed of her skimpiness.
“Jesus, John, I thought I’d never see the day.”
“What day is that?”
“The day you were actually in love with someone.”
The Americans at MAAC called it game day, the Brits, match day. Hercules was a go and at five a.m. the car park was filling up with personnel for the ten a.m. initiation.
John had arrived an hour before everyone else, parking in his designated director of security spot. From his above-ground office he kept an eye on the arrivals and when he spotted Emily getting out of her car he made sure he was walking across the lobby when she entered.
“Hey,” was the best he could do.
“I don’t want to speak with you.”
She had avoided him the previous day and refused to pick up his calls or respond to texts. At the Hercules staff meeting where the go decision was made she had been sitting across the table from John for over an hour assiduously avoiding eye contact.
He kept his voice low. Two of his men were on the reception desk.
“I’ve been miserable.”
“Good to hear. I’ve got to go, John. My mind’s far from you today.”
“Can we talk later?”
She brushed past.
“I’m sorry,” he called after her softly, and she was gone. He knew how much today meant to her so he added “good luck,” under his breath.
Back in his office John’s deputy head of security, Trevor Jones, came in for their scheduled pow-wow on handling the media scrum. Trevor was second-generation Jamaican with no trace of his parent’s island accents. He was a pure East-Ender with the kind of swagger you get from growing up as a street-savvy London kid. At twenty he had joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable and within three years he’d been promoted to sergeant and was well on his way to a fast-track career. Then 7/7 hit. He had been personally responsible for securing the bus-bombing scene. Then and there he decided he wanted to do something about it. He enlisted in the army and rose through the ranks to become a heavily decorated colour sergeant in the Royal Dragoon Guards. When John had looked to hire a deputy at the lab, Trevor’s application had glowed in the dark. The security function at MAAC was as tame as things got in the private sector but John trusted a man with his kind of experience. Trevor had tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan in hot spots where John had served his own tours as a major in the Green Berets. As far as John was concerned if you had the character to successfully command men in combat you could reliably be expected to manage security details at a civilian high-energy physics lab.
Trevor was ebullient. “Everyone all set to kick some proton backside all ’round London today?”
“The countdown’s still active,” John said dully.
Trevor inspected him as if he were some sort of specimen. “You look like shit if I may say so,” he clucked, sitting down. “All right?”
“Couldn’t be better,” John said unconvincingly. “Let’s review our protocols one last time, all right?”
Trevor flashed his trademark sunny grin. “That’s precisely why I’m here, guv.”
At T-minus-fifteen minutes, Emily was at her mission station in the cavernous underground control room with a wall of LED screens arrayed before her. Matthew Coppens and the rest of her deputies and staff members were at their work stations deployed in a theatrical layout of concentrically elevated semi-circles. Henry Quint had no direct responsibilities during the start-up procedure except for authorizing the final countdown and he stood at the top tier fingering his tie and obsessively clicking his ballpoint pen.
“What’s our temperature?” Emily called out, the tension in her voice barely disguised.
“We’re stable at 1.7 K,” her coolant specialist replied.
“All right. Let's power-up the synchrotron.”
MAAC was now officially the coldest place on Earth, colder than outer space.
Approximately forty thousand tons of liquid nitrogen had cooled five hundred tons of helium down to 4.5 K, or
-268.7ºC. The super-cooled helium had then been pumped into MAAC’s twenty-five thousand magnets where the refrigeration units took the magnets down to the operational temperature of 1.7 K, just above absolute zero.
Each magnet was fifteen meters long and weighed thirty-five tons. The magnetic coils were made of coiled niobium-titanium filaments seven times thinner than human hairs. If unraveled the fibers would stretch to the sun and back twenty-five times. At 1.7 K they became superconducting, conducting electricity without resistance, and creating the powerful magnetic fields needed to bend the proton beams around the massive oval.
Lead ion gas would be injected into boosters and channeled into the synchrotron where they would be accelerated and transferred into the MAAC where two beams of proton particles, one clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, would be further accelerated within minuscule cavities to their collision speed of 20 TeV, making the one hundred eighty kilometer circuit around London at near light speed, or eleven thousand times per second.
As the beams approached the collision point within the muon spectrometer detector, a seven-story tall behemoth located only three meters below the well of the Dartford control room, they would be squeezed to about sixteen millimeters, a third of the width of a human hair, to increase the chance of proton-proton collisions. And when the beams collided they would produce a collision energy of two thousand TeV, the highest ever achieved in an accelerator, each lead-ion collision generating temperatures five hundred thousand times hotter than the center of the sun.
John was surveying the control room and various points around the lab’s perimeter from a bank of CCTV monitors in his office. He watched the media gathering in the visitor’s center and a scrum of satellite trucks in the car park. But mostly he watched Emily and he had turned up the volume to capture the control room chatter.
At T-minus-five minutes Emily called out, “All right, let me know when the synchrotron is at full power.”
“Full power, two hundred GeV acceleration,” a technician soon replied.
“Okay then,” she said. “We’re on the final four-minute count till MAAC injection.”
She shifted to French to ask David Laurent, her spectroscopy chief, whether the muon detector was online. It was a running joke between them. Her German was excellent as she had done a post-doc in Ulm, but her French was more rudimentary. Laurent smiled at her and said his systems were operational.
At T-minus-one minute Emily initiated the injection and filling of the particle guns with the lead gas, and at thirty seconds she formally asked Henry Quint for the final authorization to launch the beams.
At ten seconds Quint simply said, “Proceed.”
Emily gave Matthew Coppens a quick nod.
John watched her lips on the monitor as she intoned the final countdown and wondered if he’d ever kiss her again.
“…four-three-two-one. Initiate firing.”
On the elliptical map of MAAC displayed on the largest of the control-room screens, two dots, one red, one green appeared at the synchrotron’s location just west of Dartford. Each dot began to travel in opposite directions around London. Although the paths of the proton beams were graphically portrayed with a periodicity of one orbit per second, every sweep represented ever-increasing thousands of orbits.
There were cheers around the control room but Emily quieted everyone by calling out the rising collision energies.
This time in English she asked Laurent, “David, how does the detector look?”
“We’ve got the first collision tracings appearing.”
“One down, hundreds of trillions to come,” she replied.
John had kept the camera zoomed in on her. He thought she looked sublimely happy.
She kept relaying the energy read-outs. “Fifteen TeV, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty TeV. We’re at full power!”
There was a smattering of applause in the room.
Suddenly Emily gasped. Her monitor was showing a rising energy level.
“Matthew!” she said. “What’s going on? We’re at twenty-two TeV and climbing?”
Matthew looked at her and mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean you’re sorry? Who authorized this?”
From the top of the theater, Henry Quint said, “I did, Dr. Loughty.”
“Why wasn’t I informed?” she demanded.
“Let’s discuss this later, in private, shall we?” Quint said.
“That’s not acceptable. Tell me now. Why wasn’t I informed?”
“Because you wouldn’t have agreed. This was my decision and my decision alone,” Quint said. “It’s necessary for the operational survival of MAAC. Now please carry on to thirty TeV.”
Emily looked at Matthew furiously. “You went behind my back?”
“He forced me, Emily,” he said mournfully. “He told me I’d be dismissed if I told you.”
Up in his office John’s blood boiled. He could see the hurt and betrayal on Emily’s face. Henry Quint was John’s boss too and he shared Emily’s dim opinion of him. Now he wanted to sink a fist into that face.
Hovering over him, Trevor Jones asked, “Is this safe, guv?”
John mumbled, “It doesn’t look like Emily thinks so.”
Emily watched mutely as the collision energy crept upwards. The primary goal of Hercules I was to gauge the safety of 20 TeV before upping the threshold. She knew exactly what Quint was doing. In one fell swoop he had thrown safety out the window for the sake of politics.
She whispered, “Twenty-six TeV, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine.”
When the system read-out 30 TeV she walked down into the large crescent-shaped well and turned her back on the LED screens to address Quint and her hushed team of scientists. John tracked her on one of the cameras, alarmed by the fear on her face.
“We need to dial this back to twenty TeV immediately,” she said evenly. “Matthew, please take it down.”
“Overruled,” Quint said. “I take full responsibility.”
“Dr. Quint, if you don’t allow Dr. Coppens to power-down or abort I have no choice but to tender my immediate resignation.”
“You do whatever you need to do, Dr. Loughty, but this experiment will proceed at thirty TeV,” Quint said, his voice rising.
Around the control room heads were pinging from Emily to Quint. No one seemed to be paying attention to the monitors until David Laurent noticed that his muon spectrometer was going crazy.
“Hey! The detector is going off the charts!” he yelled in his high-pitched accent. “I don’t understand this activity.”
Emily was about to sprint up the stairs to his screen when something happened.
John saw it on his monitor and blinked in confusion and disbelief. Before he could say anything he heard Trevor shouting, “Jesus! What the fuck just happened?”
Emily was gone.
And someone else was standing in her spot.
Over the next hours and days they would play the recordings of that moment over and over, thousands of times, reducing them to extreme frame-by-frame slow-motion. The HD cameras recorded at sixty frames per second. Whatever happened had taken place during the fractional interval between two frames.
On every camera feed, one frame would clearly show Emily, the very next frame just as clearly would show a man.
A large man with jet-black hair.
In real-time, John first saw him in the close-up view, looking straight into the camera with a terrified look on his coarse face. Then on another monitor with a wider angle he saw the man flying up the control room stairs, violently knocking technicians out of the way as if they were bowling pins.
“Lock it down!” John screamed to Trevor. “Lock the lab down! No one gets in and no one gets out. Stay here. I’m going down to the control room.”
“All right, but what’s going on, guv?”
“I don’t have a goddamn clue.”
And as he ran for the elevator bank he drew his sidearm for the first time in anger and fear since he left the army.2
John used his security key to summon the elevator. Every second seemed like a minute and when the doors closed the descent to the control room level was far too slow for his wild state of mind.
The elevator smoothed to a halt and he leapt through the opening doors and ran down the hall where knots of scientists were milling about in bafflement; a few of them who’d been toppled were limping or favoring bruises.
“Where’s Dr. Loughty?” John yelled.
Matthew Coppens looked at him in stunned silence with a pathetically blank expression.
“How did an intruder get in?” John said.
No one had an answer.
“Which way did he go?”
Someone shouted that he had headed toward the stairwell. That’s when John noticed Dr. Quint on the floor near one of the exits, pressing a hand against a profusely bleeding scalp.
John holstered his pistol and called into his walkie-talkie, “Trevor, he’s taking the stairs!” Then he bellowed, “Shut the experiment down, Dr. Coppens! And somebody get a first aid kit.”
“No, let it run! You don’t have the authority to shut it down, Mr. Camp,” Quint yelled.
“As head of security I absolutely have the authority. We’ve had a major breach. Dr. Loughty’s missing. We don’t know what the hell’s happening here. If you want to fire me later that’s fine but Matthew, shut this mother down!”
Matthew didn’t have to be told again. He ran back to his work station and initiated a power-down of the magnets, immediately slowing the collision energy. John hastily showed someone how to pressure-bandage Quint’s scalp before drawing his weapon again and taking off for the stairs.
The emergency stairs were a long climb, the equivalent of a thirty-story building. John pumped his legs and tried to raise Trevor on the walkie-talkie but the reception failed in the stairwell.
Trevor was watching the black-haired man charging up the stairs in a succession of camera views. Every couple of minutes the man stopped to catch his breath but John was never going to catch up with him. On lower-level cameras Trevor could see John trying the walkie-talkie but static was all that came through.
Trevor changed frequencies and shouted at the lobby guards to be ready to intercept the intruder. Then he panned one of the lobby cameras to get a good view of the stairwell door.
“Take him down and detain him. Use non-lethal force!” he shouted into his handset.
All the lab’s entrances and exits had now been automatically locked. Trevor was itching to get to the lobby to back up his men but protocol demanded that someone remain at the command center.
The reception guards, two sizable fellows, braced themselves and when the man burst through the door into the lobby they commanded him to stop. One of them pointed a Taser.
The man had crazy eyes. He rushed the guards like a bull charging a red cape and shouldered one of them away as if he were a boy, sending the guard winded and hurt onto the floor. The second guard shouted and fired off his Taser. The twin darts stuck to the coarse brown fabric of the man’s jacket and delivered fifty thousand volts.
The man fell to the ground. Trevor was watching on a monitor and swallowed hard when the man all too quickly picked himself up and delivered a crushing punch to the guard’s jaw before snatching the gun from his paddle holster and taking off across the lobby.
Trevor abandoned protocol and rushed to the lobby, drawing his 9mm Browning while trying to get John on comms.
“John, can you read me?”
The walkie-talkie crackled back with a breathy voice, “Almost there. Do you have him?”
Trevor hit the lobby and saw the black-haired man desperately pulling on the locked glass doors then pounding the glass with his palms.
“Stop there,” Trevor shouted, sighting his pistol.
The man ignored him and started kicking at the door.
The first guard rose and pulled his weapon.
“Stop and drop to the floor or we will shoot you,” Trevor demanded, drawing closer.
The man turned briefly. He didn't say a word. His snarling, twisted face said enough. The man turned away again and Trevor heard him fiddling with the pistol’s safety and slide.
“Put the gun down, mate,” Trevor said, “or I will put you down.” He radioed for John, “We’ve got a situation, guv. He’s got a gun. Permission to use lethal force.”
The walkie-talkie signal was strong now. “Don’t shoot if you can avoid it! We need him alive and talking. I’m almost there.”
The black-haired man fired a single shot. The glass door shattered and he put his boot to the rest of it then jumped through.
“Stop!” Trevor shouted again but when the first guard looked like he was going to squeeze his trigger Trevor demanded he lower his weapon.
Just then John burst through the stairwell door, panting for breath. He took stock of the evolving situation. One man was down, moaning, Trevor and the other guard were in a firing stance, and the black-haired man was running toward the car park.
“He put a round through the door, guv,” Trevor said.
“We can’t let him get away,” John shouted, running across the lobby. “Can you take out his leg?”
Trevor fired once and missed then reacquired a good sight picture and fired again. The man looked down at his right thigh, wheeled and blasted the lobby with a fast four shots, blowing out more glass and sending everyone scrambling for cover.
John found himself behind one of the reception sofas and gingerly poked his head out.
“Everyone okay?” he shouted.
No one was hit.
He rose in time to see the man accosting a woman in the visitor car park, pushing her back into the driver’s side of her Ford sedan and climbing in beside her.
“He’s got one of the reporters!” John shouted. “Call the police, Trev, I’m going to try to stop him.”
John launched himself through the shattered door, skidding on broken glass before running toward the car park. But the Ford was already speeding off, wildly clipping the bumper of a parked car as it raced toward the perimeter gate.
John yelled into his walkie-talkie, “Gate A, Gate A! We’ve got an armed man with a hostage approaching you. Get the plate number but do not attempt to block him. The police are on the way.”
He could only watch helplessly as the Ford hurtled through the open gate and turned toward the Dartford city center.
The next several hours were fitful and chaotic. The first thing John did was to make sure the press got off campus with as few questions as possible. The press had assembled at the media center and fortunately, none of them had witnessed the lobby incident. They left reluctantly, to put it mildly, but with a security clampdown in effect, they had no choice. With Quint in casualty having his scalp wound stapled, John took sole charge of the post-incident investigation. The CCTV footage was dissected and interviews were conducted with control room eyewitnesses. Despite the obvious conclusion that Emily had seemingly vanished into thin air, John insisted that every inch of the lab be searched. Her mobile phone was at her work station in the control room. When the search came up empty he personally retrieved her car keys from her office and searched her vehicle in the car park.
She was gone. Missing without a trace.
While the search for Emily was ongoing, John tasked Trevor with spearheading the investigation into the mystery man. Trevor liaised with the police who were blanketing Dartford looking for the carjacked journalist, a freelance science writer from London, and worked with a police crime scene unit to dust all surfaces the man might have touched. The lab’s head of communications crafted a press statement that the MAAC had been safely powered-down following an unauthorized intrusion by an armed man who later kidnapped a journalist. That was as far as anyone was willing to go for the moment.
In two hours’ time, Quint, his head heavily bandaged, returned to the lab and assembled the management group for a crisis meeting. John briefed him on the search for Emily and the intruder and the police investigations. Matthew Coppens, who had not been able to stop shaking since the incident, summarized the shutdown protocols.
When the time came for Quint to speak, John found him tentative and unfocused. He launched into a rambling monologue on how angry the energy secretary seemed when she reached him in hospital and how difficult it was dealing with dual scientific and political agendas. That’s when John lost it.
“Look, Dr. Quint,” he said, “I don’t give a damn about your political problems right now. Dr. Loughty is missing! You haven’t even mentioned her name. I want to know what the hell happened this morning. Emily was obviously livid when the accelerator went beyond twenty TeV. She’s the head of research and it’s damned clear that you and Dr. Coppens went behind her back to exceed the limits of Hercules I.”
“Look here, Mr. Camp,” Quint said angrily. “You’re the head of security. Stick to your knitting and leave the science to the scientists. And rather than pointing an accusatory finger elsewhere I suggest you point it at yourself. You allowed an unprecedented security incident to happen on your watch. An unauthorized stranger got access to the most sensitive area of the lab. Believe me, I’ve already made the secretary aware of your failings. If heads are going to roll, yours will be the first.”
Suddenly, Matthew Coppens lifted his bowed head and shouted, “Mr. Camp is blameless here! The blame lays elsewhere, Dr. Quint. It lies with me and it lies with you.”
Quint abruptly ordered everyone but John and Matthew out.
When the room was cleared he sat back down and said, “Dr. Coppens, I won’t stand for this kind of insubordination and I am putting you on warning. And Mr. Camp, I am seriously inclined to relieve you of duty. I have been aware of your intimate relationship with Dr. Loughty and I’m afraid it has clouded your judgment. I require objectivity from members of my staff, particularly in moments of crisis.”
Matthew started sobbing. “I never should have listened to Dr. Quint,” Matthew said. “I never should have betrayed Emily.”
There was a box of tissues on the sideboard. John got it and slid it over. “Okay. Here’s what I want to know,” John said, ignoring Quint’s rant. “Why did you go beyond twenty TeV? And give me your best assessment what happened here. Emily disappeared in under one-sixtieth of a second.”
Matthew started to say something but Quint interrupted him. “Dr. Coppens, let me advise you …”
“You can’t shut me up,” Matthew said. “If we’re going to find Emily then everything needs to come out.”
“Let him speak,” John demanded, “or that head wound of yours is going to feel like a love tap.”
Quint stiffened at the threat and kept quiet.
Matthew crumpled his moist tissue and tossed it onto the table. “This was all about the merger, wasn’t it? Everyone knows that MAAC’s delays were the reason that a decision was taken to merge us with the LHC. And everyone knows that Gestner from CERN was going to be taking over responsibility for MAAC. Dr. Quint told me that the only way he’d be able to hold onto his position was for Hercules to have immediate success with something higher profile than CERN’s Higgs discovery. According to him we needed to find the graviton now, not in two year’s time with Hercules II, but now. Which meant leapfrogging to thirty TeV.”
“Even though it wasn’t safe,” John said.
“We didn’t know it wasn’t safe,” Quint said, stony-faced. “We still don’t.”
“Okay, Matthew,” John said as if Quint wasn’t even there. “What do you think happened this morning?”
Matthew looked at him squarely. “Have you ever heard of strangelets?”3
Matthew raced through a layman’s primer on particle physics. John had heard some of the terms bandied about during staff meetings but he had always tuned out when the scientific patois thickened. Now he gave it his full attention.
Matthew explained that quarks were the fundamental particles of matter. They combined to form hadrons such as protons and neutrons, the building blocks of atomic nuclei. There were six different types of quarks, all of them identified with certainty and given quirky names during the latter half of the twentieth century: up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom, each with a different spin and charge. Strange quarks were highly unstable and existed for fleeting moments before decaying into lighter up and down quarks. Strangelets were hypothetical particles consisting of equal numbers of up, down and strange quarks bound together.
“Hypothetical,” Quint spitting out the word like a hairball. “Did you hear that, Camp? Hypothetical.”
“I won’t deny it,” Matthew said, “but most elemental particles were hypothetical before they were proved real.”
“Go on,” John said. “I’m listening.”
Strangelets, Matthew continued, were thought to have occurred in certain high-energy scenarios, such as the early stages of the formation of the universe, or within neutron stars or with head-on collisions of cosmic rays.
“How about inside the MAAC?” John asked.
“That’s the important question,” Matthew said. “Yes, theoretically colliders can produce strangelets. However, to date, no collider, not even the LHC has been shown to generate them. But this morning we exceeded all previous collision energies.”
“David Laurent and his people are analyzing the spectrometer data. He’s going to come see me when he’s got some conclusions.”
“And what if strangelets were produced?” John asked.
“Again, it’s hypothetical, but it’s always been one of those infinitesimally small risk factors out there in collider research. These strangelets, the theory goes, particularly negatively charged strangelets, would be highly unstable but the larger they were the more stable they’d become. So the disaster scenario goes like this: one strangelet collides with a nucleus of ordinary matter and catalyzes its transformation into strange matter. This liberates considerable energy producing a larger more stable strangelet that collides with ordinary matter catalyzing more strange matter. And on and on in a chain reaction, until all the ordinary matter in the world is converted into a molten lump of strange matter. Again, hypothetically, this could happen in the blink of an eye.”
John arched his brows. “That doesn’t seem to have happened.”
“Clearly not, but I’ve always been concerned about more subtle scenarios,” Matthew said.
“Okay, I know I’m out on a limb here, and you can see from Dr. Quint’s face that he thinks I’m on the fringe, but far more likely than a cataclysmic chain reaction involving massive amounts of ordinary matter is a short-chain of strange matter production. This would involve minute amounts of matter. The strange matter formed would spontaneously decay harmlessly in a miniscule fraction of a second.”
“What’s the problem with that?”
“The energy generated when strange matter is produced would be relatively enormous, much higher on a unit basis than nuclear fission or fusion.”
“But there wasn’t an explosion,” John said.
“Right, no explosion. What I’m talking about is intense energy production on a scale that’s unimaginably small. Something huge and tiny at the same time, if that makes sense.”
Dr. Quint piped up, irritated, “Listen, this is a waste of our time.”
“Please, hear me out. I’m almost finished,” Matthew said. “Strangelets may be hypothetical and so are gravitons but Dr. Quint and every scientist who works here believes gravitons will be found. For all we know, when the data’s analyzed, we may have found them today. Gravity is peculiar as all get up. It’s ridiculously feeble. After all, when I pick up this pen my puny arm muscles are defeating the gravitational pull of the entire Earth. We think it’s such a weak force because gravitons may spread out over, not just our observable dimensions, but through all the extra dimensions of the cosmos. The equations of supersymmetry and string theory argue strongly for the existence of extra dimensions. In fact, most of the really good theoretical physicists today believe that the consequence of extradimensionality is that our universe exists as one in a multiverse of other universes, perhaps an infinite number of other universes. Communication between these other universes is impossible. We’re trapped like flies on sticky paper in our own three dimensional space in our own universe. But gravity, which is the warping of space-time, is the exotic traveller. Gravitons can freely tunnel into other universes. Do you follow?”
John nodded tentatively.
“So here’s what I’ve been worried about and I shared my concerns with Emily who correctly placed them into a low-probability bin. What if MAAC’s unprecedented collision energies produced a relative abundance of strangelets and gravitons? What if, in a volume of space, trillions and trillions and trillions times smaller than the head of a pin, those strangelets produced fleeting but enormous energies akin to what was seen near zero-time at the Big Bang, perhaps fusing ordinary matter and gravitons together? And what if the result was that matter and gravitons were able to pass together through an extra-dimensional tunnel?”
Quint rose and said. “You passed from science to science fiction several minutes ago. I thought I was the one who got hit on the head. But here’s my deputy head of Hercules who seems to be suggesting that Dr. Loughty has trundled off to another dimension. That’s enough. I’ve got calls to make.”
There was a knock on the door and Trevor came in.
“Sorry to interrupt but I thought you should know. The police just found the stolen car. The reporter’s dead. Her neck was snapped.”
John stood and put his hand on Matthew’s shoulder. “I’ve got to go but we need to talk some more. A lot more.”
John had Trevor brief him on the forensics. The CSIs had found good prints on the door handle and several more on the shards of broken glass. Fortunately the cleaner had disinfected and polished the door hardware as part of her morning rounds so they weren’t expecting to sort through a zoo of prints. The stolen car was being processed as they spoke.
“There’ll be blood in the car,” Trevor said. “I definitely hit him.”
“How long will it take to get the prints analyzed?”
“It’s going to be top of the queue. They’ll be running them through the IDENT1 computer already. If he was ever arrested in the UK, we’ll have him.”
“How about the interviews with the control room people? Did any of them hear him say anything? Or notice anything peculiar?”
“He didn’t say a word, guv. Just barreled through there like a bull out of a chute. But a few people who were nearest him told me there was a funny smell about him.”
“A body odor?”
“In a way, but no one described it exactly like that. More like a smell of decaying flesh. Like meat gone bad.”
John shook his head. “Wonderful. What about his clothes, his shoes? Anything identifiable?”
“From what people said and from the still photos off the CCTV it looks like he was dressed in old farmer’s gear. Really rough kind of hand-made garments. Ill fitting. One funny thing one of the techs noted.”
“Said he had a rope belt.”
“Yeah, a bit of rope to hold up his trousers.”
John was painstakingly reviewing the CCTV footage when Trevor called.
“Bad news, guv. There’s no finger or palm matches in the National Fingerprint Database.”
“Shit. How far back does it go?”
“The guy looked like he was late thirties, early forties so it should’ve been there. From the way he was quick to use violence I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have an arrest record. Maybe he’s not from the UK. Can you run them through Europol, Interpol and the FBI?”
“What about the blood?”
“It’ll be run through the NPIA DNA database. It’ll take several days but if the bloke’s prints aren’t there I don’t have much hope for his DNA.”
“All right. I’m going back to talk to Matthew. He’s got a wild theory.”
“Oh yes? What’s he say?”
“Just trust me. It’s wild.”
Matthew was in his office going over spectrometer plots with David Laurent.
“Find anything?” John asked.
“It’s very preliminary,” Matthew said. “Not the kind of thing we’d ordinarily even talk about at this stage.”
“This isn’t an ordinary situation,” John said.
“Right. But please take this with an enormous pinch of salt. We may have a graviton signal.”
“And I think there might also be strangelets,” David said, excitedly.
Matthew quickly added, “Please remember the collider was running for only a brief time before we powered down so the number of collisions was tiny compared to a full experimental set. We don’t have enough statistical power to make any hard conclusions.”
“But there’s a chance your theory’s right?” John asked.
“All I can say is that the conditions were possibly present to support it. You know, Emily was standing at the closest spot in the control room to the collision point of the beams. It was less than three meters under her feet.”
“What does your colleague here think about your ideas?”
David delivered a Gallic shrug. “You know, in science you have to keep an open mind. But it’s not something that has occurred to me.”
“What has occurred to you?”
“I have no explanations.”
“That’s very helpful, thank you very much,” John said, eliciting another shrug. “I hate to ask this question but is it possible she was just, I don’t know, vaporized by some strange energy field. What I’m asking—could Emily be dead?”
“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “I honestly don’t know. Everything’s on the table till it’s excluded by data.”
“Has there been any progress in locating the stranger?” Matthew asked.
“There’s an active manhunt, but no. His fingerprints weren’t in the police database.”
“How many years does the database include?” Matthew asked.
“It goes back to 1987. Why?”
“Is it possible to check older records?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to ask Trevor. The guy looked young enough to be in the database provided he was ever arrested.”
Matthew had a queasy look. “I just think it might be prudent to check back further.”
When he returned to his office John called Trevor in.
“How would you go about searching for pre-1987 fingerprints?”
“There’re cards going back to about 1900 I think. The National Fingerprint Collection used to be kept in New Scotland Yard but it got moved to secure storage elsewhere in London. You want to go back further on this geezer?”
“Don’t know why. He’s too young.”
“Can you just have it done, please?”
“Yeah, ’course. It’ll take a little while. They’ll have to do a manual search using the Henry system.”
“What’s a while?”
“Dunno exactly. I may have some lady friends still about in fingerprints. I’ll see what I can do.”
Alone, John turned up the volume on the TV and listened for a while to the news on the manhunt in Dartford. A SKY helicopter was broadcasting live feed of police fanning out through a Dartford neighborhood of attached houses. He muted the sound and stared into space.
Emily was gone.
His fists balled up involuntarily in anger and frustration. He wanted a drink badly. He might not see her again. And his last memory would be her reproachful eyes.
Night came, the car park thinned out, but John refused to leave. He rode the lift back down to the control room and turned on the lights. He sat at Emily’s work station and watched the empty floor, trying to will her to reappear at the spot where she had vanished. He stayed there for an hour and must have nodded off because he was startled into confused wakefulness by Trevor calling his name.
“How’d you find me?”
“I saw you on one of the cameras.”
“A mate of mine in the Met fingerprints bureau just rang me. They finished the manual search for us.”
John recovered from his slouch and sat bolt upright. “That was fast.”
“Told you I had a lady friend or two still there.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. It’s totally mad.”
“Just tell me.”
“There’s a match. It’s for a bloke named Brandon Woodbourne, a former resident of Dartford.”
“Former? Any idea of his current whereabouts?”
“No where close to here, guv,” Trevor said, shaking his head.
“Don’t slow-play me. I’m not in the mood.”
“Yeah, all right then, it's just that, like I said, it’s mad. Brandon Woodbourne was born 15 November 1915 and was executed by the hangman at the old Dartford prison on the eighth of April, 1949.”
John ran his palms over his face. “It’s not mad. It’s just not the same guy. Either they made a mistake or the two sets of prints are very close.”
“It’s no mistake. They said it was a perfect match. Two people can’t have prints that are identical like that, according to them.”
“I don’t care what they say. This guy was here. He wasn’t dead. Do they have a mug shot of the guy?”
“No. Just a fingerprint card.”
“Well, it’s a waste of time, but to prove the obvious, go to the public library tomorrow and find the guy’s picture. It was probably in a newspaper.”
“We can check right now, guv. A good lot of old newspapers have been digitally archived.”
“Had to help my sister with a school assignment, didn’t I?”
“What’s the website?” John asked, logging onto Emily’s computer with his own logon ID.
“Don’t recall. Just search for newspaper archives or British newspapers online. Something like that.”
The top listing was The British Newspaper Archive.
“Yeah, that’s the one. See if there’s any Dartford papers there.”
There weren’t but there was a Kent newspaper called theDover Express. John entered the date of Woodbourne’s hanging and stared at a thumbnail image of the front page of the paper. To view it properly he had to purchase a two-day access.
“Waste of time,” John griped while entering his credit card. With an account open he clicked on the first page. “No photos, only text,” he said, but there was a prominent article proclaiming the execution day for the serial killer, Brandon Woodbourne of Dartford. He was to be hanged by the famous executioner, Albert Pierrepoint. Woodbourne, a roofer, had eight known victims from Kent and London, all young women, and though he was suspected of other unsolved murders he chose to take the knowledge of these crimes to the grave.
The article was continued on page four and when John scrolled to that thumbnail he saw that all the photos for the newspaper were printed on that one page.
He clicked on it and a grainy photo of Brandon Woodbourne filled a quarter of the computer screen.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Trevor gasped.
John blinked at the image of the black-haired young man and pulled out the screen shot from the lab’s CCTV footage he’d been carrying around in his pocket. He unfolded the paper and held it next to the computer.
There was no doubt.
It was the same man.4
“Do you expect me to believe this?”
Sir George Lawrence, the director-general of MI5, leaned forward, his head nearly filling the video conference screen in Henry Quint’s private conference room.
“Sir George,” Quint said into the camera, “I don’t expect anyone to believe or disbelieve. My job here is to present the facts.”
The director of the FBI, Cambell Bates, chimed in from Washington. “My people have looked at the fingerprints and photos of Brandon Woodbourne from 1949 and compared them with the prints and security camera photos from yesterday’s incident. They’re telling me that the fingerprint match is a hundred percent and that the biometric photo match is ninety-nine point something percent. The FBI’s conclusion is that it’s the same man. Don’t ask me how or why but it’s the same man.”
There were two other participants on the video conference, the US energy secretary, Leroy Bitterman, who was with Bates at FBI headquarters and the UK secretary of state for energy and climate change, Karen Smithwick, who sat beside Quint.
Bitterman was the only other scientist participating. Before entering government he had been a professor of geophysics at Cal Tech.
“The footage of Dr. Loughty’s disappearance and Woodbourne’s simultaneous appearance is striking, to say the least,” Bitterman said.
“Yes, to say the least,” Smithwick parroted.
“The muon spectrometer was about ten feet below the exact spot where Dr. Loughty was standing?”
“That’s correct, Dr. Bitterman,” Quint said.
“And was there any damage to the spectrometer or the collision vessel?”
“None whatsoever. When we powered down our engineers did a thorough inspection. All the components were normal.”
“No abnormal radiation levels?”
“Now tell me, Dr. Quint,” Bitterman said, fiddling with his bow tie, “why is it that you exceeded the parameters of Hercules I? Your limit was twenty TeV.”
Quint had spent the night preparing for the question. “It was my judgment that given the program delays we had experienced it was worth the calculated risk to judiciously boost the collision energies to Hercules II levels in an attempt to elucidate the graviton.”
Smithwick, a career politician whose hopes for elevation to home secretary in the next cabinet reshuffle had disappeared as quickly as Emily, looked to the camera rather than Quint.
“Dr. Quint, I believe this was a reckless decision. The prime minister would be delighted to receive your head on a platter.”
Bitterman was scanning some papers and looked up and opened his mouth. Quint looked relieved that Bitterman had chosen to speak before he had to respond to Smithwick. “I’ve reviewed this report from your Dr. Coppens. It looks like you may have found your graviton, Dr. Quint. That’s the good news. The bad news is you also found strangelets.”
“The data is very preliminary but yes,” Quint said. “It appears to be a good news and bad news scenario.”
George Lawrence had risen to the top of the Security Service on the back of a second in politics from Cambridge and he had been fidgeting at all the technical talk.
With unbridled contempt he said, “Look, I’ve no time for your scientific achievements or lack thereof. I want a plausible explanation for the disappearance of this Loughty woman and the appearance of a man who’s been dead for sixty-five years! A dead man who was alive enough to murder a woman yesterday and who is still at large!”
“Well don’t look at me,” Bitterman said. “I have absolutely nothing intelligent to say.”
“Dr. Coppens has a theory,” Quint said. “It is, on its face, wildly controversial.”
“To fit these facts, it would have to be,” Bates said.
“He’s waiting outside,” Quint said. “I’d like him to address the group.”
Quint had designated a sub-set of his senior staff as a crisis management team. The group initially included Matthew Coppens, David Laurent, John Camp, and Stuart Binford, MAAC’s publicity director, but John insisted that Trevor Jones be brought inside the tent since he was liaising with the police on the search for Woodbourne. Quint assembled the team in his office and laid down the law: the rest of the staff would be kept in the dark until he decided otherwise.
John sat stiffly at the table, drinking coffee. He hadn’t slept. He was angry, irritable. He may have been part of a team but he didn’t feel like a team player. He had the urge to do what he did best, destroy the enemy to achieve his objective. He just didn’t know who the enemy was.
“Before we go any further,” Quint said, his hands tented like a headmaster about to discipline a student, “I want to tell you that our British and American masters are unified in their desire to control the flow of information concerning our incident.”
John cringed at the way he said incident. It wasn’t an incident; it was a goddamn disaster of epic proportions.
Binford had been a science journalist forThe Timesbefore jumping on the MAAC bandwagon several years earlier. He was a nervous type who seemed twitchy on a good day. Now he looked strung out, like a meth addict who might never come down.
“Do you have any idea what I’ve got to contend with?” he moaned. “The press is like a pack of hounds and that makes me the bloody fox.”
“I appreciate that these people are your former colleagues, Stuart, but you have to stick to the script,” Quint said.
“The script is a cover-up,” Binford said. “All we’re saying is that there was an unauthorized breach of lab security by an unknown assailant and that we powered down the accelerator as a result. There’s nothing about the collision energies we reached. There’s nothing about Emily. There’s nothing about the fact that the assailant is a dead man!”
“Cover-up is not the word I would use,” Quint said. “We are in an information-gathering stage. We can all agree that we are not fully in command of the facts. The security services on both sides of the Atlantic insist we keep a lid on public disclosures. We don’t wish to cause a panic by putting out unfiltered and unverified information.”
“I might as well go off to the pub then and let my phone go into voice mail,” Binford said. “No one’s buying what I’m selling.”
“You’ll do what you need to do,” Quint said icily. “We all have our functions in this crisis. If you must know, I’m in hot enough water to scald my hide. They’ve insinuated that my function is to manage the crisis then fall on my sword at the appropriate time.”
“I’d hold it,” John mumbled.
“What did you say?” Quint demanded.
“I said I’d hold your sword. To make sure it doesn’t slip.”
“Thank you for that,” Quint said. “It’s good to know who your supporters are.”
“I’ll support you right up to the time we find Emily. Then you’re on your own,” John said.
Quint gave him a thin-lipped smile. “I think we can all agree that finding out what happened to Dr. Loughty is our prime objective. If she is alive then we must bring her back to us if that is remotely possible. Matthew reported to our masters this morning. I’d like him to brief this group on his theories.”
Matthew stood reflexively then decided to sit back down again. “I don’t have any answers,” he began. “I only have ideas based on the facts as we know them. Fact number one: we took our collision energies to the highest level ever tested, thirty TeV. Fact two: even with the brief window of data collection we have the telltale signatures of gravitons and strangelets. It would take a much longer window and many more collisions to get the results to statistical significance at five sigma but I think we have a pretty good handle on what we’re seeing. Fact three: Emily was standing directly over the collider. Fact four: she disappeared in anywhere from microseconds to nano-seconds or less. The video recording won’t allow us to get to any more precision. Fact five: a man who’s been identified as someone who was put to death in Dartford sixty-five years ago appeared in her place in the same micro-to-nano-second interval. According to John and Trevor there’s no doubt that it’s the same man, Brandon Woodbourne, who is now at large and responsible for a murder. Those are the facts. Would everyone agree?”
There were nods around the table.
“Now for the speculation,” he continued. “Let me stress that there is no empirical basis for my theory. I’ve tried to put aside my own preconceived notions of the cosmos and I’m merely attempting to fit the facts to an explanatory framework. I’ve told you already about my ideas on extra-dimensionality and strangelet-produced graviton-matter tunnels. I think that Emily may have been, quote-unquote, pulled into a kind of tunnel, a warp between two dimensions. The fact that Brandon Woodbourne, a dead man, appeared in her place suggests that she traded places with him, matter-for-matter, as if some kind of symmetry had to be maintained for the passage to work.”
Trevor’s mouth had involuntarily opened while listening to Matthew. He interrupted, “Look here, I was raised a Christian and all that, but Woodbourne’s been dead for a long time, fellows. Are you saying that he’s from the hereafter or whatever you want to call it?”
There was a pregnant pause until Matthew simply said, “Yes. That’s what I’m proposing. Much to the disappointment of my parents, I’m not religious myself. I am agnostic at best about notions of a supreme deity, the afterlife and all that, but this man died quite a while ago and here he is, materialized and appearing much the same age as when he was hanged by the neck till dead in Dartford Prison which, as you told me Trevor, was close to this very site until it was razed in the nineteen sixties. My working theory is that MAAC created a tunnel, a small one, no more than a pinhole in the fabric of the cosmos, connecting our dimension with another.”
“And you think Emily is there?” John said.
“I hope so. In much the same way that Brandon Woodbourne is here. Alive and kicking.”
David Laurent clearly wasn’t having any of it. “Did you actually propose this nonsense to the Americans and the British?”
“I’m afraid I did.”
“And what did they say?”
“There was no shortage of incredulity. But they listened and asked reasonably appropriate questions. Especially Bitterman. He’s a physicist unlike our energy lady who I believe had a carpet-cleaning business before going into Parliament.”
“There’s only one thing I want to know,” John said. “How do we get Emily back?”
Matthew took a deep breath and let it out noisily through his pursed lips. “We need to re-open the pinhole.”
“How?” John asked.
“My best guess would be to recreate the original conditions. We have to repeat the experiment exactly as before.”
Quint was the first to respond. “I had rather hoped that Matthew would have spoken to me about this before bringing it up to our masters but it’s out there now.”
“What did they say?” John asked.
“They surprised me by saying that they would take it under advisement. They’re in a panic about any of this getting out. They want Woodbourne found and handed over to MI5, not the police. And they want Dr. Loughty, of course. Her parents have been ringing my office desperate to hear from her, what with all the publicity about the incident. A chap from MI5 had me tell them a cock and bull story about her being just fine but in quarantine because of a radiation leak. They’ve dispatched officers to Edinburgh to commit them to the Official Secrets Act. They’re getting her sister in Croydon to sign on too. We can keep this under wraps for a while but not indefinitely. These things always come out.”
“So let’s say the Americans and the Brits give us the green light,” John said. “How do we do it?”
“Well,” Matthew said, “ideally I would think that we would place Woodbourne on the same spot above the collider that Emily stood on and have Emily stand on the same spot where she materialized on the other side of the pinhole.”
John threw up his hands in frustration. “That’s ridiculous! It assumes one thing that’s uncertain—capturing Woodbourne and bringing him back here in one piece—and one thing that’s impossible—getting Emily, wherever she is, and assuming she’s alive, to be standing on the exact spot at the exact time the collider’s on full power. For Christ’s sake—it’s not like we can send her a text message.”
Suddenly David spoke up. “I can’t believe I’m even participating in this insane discussion but if Matthew is right, the only way for an exchange to work would be for someone to go through the tunnel, locate her and get her to be on the right spot at the right time.”
“But if someone went through,” Trevor said, “wouldn’t another one like Woodbourne pop out on our side?”
Matthew said, “Maybe, if there’s a mass-balance phenomenon in play. But we could be ready this time, couldn’t we? You could grab him straight off and hold him. Woodbourne would have to be found. Our new traveller would need to make sure Emily was where she needed to be at the appointed time. Then we’d run the collider and hopefully exchange both of them for Woodbourne One and Woodbourne Two.”
“All well and good,” Quint said, “but who would we send through?”
“That part’s easy,” John said. “It’s going to be me.”
John remembered how slowly time had passed during the last week of his last tour in Afghanistan. His unit hadn’t exactly been sitting on their hands waiting for wheels-up from Bagram. There were training and tactical operations every day that week and one intense firefight. He had figured that if he could just get his ass onto the plane stateside he’d have a reasonable chance for a longish life. But he could vividly remember how the hour hand on his wristwatch never seemed to move.
As stuck in tar as that week had seemed, this week ran slower.
There were endless meetings with MI5 and FBI agents and Bitterman and Smithwick arrived in person for command performances. Led by Matthew, the technical and engineering staffs began the process of preparing the collider for another restart.
John and Trevor concentrated on Brandon Woodbourne. The trail blew hot and cold. There was a report of a break-in at a residence in Dartford, a scant two miles from the lab. When the residents returned from a brief trip they saw someone exiting through the garden and found the place ransacked, food eaten, and a smear of blood on the bathtub.
John and Trevor visited the place on Carrington Road, a semi-detached house on a quiet residential street. By the time they arrived, the forensics unit had dusted for prints and confirmed that Woodbourne had been there. There was hardly a surface he hadn’t touched. There were cans of food littered about the sitting room and empty cartons of milk and juice. Apparently the owners weren’t big drinkers but every bottle of liquor and can of beer was consumed. It looked like he had managed to work the gas stove but the microwave was clean and untouched. A first-aid kit was open and a spool of gauze was largely spent, consistent with dressing a gunshot wound. Upstairs the bed was slept-in and it appeared he used a good deal of toothpaste. The forensics people took the toothbrush for DNA testing. The female owner’s underwear was scattered about the bedroom and it looked like Woodbourne had left semen behind, which, with the blood evidence, also went to the DNA lab.
In the sitting room John donned gloves and picked up the shattered TV remote control that had been hurled into the LED screen, cracking it.
“He couldn’t figure out how to turn the TV on,” John told Trevor. “In the nineteen-forties he might have seen an early TV with a couple of knobs.”
Trevor smiled and made a crack about how his mum couldn’t figure out how to turn her own set on. “He might’ve seen them glowing in the windows of the other houses and got frustrated.”
According to the homeowners the only things missing were a set of chef’s knives, ranging in size from a paring knife to a cleaver.
“He was a blade man in his day,” John said. “He strangled then sliced.”
“He also has one of our guns,” Trevor said. “He’s got eight rounds left in the mag, kitchen knives, and his bare hands. I’d say we've got our work cut out taking him alive.”
“He’ll kill again,” John said. “At the drop of a hat. Why do you think he picked this house?”
“Unoccupied for a start. The police are canvasing up and down to see if anyone heard or saw anything.”
“See if you can track down his old police files if they still exist,” John said.
“Place of residence. I’ll bet you six pints of best bitter he lived around here.”
“Wouldn’t have looked like this back then. These houses must’ve been built in the sixties or seventies.”
“Doesn’t matter. Old dogs return to their porch.”
John was in his office, watching the tape of Emily’s disappearance for the umpteenth time when he got a call to come over to Quint’s conference room. He knew that the VIPs were there but he wasn’t privy to the agenda.
When he entered the room, all eyes fell upon him. Quint briskly introduced the group but he already knew who each one was from the visitor photo badges his department had prepared—the US and UK energy secretaries, the FBI director and the head of MI5.
“The decision has been taken,” Quint said as soon as John was seated. “In three day’s time we’ll restart MAAC and replicate the conditions of the Hercules experiment. The only difference will be that, unless you’ve changed your mind, you’ll be standing where Dr. Loughty was when we hit full power.”
“I’m not changing my mind. But why wait? That’s a full week from when Emily disappeared.”
Smithwick, the energy secretary answered him. “I’m the one who urged that we take as much time as we needed to get this absolutely right,” she said. “There needs to be a robust security plan. We can’t have another Woodbourne situation. The prime minister was crystal clear on the need for safety first.”
“I concur,” George Lawrence said. “I’m putting MI5 in charge of lab security. This is particularly necessary since you, as head of security, could be heading off to parts unknown.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” John said, “as long as Trevor Jones is tasked with getting Brandon Woodbourne back to the lab.”
Lawrence said, “I’ve had a look at his credentials and it seems that he’ll be a good man to interface with the local police. They’re more likely to cooperate with one of their own rather than one of mine. I’ll agree to your proposal.”
“How will the logistics work?” John asked. “Assuming I’m not blasted into trillions of pieces and I survive passage through Dr. Coppens’s tunnel, we don’t have any idea what I’ll find on the other side. If time is the same there, a week will have gone by. Emily might not be easy to find. I won’t be able to communicate with you. How’re we going to coordinate our transfer back here?”
Leroy Bitterman politely raised a finger to answer. “We spent some considerable time talking about that. I think the only plan which makes any sense is this—and it assumes that you, in fact, disappear and that someone else from this other dimension, if that’s what it is, appears in your place: we’ll give you one week to the second to locate Dr. Loughty and bring her back to the exact spot where she emerged. And hopefully a week will be enough time for your Mr. Jones to find Brandon Woodbourne. Then we’ll re-run Hercules and if all goes well we’ll exchange you and Dr. Loughty with Woodbourne and whomever.”
John frowned. “What if I can’t find her in a week or Trevor can’t find Woodbourne in a week?”
Quint said, “We will repeat the experiment once weekly three more times.”
“What if a month’s not enough time? Then what?” John asked.
“Then you’ll be out of luck or long dead,” Smithwick said tartly. “The government will not permit this situation to linger beyond a month. MAAC will be shut down. Permanently. We’ll come up with a story to explain Dr. Loughty’s death and lack of earthly remains to her family. Woodbourne will disappear for good once he’s captured. As he seems to be dead already I don’t think we’ll be exactly violating his due process and civil rights. That will leave only you. Do you have any family, Mr. Camp?”
He thought about it for all of a second. There was only his brother, Kyle, and they no longer talked. “I won’t be missed.”
Smithwick smiled. “Excellent.”
The day arrived.
John left his dirty dishes in the sink and turned off the lights. He considered slipping a flask of booze in his back pocket but thought better of it.
He arrived at the lab early but Trevor was already waiting for him in his office offering a hot mug.
“I hope they’ve got coffee where I’m going,” John said.
“Among other things,” Trevor said.
“Oxygen for starts.”
“You’re putting my mind at ease.”
“Happy to help, guv.”
John stopped smiling. “You’ve got to find Woodbourne.”
“I’ll find him.”
With time ticking down John cloistered himself behind his closed door and got himself strapped up with a loaded 9mm pistol on his hip, five extra fifteen-round mags on his belt, a tactical knife with a seven-inch blade, a Leatherman utility tool, his old military wristwatch, a Zippo lighter, a back-up metal tube of matches and a compass. His small backpack was stuffed with a plastic poncho, a few flares, plastic restraints, some rope and wire. That was it. There wasn’t exactly a guidebook to offer tips on being a prepared traveler.
The phone rang startling him. It was Matthew calling from the control room. They were ready.
Stepping off the lift at the control-room level, John was aware that everyone in the corridor was staring at him. He entered the control room and the stares continued.
Matthew greeted him. “All set?”
“We’re at the five-minute countdown. The synchrotron’s at full power. You should take your mark.”
An X of electrical tape marked the precise spot where Emily had been standing. John stood on it and looked up at the theater of technicians busy with their tasks but still sneaking glances his way. He felt queasy, like an actor waiting for the curtain to rise on a play in which he hadn’t learned his lines. Quint stood at the rear clicking his ballpoint pen. Suddenly the double doors opened and Trevor came in leading a phalanx of MI5 agents kitted out in full riot gear, sporting short-barreled assault rifles, sidearms on their thighs and Tasers on their belts. They fanned out, encircling the room and when they were in position, Trevor locked the doors.
He gave John a salute and told Quint that this time, no one was getting out.
As the countdown progressed John stood like a statue on his mark, fussing with his holster and utility belt and trying to control his breathing. He found his calm by picturing himself in a more familiar situation equally fraught with imminent peril, swooping down in a helicopter onto a landing zone in enemy-controlled territory. Death was the worst-case scenario then and now. He could deal with that.
He heard the count arrive at T-minus-one minute and Matthew ordering the injection of the particle guns. He heard Quint give final authorization to proceed and Matthew following through with firing initiation.
Behind him the elliptical map of MAAC showed the proton beams looping around London.
Matthew called out the rising collision energies, his voice rising.
“Twenty-five TeV,” he shouted. “We’re approaching the critical point.”
Suddenly Trevor said from the wings, “John, it’s not too late to abort.”
“No way. Keep going.”
He closed his eyes as the count ran up, Emily’s face planted in his mind.
He heard Matthew shouting “Thirty TeV!” and then in an instant, everything went completely quiet, as if he were suddenly underwater.
Trevor was the first one to say something and it was a loud string of curses.
He reached for his pistol and closed in on the theater well with the advancing MI5 agents.
John was gone.
A dirty young man, shabbily dressed, was standing on the tape mark blinking at them in terror.
“Who are you?” Trevor shouted.
The young man replied truculently, “Who am I? Who the ’ell are you?”5
The smell hit John even before the sight of the place registered, like a bad latrine in an outpost in Afghanistan but worse. The sweet, sickly aroma of decay wrinkled his nose and soured his stomach.
Disoriented, he looked from side to side. Through a cold, gray drizzle he saw he was alone on a rutted, muddy road. To his right and left, hugging the road, were small, shoddy wooden houses with thatched roofs, their shutters tightly closed. A pair of large black crows took to the air from one of the roofs and disappeared into a nearby stand of trees. Wood smoke drifted from chimneys, providing the only pleasant whiffs. He heard the whinny of an unseen horse.
His khaki trousers were loose. The ends of his belt hung free, the buckle gone. All the gear on the belt was missing, the plastic holster, the pistol, the mags and nylon mag holders, the knife and its sheath, the utility tool. He felt exposed, out in the open, as he did a frantic inventory. His watch was gone. He thrust his hands in his pockets. The compass and lighter weren’t there. Then he realized that all the zippers on his leather jacket were missing. He was also missing his zipper and the plastic buttons on his trousers and shirt were gone too. His boots felt a little loose and a quick glance downwards revealed that the metal eyelets for the rawhide laces weren’t there. The canvas backpack bag was lying in the mud behind him, without the metal buckles that had held the straps together. The bag looked deflated and when he stooped to retrieve it, the only thing left inside was the spool of rope. He quickly ran a length through his belt loops, tied it off and stuffed the spool in his pocket.
He felt certain that no more than a few seconds had elapsed since he heard Matthew calling out, “Thirty TeV.”
Where was the lab?
What was this place?
He had an urge to call out for Emily but he checked himself and took a tentative few steps forward, the mud sucking at his boots.
A muffled voice came from one of the houses, “Come on, Duck, you bird-witted fat’ead. Where are you then?”
“Don’t be ‘angin’ about. You know it an’t safe.”
The shutters opened and a young man stuck his head out. His jaw went slack at the sight of John.
John started to run. He heard a door opening, slapping against the side of the house, and the squishy sound of footsteps behind him.
“’Ere! Stop! I an’t gonna do nuthin’ to you.”
John looked over his shoulder. The fellow didn’t appear to have a weapon. Up and down the road, shutters opened a crack. He stopped and turned to take a better look at his pursuer. He was no more than a skinny kid. John could deal with him without weapons. He could break him in two with his hands.
The kid said, “That’s it, big fellow. No need to hoof it. I’m Dirk. ’Ad a good passage, then?”
John didn’t answer.
Dirk drew closer. He was barefoot, his ankles sinking into the slop. His shirt and trousers were filthy and ragged, his hair a tangled mess. When he was a yard away he began to sniff like a dog and suddenly his face turned from crafty to alarmed.
“Bloody ’ell! Another one.”
“Another what?” John demanded.
In a flash, Dirk lost interest in him and ran back to the spot where John first appeared.
“Duck! Duck! What’s ’appened to you?”
John slowly walked toward him.
“Did you see me brother?” Dirk said. “Taller than me, bit of a mackerel, but not as ’andsome.”
“You’re the first person I’ve seen. Where are we?”
Dirk backed away from the muddy spot as if John’s deep boot prints were radioactive.
“I told Duck not to walk through there. I told ’im it weren’t safe. What ’appens once can ’appen again.”
“What happened before? Was there a woman?”
Dirk started to wail in despair. “I can’t go on without ’im. ’E’s all I ’ave, all I ever ’ad.”
John wanted to grab him by the shirt and shake him but the cloth looked so ratty he thought it would come apart in his hands. Instead, he drew within inches, towering over the lad, and spoke with absolute menace.
“I will hurt you if you don’t start answering my questions. You said I was another one. Another what?”
Dirk wiped at his snotty nose with the back of his hand. “Another live ’un.”
“And you’re not?” John asked sarcastically.
Dirk snorted. “Me? You must be joking! I’ve been dead for over two hundred years.”
John stared at him mutely.
“Better come inside,” Dirk said. “If the sweepers come through they’ll lace you up and ’ave you in irons.”
John cautiously followed him into his house.
With the door closed the small room was dark save for the glow of a modest fire in the hearth. When his eyes adjusted John made out a primitive table with a couple of stools, two cot-like beds, and some cook pots by the fire. The gapped floorboards were caked with mud. It was a rough little place but at least it didn’t smell as bad indoors.
John opened the rear shutter for a quick peek. There was a small plot of tilled land and beyond it a river about a half-mile away.
John shook his head. He’d had breakfast earlier somewhere far away.
Dirk ladled some greasy stew into a wooden bowl and had at it with a wooden spoon.
“Sorry ’bout the dark. Got to keep the shutters closed or the sweepers’ll see in. Got a few candles but they’re dear. Beer?”
“I could use a drink.”
Dirk got up. There was a keg in a black corner.
“You talk funny,” Dirk said. “Know that?”
“I’m from America.”
“’Eard of it.”
“Tobacco comes from there, I ’ear. Got any?”
“Sorry. I quit.”
“It can kill you.”
Dirk put two wooden mugs of beer down on the table.
“Not one of me worries. Let’s get to the brass monkeys. Where’s Duck? Do you know where ’e is?”
John tasted the beer, a tiny sip at first. It was sweet, like a barley wine, and strong.
“Not bad,” he said.
“Not bad? It’s the best around. Make it myself, I do.”
John had some more. One of his teeth tingled and when he probed it with his tongue he noticed the filling was missing. He set his tongue roving and found more gaps but ignored the problem for now. “Answer my questions first. Then I’ll tell you what I know about your brother.”
“Fair ’nough. Ask away.”
“What is this place?”
“You don’t know?”
“Son, I have no idea.”
Calling him son seemed to have a good effect. His face softened and his lips began to quiver.
“It’s ’ell. That’s what it is.”
John shook his head. “First impressions: it does seems like a shithole, but you’re not answering my question. Where are we?”
“I told you, didn’t I? It’s ’ell.”
John felt his anger rising. He wanted to reach across the table and grab the kid by his neck but he held back.
“I’m giving you one more chance and then I’m going to start breaking your fingers.”
Dirk shrugged off the threat. “It’s a common reaction—you got a name?”
“John. John Camp.”
“I’m Dirk. It’s a common ’nough reaction, John Camp. Fowks get ’ere, they say it can’t be true. They’re alive one instant and then they’re dead and then they’re ’ere. They’re lookin’ about for the angels and the pearly gates and the like but there’s none of that. You do bad ’nough things and ’ere’s where you end up. ’Ell, ’ades, there’s different names I s’pose. Me and Duck, lots of others, we call it Down.”
“It’s in the Bible, in’it? In the bit what Luke wrote. Our mum used to read it to us, not that it did any good. Luke says to some bastard that ’e’s not going to ’eaven, ’e’s going to be cast down. Well that’s where we are. ’Bout as far down as you can get.”
“Okay, Dirk. You say you’re dead. When did you die?”
“1790. Month of June. Last thing I seen was a meadow full of poppies near the gallows. ’Twas a lovely sunny day, worse kind of day to leave. Would’ve rather ’twere raining.”
“You’re saying you were hanged?”
“I was. Duck too, standing right next to me in the gallows. The waiting for it was ’ard but the ’anging part weren’t so bad. I’m falling through the air then I’m ’ere. No pain I can recall at all. Just like that it was.”
“All right, I’ll humor you. Why were you hanged?”
“Me and Duck drubbed the baker. Didn’t mean to kill ’im, just take ’is purse, but I reckon we crashed ’is skull a mite hard. They took us to dumbo and ’anged us the very next day.”
“You don’t look like someone whose neck was snapped or a guy who’s over two hundred years old.”
“That’s the thing. Only good bit ’bout Down, I s’pose. You come ’ere whole. If you was all broked up when you died you’re not broke up when you arrive. Mind you, you can get plenty smashed up when you’re ’ere, I can tell you that. And you don’t age none. You stay the way you came. Forever like.”
John always prided himself in telling truth from lies. He’d done plenty of prisoner interrogations in Afghanistan and he’d been good at reading people even through the veil of cultural differences. Men were men. He could usually tell by their eyes if they were lying. Dirk looked straight enough. But before he could ask the next question he heard a rumbling outside. Horses were approaching, clopping fast through the mud. They suddenly pulled up outside Dirk’s house, neighing and snorting.
A man shouted, “Any new ones? Come on, bring ’em out. I’ve got a nice full purse.”
“Quiet,” Dirk whispered to John. “Not a peep.”
“You in there Dirk? Duck? You wouldn’t have another special one, would you?”
“Tell me why I shouldn’t sell them your arse,” Dirk whispered.
“Did you sell them a woman named Emily?”
“Why wouldn’t I? Silver’s ’ard to come by.”
John rose up, towering over him, his fists balled in rage.
“I’ll call out to ’em,” Dirk said, pushing his chair back.
“If you do that you’re never going to see your brother again. Is that what you want?”
Dirk shook his head. “’Es all I got.”
“Then listen to me. I know where he is. I’m the only one who can bring him back. You help me and I’ll help you.”
There was a heavy pounding on the door.
“Get yourself under the bed,” Dirk whispered. “Quick like or you’re done for.” Dirk raised his voice and called through the door. “’Ang on. Be right there.”
As John squeezed himself under one of the beds he whispered, “Is he the one you sold her to?”
“Yes, ’urry it.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“Ask him. Find out.”
Dirk swung the door open. A robust, bearded soldier with a sword on his belt scowled at the young man.
“What took you so long?”
“I was wankin’ off.”
“Can’t get a woman?”
“Not many in these parts, are there, captain?”
“Surprised you’re not having it off with your brother then. Or a goat.”
The soldier roughly pushed Dirk aside and entered, squinting into the dark recesses.
“Where’s your brother, then?”
“Not ’ere. Speaking of women, ’ow’d you get on with the special one?”
“You got paid. It’s none of your affair beyond that.” The soldier picked up one of the mugs. “Anyone else here?”
“Left without finishing his beer?”
“We had a fight. I gave ’im a good ’un and ’e stormed off.”
“It’s wot ’appened.”
The soldier began looking around suspiciously. From under the bed John could see dirty knee-high boots thudding on creaking boards. The boots stopped moving beside the bed and John heard sniffing.
“What’s that?” the soldier asked.
Dirk replied, “I don’t smell nothing.”
Suddenly the bed was lifted all the way onto its side and John was staring up at a heavy-set man in a belted, leather tunic.
The soldier furiously drew his sword and shouted, “You! Get up!”
John slowly got to his feet. He seemed to surprise the soldier with his height. The man sniffed again.
“Another live one! I’ve been here for nigh on five hundred years and never saw a single one. Now I’ve seen two. What’s your name?”
“John Camp. What’s yours?”
“You can bloody well call me your lord and master.”
He menaced John with his sword. “Come along.”
“Will you take me to the same place you took the woman?” John asked.
“Different buyer, I expect, for the likes of you.”
“Tell me where she is.”
“Rules here are simple. You do as you’re told and you don’t get to ask questions.”
“Then it looks like I’m not going with you.”
“’E’ll run you through,” Dirk warned.
John confused the soldier with a broad smile then lunged with astonishing speed, swatting the man’s sword hand away with his forearm and simultaneously landing a hard, sharp punch to the man’s flat nose. The blow produced a spray of blood and the soldier instinctively raised his free hand to his face. John grabbed his thick wrist, bent it back and wrested the sword away. Once he had the weapon he planted himself and delivered a wheelhouse kick to the chin. The soldier was staggered but he was a tough one, still able to draw a dagger from his belt. With eyes raging he got close enough for John to smell his putrid breath. But John had a good purchase on the sword and the man suddenly groaned and went limp, impaled navel-high on the sharp blade.
The other soldiers, hearing the commotion through the thin walls, were already piling into the house. Though there were four of them they were disadvantaged by the darkness. John had only a second to test the weight of the sword in his right hand. He’d never wielded one in combat but he’d been trained to the hilt in knife fighting. The sword was short, broad, and heavy with a sharp point and a double edge. With a battle yell he launched himself at the first soldier to pass through the door and heard the clang of sword on sword. His escape blocked, Dirk yelped and slithered under the second bed. Accustomed to the darkness, John’s more accurate thrusts forced the advancing soldier back against his comrades. Pinned against his own men, John was able to tie up the soldier’s sword arm and kick him high in the chest. He toppled backwards taking down the man behind him but his place was immediately taken by another who seemed quicker with his weapon.
The clanging of steel rang in John’s ears until one of his own thrusts felt different from the others. The point of the blade crunched through the man’s sternum, collapsing him to his knees where he clutched his chest. Two other soldiers took up the engagement, cursing and slashing. When one of them deflected John’s sword, the other used his pommel to strike John in the forehead. The sharp thud sent him reeling back a few steps. He tried to shake off the pain and dizziness but he had little time. The two soldiers advanced as one, raising their swords high to deliver killing blows. In desperation, John gripped his sword with two hands and swept it in a great arc, catching both their throats with the same strike, releasing geysers of hot blood.
It was the unmistakable sound of a large-caliber round going off and for an instant the room was incandescently bright.
The last soldier was standing at the door behind the four men John had felled, a smoking pistol in his hand. John felt a searing pain in his left arm. The soldier was a young man, not much older than Dirk and he looked scared. His next bullet, fired unobstructed from only three feet away, would be center mass. John would die in this place and Emily would be trapped.
He waited a long second. Then two.
Then he was hit, not by a bullet but by a revelation. There wasn’t going to be a second shot, not from this gun.
It was a flintlock pistol, something out of a museum.
The soldier dropped the gun and started drawing his sword but John sprang forward and caught him in the belly, hard enough to ram his blade clean through.
John pulled the sword out and when the young man crumpled, John rested his hands on his knees in exhaustion, his chest heaving. He’d killed men before, but not like this. This was brutal and primitive, unlike his usual surgical kills at a distance through a scope.
The muddy floorboards were slicked with blood. Dirk emerged from under the bed and let out a low whistle.
“Never seen sword play so nice. Good on you. You a soldier then, John?”
Through panting breaths he answered, “Used to be.”
“It’ll come in right ’andy ’ere.”
Dirk gingerly stepped over the bodies and peeked out the door. There were no more soldiers, only riderless horses hitched to a post.
“That’s the lot of ’em.”
Dirk lit one of his scarce candles from a glowing log as John laid his sword on the table and peeled off his jacket and shirt to inspect his arm. There was a shallow, bloody crease in his deltoid muscle that he washed with beer. Cutting off the sleeve of his shirt with the sword blade, he tightly wrapped his arm and tied it off, then quickly donned his jacket over his undershirt.
He reached for the flintlock pistol then frisked the gunman and found two pouches, one with a full horn of powder and one with lead balls and wadding. He knew how to handle the weapon. There wasn’t a firearm John hadn’t mastered and that included black-powder guns.
“I had a gun. It didn’t make it through,” John said as he poured powder down the barrel, dropped in a lead ball and wadding and pressed hard with the tamping rod. He finished the job by inspecting the flint and priming the pan.
“Metal don’t come over,” Dirk said, “Just flesh and bone and cloth. Come on. We’ll take their best ’orses. I’ll take you to a man who can ’elp you find your lady friend. Then you’ll ’elp me find Duck, right?”
“I keep my promises.”
John took the candle from Dirk to search the other soldiers for anything that might prove useful.
He started to squat beside the pile of bodies but suddenly caught himself and jerked his body straight.
All of the men were still showing signs of life despite unsurvivable blood loss. The men with chest and abdominal wounds were slowly writhing. The men with slashed throats were opening and closing their mouths, their lips smacking impotently.
“They should be dead. These were all fatal wounds,” John said, his voice cracking.
Dirk cackled at that.
“No one dies here, didn’t you know? That’s the thing ’bout Down, John Camp. There’s no way out.”6
One of the MI5 agents was yelling, “Take him, take him down!” but Trevor called them all off. Another agent demanded that the lab personnel evacuate, prompting a rapid but controlled rush to the exits.
The young man stood at the spot where John had been a moment before, his hands empty with no visible weapons. The gangly, dirty kid was shaking like a cold, wet mutt and Trevor immediately sensed that it would be best to go easy. He holstered his gun.
“What’s your name, mate?”
The kid stared in panic at the men encircling him, pointing pistols at his chest.
“Don’t be scared. We’re not going to hurt you. My name’s Trevor. What’s yours?”
“That’s a good name, mate. Yeah, I like it. So Duck, before we go somewhere nice and have a chat, I’m going to just pat you down, ever so gently, to make sure you don’t have anything on you that could hurt us. Okay?”
“Wot’s pat me down mean?”
“Touch your clothes. To see if you’ve got a weapon.”
“Me brother ’as a knife, but I don’t.”
“I hear you. Can I check anyway?”
Duck swallowed and nodded. Trevor slowly approached and ran his hands over his smelly shirt and dirty trousers. Duck’s shoes were caked in wet mud. Trevor had him slip his bare feet out of them to check inside. He flinched at the smell.
“Okay, it’s all good,” he declared. “How old are you, Duck?”
“That’s an ’ard question.”
“Really? If I had to guess I’d say you were eighteen, nineteen. Maybe twenty.”
“Oh, in those kinds of years. I’m nineteen.”
“What other kind of years are there?”
Henry Quint had remained in the control room and when he called out, Duck looked up at him in alarm.
“Ask him where he’s come from, for God’s sake!”
“Who’s ’e?” Duck asked. “The lord of this shire?”
“Yeah, in a way,” Trevor said. He turned to Quint and said, “We’ll get to all that, Dr. Quint. Why don’t you let me do this my way, all right?”
Quint mumbled something and showed his anxiety by clicking his pen furiously.
“I think we can all put away our weapons,” Trevor told the agents. “Duck’s going to be a good, cooperative chap, aren’t you, Duck?”
“Where am I?” Duck asked.
“This is Dartford. In England.”
“Don’t look like Dartford.”
“You know it?”
“’Course I do. I’m from there, an’t I?”
“Okay, Duck. I reckon we’ve got a lot to talk about. Let’s go someplace nice and quiet, maybe get you some fresh clothes and a good wash. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
“Got any beer ’ere?”
Trevor smiled. “I think we can manage to find you a beer.”
“Where is he?” Quint asked.
It was midafternoon. Trevor was punch drunk. It had been the strangest of days.
“He’s having a kip. We’ve got him tucked away in one of the security-guard overnight suites.”
“Is it secure?”
The other man in Quint’s office answered with the elocution of a public school boy. Ben Wellington was the lead security agent at MI5 and he’d been shadowing Trevor all day. He was one of the agency’s pedigreed breeds with a pocketful of Eton and Oxford credentials, the kind of man destined for high office within the security services. He was crisply turned out in a bespoke suit and silk tie with freshly cut hair. “We’ve installed locks on the outside of the door and have three agents on duty outside. In addition we have installed monitored video cameras in the bedroom and the loo.”
“He’s not going anywhere,” Trevor said. “And quite frankly I don’t think he wants out. He’s happy as a monkey with a peanut machine.”
“Tell me what you’ve found out,” Quint said.
“I rather think you should look at the recorded interview,” Ben said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s best appreciated first-hand. I’m going to recommend that we play it in its entirety to the principals on the eighteen-hundred hours videocon.”
Quint nodded his agreement.
“You got a seat belt?” Trevor asked.
“Why is that?”
“’Cause you’re going to fall off your chair.”
Trevor located the file on the security department server and started playing the interview on Quint’s screen. As he always did, Quint began taking notes in one of his hardbound diaries but he soon let the pen slip from his fingers and simply stared. In the video Duck was seated at the head of a table flanked by Trevor and Ben, dressed in a loose-fitting orange jumpsuit, the smallest female size used by the engineers. During the forty-minute interview he fidgeted and scratched and kept asking for more chocolate biscuits and cola, which he wolfed down voraciously.
Ten minutes into the recording, Quint had them pause it.
“Do you believe any of this?” he asked.
Ben showed a palm in futility. “It’s going to be impossible to independently authenticate. With Brandon Woodbourne we had police and other records to verify that he died in 1949 and forensic data to prove it was the same man. This lad says he died circa 1790. We’re unlikely to find any contemporaneous accounts of Duck’s claimed execution but the research group at HQ tells me there were some three-dozen broadsheets in London and the provinces in the eighteenth century. I’ve got someone over at the British Library looking into it.”
“Well, it all seems ridiculous on the face of it. By the way, what kind of name is Duck anyway?”
“I asked him that while we were giving the boy a shower,” Trevor said. “He didn’t know how to operate the plumbing and he was scared of it. Should have seen him when he saw the toilet flush. Anyway, never saw so much dirt come off a human body. He said it was the name his parents gave him because he waddled like a duck. He says he’s got an older brother named Dirk. Just an aside and something you’ll not get from the video, even after a good scrubbing he still had a very distinct body odor.”
Quint asked him to elaborate.
“It’s like decaying flesh. Like a body that’s had a day or three of decomposition.”
“Not at all pleasant,” Ben said. “I’ve got an agency doctor and nurse on the way here. Later this afternoon we’ll run a battery of tests.”
“All right, let’s keep going with the video,” Quint said.
When it was over Quint stood and poured a coffee from his sideboard.
“Do you agree we ought to show this to the principals?” Ben asked.
“I do,” Quint said, taking his seat again. “Seeing is believing, I suppose, though as a scientist this seriously stretches my belief system.”
“He came from somewhere,” Trevor said. “Brandon Woodbourne came from somewhere. And according to Duck’s statement, Dr. Loughty wound up, very much alive at that somewhere. We have to assume that John is there too.”
Ben nodded. “We have incontrovertible evidence that Woodbourne is dead yet now he seems quite alive. There’s little basis to doubt that the same is true for Duck. If we get bowled out at the British Library, it occurs to me that we could get a linguist to study Duck’s speech patterns to see if they’re compatible with the eighteenth century. Beyond that, I think we’ll have to stick with what we have: his firsthand account of this place he calls Down.”
“We’ve only scraped the surface with him,” Trevor said. “When he wakes up we’ll need to carry on with interviews and milk everything he knows about his world.”
“As you can see,” Ben said, “he’s unfocused, childlike and none too bright. It’s going to be a challenge to effectively milk him, as Trevor says, but it’s imperative we do it right. The more we know, the better chance we’ll have of understanding Brandon Woodbourne and what we’re dealing with.”
Trevor opened his laptop and clicked on the video feed of Duck’s bedroom. The duvet was pulled up to his neck and he was sleeping soundly with a look of pure pleasure on his young, clean face.
“The clock’s ticking,” Trevor said. “We’ve got six and a half days until we fire up the collider again. We’re going to do everything in our power to find Woodbourne in that time and I’ll bet anything that John is in that godforsaken place doing everything in his power to find Emily.”
Des and Adele Fraser, a couple in their sixties, returned to their Hillside Road home and began piling bulging suitcases on the walkway. Mr. Fraser paid the driver. They had taken a taxi from Gatwick to Crayford, just west of Dartford, because their son was away on business in Manchester. It was midday, the bright sun casting no shadows.
“Did you draw all the curtains when we left?” Des asked his wife.
She looked toward the windows of their modest semi-detached home and said, “I don’t think so but I really can’t recall. We left two weeks ago, didn’t we? Seems like forever.”
“You go on. I’ll shift the bags.”
Adele used her house keys and left the door open for her husband who carried the lighter bags through the threshold then struggled with the biggest one. In the hall he put the unwieldy bag down, grumbled about his back, and said they’d have to unpack it downstairs rather than lug the monster up to the bedroom. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that his wife hadn’t moved from a spot in the sitting room and hadn’t removed her coat.
“You all right, luv?”
A large man stepped into the hall, pointing a pistol at Des’s middle.
“Close the door,” he said. “And keep your trap shut.”
“Who are you?” Des asked indignantly.
“You haven’t done what I told you. Do you want me to kill her?” Woodbourne said.
Des closed the door and was herded into the front room. It was in a state. There were food tins, plates, and utensils strewn about, the contents of the cupboards scattered and broken on the floor.
“Sit there. Both of you. You, what’s your name? Cook me something. I’m sick of eating from tins.”
“My name is Adele.” Her voice was thready with fear.
“Right, Adele. Make us something tasty then. If you open the back door I’ll kill him straight off. I cut the telephone lines so don’t you bother with that neither.”
“I have to see what I’ve got,” she said. “We’ve been away a fortnight.”
She removed her coat, exchanged a desperate glance with her husband and went to the kitchen.
“That’s a tele, right?” Woodbourne asked, pointing the gun at the flatscreen.
“Of course it is,” Des said.
“Can’t see where the tubes go. Couldn’t figure how to switch it on neither. Do it for me.”
“You need to use both boxes.”
Woodbourne looked around. “I didn’t see no boxes.”
“These,” Des said, picking the remotes off the carpet. “One’s for the set, the other’s for the cable.”
“Just do it, all right?”
Des turned it on. “What channel?”
“Don’t be daft. The BBC.”
“One, two, three, or four?”
“Don’t be smart with me. There’s only the one BBC. I want the news to see if they’re saying anything about me.”
Des put it on the BBC news channel. Woodbourne looked startled and marveled about it being in color.
“What did you do to be on the news?” Des asked.
“The usual, I suppose. I came, I saw, I conquered. Who said that? Can’t never remember.”
“Yeah, him. I looked all over for a wireless. You got one?”
Des was in his late sixties. He looked Woodbourne over curiously. He didn’t seem to be older than forty or so. He was heavy-set and muscular, Des’s own shirt and trousers, tight on his large frame. His black hair was slicked back. He smelled of a combination of rot and his wife’s soap.
“I haven’t heard a radio called a wireless for a very long while. We’ve got a clock radio by the bed.”
“Is that what that is? I couldn’t work it neither.”
“Why did you break into my house?”
Woodbourne limped across the room and rubbed at his thigh. “I used to have a mate who lived round here. Couldn’t find it. Must’ve been torn down. The house was empty so in I came. Had to go somewhere. My car’s in your lock-up. That yours in the drive?”
“Didn’t need it for your hols?”
“We were in Australia, visiting our daughter.”
“Long way, that.”
“You’re limping. Are you hurt?”
“I’m all right. Just grazed.”
“Look, why don’t you leave after my wife feeds you? We won’t call the police.”
“That’s what they always say, don’t they?”
“Then you’ve done this sort of thing before.”
Woodbourne looked up. “I have done.”
It wasn’t long before a picture of Woodbourne appeared on the TV, an image grabbed from the MAAC cameras.
The newsreader said, “There continue to be no apparent further developments in the case of the unnamed man who broke into the Massive Anglo-American Collider in Dartford, interrupting a key scientific experiment. This man later kidnapped and killed journalist Pricilla Knowles who was on site covering the event. Despite the largest manhunt in Kent history, the perpetrator remains at large. Once again the public is encouraged to report any sightings of this man, who is considered armed and extremely dangerous, to the number appearing at the bottom of your screen.”
Woodbourne seemed quite pleased and said, “You hadn’t heard about me then?”
Des’s hands had started shaking during the newscast. “We heard something about this in Adelaide.”
“There’s a bit more to the story,” Woodbourne said with a queer smile.
“I don’t need to know anything more. I have to use the loo. Can I, please?”
“Use the one down here.”
The downstairs lav was near the kitchen and Des was able to give his distraught wife a soothing word.
Inside, the door had no lock and the best he could do was lean against it while he reached for his mobile phone in his pocket. He was about to hit 999 when the handle turned and Woodbourne pushed in.
“I don’t like you closing doors on me. What’s that in your hand?”
“My mobile,” Des mumbled.
“The only thing I want to see in your hand is your cock. Give it here.” He inspected the phone. “What’s it do?”
“You don’t know?”
Woodbourne grabbed Des by the collar and hauled him back to the sitting room where he roughly pushed him onto the sofa.
“If I knew I wouldn’t ask, would I, sunny Jim?”
Des was shaking all over now. “You don’t know what a mobile phone is. You don’t know how to operate the tele. You’ve never seen it in color. You call radio the wireless. Yet you’re a young enough man. What are you, some kind of a Rip Van Winkle?”
“He was in a fairy tale. I wasn’t in no fairy tale. I was in fucking Hell.”
“I’m sure you’ve had a rough time of it, but please don’t hurt my wife and I. We haven’t done a thing to harm you and we won’t.”
Woodbourne sniffed at the aroma of bacon and eggs wafting from the kitchen. “You haven’t done a bit of listening. I was in Hell. Do you know what happened on the eighth day of April in 1949?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“I was taken at dawn to the yard of HMS Dartford Prison. They built a gallows there, just for me. I can still smell the sawdust. There was a young, pimply minister there with a Bible but I told him to sod off. After that, the rest of it happened so fast I hardly had a chance to think on it. This bloke put a hood over my head and a thick noose round my neck and pulled the lever. I dropped. It was like flying but it didn’t last long, I’ll tell you that.”
“Are you telling me you were put to death in 1949?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. And next thing I knew I was smack in the middle of Hell, most miserable place you can ever imagine. Thought I’d be like the rest of ’em, there forever and a day, but not long ago I was walking down a road, up to me ankles in mud and all of a sudden I’m back on the right side of things. Sixty-five years later. I still can’t believe none of it.”
“You’re mad,” Des said, shaking his head.
Woodbourne laughed loudly at that, stopping Adele in her tracks as she entered with a plate of food.
“Let me tell you something,” Woodbourne said. “If I could trade what I’ve gone through for madness I’d do so in a tick of the clock.”7
John had ridden horses before but he was hardly expert. The saddle of his brown mare was thin with a high pommel and low cantle, and iron stirrups strapped too high for his long legs. The mare was placid and allowed him to dismount and adjust the stirrup leathers.
“Can you manage?” Dirk asked, comfortably astride his own black horse.
“We’ll just have to see. I’d do better with a western saddle. Or better yet, a car.”
“The new ‘uns are always on about what they ‘ad and we don’t. Advice I give ‘em is don’t be nattering about all manner of fancy things what’s not ’ere. We’re lucky we don’t ’ave to walk.”
They started down the muddy road at a slow trot, John’s still-bloody sword bouncing against his thigh in a scabbard scavenged from one of his victims. The flintlock pistol was too large and heavy for his pocket so he put it in a cloth saddle bag along with the pouches of powder horn and shot. He talked to his horse in a soothing voice and patted her neck, asking her not to do anything crazy, and with a flick of the bridle, she smoothly accelerated to keep pace with Dirk. His shoulder wound throbbed with every set of hoof beats, his head ached, but he clenched his jaw and dealt with it.
The small village quickly gave way to untamed land. Under a lifeless sky, they made their way through a vast expanse of tall grass and bulrushes, forging their own path. John pulled astride of Dirk.
“What do you call this place?”
“Same as we call it.”
“No point in calling it something else, is there?”
“What’ll happen to the soldiers?”
“Village fowk. They’ve already dealt with ’em, I expect. Probably use the ’orses for meat, one at a time to keep it fresh. Maybe they’ll keep one for plowing.”
“What do you mean the soldiers will be dealt with?”
“You’ll find that out soon enough.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Is the geography here similar to Earth?”
“The position of rivers, hills, mountains.”
“I only know ’ere to London. It’s the same as I remember from me live days.”
“Who’s the man we’re going to see?”
“Like I told you, someone who can ’elp find your lady.”
“What’s his name?”
“You’re full of questions, know that?”
“Believe me, I’m just getting started.”
John snorted a laugh. “A real wise guy, eh?”
Dirk nodded solemnly. “’E’s plenty wise, ’e is. And rich too.”
In a short while, the river he’d seen from the house came into clear view. It was broad with a mighty current. As far as John was able to see, the banks were unpopulated but in the distance to the east—if the compass coordinates were the same—there was a single-masted sailing boat heading away from them.
“The Thames?” John asked.
Dirk nodded. “We’ll follow it to Greenwich. It’s not the shortest way but it’s the safest. There’s a filthy lot in Bexley, we’ll be missing.”
Across the river John saw a row of evenly spaced poles, resembling telephone poles, which stretched as far as he could see to the east and west.
“What are those?” he asked, pointing.
“I’ve no idea,” Dirk said. “They weren’t always there, but they are now. Let’s get up to a gallop, all right? If we want to keep our ’eads fixed upon our necks we’ll want to get to Greenwich by nightfall.”
“Worst sorts roam the night.”
They rode for about an hour in silence, the horses pounding the grassy verge, throwing up clods of turf, until Dirk pulled up and dismounted.
“There’s no telling when they was last watered.”
At the bank, the horses drank thirstily. John watched a hawk tighten its circle and drop like a stone into the bulrushes then emerge with something in its talons.
“How about them?” John asked.
“The animals. Do they die?”
“They’re the lucky ones. They’ve a way out of ’ere.”
“What a place,” John said.
Dirk grunted his agreement, plucked a handful of grass and offered it to his horse. When the beast took to it aggressively, John fed his mare fistfuls too then went to the river, scooped up some water and sniffed at it. “Safe to drink?”
“Probably a stupid question,” John said. He sipped at it. It seemed fine so he drank his fill then pointed at the sky. “Is this a typical day?”
“Depends on the season, I’d say. Sometimes it’s boiling hot, sometimes it’s bitter cold. It’s in the middle right now which is better I s’pose.”
“Same as Earth.”
“No, not the same. You never get the sun ’ere. There’s always a gloom. At first you miss the yellow sunshine. Then you forget what it was like.”
“Without the sun how do you keep the time?”
“There’s no need to do so, far as I can see. It gets dark then it gets light. What more d’you need?”
In seven days from the moment he arrived, MAAC was going to fire up again. He needed better time-keeping than night turning to day.
“Do you have clocks? Or watches?”
“I know what they are but I never seen them ’ere. Come on, let’s get along.”
They rode on. In time John saw a few more fields that looked freshly tilled for planting. It was spring on Earth and appeared to be spring here too. Yet as John gazed upon the land it struck him that spring back home was a hopeful time, full of promise. Promise seemed in short supply here.
There was chimney smoke along the river and a group of small rowing boats plying the dark waters. Dirk slowed his horse.
“That’s Thamesmead ahead,” Dirk said. “There’s no easy way of missing it out without going way around. It’s a reasonable size town but we’ll ride straight through, keeping our ’eads down. If there’s trouble, at least you can fight, can’t you, John Camp?”
“What about my clothes? I stick out.”
“That’s not our problem. Fowks arrive nowadays wearing costumes much like yours. The problem’s your smell.”
“What about it?”
“You don’t smell like us. It’s different, like nice, fresh meat. She was like that too.”
“A few days without a bath should fix me.”
“We’ll see ’bout that.”
“Was she scared?” John asked.
“Her name is Emily.”
“Ladies are scarce ’ere, so I ’aven’t seen many of ’em when they first come. So I’d say your Emily was scared, ’course she was, but she seemed like a tough one, more like a man in that regard. She put up a holy fight when the sweepers picked ’er up, I’ll tell you that. Bloodied a nose or two.”
“I’ll bet she did.”
On the outskirts of Thamesmead they overtook an old man on a mule-drawn cart heading into the town with a load of sewn marsh grasses. The cart driver turned his head in alarm at the sound of their approaching horses then glowered as they passed.
The town was bifurcated by a rutted dirt road. On the river side the dwellings were tiny mud huts with reed roofs, many with small, rough boats pulled up onto the land next to heaps of nets. There was a powerful odor of rotting fish. The buildings on the land side were more substantial, the smallest of which were much like the thatched cottages in Dartford, the largest, two-story unpainted timber-framed structures with cracking plaster. Hens pecked about some of the houses and there were a few tethered goats. Behind some of the dwellings were horse barns with bony beasts peeking out, looking less well fed than the soldier’s horses. Most of the shutters were closed. A man emerged from one of the thatched cottages, caught sight of the riders, and retreated inside like a startled mouse. There was a loud clanging coming from an open-fronted hut. A blacksmith, a man with big glistening arms was beating down on an anvil. He stopped his hammering at mid-stroke to stare as they passed.
“I don’t see a church,” John said to Dirk. “All towns have churches.”
“No need for those ’ere,” Dirk snorted.
Rising over the village was a mound of earthenworks, some twenty yards high, with a flattened top. Perched on the mound was a fortress of sorts, a squat stone building which would have resembled a Norman tower had it been taller. It was almost as if the builders had run out of stone. The truncated tower had a few slotted windows overlooking the river and a large wooden door.
“Don’t gaze on it,” Dirk warned. “We don’t want to be meeting the underlord.”
“Hard-ass, is he?”
“What’s an ass?”
“You know, bum, buttocks.”
“Well, I’ve never had occasion to touch his blind cheeks, so I couldn’t say if it were ’ard or soft, but I don’t believe you’d wish to share a bubber of belch with the likes of ’im.”
“Dirk, you and I are going to need a translator.” After a while John asked, “Is Solomon Wisdom some kind of a lord?”
“’Ardly. Wisdom’s a merchant.”
“Oh yeah? What’s his merchandise?”
Dirk cackled. “Poor bastards what winds up ’ere, of course.”
As they made their way through the village that repellent aroma John had smelled in Dartford overcame him once again.
“What is that? Sewers?”
Dirk sniffed at the air as if he hadn’t noticed. “Partly open ditches, I s’pose, but we’re near to their rotting rooms, I expect.”
“What are they?”
“Nasty places I don’t care to speak of. You ask our Master Wisdom if it pleases you.”
Suddenly a group of filthy men poured from another open-fronted structure, a market stall of sorts with a barrel of beer on a table, and hastened to block their way. A few of them circled behind the horses to prevent an escape.
Dirk pulled his reins and said, “We’re buggered. Cheese it, John Camp. Let me do the tittle-tattle.”
John controlled his jittery horse and focused on the alpha male, a young, shirtless fellow at the front of the pack wielding a large club. Judging by the patches of dried blood on his scalp he had recently shaved his head. His pasty-white chest was full of decidedly modern tattoos. Gang ink, by the looks of it.
The young man pointed his club at the riders and said truculently, “Who the fuck are yous two?”
“’Ere, kindly let us pass, friend,” Dirk said. “We’ve got urgent crown business.”
“You’re no friend a mine, mate. Off your fucking horses.”
A panicky Dirk began to comply but John told him to keep to his saddle.
The young man frowned at John and said, “What’s your problem, sunshine? Hard a hearing?”
An older fellow in the group thrust his finger at John and said, “Can’t you smell ’im, Reggie, he ain’t one of us?”
Reggie answered the man, “You’ll have to excuse me, you dozy bastard. I haven’t been in this fucking place long enough to tell the difference between the various aromas of shite. But I’ll tell you what I see. I see two cunts on soldier’s horses they likely pinched, coming downmyfucking street inmyfucking town.” He waved his club at Dirk and John and said, “Now get the fuck down before I club you down.”
John shocked them all by smiling and saying evenly, “How’re you doing today, Reggie? Enjoying your pint?”
Reggie looked confused. “What’s a bloody Yank doing in my town?”
“That’s funny, I thought the town belonged to the guy in that castle up there.”
“Fuck him,” Reggie said. “On this street, I’m the boss man.”
A few men murmured their support.
“How long’ve you been here, Reggie?” John asked, “Recent arrival?”
Reggie began moving his club in a tight little circle as he crept closer to John’s horse. “1997, mate.”
“Real badass, I’m guessing. That tat on your chest, The Firm—that your gang?”
He kept coming. “You know it, Yankee-doodle cunt. Thamesmead’s finest.”
“This Thamesmead’s a bit different from yours. Liking it so far?”
“It was a concrete shithole before, it’s a wooden shithole now. Consider this the end of our chinwag, arse-wipe. I’m taking your horses, I’m taking your sword, I’m taking what’s in your bloody bag.”
“This bag?” John said, unwrapping it from the pommel and reaching his hand inside.
Reggie charged, his club raised above his head, and when John pulled the trigger inside, for a second, everyone, man and beast, seemed to freeze.
Before the deafening report of the pistol had fully dissipated, Reggie’s tattooed chest turned red. He clutched at it and crumpled to his knees, as surprised as he’d probably looked the moment he landed in Hell.
The horses rose on their hind legs. John struggled to control the reins with one hand while drawing his sword with the other, but the townsmen chose not to pursue Reggie’s unfinished business.
One of them pointed toward the squat castle. Its main gate had opened and soldiers were streaming out.
“The lord comes!” a man cried, and the lot of them scattered and disappeared toward the river.
“Come on, John Camp,” Dirk yelled. “Ride like the wind!”
John slapped the flanks of his horse with his heels and the animal responded. In seconds the town was behind them and they kept riding hard for at least ten minutes before allowing themselves a look back to see if they’d been followed. It looked like they were in the clear but they kept up the gallop for a while longer to make sure of it.
“You don’t mess about,” Dirk panted when they finally slowed.
“In a war, you try to kill the other side’s general early on. In a street fight, you take out the meanest son-of-a-bitch first.”
Dirk looked impressed. “You sure you ’aven’t been to Down before?”
They were in the countryside again, carving their way through high grasses, veering away from the river when the ground became too boggy. After an hour or more of hard riding the river made a hairpin turn and a hill came into view.
John had been to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich many times; it was one of his favorite spots in London. He recognized the position of the hill relative to the river but there the comparison ended. The manicured parkland, the grand, red-bricked, domed and spired buildings were not there. Instead, a Tudor-styled timbered house stood at the highest point of the hill.
Dirk pulled up.
“That’s where we’re going. That’s Master Wisdom’s ’ouse.”
They rode upwards on a steep, well-trodden path, the small of John’s back pressing hard against the cantle. At the top of the hill they dismounted and tied the sweating horses to a post. The house was the most elaborate John had seen thus far, three stories of heavy timbering with white plaster infill.
As he was admiring it, men burst through the front door drawing swords, but they stood down at the sight of Dirk.
“Oy, what are you doin’ here?” one of them, a stout redhead, asked.
“I brung a special gentleman to see Master Wisdom. Is ’e about?”
The redhead approached gingerly, sniffing away, and once he had a nostril-full of John, he rushed back into the house, calling his master’s name.
Solomon Wisdom emerged into the fading light. He was thin and tall with stringy, graying hair to his shoulders, muttonchops and a long, sallow face. He wore a black mid-thigh frock coat, black trousers, a coarse white shirt and a black cravat, an outfit, to John’s eye, very much befitting a Victorian undertaker.
Wisdom studied his guest for a long while, sniffing discreetly while inching closer. Then his dour face transformed itself with a crooked smile and he extended a bony hand.
His elocution was refined, even elegant. “My goodness, me! Welcome, welcome, welcome. How very exciting. My name, good sir, is Solomon Wisdom. What shall I call you?”
“Is that an American accent I hear?”
“Well, even more exotic. Please come in. You’ve come from Dartford, I presume?”
Dirk answered in a deferential tone. “That’s right Master Wisdom, sir. We ’ad a bit o’ trouble and then we ’eaded ’ere and then we ’ad a bit more trouble and now ‘ere we are.”
“Well, then, come along. I’ll have food and drink brought in and we shall have an epic discussion. I can scarcely contain myself.”
Wisdom led them inside to a large room off the entrance hall. The furnishings were basic. A plaited, reed rug, a trestled table and dining chairs, and by the dormant hearth, a pair of cushioned armchairs with padded ottomans. The walls were bare. The only items of apparent value were a pair of substantial silver candlesticks on the table, dripping with yellow, solidified tallow, a stack of tarnished silver plates and a number of silver cups.
“Please, sit,” Wisdom said, gesturing at the table. “I can offer you drink. I have beer, of course, a cask of imported wine, and I have a few very special jars of rum. There’s a story to how I obtained them but that’s not for now.”
“I’ll have all of them,” John said.
Wisdom squinted. “Really? How marvelous.”
“Just joking. A beer would be great.”
“Humor! Marvelous indeed. Something in short enough supply.”
“I’ll have beer as well, Master Wisdom,” Dirk said.
Wisdom ignored Dirk and scurried out of the room. When he returned the red-bearded guard was trailing behind, awkwardly balancing a tray with three large mugs of beer. When he put the tray down he sidled over to Wisdom and whispered in his ear about finding John’s pistol.
Wisdom nodded, shooed the man away and passed the drinks to his guests before raising his own in a toast.
“To what will undoubtedly be a most remarkable and stimulating evening.”
John was thirsty and very much in need of a drink. He finished the beer off in a string of gulps.
“Well, don’t just stand there like an idiot,” Wisdom shouted to his man. “Bring more beer. My, my, Camp, I applaud your appetites.”
John wiped his mouth with his hand. “It’s okay to call me John.”
“Then you must call me Solomon.”
“Can I call you Solomon too?” Dirk asked.
“Of course not!” Wisdom scolded, immediately turning his attention back to John. “Well, John, I scarcely know where to start. My queries are multitudinous, poised to cascade forth as if from a burst dam.”
John rocked back in his chair, hoping it would hold his weight. “I’ve got my share of questions too, Solomon. But you first. Fire away.”
Wisdom put his mug down, his face suddenly returning to its funereal gravity. “So. You’re not dead, are you, John?”
“I certainly hope not.”
“And yet, here you are.”
“How is this possible?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I have plenty of beer and even more time. I shall hang on each and every word.”
More beer appeared and John had a few more gulps.
“I’m not a scientist, Solomon, but this involves a fair bit of science. To get myself oriented to what you might and might not know, can I ask you what year you—well, left the Earth?”
“You mean the year I died. No need to pussyfoot around the subject. It’s a natural thing to ask one another here. It was 1874.”
John shook his head. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that, but my guess is, it’s going to be hard for you to believe what I’m going to tell you. Scientific knowledge has progressed quite a bit from what you’ll recall.”
John launched into a highly simplified rendition of the structure of the atom and the way particle colliders work, watching Wisdom closely for signs of comprehension, but the man was impassive. At the same time, Dirk’s mind had clearly wandered off somewhere far away, for when the young man finished his drink he let his eyes close and his chin fall to his chest. John carried on, explaining the Hercules program and the experiment that had gone bad. He talked about Emily, about Woodbourne.
At the mention of Brandon Woodbourne, Dirk’s eyes opened wide. It seemed he’d been listening after all.
“That sod’s gone off to Earth, then? Bloody ’ell! Well you can ’ave ’im. Nasty piece of business, that one.”
“He lives in your village?” John asked.
“Well, I’d say ’e roams about the shire, only a short ways better than a rover, thieving, doing ’is worst to fowks. ’E takes a considerable pleasure in choking and stabbing. I’ve asked me soldier acquaintances to deal with ’im but ’e’s a slippery one.”
John kept going but he’d need to ask about these rovers at some point. He talked about the theory of how a bridge between the two worlds had formed and about the experiment that had brought him to the place that Dirk called Down.
At that, Wisdom finally nodded and smiled.
“Quaint name, Down. I know the simple folk like to call it that. The name Hell does tend to make one shudder. So fraught with connotation, so biblical.”
John hardly noticed another presence in the room until he heard her clearing her throat. A fat, elderly woman, her face awash in moles, a scarf tied around her white hair, stood by the door, waiting to be acknowledged.
Wisdom looked up.
“Would you be wanting me to bring in some supper?” she asked.
“Yes, yes,” Wisdom replied, impatiently. “Just get on with it.” He turned back to John. “I’m quite lucky to have a female, even though she’s quite repugnant. But at least she can cook which makes one’s existence the more tolerable.”
“I’m awful hungry,” Dirk said, childlike. “Do I get to eat as well?”
“Yes, Dirk, I suppose I’ll let you have some of my food. Now, I’m being rude, John. There’s an outhouse. Go down the hall and outside behind the house. You’ll find a trough of water for a wash if you like. We’ll eat, drink some more and talk until we are quite blue in the face.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” John said, rising.
When he’d left, Dirk timidly inquired if he was allowed to ask a question of his own.
“What do you want?”
“Are you going to be telling ‘im that I brung the lady ’ere too?”
Wisdom delivered a withering look.
“You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“’Course not! You told me if I ever opened me mouth ’bout that you’d cut off me tongue.”
“Your tongue, your hands, your cock, and by God, your head! He’s never to know. No one must know, do you understand?”
Dirk nodded vigorously, as if the harder he worked his neck, the more believable he was.
“You was right clever not saying nothing ’bout all the Earth business when the lady sang you much the same song.”
Wisdom sneered, “Yes, I suppose I might aspire to be a player at Drury Lane if there were a Drury Lane in Hell, Dirk, my cretinous fool. Now shut your mouth. He’s returning.”
John settled himself back down and the old woman returned carrying a large platter of food and steel utensils.
“It’s mutton and boiled turnips,” Wisdom said rather proudly. “I shall be switching to wine. How about you, John? It’s quite good, from Francia.”
“Yes, of course. The old names tend to stick here.”
“Sure. I’ll have some wine. What’s England called?”
“We are Brittania.”
John hadn’t realized how hungry the horseback ride had left him. He ignored the gaminess of the meat and shoveled down the food. One hard bite did a number on his most vulnerable tooth and he fished a piece of it from his mouth and flicked it onto the floor. The remaining half a tooth began to throb and he dealt with the pain by downing the rest of his red wine. It was drinkable and Wisdom’s man kept pouring. At least he wouldn’t be suffering from alcohol cravings here.
“So, John,” Wisdom said while chewing, “you’ve bravely travelled toterra incognitato find your lady. How chivalrous.”
“It’s my job. I’m in charge of security at the laboratory.”
“I sense there’s more to your actions.”
“I suppose you’re right about that.”
“Then we must assist you. It’s quite the story you’ve told and quite the quest you have embarked upon. There’s heroism, love, the dangers of the unknown, a journey to the underworld where you, Orpheus, do seek your Eurydice.”
“Might as well throw in a helping of Dante while you’re at it.”
Wisdom suddenly looked dreamy. “How I miss those books. How I miss any books. There are some, I’m told, but I possess none. It’s one of our many, many hardships. Are you a man of letters, John? You seem too fit and well-proportioned for the halls of academia.”
“I’m a soldier, a professional soldier. But I read a lot of history. I studied military history at college.”
“Fascinating. In America?”
“West Point. Know it?”
“Yes, I’ve certainly heard of West Point. Your Civil War generals Grant and Lee attended, am I correct?”
“Grant was your President when I died.”
“He was, until 1877.”
“Then you are a scholar and a soldier. Truly marvelous. I presume you were an officer.”
“A major in the US Army.”
Dirk saw an opening into the conversation and took it.
“There’s more to ’im than someone who gives the orders. ’E’s a fighting man. ’E dispatched a right old brute who accosted us in Thamesmead town. And we ’ad a squad of sweepers come through shortly after ’e landed and John put all of ’em down.”
Wisdom looked intrigued. “Is that so? Which squad, Dirk?”
“It was Captain Withers’ and ’e won’t be doing no more sweeping, that’s for damn sure. John ran ’im through with ’is own sword and now ’e’s taken it for ’imself.”
“I thought I recognized the style of weapon on your hip,” Wisdom said. “I am most impressed.”
“I didn’t come out scot-free,” John said.
“I saw you’ve been favoring your shoulder. We shall have fresh bandages and unguent for you anon. Tell me, when you were a soldier, where did you fight?”
“In Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“I don’t know this name, Iraq.”
“In your day it would have been called the Hashemite Empire. Babylonia, in ancient times.”
“Indeed, that is what it’s called here: Babylonia. So, in your twenty-first century, you are still fighting the Crusades?”
“I guess the other side calls it that. We don’t.”
“War is a never-ending story. In your world and in ours.”
“I’d like you to tell me more about your world. If I’m going to rescue Emily, I’ve got to know what I’m dealing with.”
“Quite right. I have been doing all the interrogations. Now it’s your turn. Shall I start with myself?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know, fifty?”
“Fifty-five, as of 1874, that is. I was a lawyer in London, with a busy commercial practice. Life was good, or so I thought. I had a comely wife, one son and one daughter who both matured admirably and acquitted themselves well in their early adulthood, though I do not know what became of them. It is enough to know that they did not, to the best of my knowledge, become denizens of this domain. How suddenly things changed for me. I discovered through intercepted correspondence that my wife and my legal partner, one Abner Coopersmith, had been engaging in an affair of the heart. I was blinded by rage and determined to have my revenge. I knew a man, an Irishman in London by the name of Caffrey, who was skilled in the art of explosives. I knew all sorts in those days, from lords to scoundrels. Caffrey supplied me with a cask of black powder that I placed in the basement of Coopersmith’s house in Tavistock Square while he was in attendance. I lit a long fuse and made my escape. I brought that house down, John, upon the heads of Coopersmith, his wife and his children. The police came to suspect me and in time, moved to make an arrest, but I eluded them for a spell until, in despair for the life I had lost—not Coopersmith’s life, I assure you—I threw myself off the highest possible point of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and immediately thereafter, I found myself here, in Hell, in a rather sodden field, quite remarkably intact. Caffrey was caught and hanged within weeks. Allow me to introduce him.”
The guard with red hair, who was standing at the wall, nodded his head.
“Our fates are intertwined,” Wisdom said. “Caffrey serves me still.”
John muttered, “Incredible.”
“Isn’t it?” Wisdom said. “After so many years, one tends to forget how incredible all of this is, but we do tend to relive the experience with each new arrival. To return to my tale—I was picked off the streets of our London town by a filthy crew of sweepers and taken to a gentleman named Cosgrove who lived not far away. Cosgrove was a seventeenth-century man, a banker in his day. He was an agreeable enough fellow who took the time to thoroughly explain things to me. You see, a goodly number of arrivals here are not, what you would call, men of refinement. They’re what you would expect, the scum of the Earth, like our friend Dirk here.”
“I take no offense,” Dirk said.
“I am so relieved,” Wisdom replied. “Cosgrove took a liking to me. He and I were birds of a feather and rather than passing me along for his usual fee, he took me under that feathered wing of his and taught me his trade. I learned how to be, well, let me be quite candid with you, a flesh broker. The sweepers pick up new arrivals and bundle them off to men like me who are sprinkled throughout the realm. We make an assessment of any particular skills they might possess and make transfer of that person to the most suitable lord in need of those services. If they have no desirable skills we will usually have them returned to the jurisdiction of a local lord who will invariably need men to work their fields or empty their latrines. My business is to know what my clients are looking for and more importantly, what they are willing to pay.”
John looked at him squarely and said, “I don’t want to insult you, Solomon, but it sounds pretty unsavory. You’re a slave trader.”
“Everything here is unsavory, a game of raw power and naked leverage. I am but a cog in a huge, filthy wheel. I make no apologies. But I am a clever cog. I know who wants a man of science for his employ. I know who needs warriors. I know who wants builders, tradesmen. I know who wants women—well, they all want women, don’t they, as they are in such short supply. And the fetching ones, they are the real prize. I digress. Cosgrove treated me well enough. He saw the merit in expanding his capabilities and the two of us were, I’m told, the busiest brokers in Brittania. When misfortune struck Cosgrove after a time, removing him from his lofty perch, I assumed his duties and I have prospered greatly over the many years.”
John saw a smirk cross Wisdom’s face when he spoke of Cosgrove’s misfortune. He suspected that Wisdom might well have been its architect but let it pass.
Wisdom continued, “I earned enough gold and silver to build this very house, a replica of my boyhood home in Greenwich. It wasn’t on this spot. The Royal Observatory was here, of course. But this hill has a good aspect, don’t you think?”
John signaled for Caffrey to refill his wine cup and said, “I think I need to understand the way things work around here.”
“Let me start from the beginning,” Wisdom said. “You arrive in Hell at the precise place you died. If you died in Greenwich, you appear in our Greenwich at the exact same latitude and longitude. Our terrain is the same as mother Earth although the influence of man has not been felt to the extent it has in your world. I’ve been told that in your time and place, hills and mountains have been flattened, rivers have been diverted, forests have been cut down. Our world is similar, but far more primitive, in that regard.”
Dirk was nodding. “Tell ’im what ’appens if you die in water. That always gives me a laugh.”
“Yes, well, I’m not sure how amusing John will find it but let’s say you were to die at sea in a shipwreck, or in a river. You’d find yourself in the same pickle barrel here. If you are able to swim to safety, then fine. But if you can’t then you’ll drown again, scarcely aware of what has befallen you.”
“But I already told ’im, Mister Wisdom, you can’t die ’ere.”
“No indeed. Eternity is a very long time but it seems likely we are here for eternity. We cannot and do not die. We suffer our fates for all time. We may succumb to illness, or sustain injury or starvation but our existences are simply not to be snuffed out.”
John leaned forward. “I wounded five men in Dartford, seriously enough to cause their deaths but they kept moving.”
“There, you’ve seen it for yourself. Take an extreme example. One’s head may be severed from one’s body and still there is life. The lips may move, though no words can be spoken without the benefit of chest and lungs. The eyes blink and may be trained to blink once for a yes and twice for a no. Even when the flesh is fully degraded, decayed to pulp, the bones, falling to splinter and dust, we believe there is still consciousness, still suffering. Eternal suffering. That is our sorry fate.”
“How can you know that for sure?”
“It is difficult to prove but all the evidence points to such a conclusion. One only needs to visit a rotting room to know.”
“I’ve smelled them.”
Wisdom stood and nodded towards Caffrey.
“Then you must see one too. All my words border on abstractions without seeing them. I’ll assemble a troop of my men to keep us safe in the darkness. It’s but a short walk down the hill into Greenwich to the nearest chamber.”
John rose, tipsy from the wine, but he still had the faculties to automatically do an inventory of his weapons, an old army trait. His sword was on his belt but he remembered he’d left the flintlock with the horse.
“I had a saddle bag,” he said.
“Your pistol and shot are safe,” Wisdom said. “I had Caffrey bring the bag to your room. It is your legitimate trophy and a valuable object. I wouldn’t wish it to disappear into the night.”
The evening air was still. A party of Wisdom’s men brandishing swords and lanterns led the way down the hill toward the town of Greenwich. Dirk seemed to take delight in their company and he chatted amiably with them, regaling the lot with John’s battle with the sweepers and with the tattooed Reggie. The town below them was dark, melting into the gloam of the evening save for a few open fires dotted here and there. John strode alongside Wisdom who bore his own candle lantern, a bony arm extending from his cloak.
John asked the question that was burning a hole in his tongue. “What buys you a ticket here?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“What do you have to do to wind up in Hell?”
“Ah, I see. It is surely the most despicable of things. Murder, mayhem, violent acts, abject cruelty to one’s fellow man. I was a God-fearing Christian in my lifetime and I did then believe that the roster of offenses to condemn a man to Hell was very much longer. Blasphemy. Idolatry. Failure to accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior. Fornication. Adultery. The list does goes on. Yet it seems that none of that is true. It is simply a matter of the worst offenses a man might render unto others.”
John stopped in his tracks, suddenly sober. “Then you must have a heck of a lot of soldiers here.”
Wisdom paused to answer. “A question of profundity coming from a former one yourself. In my many years of observation and query, I am assured that there is dispensation for brutal acts committed in legitimate war on the field of battle. If it were not so, Hell would be far more populous, methinks.”
“Jus ad bellum,” John said.
“Yes, your Latin and your scholarship are very good, indeed,” Wisdom replied. “The law of war, as fashioned by men, does appear to have a high moral meaning after all.”
John started down the hill again and stewed in silence.
“What about children?” John finally asked.
“There are none. True, children may commit heinous acts but they do not come here.”
“Who makes the judgment about all of this? Who decides who comes and who doesn’t?”
Wisdom shrugged. “Mysteries abound. It stands to reason that there must be some high power, a God perhaps, who sorts souls like apples—good ones there, bad ones here, but I did not have a day of judgment, nor did anyone to my knowledge. We simply appeared here. I do not know the answer to your question. My name may be Wisdom, but I do not possess this wisdom.”
“So I take it you haven’t met Satan.”
“Ha! When I first arrived I rather expected to meet the horned gentleman whenever I rounded a corner. Yet this malevolent king has not made his presence felt to anyone I know. Some believe in him, of course. Perhaps he exists but I think not.”
“Let me come back to children. You’ve got men, you’ve got women, how come you don’t have children?”
Wisdom seemed to allow himself a chuckle. “The carnal act is very popular here, inhibited only by the scarcity of women, though buggery abounds. But female relations do not result in offspring. There is no reproduction of the species. The animal kingdom renews itself as it did on Earth. If it did not I suspect we would all be eating each other’s flesh for supper, but we augment our population only with new arrivals.”
“What’s the population here?”
“There is no way to know, no facility or need to count. It does seem considerably fewer than when I, alive, roamed the streets of London. Think on it. What number of men who have walked the Earth have done enough evil to cause them to be sent here? One in one hundred? One in one thousand? One in ten thousand? And whatever number that may be, how many women? The gentler species is far less inclined toward barbarism. This is a fact for which there is no dispute. Now, weigh that against the proposition that once here, one may be fortunate to remain in a state of good function for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. We do not age. Absent calamity we stay as we were when we did first arrive. Why some time back I made the acquaintance of a strapping young man who died in Brittania before the birth of Christ! He was a soldier in the invading Roman army of Julius Caesar and yet, unless an ill wind has since befallen him, he still ekes out an existence on the streets of London.”
John fell silent, lost in thought. It all seemed like an elaborate and tortured dream. He hoped that any moment he’d wake up and find himself back in his bed, feeling Emily’s warm skin beside him. But near the base of the hill, the putrid smell of their destination began its assault and convinced him that all of this was dreadfully real.
“Almost there,” Wisdom said. “Take this.”
He drew a woolen scarf from the pocket of his cloak and handed it to John.
“You will wish to cover your nose. And drink some of this.”
He took a flask from his other pocket and gave it to John. He unstoppered it and sniffed. Rum.
“I wished I’d been given strong drink the first time I entered a rotting room,” Wisdom said.
The town began where the hill ended. Cooking smoke drifted from the shuttered houses and John could hear low voices coming from some of them.
The stench grew and grew and soon the party stood before a large barn located behind a row of measly cottages. John took another swig of syrupy rum and wrapped his face tightly with the scarf. On Wisdom’s command his men lifted the heavy, wooden latch and pulled the double doors open on their creaking hinges. Dirk retched at the smell but the other men seemed immune and held their lanterns high.
John stepped forward into the light.
There were masses of rotting, fetid remains almost ceiling-high along the interior walls of the building. And it would not have been so horrific if it were simply like the inert, decaying refuse of some abattoir. The putrefying flesh was in motion, an undulating, roiling mass of disgust, and to make matters much, much worse, there were sounds coming from within, a ghastly cacophony of low moans, sobs and the occasional formed word, a name, a call for a mother, a plea for help.
John removed himself after several seconds and gulped down the remainder of the flask outside the barn.
One of the guards heard him and answered gleefully, “Jesus ain’t here,” before Wisdom shut him up and told them to secure the doors.
“I am sorry, John,” Wisdom said, standing beside him. “It was necessary for you to gain an understanding.”
“Why do you have these?”
“They serve a number of functions. In a world where one cannot deprive a man of his life, banishment to a rotting room is the ultimate punishment. And it serves a practicality. The maimed can be aggregated in discreet places so as not to generally befoul the populated areas or the countryside, though that happens too.”
“How long have they been there?”
“I could not possibly answer that. Some as long as centuries, I should imagine.”
“That’s impossible. A body decays to bones within weeks in the heat.”
“Not in Hell. Human decay is exceedingly slow here. More the cruelty. Come, let us return to my house where we may have more food and drink before we retire for the night.”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to eat again.”
“Of course you will.”
Halfway up the hill John recovered enough to ask the most important question.
“I came here for one reason and one reason only, to find my friend. You seem to be a very well-connected man. Do you know where I can find her?”
“I have heard tell that your woman has been spirited off to Francia on board a ship, in the company of agents of the Duke of Guise.”
“Then take me there. Help me get her back.”
“It is beyond my capacity to do so.”
“I’ll find a way to pay you.”
“It is not a matter of payment. In the morning I will take you to a man who has the capacity to assist you.”
“Who is he?”
“He is the king of this realm, King Henry.”
“Is this a Henry I’d recognize from history?”
“Perhaps so. You would know him as King Henry the Eighth.”8
Though she was standing on dry land, Emily still felt the rolling sea pulsing through her legs. The three-masted ship was at anchor off the rocky shore and the small rowing boat that had carried her to the beach was returning to the ship, battling the waves.
It was gray and damp and she felt grubby and in need of a wash. Her clothes, the same skirt, blouse and sensible shoes she had worn on the day of the Hercules experiment were smudged with dirt, her hair was matted and her skin was sooty from the oily lamps below the decks.
“My lady,” the soldier said, “we must go.”
He had been her constant companion during the crossing. As the storm lashed the ship, he reassured her, brought her broth and cushions, and offered apologies for her discomfort. With fair seas and a favorable wind, the passage from Brittania to Francia might take only half a day, he had told her. Unfortunately, the journey from Hastings had taken two gut-wrenching days and nights.
His name was Phillipe Marot. His English was passable, on a similar par to Emily’s French, and between the two of them they’d been able to cobble together an extended conversation. She had learned some basic information during her brief time in Britannia, but Captain Marot had given her a richer knowledge of the surreal world in which she found herself.
Her initial disorientation had been far greater than John’s for she had none of his preparation. In one moment she had been standing in the MAAC control room and in the next, she was in soupy mud in the middle of a rank village, urgently beckoned to come inside a rough cottage by two brothers, one calling himself Dirk, the other Duck. She thought she surely must be dead, until the sniffing lads assured her that she was very much and very strangely alive.
Soon she was in the hands of a foul character named Withers who, after she kicked and punched at his soldiers, had bound her hands and trussed her onto his horse to take her to a large house on a hill to be interrogated by an unctuous man called Solomon Wisdom. Before the light of the next day, confused and angry, an unsavory character named D’Aret who brought her to Hastings, picked her up. There, D’Aret, who repeatedly referred to himself as an ambassador and an agent of someone named the Duke of Guise, delivered her to a coastal house where a party of furtive Frenchmen held her in ropes until the next night when their torches summoned a small boat offshore. Under a moonless sky she had been rowed to a ladder dangling from a large sailing ship whereupon Captain Marot took charge of her.
The whole while she had battled raging anger and abject fear to try to figure out what had happened to her. Without pen and paper she had resorted to doing the math in her head and concluded that what had happened must have been a strangelet-induced phenomenon. She desperately hoped it was reversible. Her rational mind told her that the only conceivable way to return to her own place in space and time was for the Hercules experiment to be re-run with the same high-energy parameters. She had prayed to a God who seemed to be farther away than at any time in her life that her team would know what to do. And with a shudder, she had surmised that to get home again she might have to return to the same spot where she had materialized at the exact time that MAAC was up and running. The conclusion was crushingly apparent.
There might be no return.
Onboard the ship she had been taken to a locked cabin where completely alone for the first time since the ordeal began, she cried a river at the enormity of it all.
Whether she chose to call it Down, as Dirk and Duck called it, or Hell, it had to be some sort of alternative dimension with its own set of bizarre physical rules. Everyone and everything she knew and loved seemed desperately far away. She thought of John and wished she’d allowed him to apologize. The thought of being permanently trapped here, of not seeing him or any of her friends and family again, was so profoundly sad. And as the ship sailed farther and farther away from Britannia, her despair only bloomed.
Marot had heard her sobs and unlocked the door to offer sympathy and to express his wonder that a woman such as her had descended to his unhappy world. In the course of their turbulent crossing she would learn about Captain Marot and what awaited her once they made landfall in Francia.
Francis, Duke of Guise, Marot had told her, was an imperious lord, much feared by ally and foe alike. He had come to Hell in the mid-sixteenth century, the victim of a Huguenot assassin while still a hale and hearty man in his fifth decade. As such, it pained Marot to say, the duke harbored prodigious appetites for the fairer sex, and as a rich and powerful noble, the coin to procure virtually whomever he chose. Spies such as D’Aret were given broad remit to strike deals to secure choice women, and with redness in his cheeks, Marot informed Emily that none were choicer and more exotic than she.
“My European history’s a bit sketchy,” she had said. “I’m afraid I don’t know who this Guise man is. Or was.”
Marot had seemed more intent on her than the question. “Your accent is fetching. Is it of the Highlands?”
“Yes, I’m a Highland lass, born near Inverness.”
“The Guise family played a part in your land’s royal intrigues. The sister of the duke, Mary of Guise, married your king, James the Fifth and birthed your Mary Queen of Scots.”
“A bit before my time.” She had studied his face. He was rather handsome, perhaps in his thirties, with expressive eyes. Perhaps, she thought, she could turn him into an ally. “Tell me, Phillipe. You seem like a nice man, far kinder than the others I’ve met. Why are you here?”
“I am here because I deserve to be here. I participated in a shameful and atrocious act while a soldier in the service of the duke. It was in the year 1562, one year before the duke was killed and ten years before I myself perished in battle. The duke was returning to his castle in Joinville, near Paris, and decided to stop for a rest in one of his villages, Wassy-sur-Blaise. He had heard that the village harbored heretical Protestant tendencies and he wanted to see for himself whether this was true. Hearing church bells and a congregation at prayer inside the church he went inside, and to his dismay, he did hear a most foul, anti-Catholic, Huguenot rant. An argument ensued. I was in the market square myself with a company of gendarmes. Before long I heard shouts and cries. The duke stalked out of the church followed by a throng of villagers—men, women and children, and suddenly the order came to kill these Huguenots. I did not hesitate. I fired my archebuser, reloaded, and fired again and again. Women fell at my hand, children too. When we were done fifty were dead, many more shot through. I carried the shame of that day for the remaining days of my poor life. And here I am, condemned for eternity. My duke was already here when I arrived, already nearly as powerful as he had been on Earth. I found him and he took me into his employ once again. I continue to do foul deeds for him, though I fear none will be so foul as delivering you unto him.”
Now, standing on the rocky shore of the land called Francia, Emily weighed her options. She had no idea what horrors were coming. She might never have a better chance. So, while Marot was having a word with another soldier, an ugly, heavily bearded man, she took off, running as fast as she could down the beach, trying to find patches of flat sand between the rocks for her footfalls.
Marot shouted for her to come back and took after her but the bearded soldier was the faster of the two and caught up with her first. She was grabbed by the hair and thrown roughly to the pebbles and sand. The soldier raised his arm and was about to bring his club-like fist down on her when Marot arrived and thwarted him.
The two men argued while Emily cried in frustration and pain and began to shiver uncontrollably. Marot sent the bearded soldier away to cool off and had a blanket brought to her. He helped her up and surrounded by soldiers, she robotically followed him off the beach toward a cluster of houses.
“Can you ride?” Marot asked.
“Of course, horses.”
“It is of no consequence. There should be a carriage. I am sorry he hurt you. Please do not try to flee again. I can only control them to a point.”
They walked for a half a mile and at a small stone cottage two men emerged and spoke with Marot.
“We might have some food and drink before we embark,” the Captain told her.
“Just some water if it’s clean. My stomach’s still off.”
A covered carriage was brought to the house yoked to a team of four horses, with a cabin only large enough for two. Emily was made to climb in and Marot joined her. Saddled horses were produced for the soldiers and they began their overland journey. Marot told her their destination was the duke’s castle at Joinville and that if all went well they would arrive in the early hours of the following morning. The carriage driver, seated on an open-air bench, flicked the reins and they were off. Marot had a pair of short-barreled archebuser rifles propped against the carriage door and checked the powder to ensure it was dry.
“Are you planning on using them?” Emily asked, clutching the coarse blanket at her throat.
“I hope no, but fear not. If I do, I am an excellent shot.”
She thought of the children he had massacred and said, “Whom might you need to shoot? Isn’t this friendly territory?”
“There is no friendly territory. One is never safe, not even in a lord’s castle. There are thieves and scoundrels at every turn. The countryside belongs to no one and belongs to everyone.”
She decided to make her play. “I don’t suppose you could help me?” she said.
“Help you how?”
“To escape. I need to get back across the channel, to Dartford. I think that’s the only way I can get back to my home. Please help me.”
He looked miserable. “I wish I could, my lady, but there is no place for noble acts in this world. If death were the worst I could suffer, I would happily help you. After all these centuries, death would be sweet. Yet, my fate would not and could not be death. Instead, I would be punished and I would suffer the most vile consequences for all of eternity.”
“What would happen to you, Phillipe?”
He used the term, salles de décomposition, and then explained to her what rotting rooms were.
She fell silent.
The land was heavily forested and the road to Paris was no more that a ribbon of dirt or grass. The wooden carriage wheels rode rough over the uneven ground and Emily’s stomach had little chance of settling. Marot had a loaf of brown bread wrapped in a cloth and tried to get her to eat a few morsels. Finally, at midday, the temperature had risen enough to make the blanket unnecessary and she succumbed to hunger and ate some of the coarse bread.
“Did you have a wife?” she asked.
“I did, and a son. I was often away on campaigns with the duke so I saw little of them. I do not know if they even knew the manner and time of my death.”
“I do not have a woman. Yes, I have been with women from time to time but there are not so many here.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, of course. Women are not as evil as men. Is it not so in your time also?”
She nodded. “If women were in charge of things there wouldn’t be all these stupid wars or slaughter of innocents.”
“I think this too.”
In a clearing in the forest, Marot called for a halt and told Emily the party would briefly rest. He pointed to some stout trees and suggested this would be a place she might answer nature’s call.
She climbed down, and away from the prying eyes of the leering soldiers, relieved herself behind a trunk. She heard Marot bark orders to his men to keep vigilant as she looked up at the dull sky above the canopy. There was a pretty yellow bird in a high branch that looked something like a golden oriole and a pair of black squirrels cavorting lower down. It all seemed so natural, so ordinary, so much like the things she was accustomed to, until the spell was broken by desperate shouts that sent the wildlife fleeing.
She stood just as Marot appeared at her side, his face seized with fear. She made out one soldier’s cry, “Clovis est ici!” and asked Marot, “Who’s Clovis?”
“Come quickly. He is a very ancient lord, a very bad man who calls this forest his own.”
As Marot dragged her to the carriage a spear thudded and stuck into the tree trunk then arrows began to rain down. One of Marot’s men fell, an arrow through the dome of his head. The Captain pushed her under the carriage and ordered his men to cock their rifles but not to fire until his command.
Ahead, horses appeared in the road with longhaired men astride. They were clothed in skins and leathers, brandishing swords, spears, and short bows. They shouted battle cries in a guttural language. Emily made herself as low to the ground as she could and closed her eyes, more afraid than she’d been at any moment since her arrival. Then Marot screamed, “Fire,” and a dozen archebusers discharged and sent lead balls toward the raiders. Marot tossed one of his rifles aside and fired the other.
Men and horses fell and those attackers who weren’t hit scattered at the volley. Marot yelled for Emily to get inside the carriage. The carriage driver scampered up to his perch and the soldiers mounted up. Marot climbed in beside her, frantically reloading his weapon as the horses were whipped to the gallop.
For several seconds all was quiet until there was a lone, chilling battle cry and a spear came crashing through the side of the carriage. Marot looked startled and stopped pouring powder into his rifle. He looked down at his blue soldier’s jacket that was turning crimson.
“My God, you’ve been hit!” Emily cried. “We have to stop.”
“No,” he replied weakly. Then he mustered one last command to the driver, “Keep going. Under no event will you stop until you arrive at Joinville.”
“We have to stop the bleeding!” she screamed.
“Please permit me some room,” he whispered, and when she had slid as far from him as possible, he grasped the shaft of the spear and pulled himself away from it, pushing the bloody end out through the hole in the carriage door. “There, that is better.” Then he slumped against her.
She reached over to try to staunch the blood but the spear had torn his spleen and the flow was torrential, flooding the carriage floor. Instinctively she knew he should be unconscious or dead but his lips kept moving in a silent babble.
She called out to the driver, “Stop. We need to help him,” but the driver refused, shouting for her to push Marot out of the carriage to give Clovis a prize to stop the attack.
When she refused the driver called for the nearest soldier to do the deed.
The rider reached down from his horse, unlatched the carriage door and grabbed a fistful of Marot’s jacket. As the captain was about to be thrown to the ground, she saw his glassy eyes blink at her and his mouth curl into something close to a smile.
They rode at breakneck speed until the horses could no longer take the pace and in a broad clearing, where the enemy might be spotted from a distance, the party pulled up and rested the animals. The ugly and unsmiling bearded soldier who had thrown her down by the hair took Marot’s place beside Emily. He smelled of cabbage and worse and said not a word. It was impossible to avoid Marot’s blood. Her feet stewed in it for the rest of the journey and as day became night the puddle became sticky, gluing her shoes in place.
She must have slept for the last few hours because she awoke startled when the carriage inclined sharply and finally came to a stop at the threshold of Castle Guise.
A soldier was calling into the darkness for the drawbridge to be lowered and when the heavy bridge thudded onto the earthenworks the carriage slowly crossed over the moat and entered the main bailey through the portcullis.
The bearded soldier tried to pull her down but she shook off his hand and climbed out herself. There was a raging fire pit which cast enough light for her to make out an enclosed ground. Jutting into the courtyard and rising above it was a rectangular stone tower, its entrance marked by a pair of basket-topped iron rods filled with burning tallow.
In the darkness, high over a further bailey was a round tower, black and ominous. It was here she was taken.
The bearded soldier opened a heavy wooden door, called up the dark stone stairs and Emily found herself in the company of women.
A skeletal hag with streaky-gray hair took charge of her. The old woman’s initial air of pique at being woken gave way to alarm when she realized that the night visitor was a different sort of creature.
The woman inspected Emily with a candle held high then rattled off something unintelligible to the bearded soldier in some kind of dialectic French. Emily made out part of the soldier’s reply, something to the effect that Captain Marot knew more about her than he did but had fallen in a skirmish.
The hag, who wore a loose-fitting linen shift, addressed Emily sharply. Emily responded that she couldn’t understand her and the woman migrated to a somewhat more modern form of French. It was apparently not her natural tongue because she spoke it slowly and deliberately.
“Come with me. I am Marie. I look after the girls. There is something not right about you, no?”
“So it seems,” Emily replied, following her up the tightly spiraling stairway.
On the first landing, Emily saw a single chamber scattered with mattresses and sleeping bodies. Up another spiraling staircase, the highest chamber was different. There was a single occupied wood-framed bed and some simple furniture against the round, bare stone walls.
Marie lit a few candles with her own, shook the sleeping figure awake and told her to get up. The woman under the blankets hurled a rich barrage of curses at Marie and sat up, searching the room with fiery eyes. She was young, about Emily’s age, with taut, ebony skin. Her French was modern and slang-infested.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked Emily.
Emily was woozy. “My name is Emily,” she said weakly.
The woman directed her anger at the old lady. “What’s going on here, you fucking bag of bones?”
Marie told her that a new girl had arrived. The woman replied sarcastically that she wasn’t blind, she could see that, but what did it have to do with her?
“She’s a special one,” Marie said. “She’s meant to have your bed.”
“The hell she will! I’m not giving up my bed.”
“I can sleep anywhere,” Emily said.
Marie shook her head and went down the stairs calling for the bearded soldier to come and help her.
Emily wobbled, unsteady on her feet.
“Is that blood on your shoes?” the woman asked.
“A Captain Marot.”
The woman frowned. “I fucked him a few times. Not a bad sort as men go around here. Pity.”
“Who are you?” Emily asked.
“Jojo. What’s with you, anyway? You look like you’re just off the boat but different.”
“Apparently I’m not exactly dead.”
Jojo pulled back her covers and stood to get a closer look.
“The fuck you say! You’re right. You don’t smell right. How’d it happen?”
“Do you think I might sit down? I don’t feel well at all.”
Jojo pulled a chair from the wall. She watched Emily shiver in the coolness of the chamber and sighing, pulled the blanket from her bed and threw it at her.
Emily thanked her and said, “I’m a physicist. I was conducting a research experiment outside London with a high-energy particle collider and…”
“I’ve already lost you, honey. Some shit happened, you’re here, you’re alive, that’s all I need to know. How’d you wind up at this shithole?”
“I’ve been passed around like a prize cow. Something about the duke here being quite a ladies’ man.”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real stud for a five-hundred-year-old piece of dead meat. I was his favorite. Until now, maybe. He took a couple of the other girls tonight which gave me a break.”
Marie returned with the bearded soldier who began shouting at Jojo to find a place to sleep in the lower chamber. Jojo would have nothing of it and shouted back, brandishing a candlestick to reinforce her position.
“I can sleep downstairs,” Emily said by way of defusing the situation, but Marie countered that orders were orders. “Look, here,” Emily said, “the bed is large enough for two. If it’s all right with Jojo perhaps we can share it.”
Jojo shrugged, Marie shrugged, and the negotiation was over. Soon the two women were left alone.
“There’s a basin of water there and a cloth which isn’t too dirty. You can sleep in the raw or you can use one of my nightgowns. There’s wine over there. Help yourself. Downstairs, off the main room there’s a privy that basically dumps into the moat. That tells you a lot about this fucking place.”
Emily began to slowly undress. Her cotton skirt had wooden buttons that had made the passage, and her top, a cotton pullover, was also intact. The same wasn’t so for her cotton bra that, missing its plastic clasp, flopped uselessly under her shirt.
Jojo laughed. “Same exact thing happened to me. But I was worse. My skirt had a metal zip and it fell off completely.”
“My pantyhose didn’t make it,” Emily said. “Or my wristwatch and rings.”
“I was so fucking pissed off,” Jojo said, nodding. “It was bad enough getting murdered but I was wearing some really good jewelry at the time which went missing. I wonder where all that shit goes?”
“It seems that nothing metallic or synthetic survives the passage,” Emily said, peeling off her bra.
“Give it here. I’ll have the smithy make me a clasp. Near enough my size,” she said, inspecting Emily’s breasts.
Emily thought it best to give it freely under the circumstances.
“Have you been here long?” Emily asked.
“You mean in Castle Pathétique or in Hell?”
“Both I suppose.”
“Hell, for about five years now. This dump around four.”
Emily began washing herself. The water was cold but felt good. “What happened to you, if I might ask?”
“My boyfriend’s best friend shot me.”
“I ripped off his stash. Seems a bit harsh, don’t you think, killing someone for stealing their dope? I was in La Courneuve when it happened and out I popped in the same spot here. You probably know how it works, right? I mean it didn’t look a fucking thing like La Courneuve. It was more like a shitty village. Well, because I’m a young, attractive woman, I had all the scum of the Earth trying to get a piece of me but I eluded the lot of them for a time. Once I worked out how things go around here I knew, I just knew, that my boyfriend was going to be settling the score and that scumbag who killed me was going to be arriving in the area any time.”
“And did he?”
“He did, with his baggy pants on the ground, ’cause the snaps were gone. Really comical, that look on his bastard face, seeing me coming at him with a big piece of iron. I crushed his skull real good. Hope he enjoys the next fifty million years in a rotting room.”
Emily slipped into Jojo’s nightgown and poured a cup of wine. She sipped at it over and over, hoping for some numbing. “What did you do to warrant coming here?” Emily asked.
“In Mali I was a hooker, you know. I killed a few johns there. I thought it was justifiable homicide and all but I guess it wasn’t justifiable enough.”
Emily finished the wine and said, “I’ve got a lot of questions, Jojo, but I’m terribly tired. Do you think I could get into bed now?”
“Hop in. Don’t worry about your questions. We’ve got all the fucking time in the world.”
Francis, Duke of Guise and master of Castle Guise, was given the news of Emily’s arrival the moment he awoke in his chamber above the great tower hall. Two of his concubines were still sleeping under the covers and he roughly kicked their rumps out of bed when it was clear that it would be no ordinary day.
“Not dead?” he asked the bearded soldier, as a manservant hastily dressed him.
“It seems not, my lord.”
“How remarkable. You say she’s young?”
“In my opinion, yes. Very pretty.”
“Was she violated?”
“Not to my knowledge, my lord. Certainly not in our company.”
“And how much did D’Aret pay?”
“I was told five hundred crowns.”
“A huge sum! I’ll have his head if it was poorly spent. And what of Marot?”
“He took one of Clovis’s spears as we passed through a forest.”
“That ancient bastard. I swear I’ll gut him one day and use his intestines for sausage jackets.” Guise dismissed the soldier with a backhanded wave. “You are my captain now.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Guise had died in his prime, cut down by an assassin’s sword, though in truth he passed away six days following the assault, over-bled in his sick bed by his surgeons. In his day he had been considered a titan, a most un-French, French lord owing to his extraordinary height and his blonde mane, which had set tongues wagging about foreign, perhaps Germanic blood in him. He was also ruthless, a man who, when crossed, was certain to extract a terrible revenge.
The house of Guise had reigned supreme throughout the sixteenth century. Francis’s father, Claude, the first Duke of Guise had been given a ducal seat by the king. Staunchly Catholic, no one group feared the Guise dynasty more than the Protestant Huguenots, whom the Guises sought to annihilate at every turn. Francis’s eldest son, Henry of Guise, had founded the militant Catholic League and, inspired by the writings of Machiavelli, had perpetrated the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris that had caused the deaths of seventy thousand Protestants.
Guise intrigue continued after death. Francis arrived in Hell to find his father busily seeing to improvements on an old castle on the River Marne near the earthly spot of the family seat. Claude had assembled a group of newly arrived cronies to attack the local lord’s castle. The lord was a rough old codger who had clung to power there since his fourteenth century arrival. The coup d’état complete, Claude had petitioned the king for recognition and had received it. Francis, upon his entry to Hell, was initially embraced by his father with talk of creating a dynasty capable of taking the king’s throne one day, but Francis, a duke in his own right, was not content to play second-fiddle to his father. Now, thanks to the malicious machinations of his son, Claude lay headless in a state of profound and agonizing decay in a warehouse by the river.
When Francis’s son, Henry, also came Down, his father, fearing his equally ruthless son, had Captain Marot take Henry’s head before he could cause trouble. There could be only one Duke of Guise.
Francis rejected one outergarment after another, sending his servant scuttling back and forth to his wardrobe until he was clad to his liking befitting the occasion. He possessed the only large mirror at the castle and he checked himself before making an appearance in the great hall. Though tall and slender in physique the layers of garments made him appear fuller-figured. A long-sleeved tunic, pulled over the head and fastened at the neck with a silver brooch was topped by a sleeveless pale blue surcoat, which was in turn topped by a royal blue embroidered and fur-lined mantle. His legs were sheathed in white hose attached to his belt under knee-high lounging boots.
In the meanwhile, Marie had rousted Emily from Jojo’s bed. Bleary and utterly disoriented, Emily was rushed through some basic morning ablutions. When she asked for her clothes she was told they’d been taken during the night and burned.
“Why?” she asked indignantly.
“They were very ugly,” Marie told her, equally indignant, “and not suitable for a duke.”
Jojo was watching Emily’s makeover from her bed, amused by the spectacle.
She taunted Emily. “They dress old school here, you might as well get used to it. Francis likes to remove a lady’s clothes like he’s peeling an artichoke. That’s the part that takes a while. The screwing part is over in a flash. He’s got no staying power which is a blessing if you want to know. By the way, I hope you like it doggy-style.”
Emily trembled and seethed at the same time. “I’ll kill him if he lays a hand on me.”
Jojo melted into laughter. “Go for it, girl. Power to the people.”
Emily’s more immediate battle was with Marie who kept fighting to add successive layers of under and outergarments and finally wore her down by screeching like a wounded bird until Emily was virtually immobile inside a casement of cotton, taffeta, damask and ermine.
“Bloody hell,” Emily said, getting a look at herself in a small, wooden-framed mirror that yielded a somewhat distorted image. “I feel like I’m off to a mad fancy dress party.”
“Don’t you go getting yourself butchered too quick now,” Jojo said, waving her off. “You and me have a lot of talking to do. While you’re off, I’ll be here, swanning about, enjoying my holiday from the little royal cock.”
In the light of the day Emily was able to get a better look at the castle. It rose above her, gloomy as the morning, gray blocks of stone, dry-laid into walls and towers without visible attempt at style or decoration. It was purely functional, a fortress, plain and simple. Dull-faced men were laboring in the baileys, chopping wood, tending to goats and chickens, butchering and hanging sheep. They snuck glances at her but seemed too fearful to look harder.
She took a deep anticipatory breath before entering the duke’s tower. Inside the great hall, one would not have known it was daytime. Without windows the hall relied on candles and oil lamps and their choking, smoky haze made her cough. There was a massive unlit hearth and standing before it a long banqueting table. At its middle, seated alone with a spread of food, was the Duke of Guise pretending not to notice her.
“My lord,” Marie said, “I have the special girl.”
The duke speared a hard-boiled egg with his knife and ate it without looking up. When he was finished chewing he raised his gaze and then his eyebrows.
“Bring her here.”
Marie pushed Emily forward until she was standing at the table opposite him. Her reaction to him was primal, akin to a small rodent happening upon a sunning lizard. His long, dry face and moist lips had a distinct reptilian quality and when he fiddled his tongue to dislodge a strand of meat from his yellow teeth she felt a spasm of nausea.
“Has she eaten?”
Marie replied that she had not. He then asked whether she spoke French.
Emily was determined she wouldn’t be cowed by him. She replied in French with all the defiance she could muster, “I’m standing right here. Why don’t you ask me yourself?”
“Leave us, and wait outside,” he told Marie. With rather delicate fingers he plucked a pickled onion from a plate and slowly chewed on it, making a show of ignoring her. Finally he said, “One does not speak to one unless invited to do so.”
“Your rules, not mine,” Emily said.
He cackled, sending a plume of onion breath her way. “You are unique in more ways than one. Sit down.”
She had to smooth out the puffed-up fabric of her clothes to sit. As she squared off against him she defiantly crossed her arms over her chest.
“Take food if you are hungry,” he said.
“I don’t suppose you have tea.”
“Tea is rare. We have none.”
“I do not know what this is.”
“Two more reasons to hate this bloody place,” she muttered in English.
“Do not use foreign tongues in my presence!” he fumed. “Tell me, what is the present year on Earth?”
“Time does pass. How old are you?”
“Thirty-two. How old are you?”
“Again, impertinence. I have not invited a question.”
“Again, your rules,” she countered.
“How is it that you have come to Hell without dying?”
“You wouldn’t understand it because I don’t understand it. Suffice it to say that it happened and I’m not best pleased about it.”
“No one is happy to come here. But the strong and the clever find a way to survive. The weak and the dim-witted fare less well. Which are you?”
“Youarea rare little birdie. What is your name?”
“Dr. Emily Loughty.”
“A woman who is a doctor? I am glad I did not live in your time. But perhaps you can lance a boil for me.”
“I’m not that kind of a doctor.”
He squinted his confusion. “I hear you were attacked by Clovis. Did you see the filthy bastard with your own eyes?”
“I saw a number of men who fit the general description of filthy bastards.”
“Clovis has but one eye.”
“Not ringing a bell. Who is he?”
“Clovis, son of Merovech, ruler of the Frankish kingdom a thousand years before my time on Earth. To last this long in Hell one has to be crafty. Today he rules little more than a few patches of forest but he survives by roaming the countryside, stealing from me and my allies, and selling his services to the lords of Germania.”
“Well he killed Phillipe Marot who was quite decent to me, so this Clovis is no friend of mine.”
“Marot is not dead. I am sure he wishes he were so but he certainly survives in some piteous state of perpetual agony.”
Despite the tough façade she wanted to show, her lip trembled. She wanted to scream. She wanted out. She wanted to go home.
The duke seemed to pounce on her fear. “I believe that a rare birdie such as yourself would certainly suffer and perhaps perish in this harsh world of ours without the protection of a powerful prince. You are fortunate that my man, D’Aret, secured your position at Castle Guise.”
“And what position is that?”
He called out for Marie to come and fetch her and said, “Why, on your hands and knees in my bed, of course. I will show you when I return after a day or two of hunting.”
Emily lapsed into English again. “We’ll bloody well see about that you filthy cockroach.”9
At the first light of day, after a small breakfast, Solomon Wisdom escorted John down the hill to the river. John’s head hurt from his drubbing and the wine, his shoulder was stiff, but his toothache was the biggest problem. He thought about trying to pull what was left of his troublesome tooth but decided to leave it alone for now. He’d just deal with the discomfort.
Wisdom showed off his wealth and power by revealing his private sailing vessel moored at a floating dock. At the water’s edge John bid farewell to Dirk and told him to return to Dartford and wait for him there, after which the young man extracted one more promise to help him reunite with Duck. A crew of a dozen men raised the canvas sails and the ship began to make its way against the current.
The vessel, a forty-footer, was a shallow-draughted wherry with a squarish single gaff sail. The scooped-out deck was open and uncovered. There was a bench near the bow which John and Wisdom occupied while the crew piloted the vessel and scanned the banks of the Thames for trouble. John kept his sword on his belt and his loaded flintlock in the bag by his feet.
The river was still tidal this far east and the water smelled brackish. A few small boats were about, casting nets, but otherwise the river and its banks were deserted. Wisdom pointed up the hill toward his house seeking a compliment and he was pleased when John told him it was indeed a fine building. As they progressed westward, signs of settlement increased. On both north and south banks of the river John saw a number of small villages on the scale of Dartford, and as they approached what he knew to be the approximate geographic location of London, he saw the beginning of barge traffic and a bona fide city in the distance.
It was not a city in the modern sense. This version of London was a low and sprawling expanse of mostly small wooden buildings with a scattering of larger brick ones and one palatially sized complex of stone at the approximate location of the earthly Tower of London, and another where the modern Parliament stood. There was a single bridge spanning the river near that point, a bulky wooden structure upon which a single horse cart was making the traverse. It was a monochromatic city shrouded in the smoke of thousands of wood fires. What it lacked was church spires and to John it looked odd without these iconic fingers pointing to the heavens.
John watched men on the shores going about their business. What he saw was labor from another era. They loaded and unloaded barges with manual winches, hauled goods by horse cart, shaped logs with two-man saws and adzes, dumped waste into the river. But then, as they sailed closer to the northern shore, he noticed that the rows of poles which he had persistently seen all the way up-river from Dartford were connected with ropes or wires.
“What are those?” he asked Wisdom.
“The poles, you mean?”
“Yeah. They look like telephone poles.”
“I do not know what a telephone is,” Wisdom said. “Those are telegraph poles.”
John almost slipped off the bench. “You’ve got the telegraph?”
“I do not possess it. The king does.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Why not? It has existed in this realm for some time. I am led to understand that the king of Francia possesses it too and perhaps other rulers. It was Mr. Cosgrove, the gentleman who initiated me into the brokerage business—it was he who recognized the special skills of a telegraph man who arrived here, oh, perhaps twenty years before I did. I believe this man had butchered and eaten his landlady or something equally unsavory but Cosgrove saw his potential and for a hefty bounty delivered him to the crown. The king recognized the potential of this enterprise and saw fit to have the fellow teach various smithies and craftsmen to fashion the batteries, the coils, the wires, and what-not to make the telegraph work.”
“Is this guy still around?”
“Oh no. I remember him fairly well as he prospered for a time and was rewarded by the king with a house in London. A good many years ago he got into a fight with some men even more unsavory than himself and wound up chopped to bits. There the irony ends as I do not believe he was eaten.”
They sailed on for another four hours or so, the pilot skillfully taking the best line to fill the sail and battle the currents and tides.
John finally stood and balanced himself against the mast.
“How much longer?”
He hadn’t noticed that Wisdom had been napping. He snapped awake and looked around, saying, “That settlement on the hill over there, that is Richmond. Do you see the smoke? There is a forge there. We are almost arrived at Kingston.”
Around a bend in the river, just beyond another wooden bridge, John saw a disturbing sight on the south bank. A gallows had been erected on a grassy verge, five poles in a row, each with a man hanging by the neck. But the men, whose hands were tied behind their backs, weren’t swaying in the wind; they were moving their legs in a macabre dance. The crew noticed too and began pointing and laughing.
“Jesus,” John said softly. “We’ve got to help them.”
Wisdom looked at the spectacle and said, “Them? They are beyond help. I saw these self-same men the last time I made this journey a fortnight ago.”
“They’re still moving.”
“You still have not come to grips with our realities,” Wisdom said. “They are hung but they are not dead.”
John sighed. “What did they do to deserve this?”
“I have no knowledge of their transgressions but it was enough to incur the ire of the king or one of his lords. Look there, instead. Hampton Palace.”
John had made the obligatory trip to Hampton Court Palace once, with Emily as it happened. It was on a Saturday in the summertime and the lines were long and the grounds were packed with tourists. The palace had been originally built by Cardinal Wolsey, chief minister to Henry VIII, but the king seized it when Wolsey fell out of favor and expanded it to accommodate his full court of one thousand. Of all of Henry’s sixty houses and palaces it was said he had most liked Hampton. Successive monarchs made further, massive additions and renovations and the modern tourist attraction was a hodge-podge of Tudor and Stuart architectural whims. Now John recalled his visit to Hampton in much the way one remembers touring an art museum—grand halls, endless galleries of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, and sore feet.
The palace he saw here was a far cry from the one in his mind’s eye. Though substantial and larger than almost any building he had seen from the river, it paled in comparison to the Hampton Court Palace on Earth. The construction materials were predominately brick but the fascia facing the river had a typical Tudor-style wooden exoskeleton of large, angled beams. There were multiple turrets and chimneys, many belching smoke. Also, he could see no formal gardens. The palace seemed to rise from a wild meadow.
The pilot landed the boat at a dock just downstream from a large three-masted ship, a fine looking craft with several small deck-mounted cannon. A few bored-looking sailors eyed them suspiciously until an older man, their superior officer, spotted Wisdom and called down to him.
“You were recently at Kingston. What brings you back so soon?”
“I need to see the king.”
“Urgent business. A new arrival he will surely want to meet.”
The officer fixed his eyes on John as he asked, “Why’s that?”
“Because he is not dead, that is why.”
The officer’s jaw slackened and as he scampered down the gangplank he shouted at Wisdom to wait at the palace gate.
Before they were allowed to enter John was compelled to relinquish his sword and his pistol. Inside, a squad of po-faced soldiers took them to a rather small room which lacked even one stick of furniture. There they stood for a good while, offered neither food or drink, until a small man with a drawn face and sallow complexion, a flowing black robe, and a flat black cap entered. He greeted Wisdom cordially and pulled him to a corner of the room. As the two men whispered the small man kept glancing at John through his round, ferret-like eyes.
When they were finished talking Wisdom said to John, “The king has requested that I speak to him first. You will be summoned when he pleases.”
John waited, pacing the room like a prison cell. The small-paned, leaded-glass windows offered a view toward the river. A blue heron perched on the bank and took to wing when a man approached with a fishing pole. Here he was, about to meet one of the most famous men in history but all he could think about was Emily. Was she scared? Was she hurt? Had she given up hope of ever making it back home?
I will find you, he thought.
I will find you.
It took an hour for Wisdom to return and when he did he flashed his crooked smile.
“The king is indeed most eager to meet you,” he said.
John noticed a bulge under Wisdom’s jacket that hadn’t been there before.
“You look pleased. Did he pay you well?”
The smile fell from his face, Wisdom said, “I am pleased to help the king and I am pleased to help you.”
“Did you help this Guise guy too?”
“I had nothing to do with that.”
“Then how did you know Emily was in France?”
“The kingdom is thick with spies.”
“Whatever you say, Solomon. Let’s go meet Henry. I’m itching to see which one of the movies got his looks right.”
The great hall at this Hampton Court vaguely resembled the one John remembered on Earth. Both were lofty, with vaulted and buttressed chambers, but this one lacked stained glass windows and tapestries. Lining the walls, three to four deep, were men dressed in clothes of different eras, including a few in fairly modern garb. The hall was still. Every eye tracked John as he walked down the long axis of the room to meet the man seated on a carved throne. Beside him stood the small man in black. As they got closer, Wisdom peeled off, leaving John to make the final approach alone.
The king bore no resemblance to the classic Holbein portraits of Henry or any modern actor’s portrayal. This man was heavy-set but not excessively fat. He seemed a tall, well-muscled fellow in his late middle-age with a deeply lined, shaved face with no trace of the famously red beard he was known for in life, or for that matter, the jowls. He was not handsome, nor was he ugly. If anything, there was an ordinariness about him. His hair was completely gray and longish, parted in the middle, and he absently combed back unruly forelocks with his fingers. Only his outfit matched John’s conception of the sixteenth-century monarch: a belted burgundy tunic, hose, slippers and an over-sized, padded, fur-trimmed cloak. Otherwise, the man seated on the throne would have been laughed out of some modern pub’s Henry VIII look-alike contest.
The small man in black told John to halt when he got within ten feet of the king.
Henry inspected him closely and sniffed a few times.
“It is customary to bow to the king,” the small man said.
Before John could decide whether and how to comply, Henry said, “We can dispense with that, Cromwell. He is not from our time, nor is he from our realm. You do not even belong here, as I understand it, John Camp.”
“That’s correct, sir, or Your Majesty. I don’t want to offend but I’m not sure how I’m supposed to address you.”
Henry waved his hand dismissively. “Your Majesty will do. Master Wisdom has informed me of your peculiar circumstances. I do not profess to understand them.”
“That makes two of us,” John said. Then he added, “Your Majesty.”
Henry smiled. “You do not have to say that every time you address me. It will slow down our communication. Tell me, John Camp …”
John interrupted him. “You can just call me John. So we don’t slow down our communication.”
Henry laughed heartily. “Very good, John. Tell me, are you hungry?”
“I could eat.”
“Then we shall lay on a feast where we might talk at length. Cromwell, give our guest accommodations where he might refresh himself for a spell.”
A silent Cromwell led John from the hall down a long, empty corridor. John had to slow his gait to match Cromwell’s mincing steps.
“Are you Thomas Cromwell?” John asked.
Cromwell stopped and looked at John, his dour expression turning to one of evident pleasure.
“You know of me?”
“In my day you’re almost as famous as King Henry.”
“You flatter me, sir.”
“Mind if I ask you something?”
“Henry had you executed. Now you’re at his side.”
Cromwell sighed. “He regretted his actions and when we were reunited in this realm a very long time ago, he asked for my forgiveness and I granted it. Hell is a hard, hard place and to have a king’s grace is no small thing. I trust the bond we have will endure for the eternity of our time here.”
They started walking again.
“You’re the king’s advisor?” John asked.
“He has many but I am his principal advisor, his chancellor.”
“Then I hope you’ll advise him to help me.”
“I will listen to what you desire and we shall see if an accommodation can be reached.”
John’s room was small with a window overlooking a horse meadow. Once alone, he washed his hands and face from a basin then lay on the lumpy mattress. While he waited for someone to come and fetch him, he allowed his eyes to flutter closed.
The MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was flying low over the Sangin district of Helmand Province. It was a pitch-black night but John didn’t need to see the land to know its features. Countless missions had taught him that the terrain was a vast plain of rocky nothingness, baked brown and tan by the hot, relentless sun. On his first tour, he had reckoned that the rural Afghan landscape had a certain spare beauty, but his admiration for it had drained away like sand through an hourglass. He had come to feel it was as alien and lonely as the moon, a place where he and his men didn’t belong. But in five days they’d be out; if this wasn’t their last mission it was, at worst, their penultimate.
The Black Hawk co-pilot radioed that they were approaching the LZ.
“Five clicks,” he told his men.
The eleven Green Berets under his command were a scrappy-looking bunch, most of them heavily bearded with non-regulation haircuts. He knew more about them than his own brother and he cared more about them too. God willing, they’d be back at Elgin in a week, getting drunk together in a Fort Walton Beach dive-bar and hauling each other’s asses back to base. Maybe he’d do another tour with them, maybe not. He was getting pretty damned tired of the mission of training up the Afghans and worrying about one of them turning his M-16 on them. Tonight they were on their own which was the way he liked it. All he had to deal with was the Taliban.
He was shoulder-to-shoulder with his warrant officer, Mike Entwistle, another West Pointer who was poised to pick up his own special forces team when he got his promotion to CO.
“Mike, your guys are going to take a couple of minutes longer to get to the rear of the house. Give me three clicks on the radio when you’re in position.”
“Roger that. What’s the HVT’s name again?”
Andy Tannenbaum, the team’s intelligence sergeant was sitting opposite. He pulled a grainy photo from a breast pocket. “Fuckhead’s name is Fazal Toofan. He likes to kill people with explosives.”
SFO Stankiewicz piped up, “So do I.”
The medic, Ben Knebel, snorted, “Christ, T-Baum, most people carry pictures of their girlfriends. You’ve got a fucking Tali in your wallet.”
“Zip it, guys,” John said. “Focus and don’t fuck up, okay? I want all of us to make it out in one piece. We’re supposed to bring this mother back alive but if we have to smoke him then we’ll smoke him. Follow my lead.”
The men checked the safeties on their MP-5s and the batteries on the lights and lasers hanging off the gun rails, a study in the art of being loose and tense at the same time. This wasn’t their first rodeo.
John got the countdown to the LZ from the cockpit and said his usual silent prayer as the chopper thudded against the cold desert floor.
John awoke to someone thudding against his door with the heel of a hand. He rubbed his eyes and swung his feet to the floor.
A lethargic young man informed John that he had come to bring him to the king’s table. He quickly shook off the effects of the nap. He was used to it; he’d had the dream before. Passing along the long corridor he asked the young man questions such as how many people were at the palace, what eras were they from, but after a series of “dunnos” and “can’t say” he gave up. The great hall was empty now but walking across its expanse, John heard a multitude of voices in the distance and when he crossed the threshold into the banqueting hall he saw at least a hundred people seated at long, double-sided tables. At first, John wasn’t noticed but when his presence was recognized, the room quieted as men lowered their tankards and their voices, watching him approach the king.
As he passed among them, John’s stomach soured at the pungency of the assembled masses, an unpleasant mixture of body odor and the peculiar aroma of decay they emitted, as if they were alive and dead at the same time. Some wore loose robes, others, Elizabethan doublets; some had military uniforms that spanned the centuries. Their clothes suggested they clung to the time they had lived, patching and re-patching the cloth and nursing the fabric through the eons. There was a smattering of women too, perhaps one for every twenty men. The women stared hardest at him, through grim, hollow eyes. As he passed within a few feet of one of them, a young woman who might have been pretty once, she suddenly reached out with a hand and almost touched his leg then pulled it back with a faraway, almost longing look on her face. The man sitting next to her, a stocky brute in a medieval robe with a food-littered beard slapped her hard with the back of his hand.
John stopped in his tracks and glowered at the man.
“You do that again and I’ll rip your arm off.”
The man rose, his hand on the pommel of his sword. John was taller by a foot and a half but the man had rage in his eyes and didn’t seem intimidated by size. John readied himself for conflict and the room fell into complete silence.
The man spoke his English with a heavy French accent, “This is my woman and I will do with her as I please.”
John fixed him with a hard-man stare. “Not while I’m around.”
The man began to pull his sword when a voice rang out, “Blouet, you Norman hound, sit down or my dogs will feast on your brains!” The king was standing at his table, bellowing with full lung-power. “John Camp, do not bother yourself with a sorry soul such as our Blouet. He comes from a time where men used their swords rather than their heads. Join me now.”
Blouet let his sword drop to its hilt and cursed under his breath as he slunk back to his chair. John winked at the astonished young woman and strode toward the king.
Henry’s table seated about twenty, three of them female. Wisdom was off to one end, his hands greasy with meat. Henry sat between two women. To his right, a stately, silver-haired woman in a brocaded gown of green silk, to his left, an attractive, petite blonde in a yellow dress like something a twentieth-century flapper might wear. There was an empty chair opposite the king and that was where John was intended, flanked by Cromwell on one side and a brooding, raven-haired young woman on the other.
“Sit yourself down,” the king ordered. “Have food. Have drink.”
As soon as he sat a servant appeared and filled his tankard with ale. The table was narrow enough for John to smell Henry’s beery breath. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the moment, sitting across the table from the most illustrious of all kings, surrounded by all these dead souls. He grabbed the tankard and drank half of it down.
“Ha!” Henry said. “A man of appetites! Do you see that, Cromwell? I told you I liked this man.”
Cromwell offered a thin smile.
Henry placed a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. She had an austere, regal bearing and sad eyes. “John, I would like to introduce this woman to you. She is dear to me, dearer than any. She is my wife, my mother, my sister, my queen. I give you the Empress Matilda.”
John stood and extended a hand but Matilda only nodded, keeping her hands to herself. He awkwardly sat down, searching his mind for Matildas in history but coming up blank.
As if reading his mind, Henry expanded on the introduction. “Matilda, daughter of King Henry the First, good wife to Henry the Fifth, Holy Roman Emperor, mother to King Henry the Second. She herself battled her brother Stephen for the crown and came within a whisker of being queen of England in her own right. Well, all that is far, far away now. She passed in the year … what year was it again, my dear?”
“1167,” she said.
“Such a long, long time ago,” the king said. “She is a saint of a woman who, but for the sake of some utterly meaningless transgression or another would be in Heaven, not here. Still, I am pleased to have her by my side.”
“Happy to meet you,” John said.
She looked him over and sighed with the weariness of a woman who had endured a thousand years in Hell.
“Eat, John, eat!” the king said.
The table was groaning under cooked game, fish, the eggs of large fowl and small, and meat pies. He saw no utensils; people were using their hands and their belt knives.
“Norfolk!” the King said to a handsome, scowling man with a tidy, black beard, seated beside Matilda. “Give our guest a knife.”
The Duke of Norfolk stood, withdrew a dagger from his belt and reaching over the table, aggressively plunged it into the table only inches from one of John’s hands. John didn’t flinch. He loosened it back and forth and used it to spear a capon’s breast from a platter under Norfolk’s dark gaze.
Henry laughed and bade Norfolk to be seated.
“Our Norfolk, John de Mowbray here, is full-blooded,” Henry said. “He warms to new men slowly, if at all. Yet he is an excellent soldier and commander of men at arms. He served my predecessor, Henry the Fifth, as his Norfolk. Because, alas, he expired at a young age, he has proven to be a most vigorous presence in my court.”
“Thanks for the knife,” John said, pointing it provocatively at Norfolk. “Seems to work, just fine.” From the corner of his eye he saw the raven-haired woman beside him hiding a satisfied look behind the cover of her hand.
“More introductions,” Henry said. “This fair maiden by my left hand is Faye, a woman more of your time than mine. For reasons that are transparent, she is one of my favorites.”
Faye gave him a nervous smile and said hello.
“Do not be shy. Tell him your story.”
She had a high-pitched, nasal voice. “Not much to tell, honestly,” she said, looking down at her plate of food. “I died in 1923 in London. I did some things, you know, and I wound up here. Mr. Wisdom found me and thought the king might fancy me. That’s pretty much it.”
“And fancy her I do,” Henry said, letting his hand wander over her bosom as Matilda turned her head away in tired disgust. The king abruptly changed the subject. “Master Wisdom tells me you are also a soldier, John.”
“I am. Or I was.”
“Once a soldier, always a soldier,” Cromwell observed.
“What army did you fight for?” Henry asked. “What wars did you wage?”
“I fought for the United States Army. I was a kind of soldier called a Green Beret, an officer in the special forces. We fought in the Middle East mostly, a place you’d know as Babylonia.”
Henry nodded agreeably and stood, commanding all in the hall to rise. “A toast to our guest, John Camp, who, I have just learned, is a latter-day warrior and Crusader. When we have conquered our enemies in Europa, we will one day turn our wrath upon Selim and his hordes to the east.”
When Norfolk sat down he asked John a question, his voice dripping with contempt.
“When you fought, did you use weapons like the ones I have heard of, which kill a man from an unfathomable distance?”
“As far a distance as possible.”
“A true warrior is able to kill his opponent at close quarters, feeling his hot breath against his face.”
Solomon Wisdom had been straining to hear the conversation from down the table. “Oh, he can do the deed, up close,” Wisdom called out. “He vanquished a party of soldiers in Dartford handily with only a sword.”
“Is that so?” Henry asked.
“You do what you have to do to survive.”
“A universal truth,” Cromwell said.
“Wisdom tells me you were trained in a special military garrison called Point West,” Henry said.
“West Point, yes.”
“What manner of particulars were you taught there?”
“Well, I’d say we were taught how to use our minds. We learned science and mathematics, psychology, military tactics, weapons systems and a lot of history. Military and political history.”
Norfolk snorted. “Ha! Soldiers are not squint-eyed scholars. They fight. They use their brawn. They do not bury their noses in books.”
Henry ignored the duke and asked, “Did you perchance study me?”
John thought about that hard and came up empty. “To be honest, I can’t recall if we studied any of your campaigns, Your Majesty. We did study the battle of Agincourt.”
“Before my time,” Henry sulked.
John nodded. “And a bit after your time, we studied your daughter Elizabeth’s victory over the Spanish armada.”
Henry seemed to perk up and said, “Perhaps we shall speak more of that. I would have liked to have met Elizabeth when she was full into her reign but fortunately for her, she did not come here.”
The feast continued and Henry fell into whispered conversation with Matilda. John ate the bland offering, searching the table in vain for salt or pepper. Then he felt a knee against his and turned to the raven-haired woman beside him.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I am well, thank you.”
“What’s your name?”
“It is Phoebe.”
“Pretty name. And where are you from, Phoebe?”
“I was a London lass.”
“I was born in 1762 and left my life in 1787.”
He was struck by the dullness in her eyes, the listlessness of her countenance. She might have been ravishing once but now she looked worn-out.
“I’m afraid I don’t know the etiquette yet,” he said. “Is it impolite to ask about your circumstances?”
“You mean the reason I am Down?”
“No, it is not impolite. I was a lady who fell under the spell of a soldier, an officer who returned from fighting in the colonies, your colonies. He was married and I fell into disrepute and ruin when he abandoned me. From that point my life was exceedingly hard and I did some terrible deeds to survive. When I developed the pox and felt my life slipping away I took comfort that my misery was coming to an end. How wrong I was.”
He felt a hand sliding up his thigh and looked at her quizzically.
“At the king’s pleasure, I am to be yours while you remain at court.”
His head was swimming in ale but he was sober enough to question the savoriness of sleeping with a dead woman. “That’s nice of you. Really nice. Maybe we can talk about that later.”
John watched Norfolk stand, approach the king, and whisper something in his ear. Henry nodded and rose.
“Hear me now,” he bellowed to the assembly. “The Duke of Norfolk wishes to challenge our guest to a test of fighting skills. Master Camp is a renowned soldier in his time and I expect we will be well-entertained by the sport.”
“Do I have anything to say about this?” John asked Phoebe.
“Once the king commands it, it is so,” she said.
He shook his head hard in an attempt to clear it and mumbled, “Shit, I just ate.”
“Make space before my table,” Henry commanded and servants moved in to drag away two of the dining tables.
Before John rose to meet the challenge, Phoebe whispered to him, “I pray you will treat him as harshly as Norfolk is want to treat me.”
John gave her a nod and stood to do a few stretches. “You’ve got a heck of a way to make a guest feel welcome,” he told the king.
Henry laughed. “It is our custom. And besides, Norfolk cannot sleep unless he has had some good sport.”
“Whatever you say,” John said. “This is your house.”
“You will need your capon knife,” Norfolk called to him, drawing another blade from his hip.
“Oh, it’s that kind of sport,” John said. “You fellows get your rocks off with knife fights, do you?”
“Rocks?” Henry said, with a confused look. “Be thankful, John, that Norfolk has not chosen swords, a weapon with which he is most skilled.”
“I’m not going to need a knife,” John said, “if it’s all right with you.”
“You may do what you wish,” Norfolk said, approaching slowly, “but you should not expect any mercy from my hand.”
“Same goes for me, then.”
Norfolk was a powerful man who seemed to have his wits about him despite the ale he had consumed. He positioned himself sidelong to John and grasped his dagger underhanded, the better to strike an uppercut to the gut. John could tell from the anger in his eyes that this was to be no mock battle. Someone was going to get hurt.
John assumed a fighting stance on the balls of his feet, his left leg forward, his fingers slightly curled. All the diners were standing now, jockeying for position. The two men circled each other, John focused on Norfolk’s eyes. He could usually get a fraction-of-a-second advantage watching an opponent broadcast his intentions by the angle of his gaze.
He wasn’t going to make the first move. Krav Maga worked best when it began with defense. The waiting game seemed to play havoc with Norfolk who eventually grew impatient and made an upward lunge with his knife hand. John saw it coming and stepped to his right, grabbing Norfolk’s wrist with two hands. He used the duke’s momentum to violently twist his arm and send him reeling backwards onto the floor. John held onto his wrist until it was so deformed by the force of the maneuver that he was able to take away the knife as easily as snapping a leaf from a tree.
The entire move and countermove took no more than a second and the crowd seemed to be in confusion until Norfolk pushed himself onto his feet, rubbing at his wrist.
“My goodness, did you see that?” Cromwell called to the king.
“I did indeed,” Henry said. “Most extraordinary.”
John smiled and offered the knife back to Norfolk, handle first, saying, “I think you lost this.”
Norfolk took it, his face smoldering. John was walking away from him when Norfolk let out an enraged yell and attacked again, this time with an overhand thrust.
John wheeled and deflected his knife arm away with a sharp, lateral chop and simultaneously, landed a knee to the groin and a blow to the throat with the heel of his other hand.
Norfolk dropped the knife and went to his knees, gasping for air. As the crowd murmured in shocked reaction, John picked up the dagger, tested its weight and threw it point first across the room into a beam, where it stuck cleanly.
“Well done!” Henry roared.
But Norfolk was not done. He rose unsteadily and this time drew his sword.
“Really?” John asked, but Norfolk’s only response was a two-fisted grip of the handle and a charge with the weapon held high over his head.
John had never tried the move on an attacker with a sword but he knew instinctively it would work. When Norfolk was two feet away and closing, John pivoted on his left leg and threw his right leg high into the air, going airborne. Before Norfolk could react, he had his right leg swung behind the duke’s right ear, pinning his raised arm to his neck, and his left leg scissored around Norfolk’s waist. He let gravity do the rest. John fell backwards, taking Norfolk with him and when he hit the floor he kept rolling in a backwards somersault, flipping Norfolk onto his back. He finished the move by grabbing the duke’s elbow and violently rolling him over again, leaving the sword safely behind on the floor.
John picked himself up and kicked the sword away, accepting the accolades from the crowd. Norfolk was too dazed to stand on his own and some of his men had to come forward to help him up.
Henry, Matilda, and the others at the king’s table seemed dazzled by the display and for the first time he saw Phoebe openly smile. He repaid the gesture with a small salute.
“Excellent display. Come, John,” Henry shouted, “you will join me in my privy chamber for a night of conversation. We have much to discuss.”
As John was catching his breath, a man approached, offering a fresh tankard of ale.
“Marvelous,” the man said with a thick Italian accent, “absolutely marvelous. Complimenti.”
“The guy didn’t know you don’t fuck with a Green Beret,” John said, panting.
“I am sorry, signore, I do not understand your meaning.”
John took the ale and thirstily drank it down.
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not from here, are you?”
“I am Giovanni Guacci, the ambassador from Italia to King Henry’s court.” He lowered his voice. “I must deliver a warning to you, sir. Do not under any accounts trust the king. He knows only treachery. He will suck you dry and when he is finished with you, he will throw you into a rotting room. Only I can offer you the assistance you desire.”
“And what do you think I desire?”
“To find the lady Emily, of course.”10
After the Duke of Guise departed for his hunt Emily was able to shed her layers of fancy clothes. For the rest of the day she was confined to her chilly tower room with JoJo. Marie appeared at meal times with a platter of sinewy meat and stale bread that JoJo ate heartily. Emily could only stomach the bread. By the evening she had learned everything about JoJo’s drab life in Africa and somewhat more colorful life in France, and to avoid going stir-crazy, she had begun to explain MAAC and the cosmos to a mostly disinterested companion.
“Can’t we go out for a walk?” Emily asked after a prolonged silence.
“They don’t like us wandering about.”
“I dunno. Maybe it’s too much distraction for the working men seeing feminine flesh. Maybe they’re worried we’ll escape. They have their reasons.”
“Don’t you get bored?”
JoJo filled her goblet with more wine. “I get drunk and try to think about fun things I used to do. Sometimes I go downstairs and chat with the girls. The days that Guise wants me, at least I get a better meal. If they ever cut me off from wine, then I’d be screwed.”
Emily threw her hands into the air and said, “What an existence!”
“It’s better than most have, dearie, and it’s as good as it’s ever going to get for the likes of me.”
“Well I can’t sit around drinking and waiting to get raped by a ghoul like Guise. I’ve got to get away from here and back to England. Will you help me?”
“You’re a riot, you know that? Have some wine and stop the mad talk.”
From the ramparts of Castle Guise two sentries saw torches in the distance. They strained their eyes in the darkness.
“Whoever it is, they are coming fast,” one said to the other.
“Should I sound the alarm?”
“Not yet. Wait. If someone wanted to attack, do you think they’d announce themselves with torches?”
The riders came ever closer until the sentries were able to make out two galloping torchbearers flanking a standard-bearer flying the flag of the Duke of Guise.
“The duke returns from his hunt.”
“In the dead of night?” the second sentry asked.
“Maybe there’s been an accident. We'd better open the gates.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you want to be the dismembered fool who refused the duke entry to his own castle?”
Before slipping into bed, Emily had succumbed to the senses-dulling lure of wine. JoJo was already lightly snoring when she started on her second cup. There was no sound from the lower floor so she supposed the other women were asleep too.
She was startled by a shout, throaty and full of alarm.
Then a chorus of loud, male voices joined in and a horn blared.
“JoJo, wake up!” Emily said. She had to shake her to get a response.
“What the fuck?” JoJo answered groggily.
“There’s something going on. Listen!”
JoJo rubbed her eyes and shot Emily a frightened look. “This isn’t right. This is bad. Get dressed.”
The women on the lower level heard the growing commotion and they too were hastily dressing and lighting candles. The shouting outside escalated to screams. Then from the baileys came gunfire.
“What should we do?” Emily asked JoJo.
“Barricade the door. Help me move the bed.”
As they were dragging it across the floor, Emily said, “What do you think is happening?”
“It’s an attack.”
“Has it happened before?”
“Only once since I’ve been here but they didn’t get inside the walls. This sounds worse.”
“Who was it? The last time.”
The sounds of fighting intensified and soon, pressed into a corner, they heard footsteps on the stairs followed by pounding at the door.
“Open up. It’s me, Marie!”
JoJo asked if she was alone and when she assured them she was, they moved the bed aside and let her enter. In a rush of words the old woman told them that the duke had been attacked while hunting and had his standard taken. Men were inside the walls, stabbing and shooting the castle defenders. She grabbed Emily by the shoulders and said, “I heard one of them asking where you were!”
“They knew my name?”
“They said, ‘the girl who’s alive.’”
“Where can I hide?”
JoJo asked Marie, “Can we get to the dungeon?”
Marie thought not but JoJo insisted they try.
The three of them made it down one flight of steps where the other women were in a state of panic, huddled and crying. Emily wanted to take them to safety but JoJo told her she was crazy and pulled her down the stairs to the bailey where chaos reigned. By the light of orange torches, men were visible yelling in rage and fear. Steel blades clanged and arrows sliced the air, thudding into flesh and smashing into stone.
The bearded soldier from the carriage ride spotted the women and ran across the bailey, hacking his way through invaders until one of them, short and squat, with a low center of gravity, did not fall so easily. This fellow wielded a two-headed axe that he swung at the duke’s man with a terrible ferocity, backing him up several paces. Every time the soldier tried to advance, the axe parried his broadsword blow for blow. One mistimed sweep of the sword left the bearded man off-balance and the squat man capitalized with a downward blow that cleaved his face and turned his beard red. Then, in the blaze of a nearby torch, Emily saw the victor’s face, one eye covered with a leather patch.
The women had no place to go. Their way through the bailey was blocked by Clovis who was now slowly advancing on short, bowed legs. A retreat back to the tower was blocked by a crush of fighting men and writhing, felled bodies.
Clovis pointed his axe at the women and shouted in a guttural tongue Emily could not understand. A cadre of tall men with dark beards appeared from behind him and slowly advanced. Clovis barked orders and all but one of the men began to circle and close like a tightening noose. One of the men seemed to hold back and then, with a rapid, agile dash he was on Marie, taking her head from her shoulders with a flash of his sword. In an instant, Emily and JoJo were bathed in her gushing blood. With one more long stride he pushed Emily aside and raised his sword hand to do the same to JoJo but Emily regained her balance and rushed forward, placing herself between the attacker and her bedmate.
Clovis barked an order causing the tall man to lower his sword. He replied to his master in a German dialect that Emily could understand, “Give me the head of the black one.”
Emily shouted in German, “You’ll have to kill me first.”
Clovis seemed to understand her German but not speak it, because he yelled back in his own language, causing the swordsman to swear and sheath his weapon. Around them, the last of the castle defenders were falling, the bailey grass tessellated with clotting blood and body parts. A ragged cheer rang out when word spread among the attackers that they had won the day.
Emily held her ground, put her arms protectively around JoJo and felt her body quivering. One of the tall men wrested JoJo from her arms and hoisted her onto his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Emily saw to her horror that Marie’s lips were still moving on her severed head. Marie’s attacker lowered his shoulder to lift Emily, and despite her well-placed kick to his groin, managed to pluck her off the ground and place her on a horse. The other soldier did the same with a more compliant JoJo.
“Where are you taking us?” Emily demanded in German.
Clovis let out a sputtering half-laugh and replied in his guttural tongue, “Germania. Barbarossa.”
The attackers tied the women’s wrists. They were made to loop their arms around the horsemen to secure themselves, and with sharp kicks to their flanks, the horses galloped out of the castle Guise with Clovis at the lead.
Emily looked over her shoulder and saw the round tower ablaze and over the pounding of hooves and the whistling of the wind she heard the piteous screams of all the burning women.11
A servant stoked a small fire, more for entertainment than warmth, and left the three men alone. King Henry reclined on a padded divan close to the fire and Cromwell and John sat rather more stiffly in wooden chairs. The privy chamber was off Henry’s bed chamber, a good-sized paneled room with plenty of silver ornaments, a single mediocre painting of a hunting scene, and two lutes resting on a table. Henry ordered wine and the three men sipped from silver goblets.
“I must say, John,” the king said, “I have never seen fighting skills such as yours.”
“I’m out of practice. I’m going to be sore in the morning.”
“Norfolk will be twitching for revenge,” Cromwell said.
Henry nodded gravely. “Then tell him he must not act on his impulses or there will be consequences. John is our valued guest.”
“You mean I won’t have to sleep with one eye open?” John asked.
“With Lady Phoebe in your bed, I doubt you will be sleeping at all,” the king laughed.
John kept his opinion about the gift to himself and said, “You’re a very kind host, Your Majesty.”
Henry took on a reflective look. “You know, you are the first live man I have seen since the day I died. I had forgotten how they looked.”
“I think I look pretty much like everyone here, except people tell me I smell different.”
“I am not talking about your aroma. Nor am I talking about your physical habitus which is common enough. It is your countenance. You do not have the look of despair and hopelessness that denizens of our world possess. You do not look vanquished.”
“I wouldn’t say you look vanquished, sir.”
“Ah,” Henry mused. “’Tis better to be a king in Hell than a common man, I will grant you that, but what I would not give to have eternal rest. I curse an unseen, unheard God a thousand times a day for my cruel fate. The gray, dull days seem like months, the months, years, the years, centuries. One lives in perpetual fear of illness or injury which might set one on a course to an eternity of decrepitude, pain, and rot. I have been thus far fortunate. I am less infirm here as I was before my death because, you see, I am not near as fat as I was, but my old injured leg still ulcers and throbs. There is little in the way of art or music here, as few artists have done deeds to condemn themselves to Hell. I myself had to teach an ignorant carpenter how to make lutes and they do not play near as sweet as my earthly ones. We do not have the comfort of our old religion that we have largely forsaken since without hope of salvation, what is the profit in it? We do not hear the laughter of children or the cry of a baby. Without progeny, why would men toil and cooperate for a better future? Men have but the basest motives: to eat, to sleep, to fornicate and to avoid an eternity of rot and decay. They must be forced to work out of fear and greed, not for any loftier purpose such as the greater good or building some foundation for their children. On Earth, I had subjects. Here, only slaves. It is a dismal place.”
Cromwell nodded and said, “Yet, as his majesty says, it is better to be a king, or in my case a chancellor, than a lowly minion.”
But Henry was clearly wallowing in lamentation and seemed to want to press forward with his sad case.
“Even a king cannot rest easy here. There are dukes and earls who would topple me in my own realm and any number of rival kings of Europa and beyond who would have Brittania for their own, just as I would have their thrones. At this moment the Iberians are moving against us, an invasion by sea. Yesterday it was the French, tomorrow the Germans. Sometimes we defend, other times we attack. Here, there are wars without end. There are shifting alliances but no peace, not for one gentle moment.”
John leaned forward. “Can I ask how you got to power yourself? There must have been other kings before you.”
“Indeed there were. The Yorkist, Edward the Fourth, was last on the throne. When I arrived here, bewildered as I was, I had to go into hiding as a matter of urgency, since Edward knew I would be a rival and he wanted my head. Fortunately, I had an army of Tudor supporters already here, downtrodden by the crown, who rallied to my support. Edward now dwells, headless of course, in a royal rotting room near my London palace at Whitehall. Before Edward, Henry the Second ruled for some four hundred years, supported by his mother, Matilda, who has used her cunning to endear herself to whomever is in power, including me. Before old King Henry, well, there was some other ancient king. And on and on.”
“Only kings become kings?” John asked.
Henry opened his arms in a gesture suggesting that the answer was obvious. “Who knows better how to rule than someone who has been a ruler? Throughout Europa and indeed in lands to the east, most of those who sit upon thrones in Hell are those who sat upon them when they did live.”
John finished his drink and Cromwell rose to refill his goblet and the king’s. The three men sat for a few moments staring at the flames.
“May I tell you something?” Henry said, breaking the silence. “By my own hand I never once killed a man, never harmed a man except in sport or at a joust. And yet here I am alongside an endless sea of murderers and scoundrels. It is a grave injustice but there is no higher authority to hear my appeal.”
John considered what he knew of Henry’s earthly reign. He’d ordered the beheading of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, he’d had countless adversaries, Cromwell included, condemned to the Tower of London where they suffered torture and ritual disemboweling and dismemberment. In his war against the Catholic Church he had scores of priests burned at the stake and in his ruthless pursuit of law and order he’d had over a hundred thousand thieves executed. If he didn’t belong in Hell then who did?
“Someone or something makes the rules, I guess,” was all John chose to say.
“Indeed,” Cromwell said without any evidence of introspection, “I too never had blood on my hands.”
“What of you, John?” Henry asked. “You are a singular oddity. Are you condemned to remain here or do you have the means to return to your land?”
“I certainly hope to return. There are some very smart people back home I’m counting on to get me back. But I’ve got a mission to accomplish first.”
“There is a lady,” Cromwell said.
Henry said, “Ah.”
“Her name is Emily,” John said. “The same forces that sent me here sent her before me. I’m going to find her and I’m going to bring her back with me if it’s humanly possible. That’s why I want to ask you for your help. I’ve been told she’s in France or whatever you call it—Francia—and I need a way to get there. Do you have a ship to take me there?”
Cromwell’s face hardened at the request and Henry stood and began to pace, seemingly deep in thought, plucking a string of a lute as he passed it by before completing a circle and setting himself back down.
“This is no small request, John,” the king said, “though I am favorably disposed to assist you, we must seek an arrangement of mutual benefit.”
“Indeed,” Cromwell repeated, “mutual benefit.”
“I can’t imagine what I can do for you,” John said.
Henry reached over and slapped John on his knee. “You are a soldier. A right able one from what I have seen and heard, most skilled in the art of fighting and warfare. Throughout my realm I have my sweepers and flesh brokers, like Master Wisdom, on the prowl for men with the knowledge to provide me with an advantage over mine enemies. Alas, most men who come here, even those who were men of arms, lack the skills to be of any use. These are difficult times for me, John. My spies in Iberia tell me that their king, Peter of Castile, has prepared his mightiest invasion force yet. His ships outnumber mine and there is talk that he has been able to forge heavier cannon than my own. My daughter, Elizabeth, I have been told time after time,ad nauseum, defeated a Spanish armada and saved her realm, but I have no assurance that I will be able to prevail. So this is the question I must put to you, John. Do you possess the skills to enable me to fashion weapons more powerful than King Peter?”
John thought for a long while and Henry tolerated the silence, waiting expectantly for a response. Then John said, “I’d need to see what capabilities you have but I might, Your Majesty, I just might. And if I can help get you an edge on the battlefield you’ll put a ship at my disposal?”
“It would serve as the basis for a concord,” Cromwell said as Henry flashed a sly, thin smile and nodded emphatically, his forelocks spilling over his forehead.
John was led back to his room by yet another mute retainer. When he entered he saw flickering candles illuminating the chamber and in that small light, a woman asleep in his bed.
“Hello?” he called out.
Phoebe sat up, bare-breasted, and managed a sleepy smile.
“I am sorry. I dozed off.”
She threw back the cover exposing her full nakedness.
He was half-drunk and dog-tired. The drunken side of him said yes but the sober side said no way. He had a mission to accomplish and flings, especially with dead women, weren’t on the agenda.
“Look, Phoebe, I really appreciate the gesture but I’m going to have to decline.”
“Am I not attractive?”
“No, listen, you’re a beautiful woman and all that but I’m exhausted, I’ve got a heck of a toothache and I’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”
“I can pleasure you any way you desire.”
His mind wandered but he pulled it back to Emily. “There was a time in my life I would have definitely said yes, but not tonight.”
She began to cry. “If the king finds out I did not perform my duties I will be severely punished.”
He sat on the bed and put a hand on her shoulder. He hadn’t touched a woman in Hell yet. Her skin was warm and smooth, just like a live woman’s. “Tell you what. No one has to know. You can stay here with me but we’ll just sleep. If the king asks me how you were I’ll tell him you were amazing. Okay?”
She started crying again.
“Isn’t that going to be all right?” he asked.
“Yes, it is good. It is just that no man has treated me with kindness since I came Down.”
He removed his boots and slipped into the narrow bed, spooning her.
“Consider this your night off.”
“If you change your mind, you may enter me as you please.”
“I’m good, sweetheart. The only thing I could use right now is a king-sized bed.”
The next morning food and drink were brought to his room and he left Phoebe behind, peacefully asleep. He was taken down to the river where Cromwell was waiting for him on board one of the royal barges for what proved to be a brief sail downstream to Richmond. During the journey a man he hadn’t seen before approached John with an extended hand and a friendly smile.
“Pleased to meet you,” the ginger-haired man said. “Teddy Beecham at your service.”
“Yeah, I’d say you’re wild, mate. A live bloke in Hell and all that. Fucking marvelous.”
“What’s your story, Teddy?”
Teddy was young and fit. His clothes were a combination of a tattered modern polo shirt, the plastic buttons replaced with wooden ones, and loose-fitting leggings from a much-earlier era.
“Me? One more unhappy soul condemned to a fucking unhappy world.”
“Care to be a bit more specific?”
Teddy, John learned over the next several minutes, had been a soldier with the 3rdBattalion Parachute Regiment during the Falklands War. Returning home lightly wounded and pensioned off, he’d fallen in with some gangsters, Essex boys, as he called them. One tragic fuck-up led to another and,poof, he’d come Down in 1989.
John took to him straight away and they bantered like a couple of comrades in arms who’d known each other for years. Solomon Wisdom had vetted Teddy on his arrival twenty-five years earlier and had shopped him to Cromwell who was always on the lookout for men with soldiering skills.
By his own admission, Teddy brought nothing extraordinary to the table, being as he put it, “a bloke who killed one sorry bastard when he was a civilian and zero as a soldier,” but King Henry valued modern soldiers for the sake of their modernity and employed him in his army.
“I’m supposed to make an assessment of your skills, mate,” Teddy said.
“Prepare to be dazzled.”
They disembarked at the modest river town of Richmond whose residents fled from the road when they saw a contingent of the king’s soldiers marching toward them. Cromwell told John they had but a short walk and as they tramped up a hilly meadow, John saw they were following a small tributary of the river, headed toward the source of a column of black smoke billowing into the dull sky.
In time, the source of the smoke became apparent, a tall chimney rising over a squat brick building the size of a large barn. To one side of the building was a mountain of cut and stacked wood.
“The king’s forge,” Cromwell said proudly. “The finest in the land.”
“Let’s have a look,” John said.
Teddy entered the forge and emerged with a giant of a man, bare to the waist, his wet skin blackened with soot. His first reaction at the sight of Cromwell was obvious consternation, as if searching his mind for what he might have done to warrant a visit from the king’s henchman.
Cromwell put him at ease by saying, “Master forger William, I have brought a special visitor to examine your forge. He possesses knowledge that might be of use to the king.”
William nodded and managed a smile. John extended his hand and William sniffed at him while shaking it.
“Yeah, I’m not from here,” John said. “It’s a long story. My name’s John.”
“Indeed it must be a long story,” William said. “Very well, John who is not from here, come along and I will show you how we make things.”
It was hot inside, very hot.
The massive furnace had a raging, orange core fed by an enormous leather bellows. It was as if John had found the hellfire at the center of this dark land. He had to shield his eyes to look at the flames and in an instant his clothes became damp from sweat. The handle of the bellows was a beam, half the length of the forge, which a team of near naked, blackened and drenched men pulled down on ropes against a tension bar that raised the beam up again.
The forge was crawling with sweaty workers with hard, immobile faces, ferrying ingots around with tongs and beating out metal on huge anvils, their hammering producing a deafening and unnerving racket. In their automaton-like movements they more resembled a conga line of ants than men. Despite the heat, John shuddered at the sight of the place. The clanging was so loud that William had to order the smithies to stop so he could speak to John. The men immediately dropped to their haunches, panting like over-worked farm animals.
“Well, John, who is not from here, do you know anything of iron forging?”
“A little,” John said, wiping his brow.
“And why is that?”
“I studied the history of weaponry at school. Before that I had an interest because my father was a gunsmith and my brother’s one too.”
William patted Teddy on the shoulder and said, “I have heard tales from recent arrivals, like Master Beecham, that your weapons have become quite fancy and unimaginably powerful. I, myself, departed from life in 1701, so my methods are more primitive than yours, I expect.”
“You were a forger?”
“Aye, a good one too, in the service of King William the Third, a master smith in the royal ordnance works. I lived by the fire and died by the fire.”
“How do you mean?”
“I did some deeds which were not best appreciated and got my comeuppance by getting shoved alive into my own furnace. Fortunately it was good and hot so I did not suffer long.”
“Tough way to go.”
“It was indeed. The good thing for me was that King Henry recognized my talents and though one’s existence is, to be sure, hellish, I am better off than most as my skills are valued. But you have not suffered the passage of death, have you, John, who is not from here?”
“As far as I know, I’m still alive.”
“Remarkable but I’m sure it is beyond my ken. Now, what do you wish to see?”
John looked around the forge and settled on a short-stack of cannon barrels, the largest of which were twelve feet long. He sauntered over and ran his hand over the rough surface of one.
“Iron, not bronze,” he said.
“We have abundant iron ore in the king’s mines to the west and no shortage of forestland for our charcoal.”
“Forty-two,” William said.
John whistled his appreciation. “They’re all muzzleloaders. There are a lot of advantages to breechloaders including better range and accuracy. Can you make them?”
“I know of them but they were after my time. I stick to what I do best.”
John peered down a barrel and asked for light. Teddy brought over a torch.
“These are smooth-bored, aren’t they?” John asked.
“Aye,” William replied.
“Do you know anything about rifling?”
“Again, the practice came after my day but I have learned of it and have tried my hand.”
“With any success?”
“Good success on rifle and pistol barrels but far more modest results on cannon barrels. I have been able to lathe shallow grooves for cone-shaped shot on my four-pounders but the king presses me for ever larger cannon with greater range for his land mounts and seagoing vessels.”
“What’s your best range?”
“I would say point blank, some three hundred yards with my forty-two pounders. At an elevation, perhaps a thousand yards.”
“What would you say if I could teach you how to send a shot over three thousand yards with improved accuracy?”
William waved his arms dismissively. “I do not have the time or the skill to make breech loaders. I have considered the proposition in the past and have rejected it.”
Teddy interjected, “It would be like teaching a monkey how to fly an airplane.”
William clearly didn’t understand or appreciate the comparison and shot Teddy a dirty look.
“I agree it would be difficult,” John said. “Casting the breech pieces would be tricky, building up the bore tubes, getting the shells constructed to the tight tolerances you’d need—these are all tough challenges. I don’t think I could help you figure all that stuff out. What I’m talking about is making use of your existing muzzleloaders.”
Cromwell had been standing at a distance, letting the three men talk, but when he heard this he shuffled forward on his small feet and said, “How? How is this possible?”
“Do you have pen and paper?” John asked.
“Paper is too dear for the likes of me,” William said. “I’ll fetch parchment and quill.”
Armed with writing implements, John left the forge for the cooler outdoors and sat on the grass, dunking a quill into ink. He heard the clanging resume inside. While Cromwell, William, and Teddy watched he drew schematics depicting the cross section of a cannon barrel and a conical-shaped projectile. When he was done he stood and explained that in the mid-nineteenth century, a French general named La Hitte invented a muzzleloading cannon with the first effective system of rifling for improved distance and accuracy. The conical projectile had a series of lugs welded to the surface, set at an angle, and the lugs fit snugly into grooves of the same diameter, rifled in a spiral into the cannon barrel.
Cromwell was left scratching his head but William took to the design immediately and began spouting ideas how he might re-fire and lathe the grooves into barrels he’d already forged, and how he could cast the projectiles and heat-weld lugs onto them.
“You can make the shot solid or hollowed out, loaded with grapeshot,” John said.
Cromwell piped up, “We have need of holing and sinking Iberian ships.”
“Then you’ll want them solid,” John said.
“How long will it take to fashion a weapon and shot?” Cromwell asked William.
“Perhaps three days if I devote the forge to the task.”
“You have one day,” Cromwell said.
“A tall order, your grace.”
“The Iberians will arrive on our shores sooner than any of us would desire. If you wish to keep your head then you have one day. John Camp will stay here to assist you. I will return tomorrow with the king and will expect to see a shot being hurled a prodigious distance.”
When Cromwell withdrew, William shook his head and said, “I have managed to survive here for a very long time and because of you, my alive friend, I will probably spend eternity in a rotting room.”
“I’d say you’re buggered,” Teddy said.
“Is that going to be your expert opinion?” John asked him.
“I’ll tell Cromwell that the proof will be in the pudding. I fancy keeping my head too.”
“Let me ask you something,” John said. “I can’t be the first person in Hell who knew how to make a La Hitte cannon. Your weaponry looks like it’s stuck in the eighteenth century.”
“Believe me, mate, you’re not the first bloke to make that observation,” Teddy said. “Look at it this way. Modern soldiers like you or me know all about using modern weapons—automatic rifles, heat-seeking missiles, even fucking nuclear bombs, but knowing about them and building them are different kettles of fish, aren’t they? To build something new or improve on an older design, you’ve got to get the right geezer coming to Hell with the right skills at the right time, keeping in mind that the best and the brightest who know the most useful things, well then, they aren’t the scumbags who get sent to this fair land of ours. But assuming there’s a geezer who’s got the right skills, he’s got to survive his first few days or weeks here without getting carved up by some filthy bastard and he’s got to get hooked up with someone like William who can turn his knowledge into something practical. You can’t teach William how to make an Exocet missile because there’s too much technology that hasn’t been invented yet.”
“But I can teach him how to make a La Hitte cannon.”
“Yeah, well, that’s fucking amazing to me that a modern bloke knows fuck all about a nineteenth-century cannon. More power to you. But what I’m saying is that maybe there was a window of time, maybe ten years, twenty, thirty tops, that a geezer would have come to Hell with the knowledge about your La Hitte gizmos before technology on Earth moved on and the knowledge was lost. Get my drift?”
“I see your point.”
With a wave Teddy was off. “I’ll leave you lads to it, then. I’ve got a nice bed back at the palace and if I’m lucky I’ll find someone who’s female and not excessively hideous to give me a shag. See you tomorrow.”
“We can do this, William,” John said when they were alone. “You’ve got to divide your men into four teams, one to make a bore lathe, one to fire and cut the barrel, one to cast the shells, and one to cast the lugs. I’ll cut the templates out of parchment and try to figure out how many twists of rifling you’re going to need inside the barrel.”
“Even if we can accomplish these tasks, there is a chance the barrels will explode once they have been weakened by grooving. Even my best barrels are prone to this fate.”
“My wrought iron is more apt to fracture than I would like.”
“You say your source of iron ore is mines from the west of the country?”
“Well, that’s your problem. Assuming it’s the same here as on Earth, English iron ore has too much phosphorous which makes the iron brittle. Two men, Bessemer and Gilchrist, figured out ways to make good quality steel for cannon in the nineteenth century but it involves super-hot furnaces and large steam engines. The easiest way for you to solve that problem is to use Swedish iron ore, assuming again that it’s the same as on Earth. It’s got the lowest phosphorous content in Europe but that’s not going to help us today. I’d recommend we rifle the biggest barrel you’ve got and hope it holds. If we’ve got time, maybe we could add some external banding around the barrel. Might as well have a fifth team work on bands.”
“I will remember what you have said about ore from the Norselands,” William said, rubbing at his neck then clamping a huge arm around John’s shoulder. “Come, let us begin our labor. I would dearly hate for this to be my last day with a head attached to the rest of me.”
It was after midnight. If there was a moon, John couldn’t see it because the thick shroud of clouds never seemed to shift. He suspected it was there because the night sky was only medium-gray. He was slumped outside the forge, bone-tired and hot, taking a short break. The air was fouled by smoke belching from the chimney. William had given him some bread and he sipped cool water from a skin. The work was proceeding in fits and starts. The molds for the shells had come out well and the first castings were being done. The barrel cutting was not as satisfactory. They’d already ruined two cannon and William was just about to start on a third.
The banging and clanging from inside the forge assaulted his ears but there was another sound which made him tense up, the neighing of a horse. He stood, looked around and picked up a scrap of iron lying in the grass as a weapon. A man emerged from behind the building leading a horse by the bridle. The furnace was casting orange light through the door of the forge and when the man stepped into the shaft of light John saw him put a finger to his lips. It was Guacci, the Italian ambassador.
“We must talk,” Guacci said.
“How’d you know I was here?”
“It is my job to know these things. Please, let us walk to the river. You can trust me.”
His voice was reassuring and John decided to follow his instincts. With the horse in tow, they tramped down toward the tributary until the sound of flowing water was louder than the beating of iron.
“What do you want?” John asked.
Guacci had long hair that was tied back with a ribbon. He wore a Renaissance-style robe over leggings and boots.
“I want to tell you that the lady you seek is in Francia.”
“I already know that.”
“Do you know her circumstances?”
“I was told she’s with someone named Guise.”
“That is true. Do you know where she is? Do you know how to reach her?”
“No, but I’m going to find out.”
“It will not be so easy for you.”
“Nothing about this is easy. But if I don’t succeed, I swear to you, I’ll die trying.”
“I want to help you. I have good knowledge of the Duke of Guise. With my help you have a better chance of finding her. Do you know how the duke came to have her?”
“It is because Solomon Wisdom sold her to the duke’s spy in Brittania.”
He’d had his suspicions but with confirmation he seethed, “That son-of-a-bitch. I’ll cut him in two.”
“It should serve as a lesson that one must not easily trust others in Hell.”
“You just asked me to trust you. Why should I?”
“I will be completely honest with you, John. I believe you may be able to help us, so if I help you then perhaps you will be favorably inclined to lend your assistance.”
“Who’s us? The king of Italy, whoever that is?”
“The king of Italia is a man named Cesare Borgia. Have you heard of him?”
John laughed. “Yeah, he’s pretty well known in history as a twisted fuck.”
“I do not know this meaning. He is a terror, worse in many ways than King Henry. Both are ruthless but Borgia is cruel for the sake of cruelty. I served him in life and for all appearances I serve him now as an ambassador. But in truth, I serve another.”
“I will not tell you this now. My safety and his depends on this confidence.”
“How do you think I can help you?”
“I have seen you are a very skilled and intelligent man. Your work here is evidence of that.”
“You know what I’m doing?”
“The court has many mouths and the court has many ears.”
“We’ll have until tomorrow to see how skilled I am.”
“It is more than your skills that interest me. You are the first man to come to Hell who is not condemned here for eternity. You can make decisions based on more than the rank emotions of greed and fear. You can decide to act from altruism. If and when you meet my master I think you might choose to help our cause.”
“What cause is that?”
“I will say no more about this. For tonight I only wish to tell you of the plans of King Henry to kill you if your new cannon fails and to deceive you if it succeeds. Will you listen to my proposal to thwart Henry and rescue your lady from the Duke of Guise?”
John thought for a few moments listening to the river gurgling, then replied, “Yeah, I’ll listen.”
It was the brightest day since John arrived, the sky the color of an inferior pearl. A worker ran into the forge to tell William that he’d spotted the royal barge approaching downriver just as men were winching the one, successfully rifled cannon onto its carriage.
“Secure it and wheel it out,” William told his foreman.
John had a second wind and was sorting through the dozen shells they had cast, picking the ones with the smoothest lugs and filing off burrs with his own hands.
“Do you think it will fire?” William said.
“I don’t know. I hope so. We’ll find out soon enough.”
“Aye, we will. Win or lose, it was an honor to share your labor this night.”
“You’re a good man, William.”
“You mean for a Heller?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The cannon was out in the open air when Henry, Cromwell, Norfolk and their entourage arrived from the river on horse and on foot. Teddy trotted ahead and approached.
“How’d you get on, mate?” he asked John.
“We’ll see. The proof’s in the pudding, right? How’d you do last night?”
“No luck. Went to bed on my onesies.”
Henry arrived, dismounted from his horse and went straight for the weapon to inspect it.
“It appears no different from any of my fixtures,” he said angrily.
“It’s the same outside except for these reinforcement bands,” John said. “The difference is on the inside.”
He explained the La Hitte system, showed him the conical, lugged shells, and had him peer into the barrel. While Henry was doing this John noticed that Norfolk had a silver chain that disappeared into a small pocket of his uniform jacket. It looked like a watch chain and his suspicions were confirmed when Norfolk pulled out a pocket watch and opened the cover to check the time of day.
“You say it can launch one of these missiles three thousand yards?” the king said.
John was paying more attention to the watch than the question and Henry irritably repeated it.
“I hope so,” John said. “We haven’t even fired it yet and you didn’t give us much time to work out the kinks.”
The fires visible through the forge door reflected off Henry’s eyes. “If it fails to meet my expectations there will be blood spilled today.”
“Great,” John said. “That’s very motivational.”
The king looked at him querulously, as if unsure whether he’d heard a compliment. Then he pointed down the hill toward the Richmond settlement and said, “Do you see that cluster of four houses, off together? My men have paced off the distance. It is some three thousand yards from here. That is your target.”
“Are there people down there?”
“Cromwell, are there people in those dwellings?” the king asked.
“I should think so, Your Majesty.”
“Then let’s aim somewhere else,” John said.
“No,” Henry said. He called for wine, and then added, “Aim where I have told you. Proceed.”
John sauntered back toward William and whispered for him to add another pound or two of powder to the charge.
“I am already worried the cannon will split,” William whispered back.
“We’ve added good banding along the entire length of the barrel. A bit more powder probably won’t make a difference. It’s either going to blow up or it isn’t. Just make sure no one’s standing near it when it’s fired.”
A field throne was set down for Henry while William and John readied the cannon. The piece was primed with a generous bag of black powder and tamped. The best shell of the bunch was placed in the muzzle and twisted down the grooves with a rod John designed to screw it into place. When it was fully seated the shell was packed in place with wadding. The cannon was elevated to forty-five degrees with levers and chucks while William and John debated the aiming point. Workmen pulled and pushed the weapon until they were satisfied. Then William placed a charge through the touchhole and called for one of his men to bring a lit torch from the forge. He took it and asked the king if he was ready. With a royal nod, they were set.
“Light it and run,” John said.
“I will not run. Better to be blown to smithereens by my own machine than have my head severed with a blunt knife.”
It seemed to take a long time for the main charge to light, but it was really only a couple of seconds.
First there was a deafening boom, then a high-pitched whistling noise as the shell spiraled and arced through the air. John tried to track the trajectory of the projectile but he lost it in the white sky. He trained his eyes on the four houses and held his breath. Suddenly, there was a massive splash in the Thames and water spouted into the air a good hundred yards beyond the houses.
William was jumping up and down, yelping in relief, crying out, “That is more than three thousand yards. We did it! We did it!”
Henry was standing, raising his fist in triumph, and striding over to John.
“You achieved the objective, John Camp. Your aim was off but you did what you set out to do.”
“Credit goes to William, Your Majesty. I don’t know any modern smithy who could have pulled this off in a single day with the tools William had.”
“Excellent, excellent. Cromwell, see to it that William the forger has a new house and give him one of the women at my court. Not a comely wench, but not a hag either.”
Teddy saw an opportunity and went for it. “What about me, Your Majesty?” he asked. “I had a hand in it too.”
Cromwell answered for the king. “All you told us was that the proof was in the pudding. For that contribution you might get a pudding. And you might keep your head.”
William wiped the sweat from his brow with a rag and smiled at John. Just then a rider approached, coming up the hill at a full gallop. He dismounted and passed a note to the captain of the guard who ran it to Cromwell.
“It is a telegraph message,” Cromwell announced. “Please give me some moments to decipher its meaning.”
“Hurry!” Henry commanded, beginning to pace in anticipation. “You know, John, even after a century I still find this Morse code unfathomable. When I first heard of it I thought it was a Moors Code and I asked what possible use would King Selim have for such an instrument.”
Finally, Cromwell announced that he had it and read out a message that the Spanish fleet had been spotted approaching the Isle of Wight.
Henry boomed, “Then we must make ready. Our spies have told us that they plan to anchor off Southend and send their troops to London on barges. How many more cannon can you have for me tomorrow, forger William?”
William’s smile wiped clean away.
“Perhaps one more, Your Majesty.”
“At dawn tomorrow, I want three of these singing cannon on barges with plenty of shot. John, you will place two on the shore and one on my flagship and you will help me defeat the Iberians once and for all.”
“And then you’ll give me a ship?”
“Then you will have whatever you desire!”12
Woodbourne had never really thought about why it took him less time to strangle a man than a woman.
It was night. Earlier he had tied the Frasers to their beds, putting Adele in the master bedroom and Des in the guest room, each with a tea towel stuffed into the mouth. He went downstairs to the lounge where he fell asleep with the TV on. When he awoke in the middle of the night he drank the last beer in the house, went to the master bedroom with two of his kitchen knives and turned on the light.
Des was awake, straining against his ropes. Woodbourne sat on the bed and watched the man, the way a twisted boy might watch a bug he had spiked with a nail. Des seemed to sense what was coming because he began bucking and trying hard to expel the gag. Woodbourne waited until he had tired himself out then slowly reached for his neck. He started gently, almost languidly, as if he wasn’t wholly committed to the enterprise and Des looked puzzled at first about his intention, but as his grip intensified and the airflow became compromised, Des’s eyes became wild and he started bucking again. Woodbourne, as if irritated by the thrashing, squeezed much harder and his hands began to shake from the exertion. Finally, Des stopped struggling and Woodbourne paused to uncramp his hands before clamping down again for another half minute for good measure. Then he slit his throat, picked up the knives and moved to the guest room.
The light from the hall showed Adele’s terrified face well enough that he left the lights off.
“It’s your turn.”
She seemed resigned to her fate and lay there quietly, only shaking. As he pressed down on her larynx ever so gently with his thumbs, it dawned on him why women lasted longer. He didn’t squeeze as hard because he savored it more. So he played with her the way a cat plays with a mouse before the final snap of its jaws, tightening and relaxing, tightening and relaxing. And when he had milked the experience for all it was worth, he let go, allowing her face to return from purple to pink, then plunged the larger knife into her heart and the paring knife into her throat.
Downstairs, he washed the blood off the knives, changed into a clean set of Des’s clothes and shoes, and checked the dark street through parted curtains. It was time to move. He didn’t know where he was going but someone would find him if he stayed in this house much longer. Outside, he climbed into Des’s car and drove off into the still night.
Quint was kept waiting in Secretary Smithwick’s ante-room at Whitehall like a naughty boy summoned to the headmaster’s office. Finally, two men, the minister of state for energy and the department’s permanent secretary, left her room and eyed Quint the way one might treat a bloated fish washed up on shore. Smithwick appeared at the door, invited him in, and dispensed with pleasantries.
“Give me a status report,” she said curtly, settling in behind her desk. “I need to brief the PM in an hour.”
Quint had wondered why he’d been asked to come to London in person and concluded that it was merely a show of dominance. A phone call would have sufficed.
“We are two days away from our first MAAC restart since sending Camp across,” he said. “Operationally, the collider is functioning properly so I don’t anticipate any mechanical problems. Of course, we have no idea whatsoever whether Camp is alive and well or whether he’s had any success in locating Dr. Loughty.”
“Yes, well, but what of the matters under our control? What of the search for Woodbourne? What does your Mr. Jones say?”
“There’s been no progress. The trail seems to have gone cold.”
“And if, in two days time, you haven’t found him, what then?”
“We’ll put the young man, Duck, on the mark and see what happens.”
“That doesn’t sound comforting or even vaguely scientific, Dr. Quint: you’ll see what happens.”
“I don’t know what else to say. We’re in uncharted territory. Our assessment, based on what we know is that there are several possible scenarios. If Camp and Loughty are both on their corresponding marks, then without Woodbourne, perhaps only one of them is exchanged for Duck. If neither of them is there, then maybe Duck goes back or maybe he stays here. If some other resident of the parallel space happens to be on the mark, maybe he switches with Duck. There are too many unknowns.”
While he spoke he was aware that she kept tilting her head up and down as if she was deliberately trying to blur his image through her bifocals.
“You know,” she said, “my predecessor was dead against having you in this position and I agreed with him. We should have had a British head on British soil.”
“Eighty-five percent of the funding has come from Washington.”
“Nevertheless. My reservations have come home to roost. Your actions have been deplorable and injurious. You behaved like a cowboy. A British chief would never have taken the decision to exceed the energy specifications on his own. I want your resignation.”
“I think that would be unwise, Madam Secretary, particularly at this critical time.”
“I have little interest in your opinion. What I want from you today is your undated letter of resignation. I will place it in my desk and use it at a time of my choosing, perhaps as early as two days from now, when the experiment has been repeated.”
Quint’s face flushed with anger.
“Whether or not you’re interested in my opinion I’m going to give it to you. What happened was completely unanticipated and if it hadn’t happened now, it would have in two years when Hercules II ran. And guess what? There’s powerful preliminary data to suggest we’ve found the graviton, which was the first major program goal of MAAC. So I’d say I saved the project a hundred million dollars getting to an answer faster.”
Her voice rising, she replied, “That’s simply not the way I see it, not the way Leroy Bitterman sees it and most importantly, not the way the prime minister sees it!”
Quint folded a hand pensively under his chin. “The last thing you need is a loose cannon rolling around your decks. So far there’s been a tight lid on what happened in Dartford. What do you think the public’s reaction would be if it got out that your supercollider, which has been the source of so muchSturm und Drangin the tabloids, for creating anomalies like mini-black holes that will suck up the Earth? What would happen if people found out that we’d opened up a channel straight to a hellish other world? How do you think the prime minister would enjoy that press conference?”
“Are you threatening me?” she asked angrily.
He parried her fury with a wry smile. “I’m only telling you that it might make an abundance of sense to keep me on the payroll. And I’m also telling you, with all due respect, that you ought to be scrapping plans for the merger with the Swiss. With the discovery of the graviton, I think we’ve demonstrated that scientifically, MAAC can stand on its own and that I can remain at its helm.”
Duck was having a good day.
After a full cooked breakfast of fried eggs, fried bread, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, and three rashers of bacon he had brief interviews with a psychologist, a linguist, and an historian. Then, when he was returned to his room he was treated to a DVD ofToy Storythat he watched with rapt attention, hardly moving a muscle for ninety minutes. When he was done he asked his MI5 minder whether the characters in the video were real. Delia was a middle-aged analyst the psychologist had recommended for the assignment, the idea being to set him at ease with a maternal presence.
“Maternal, am I?” she had asked after asserting she hadn’t a maternal bone in her body. But with her hair pulled back in a sensible bun, her cardigan sweaters, her flat-soled shoes, and her ample hips, she was indeed something of an archetypal mother figure.
Delia patiently explained that the characters were animations but Duck refused to believe it. She let the matter lie. Lunch was a large pepperoni pizza that he consumed with a liter of Pepsi. Smiling, he flopped on his duvet for a post-prandial nap but was interrupted by Trevor’s arrival.
“How’re you doing, mate?”
“What’s that belly timber called again?” Duck asked, pointing to the greasy box.
“Pizza. Like it, did you?”
“I like pizza. Can I ’ave it for me next victuals too?”
“I don’t see why not. No shortage of pizza round here.” He had Duck’s expanding interview file and leafed through it in front of the yawning lad. “So, listen, I can see you’re sleepy and all but I want to ask you a few more questions about Brandon Woodbourne.”
“I told you, didn’t I? ’E’s a right captain-’ackun.”
“Don’t know that term.”
“You know, a stall-whimper.”
“You mean a bully? A bastard? A killer?”
“Yeah, all that, excepting of course a killer, ’cause you can’t kill no one in ’ell, can you?”
“But you can hurt people, right?” Trevor asked.
Duck nodded. “Believe you me.”
“Have you seen him hurt people?”
“No, but I ’eard tell. ’E likes ’is knives, I’ ear. And ’es a strangling sort. When ’e’s put you away, ’e’s apt to filch what you’ve got.”
“And you’ve never seen him do these things because he doesn’t live in your village?”
“Right you are. ’E’s got no fixed place. ’E wanders about, like I said. But not with others. ’Es a lone wolf, ’e is.”
“From what you’ve heard, does he like to attack men or women?”
“Not many women in Down.”
“Did you ever have a conversation with him?”
Duck fluffed his pillow as he thought in preparation for his nap. “Yeah, maybe one time, if I do recall.”
“What was it about?”
“’E was passing by our cottage one day while me brother and me was killing a chicken in the road. ’E said ’e wanted some cause ’e was ‘ungry. Well, I rushed inside and told ’im through the shutters to sod off and leave us be but Dirk ’acked it in two and tossed ’alf to ’im, ’cause to be ’onest, ’e was scared ’e’d come after us. So ’e swears at me and tells me ’e’ll get me one day, but says to Dirk that the last time someone was good to ’im was when ’e was alive and a woman with yellow hair was so kind to ’im ’e didn’t kill ’er. Imagine that? ’E would ’ave crashed ’er without two thoughts if she was a scab.”
Delia knocked then entered and Duck cheerfully let Trevor know that she was a kind woman too.
She took the compliment with a thin smile and whispered to Trevor, “I just took a call for you from the Kent Police. They want you at an address in Crayford.”
“Bodies. They think Woodbourne was there.”
When Des and Adele’s son returned from his business trip he stopped by his parents’ house because he hadn’t heard from them since their return from Australia. He used his key and fainted dead away at the carnage. When he recovered he rang the police who sealed the place off and contacted Trevor.
Ben Wellington arrived soon after Trevor, accompanied by an MI5 forensics team who dusted for prints and did a laptop field identification. The murdered journalist’s car was tucked away in the garage. It came as little surprise that multiple prints matched Woodbourne. Trevor and Ben donned booties and went to the bedrooms for a look. Both husband and wife had signs of manual strangulation and deep knife wounds.
“Chokes them first, then finishes them,” Trevor said. “Seems to like it both ways.”
Ben looked a bit wobbly. His line of work was managerial, bloodless. “Just like the journalist.”
“He’s predictable,” Trevor said.
Ben turned away from Adele’s bound and bloody body and made for the door. “According to their son, the family car’s gone missing. We’ve got the details and the police are putting them out.”
Trevor said, “He’s going to keep to this pattern. He’ll find an empty place, break in and hole up. If these people hadn’t come back from their hols then he’d probably have only stayed till the food ran out.”
They headed down the stairs.
“He could be anywhere,” Ben said.
“I think we ought to put the car description and his picture out there to enlist the help of the public.”
“I and my superiors are hesitant to go public with his photo.”
“We’re always going to be a step behind him if we don’t.”
“I don’t have to tell you how sensitive this is.”
“Christ, Ben, we don’t have to tell people he’s dead, do we? And we don’t have to release his name. No one’s going to be able to figure out the particulars.”
Ben peeled off his booties and went outside, gulping at the fresh air. “All right, let me run it up the flag pole again.”
Woodbourne had arrived in London near four a.m. when the city was as still and quiet as it ever got. Driving in the darkness from the east on lonely roads he could only catch glimpses at how much the it had changed from his time, and he never made it far enough west to see the skyscrapers of the City or new landmarks like the London Eye. In truth, Hackney was one of the boroughs that hadn’t gentrified quite as much as others and driving around Shoreditch had a distinct air of familiarity. He was born and had died in Kent and had spent most of his life in and around Dartford, but his happiest time was a one-year stretch in his late thirties spent in a bed-sit in Shoreditch.
He’d already killed seven women and three men in Kent by the time he answered an ad for the Shoreditch rental, and there would be five more victims before he was caught, tried, and hanged. Moving to London was his way of laying low for a spell, a good distance from the scenes of his crimes but close enough to his elderly mother in Crayford if she fell ill. The cold-water flat he had rented was on an alley of a street called Glebe Road and there, one door down, he had met Sarah.
He drove down Kingsland Road past shuttered stores and cafes and the scraggly trees like exclamation points, punctuating the concrete sidewalks. He was confused at the lack of recognizable landmarks but turning onto the narrowness of Glebe Road seemed as natural as breathing. The street was twisty and claustrophobic with low, grotty apartments and commercial studios on one side and an ugly brick railway wall on the other. He had always liked that squeezed-in feeling then and he liked it now; it always seemed a good place to hide away. The building that had been his was three stories of dirty tan bricks with chicken wire and bars on the street-level windows.
He drove around looking for a place to ditch the car and found an industrial site on Clarissa Street where he left the keys in the ignition, hoping it would be stolen. Then he took his tote bag with some of Des’s clothes and his knives and walked the mile and a half back to Glebe Road where he lurked in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to knock. He didn’t have a long time to make a move, maybe two more hours until dawn broke. He needed a new place to hide. He wanted a woman. He’d kill for a smoke. The latter two desires hadn’t been accommodated since arriving. He could have had Adele, he supposed, but in his day he’d only taken young, attractive women and he couldn’t bring himself to shag a fat old lady. He knew plenty of blokes who were indiscriminate, especially blokes in Hell who’d have a hag if they couldn’t find a younger woman and would take a weaker man if they couldn’t find a hag. But he wasn’t one of them. Better to wank off. The woman he carjacked was plenty nice but he didn’t have the time for her. And none of the people he’d encountered had cigarettes. It wasn’t as if he still had nicotine cravings after all these years, but his fond remembrance of the toasty smell and taste was driving him mad.
He waited an hour. It began to rain. He was just about to try to pry open the door of his old building with one of his knives when he heard footsteps. He saw a woman with an umbrella walking toward him and he pressed himself into a dark doorway. She passed by, seemingly unaware of him and reached into her handbag for her keys.
The woman put a key in the lock of the entrance to his old building and he quickly came up behind her.
“Don’t say anything, don’t scream or nothing. I’ve got a gun.”
The umbrella slipped from her hand and it was then he saw she was young and blonde.
“Please, don’t hurt me mister.” It was a pleading tone, an Eastern European accent.
“I’m coming in, right behind you. I won’t hurt you if you behave.”
She was crying softly but compliant. He stooped for the umbrella, closed it and followed her in.
“Which one’s yours?”
“All right, let’s go.”
“What do you want?”
The stairway looked the same, like it hadn’t been painted since the war. In life, he’d never seen the second-floor flat but he’d heard enough footsteps on his ceiling. She trembled as she unlocked her door and kept shaking when she stood in the middle of her tiny sitting room/kitchen. He closed the door behind him, latched it and tossed his bag and her brolly on a chair. Then he shoved the gun in his pants pocket.
“Where’re you from?” he asked.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her blonde hair. “You’re not English. Where’re you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“In office, as cleaner.”
“That where you’re coming from?”
“I get it. You start your cleaning when they’ve packed up for the day, am I right?”
He picked up a fleeting glance at an interior door and fished out the gun again.
“No, is only my little girl. Please.”
“How old is she?”
“You leave her alone at night?”
“What can I do? I must work.”
“Can’t you leave her with no one?”
“The lady downstairs knows she’s here if there is emergency like fire.”
“Oh. You got any fags?”
“Fags. Ciggies, cigarettes.”
She asked if she could open her handbag. He seemed to like that. She was going to be easy to handle. She had half a pack but he was stymied by her plastic lighter and had to ask her how to work it. His inability seemed to lessen her fear a notch.
“Never use lighter?”
He took the deepest drag possible. The nicotine flooded his brain. “Not this kind.”
She asked to sit down on her ratty sofa and he nodded at her. The sofa had bedding piled on one end. It was where she slept. “You going to rape me?”
“I’d like a good shag but no.”
“I don’t know. I need a place to stay.”
“Not a good place. My boyfriend will come soon.”
He looked around. In the absence of a closet or wardrobe her clothes were on a rack against one wall with the shoes underneath. None of the items were a bloke’s. Against her whispered objections, he quietly opened the bedroom door to look at the sleeping child in the windowless room, stared for a while, and then closed it again. Then he pushed against the partially open bathroom door and seeing no razor or male things, said, “I don’t think you’ve got a boyfriend. What’s your name?”
“What’s your daughter called?”
“English name, that. Father English?”
“He pissed off on you?”
“You’ve got pretty hair.”
The comment seemed to put her on high alert again and she abruptly changed the subject. “You been sleeping rough?”
She wrinkled her nose. “You have bad smell.”
“That’s what folks tell me.”
“You can take bath in my tub.”
“So you can take your girl and run out? I don’t think so.”
“If you stay, then use cologne left by husband, so I don’t gag, okay?”
She got up, went into the bathroom and came back with a bottle. He smiled at that, splashed himself liberally and asked, “That better?”
“Then make us a cuppa.”
She put the kettle on and while it was heating she suddenly said, “I saw your picture on TV. I know who you are.”
“Believe me,” Woodbourne said. “You have no bloody idea who I am.”13
John stood just feet from the edge of the cliff surveying an ocean on low boil. The wind was whippy and a cool rain pelted down. Far below him the waves were relentlessly pounding the chalky cliffs. Henry’s fleet was well offshore riding out the storm and from a distance, the large three- and four-masted galleons looked like toys against the dull horizon.
The Duke of Norfolk was strutting about, yelling orders to the wagon-bearers and the carpenters tasked with building the winch towers to move the cannon onto their field carriages. He wanted the two new singing cannon spaced twenty yards apart, pointing southwest in the general direction of the Isle of Wight and the approaching Iberian fleet. Moving these twelve-foot beasts was the least of their problems. Getting the third one, still on its barge at the mouth of the Thames, to Henry’s flagship,Hellfire—that was going to be epic, especially in this weather.
John had last been to Earth’s white cliffs of Dover on a hot, summer afternoon with a thermos of ice-cold vodka and a girl he’d met in a pub near the American embassy. He quickly extinguished all thoughts of that day and began helping William the forger make sure the ammunition was unloaded with care. When that was done he got tired of listening to Norfolk’s blusterings so he took a walk in the grassy meadow. After a while he became aware he was being followed. Finally he turned and pointed at the man and demanded to know what he wanted. The man, a soldier by the looks of his ragtag uniform, raised his arms to show he wasn’t armed. When he was within earshot he politely but firmly asked in an Italian accent for John to follow him.
“Why?” John asked.
“The ambassador,” was all he said.
John accompanied the lone soldier across the boggy field where a long train of English covered wagons stretched into the gloom. Under leaky canvases, Henry’s fighting men were doing their best to stay dry.
The Italian pointed to one particular wagon and peeled off leaving John to approach it on his own. Its rear flaps were closed. He rapped his knuckles against the wooden frame and out popped the head of Ambassador Guacci.
“Ah, John. I hear you made it successfully downriver with your new cannon.”
“You don’t seem to miss much.”
“If I did, I would not be effective in my work. Come inside. I want you to meet your new comrades.”
John climbed in and closed the flap. In the warm, confined space, the concentrated smell of the men, while nothing like the atmosphere of a rotting room, wasn’t pleasant either. There were three others, seated squat-legged on the planked floor of the wagon, chewing on bread and strips of dried meat. Most of the men John had encountered in Hell were lean and hungry types but the man who was quickest to extend a hand seemed remarkably well fed.
“Hallo, there. I’m Simon Wright. True about you, isn’t it?” He had a full face with good color in his cheeks and ample, curly hair.
John took his hand and pumped it. “Hello, Simon. I’m John Camp. Yeah, I’m alive all right.”
Guacci said, “As you can tell, Simon is an Englishman, circa 1900, am I correct?”
“1901 is when I shuffled off the mortal coil. Thirty-six, I was.”
“We are happy Simon joined our cause particularly because he has important skills.”
“I still don’t know what your cause is,” John said.
Guacci smiled. “Patience. Please.”
“I was a boiler maker,” Simon said proudly. “I’ve heard tell my time was later called the industrial revolution. We didn’t know it was a revolution at the time. We thought we was just building things, didn’t we?”
Guacci touched a thin, nervous man on the shoulder. He was the youngest, no more than twenty-five, with sharp, handsome features, a smooth, beardless face, and piercing, steely eyes. His clothing style was the most archaic of the lot—leather leggings, high boots, and a blousy shirt. “This is Antonio Di Costanzo,” Guacci said. “He has been in Hell longer than any of us, some eight hundred years.”
Antonio nodded and quickly looked away. John couldn’t tell if it was shyness or something else.
“Antonio is one of our best fighters and beyond his ability as a swordsman, he is also a clever fellow,” Guacci said.
“Too clever by half,” Simon added.
Guacci picked off a piece of bread and threw it playfully at the last man, who was powerfully built with a Renaissance manner of dress, and a dark, cropped beard, similar to Guacci’s. The man picked up the bread and crunched it with his teeth.
“Luca Penna, at your service,” he said with a very heavy Italian accent.
“Luca,” Guacci said, “is my cousin. We died on the same day, fighting side-by-side, and we continue to do so in this God-forsaken place.”
Luca grinned. “Only he is a fancy ambassador who eats fine food at king’s tables and larks around with big-bosomed women while I have to eat stale bread and hang about with these dogs.”
John said, “Look, I’m pleased to meet you fellows but now would be a good time to tell me what it is you're trying to accomplish.”
“Not yet,” Guacci said. “We need to know we can trust you. We have worked too hard and too long to see our cause destroyed by wagging tongues. But it is clear to me that you are indeed a man who might help in this, shall I call it this mysterious cause of ours? Your fast work on these impressive new cannon is a demonstration. So, I have decided that these men will help you get to Francia.”
“I must return to court where I can best serve our secret master. Luca, Antonio, and Simon will be your companions in your quest to find your lady. I have made the necessary bribes to secure a place for these men on the king’s ship,Hellfire, where you will be installing one of the three singing cannon. When the time is right, you will surely meet our master and then you will know our cause.”
“And do you have a plan that goes beyond that?”
Antonio finally spoke, flashing angry eyes. “Of course we do, signore. Do you think we are stupid?”
John smiled. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know you well enough to say whether you’re stupid or brilliant. Go ahead and tell me your plan so I can figure it out.”
By the time the two field pieces were mounted and pointed, the wind had quieted and the sea becalmed. The king’s fleet began sailing toward Dover on favorable winds and the barge bearing the third cannon began its journey from the estuary to its rendezvous point with the fleet. The wagon train was the first to arrive at the Dover port and several hundred hollow-eyed soldiers and seamen stood on the beach leaning on their pikes, halberts, and archebusers. Beside them were the grounded longboats that would row them to the galleons. Once onboard they would augment the fleet’s fighting force. Most knew full well they would be cannon fodder who might spend eternity at the bottom of the ocean, sucking seawater until the sea life left only their bones.
William pointed out theHellfireand passed John a spyglass. She was the largest of the four-masters with a high square stern and a carved dragon head on the prow. Its flag had the same motif John had seen at Hampton Court, a fire-breathing dragon bursting through a Tudor rose.
“Are you a seagoing man?” William asked John.
“I was in the army but it was a unit that got wet a fair bit.”
“I hate the water,” William said. “Can’t swim a lick. I’ll do my duty getting the piece rigged, then I’ll be off her fast as I can and get myself back to the cliffs.”
“Well, I guess I’m going to get a crash course on pre- twentieth century naval gunnery,” John said. “Someone’s got to teach them how to fire this cannon.”
“Better you than me is all I’ll say.”
The fleet dropped anchor and when the cannon barge came into view the longboats were pushed and heaved into the sea. The Duke of Norfolk strode over and hardly able to contain his animus, ordered William and John to accompany him on his longboat. The king would be arriving to witness the battle from the cliffs and Norfolk would command the fleet against the Iberian fleet, just as the earthly Sir Francis Drake had done on behalf of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth. John waded into the cold water and onto the longboat. He helped pull in William while his new compatriots, Luca, Antonio, and Simon tossed their weapons over the gunwales and climbed in from the port side. Cromwell had returned John’s sword and pistol and he did his best to keep the powder dry. Norfolk was the last to board. He took his place imperiously at the prow and shouted at the oarsmen to push off.
As the longboat neared theHellfireJohn marveled at the oaken vessel. A hundred-fifty feet in length, tall at the stern, it was grand and magnificent. Ladder-nets were lowered from her decks. As the longboat bobbed alongside, the small arms were roped on board then the men took to the ladders. Norfolk was first up. Craning his neck, John saw him greeted by a man he presumed was the captain. John boarded to find the deck crowded with men who seemed to know he was coming because they prodded each other and stared with mouths agape. The master gunner, a wizened fellow with baked skin, recognized William and ignoring John’s notoriety, began showing them the rigging to hoist the new cannon onboard.
The barge finally arrived and the big cannon was secured by ropes and slowly winched up. Swinging gently a few feet above the deck it was lowered through a midship hatch onto the main gunnery deck. John and William climbed down ladders into the dark, cavernous space where twin rows of seventy heavy pieces sat idle and ready, muzzles pressed against latched firing hatches.
The master gunner led them to an empty cradle and said, “Here’s where I thunk the new piece would go. Starboard side, mid-ships.”
“That should suit it well,” William said.
“You staying with her?” the gunner asked.
“Heavens, no. I’m a landlubber. John Camp will stay and teach your lads how to make it sing.”
The gunner scowled at John. “Ever been on a galleon?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
The man showed his opinion by spitting on the deck. “Don’t much like the idea of an ignorant outsider on my gun deck.” He made a point of loudly sniffing at John like a dog.
“You missed my butt,” John said.
The gunner didn’t take it as a joke, at least not one eliciting a laugh. “Outsider’s too small a word to describe the likes a him,” he said.
“This gun’s like no other,” William said. “This man designed it and helped me build it. You’ll need him.”
“Well, here’s your gunnery crew,” the gunner said, pointing at six gaunt men lurking in the shadows. “Teach ’em what they need to know and then stay out of their way.”
“I can do that,” John said.
The cradle was wheeled beneath the dangling cannon and when the piece was lowered into place it was fixed with pins and straps and pulled and pushed to its firing position. When that was done, nets full of the specialized shells were lowered below decks and the ammunition stacked in a wooden rack.
The first mate bellowed at them down the hatch and William happily announced it was time for him to depart.
“You stay out of the way of the recoil, John who is not from here. I should like to see you again.”
“Same goes for you. And don’t stand too close to the cannon. It’s only a matter of time till one of them blows.”
“I know, I know,” William said, grinning. “It’s ore from the Norselands we need.”
John spent the next hour teaching and learning. The master gunner demonstrated how the cannon crew coordinated their activities to fire and reload and John taught the crew of scrawny young men with rotting teeth how to handle and load the lugged shells into the grooved barrel.
“And you say this will send the load three thousand yards?” the gunner asked.
“It will,” John said.
“That I’d like to see.”
When there was no more to do below decks, John went topside. They were underway now, foresail to the wind, tacking west and downwind at an anemic two knots. He looked up at the high, chalky cliffs and saw a man waving both arms near one of the singing cannon. He reckoned it was William and he waved back.
The deck of theHellfirewas a beehive of activity. Sailors were hopping to shouted orders and dozens of musketeers, archebusers and gunners were readying their muzzleloaders, sakers, and swivel-guns. Luca was setting up his musket rest on the port side and John joined him.
“If these cannon do their job you’re never going to be in range to use that musket,” John said.
Luca laughed. “Then I will save my shot for nobler purposes.”
“Where are Antonio and Simon?”
“On the other side, near the front.”
“You mean starboard bow.”
“Whatever you say. I do not know these ships and I do not like these ships. I already heaved up my last meal. I like horses and land.”
“I hear you,” John said. “All I can say is keep your head down. If we survive this, we all know what we have to do.”
He made his way to the stern, and as suspicious sailors and marines moved aside to give him a clear path, he felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. Norfolk was on the tall quarterdeck with a small group of smartly uniformed men. John climbed one of the stairways and, aware of naval protocol, asked for permission to come up.
Norfolk glowered but the tall, rather elegant man beside him said, “By all means, sir. You are welcome. I am Captain Hawes. My good duke is admiral of the fleet butHellfireis my vessel.”
John came up and shook the man’s hand. Hawes was resplendent in a sixteenth-century style naval uniform that on closer inspection was threadbare in places with multiple patches. John looked at the largest patch, breast-high, and wondered if he’d been wearing it when he died.
“What a marvel it is,” the captain said. “To be alive, I mean. I can scarcely remember what it felt like.”
“It has its moments,” John said. Norfolk had moved several paces away, petulantly folding his arms against his chest. “Can I ask you what your plan is, captain?”
“You may indeed. We know full well from the telegraph messages we have received that the Iberians are proceeding swiftly from the east, upwind from their last known location off the Isle of Wight. We should have a sighting within an hour or two, I should think.”
“What size is their fleet?”
“As large as ours, perhaps larger. Some eighty ships with as many as thirty galleons, and the rest galleasses, carracks, and light ships. There might be some eight thousand sailors and marines onboard. Though not trifling, it is a far sight smaller than the Duke of Parma’s armada which attacked my good Queen Elizabeth.”
John blinked in confusion. “You were part of the English victory in—what year was it?”
“It was 1588 and I was indeed part of that action. I was first mate on theBark Talbot, a vessel that was ordered by Lord Howard, our admiral, to be one of the fireships deployed against the armada at the battle of Gravelines. To this day, I regret losing her this way, though the tactics were decisive.”
“Can I ask if you died there?”
“I did not. I survived the campaign, only to perish on land, some years hence, penniless, as we did not receive compensation from the crown for the ship’s taking. Yet the seeds for my coming Down were sown that year when I did strike and kill a lazy cabin boy.”
“And here you are, still fighting the Spanish.”
“That is so. Many times over the seemingly endless centuries. Sometimes we prevail, sometimes, it is they. As new men come to Hell, we may learn some new industry or tactics. We know that you presently have ships of steel and flying machines and weapons of great destructive power but we do not have the means to make these things. Instead, we eke out improvements to what we know, but I am told your singing cannon is a marvel. Let us hope it will lead to fewer casualties among our men.”
“And more on their side.”
The captain nodded gravely. “Such is the nature of war.”
Hawes gave an order to bear four degrees leeward. When he was satisfied at the course correction he let John know they might resume their conversation. John asked a seemingly simple question that once posed, proved to be vexing. “Why are you fighting?”
The captain responded with raised eyebrows, moving John across the quarterdeck out of Norfolk’s earshot. “Why am I fighting? An interesting question. I, myself, am fighting because the duke commands me and the king commands him. Brittania is fighting because that is what kingdoms do, on Earth, as I do recall, and in Hell.”
“Yeah, but here, you’ve got no religious differences with the Iberians or anyone else as far as I can see. That ought to eliminate a lot of conflicts.”
“True, religion is moot in this world as we have no illusions of salvation. We fight for land, we fight for power and for our enemy’s women, and we fight mightily out of fear of conquest and deprivation. We are base creatures, sir, and we behave so. Now, may I ask you a question? I have heard you are here by accident, but why then do you help the king as you have done?”
“I’m looking for a woman who’s also here by accident.”
Hawes sighed. “I have the vague recollection of what love feels like as I still possess the faintest memory of the sun against my face.”
A sailor’s voice pierced the air from his perch on the topsail trestletree. “The Iberians ho!”
“This cannon of yours. Three thousand yards, you say?” the captain said.
“The land-mounted ones. The one below, level-fired, maybe a thousand yards. Hopefully.”
“Hope is in short supply in Hell but I will add my hope to yours.” Hawes bowed and turned to the duke. “Admiral, I await your orders.”
Norfolk blew his nose into a handkerchief and said, “Hold for them. Let them close the range.”
Hawes obeyed and the opposing fleets drew toward one another. John watched the Iberian armada materialize in all its glory and through his spyglass he saw their sailors swarming the decks and riggings.
“Three thousand yards on land and a thousand on sea,” Hawes said to himself, judging the distance between the Iberians and the cliff-mounted cannon and to theHellfire. “Let us form an infernal triangle.” Then he shouted, “Come alee and luff up. All hands to quarter, all hands to quarter!”
Soon the great ship was dead in the water, rolling gently in place and presenting its starboard broadside to the approaching armada. To the east, the assembled English fleet copied Hawes’s maneuvers and held fast. John sidled up to Norfolk and asked him who was commanding the Iberian armada, but Norfolk dismissed him with a backhanded wave and walked to the starboard railing and busied himself with his spyglass.
Hawes beckoned John with a finger and said, “I hear Norfolk is smarting from the thrashing you gave him at court. He is not a man to forgive such a thing. An old adversary, the Duke of Olivares, commands the Iberians. His master is King Pedro who has ruled Iberia with an iron fist for nigh on seven hundred years. During his time on Earth he was called Pedro the Cruel and he has exceeded his reputation here. On this day Olivares will be expecting fireships. He will not be expecting your cannon.”
“You’re letting him come to you.”
“Yes, but he will not think we will stay massed as we are. He will expect a group to try to outflank him and close to three hundred yards, our usual best range. When he sees us standing firm he will scratch his bald head and approach cautiously. He must go through us if he is to enter the estuary.”
“I told William to take out the middle and rear of their fleet. I’d advise you to use theHellfiregun to pound the tip of their spear.”
“I concur and will discuss this with Norfolk. Now, please go below and attend to your cannon. Await my orders and good luck to you, sir.”
On the gun deck the firing hatches on the starboard side were open wide and the crews stood uneasily by their assigned ordnance. John had the crew of his singing cannon pack a powder cartridge and load a shell from the ammunition locker. Then he put some cloth wadding into his ears and stuffed a small piece into the hole in his tooth for good measure. The gun deck was airless, hot, and malodorous. He dropped onto his haunches to look out the hatch. The sea was getting choppier.
On the quarterdeck Hawes and Norfolk passed a spyglass back and forth and kept estimating the range of theVolcán, Olivares’s flagship. The wind from the west freshened and it began to rain. The sky darkened.
“A storm,” Norfolk spat.
“It speeds their demise,” Hawes said. Then he added, “Hopefully.”
Ten minutes passed, then twenty.
“A thousand yards, I reckon,” Hawes said, his eye glued to the spyglass. The rest of the armada stretched to the west as far as he could see.
“Light the lantern,” Norfolk commanded. A mate obeyed and swung it from side to side in broad sweeps.
From high on the chalk cliffs, William spotted the signal and swung a lantern in reply.
“You may fire,” Norfolk said.
John heard the command passed down below decks and stepped well back as flame was put to the touchhole powder. First he heard twin, distant retorts from the land guns, followed by a bone-crushing blast from the ship’s piece. The singing cannon belched fire and threw itself backwards ten feet against its rope stays whereupon the gunnery crew suddenly became animated, springing into action, packing and loading another lugged round into the muzzle and heaving on the ropes to reposition the gun.
William had not noticed that King Henry had arrived and had come to stand a short distance away, Cromwell at his side. Both men peered through spyglasses. When the boom of the charges dissipated, the high-pitched whistling of the shells lingered on.
Suddenly there was a waterspout.
One of the land-based rounds landed harmlessly amidst the main grouping of armada vessels.
But a second later there were two impacts, iron against wood, one to a galleass to the rear, struck by one of the cliff cannon, the other to the lead galleon. TheHellfireround had caught theVolcáncleanly to the portside of the bow just above the waterline where it tore through her main cannon deck spewing shards of wood in its wake and filling the cavernous space with limbs, heads, guts, and blood.
The Duke of Olivares stood immobile near the wheel, failing to comprehend what had just happened. TheHellfirewas completely out of range and yet his ship had been holed. TheVolcáncaptain was quicker to react and began screaming to his crew to change course windward but just as the rudder bit,Hellfire’snext round struck below the waterline, hitting the main powder stores when it tore through the hull. The galleon exploded in a giant fireball and on the cliffs King Henry openly wept at the sight.
“Keep up the fire!” Henry shouted, and on land and sea the three cannon rained shell after shell upon the armada, de-masting and sinking ships even as they attempted to turn tail.
The storm from the west intensified, churning the sea to the color of a bruise. Then the fog began to roll in, obscuring the gunners’ views. Below decks, John reeled from the percussions. His mouth and lungs filled with acrid gunpowder. The gunnery crew had perfected the art of loading the lugged shells and there was no sense subjecting himself to more of the fetid atmosphere, so he scrambled up and eagerly gulped fresher air.
“Cease fire!” Hawes cried but before the order could be relayed, Norfolk countermanded it and insisted that the firing continue.
John watched the two men argue but rank prevailed and the cannon kept lobbing shells into the impenetrable fog. The cliff guns too kept up their barrage but if they were finding their targets, no one on the English side could know. Then, John saw a large flash from the cliff and heard a different kind of explosion, a deeper, throatier percussion than the usual cannon retort.
The cannon farther away from William had split from metal fatigue and steel spewed over the plain. The king and Cromwell were spared but the same could not be said for its gunnery crew and a group of nearby soldiers who were shredded by shrapnel, their guts and brains splattering the cliff. William shouted for the second cannon crew to cease-fire and ran to inspect the twisted metal and nearby carnage.
King Henry stamped through the grass, stepping over broken bodies, Cromwell scurrying by his side. He furiously demanded an explanation why his new cannon had failed, leaving William to explain through tears that John Camp had foretold the problem and that the solution lay in foreign iron.
“Hear this, Cromwell?” Henry bellowed. “Today we have beaten the Iberians. Tomorrow we will sail for the Norselands and take their ore. And the day after that we will conquer all of Europa.”
John ran up to the quarterdeck and told Hawes that one of the cannon had failed and advised him to allow the ship’s gun to cool. By now fog had engulfed theHellfireand the visibility was down to twenty yards at most. Suddenly fire belched from the gray shroud and the thump of incoming cannon fire pierced the air. The Iberian vessel,Martillo,intrepidly piloted by its captain, the Duke of Granada, had not turned tail with the rest of the armada but had used the fog to conceal her advance through the storm and was now broadside to theHellfire.
The top of theHellfiremizzenmast was felled by chainfire and crashed onto the stern, narrowly missing Hawes and Norfolk. John found himself covered by canvas and realized his right leg was pinned by a section of the mast. He heard Hawes order his portside cannon to open fire and the return barrage was deafening. A knife blade poked through the canvas only inches from his chest and with a rip, the face of Antonio appeared. John felt his leg being freed and when he was lifted through the torn sail, he saw Simon and Luca had shifted the mast.
“Were you hurt?” Luca shouted.
He tested his leg. “I’m okay.”
“We’re being boarded!” Simon yelled, pointing at the looming Iberian ship.
Grappling hooks were flying through the air, catching on rails and rigging. Musket balls were thudding into flesh and wood. The two ships came together with a splintering thud and shrieking Iberians clamored on board with sabers drawn.
“Fight or perish!” Antonio shouted.
John drew his sword and without a moment’s thought rushed at a nearby boarder and ran him through. Though they had never trained together, John found himself in an effective combat formation with his three new comrades, the four of them, two-by-two and back-to-back, protecting each other’s rears. Around them, men fell, cut down by steel and lead, and the deck ran red with slippery blood.
An Iberian sailor who had swung from the riggings of his ship to the Hellfire topgallant mast, dropped down onto them, felling Simon and Antonio. The Iberian recovered his bearings, took the knife from his teeth and started to bring it down on Antonio’s face when John viciously swung his sword, catching the man’s knife arm at the inside of the elbow. The sailor cried out, the blood spurting from his brachial artery, then collapsed, helplessly watching himself bleed out through his stump.
Antonio delivered a terse, “Grazie,” to John then resumed fighting.
There was a shuddering volley of cannon fire from theHellfiregunnery deck and theMartilloerupted into a fireball.
John heard Captain Hawes scream that they’d hit their powder lockers. The Iberian ship began to list heavily, stretching and popping the grappling lines that held the two vessels together. The remaining boarders, realizing their fates were sealed, decided to take their chances with the stormy sea and to a man they jumped ship. There was a rolling round of hurrahs from theHellfirecrew then Hawes ordered the remaining grappling lines cut. He ran down the stairs to the maindeck to personally survey the damage and stooped to cradle one of his wounded men, a man who, on Earth, would have been gone, but here, with a ball through his chest, still had open eyes and a pleading look.
Norfolk was leaning over the quarterdeck railing, shouting, “Throw that man overboard! Get all the non-able-bodied off my ship and get me a damage report, captain!”
Simon, his chest heaving, caught enough breath to tell John that now was the time to act. John came over to Hawes in time to hear him mutter, “I should throw Norfolk overboard.”
“Why don’t you?” John asked.
The captain gently laid his wounded man back down and stood. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Join us, captain.”
Simon, Antonio and Luca circled around.
“We want your ship,” John said.
“I do not understand.”
“We aim to go to France,” John said. “To rescue my friend.”
“If I did not do my utmost to stop you, it would be treason,” the captain said.
Simon was by their side now, shaking his head. “What is treason in Hell? Defending a murderous king and his murderous duke. We’ve all done things which have condemned us to this world but I’d like to think that some of us are better than others.”
Luca now had his shoulder around Simon in a show of solidarity and said, “We serve a man who is the best among us. He is no king, but if he were, then perhaps this would be a better world. We have agreed to help our unusual and most able friend, John Camp, and he has agreed to help our cause.”
“And what cause is that?” Hawes asked.
John shrugged. “They haven’t told me yet and my guess is they won’t tell you either. It’s a matter of faith, I guess.”
“I have not relied on faith for a very long time,” Hawes said wearily.
Again, Norfolk screamed down to toss the wounded into the sea and when the captain did not relay those orders, Norfolk began to descend to the main deck.
“I will not condemn my men to an eternity at the bottom of the sea. ’Tis a worse fate than a rotting room,” Hawes said. He wheeled to face Norfolk who was red in the face, his jugulars bulging. “I will have you off this ship before them, sir,” Hawes told him.
Norfolk shouted back that the captain was relieved of his command and he began to draw a pistol from his belt. But before he could, John had the tip of his sword an inch from the duke’s neck and Antonio removed the gun from his suddenly limp hand. Norfolk gave John a hateful look but started to tremble.
“Can you swim?” Hawes asked.
“What manner of a question is that?” the astonished Norfolk asked.
Simon took two fistfuls of the back of his coat and said, “What do you say we find out?” and as the shell-shocked crew of theHellfirewatched, the duke was marched to the portside railing.
“Wait!” John said, rushing over to the railing. For a moment Norfolk must have thought that John intended to save him because his look of fear turned to haughtiness but John snatched his silver chain and pulled the heavy, silver watch from his pocket.
“That was given to me by the king!” Norfolk said.
John felt its heft in his palm. “I don’t think it’s waterproof,” he said.
And as the duke sputtered in indignation, Simon threw him over the side.
Norfolk hit the water hard and splashed about before remembering the breaststroke, but just as he mastered a stroke or two, theMartillopitched forward, her bow piercing the waves, her stern rising up. She went down fast. The vortex she made sucked in Norfolk and with a panicked, helpless look, he disappeared below the surface.
Hawes quickly ordered his men to do the best they could for the wounded and took a report from his first mate that the ship, though holed above the waterline fore and aft, was reparable. The captain ordered him to get the carpenters to work and stood there, hands on hips, trying to think. The fog was still heavy, the cliffs invisible.
John opened the watch cover. It was four o’clock in the afternoon on his fifth day in Hell. In less than two days MAAC would be fired up again but he’d be nowhere near Dartford. He slipped the watch into his pocket and approached Hawes. “We will take this ship, with you or without you,” John said. “I’d prefer it was with you.”
“Join us,” Luca said. “You will not be sorry.”
“Henry will send the fleet after us.”
John said, “When the fog lifts they’ll find wreckage. They’ll think we were sunk.”
“What can I tell my crew?” the captain asked.
Simon said, “Tell them we offer hope for better lives.”
“Hope,” Hawes said, wistfully. “That word again.” He looked at John then turned to his first mate and said, “We have three good masts. Clear the debris as quick as you can, set a course for Francia and assemble the men on deck. We will never be able to return home but I will talk to them about hope.”14
Well into the long, dark night, Emily found herself dozing on the saddle. She had to catch herself repeatedly and struggle to stay awake lest she slip and dethrone herself and the tethered horseman. She had a sense they were riding through a forest because every so often she was whipped by a branch but for all she knew there was a precipitous cliff or ravine to one side. That the riders were able to keep at their rapid pace in the dark suggested they were on a trail and when the very first pink light of dawn came, she saw this was so.
A branch struck the top of her head with a crack. A moment later JoJo must have hit the same branch because she too said “oww,” and both women, despite their dire situation, started laughing. Seconds later, through the trees, Emily saw two bright lights and wondered if the head bashing had produced stars.
The horses made for the lights. They became brighter and brighter until the trail before them was perfectly illuminated and when they were so bright her eyes hurt, her horseman stopped, pulled the rope that joined them over his body and dismounted. Then he tugged her down onto spongy legs.
A male voice called out from behind the lights in a modern German, “Welcome to Germania, Frau Professor Doktor Loughty.” Then in English he said politely, “Forgive me, my manners. Do you speak German?”
She answered in German that she did and asked who he was.
He replied by gruffly telling the soldier to bring her closer. When he did, she was to suffer two shocks: the first, that the bright lights were the headlights of a boxy, open-topped automobile, the second, that the middle-aged, smallish man in the rear seat was dressed in a wide-lapelled, twentieth century business suit, his bony face framed by steel-rimmed glasses. There were two other cars behind the first one, their lights off. The men who got out were more archaic in appearance, wearing a mélange of uniforms of the centuries.
Emily was about to say something when Clovis dismounted and rushed forward, babbling rapidly in his guttural language and pushing her out of the way. He held out his hand, as if demanding payment.
The small, prim man no longer seemed polite. He began hurling epithets back at him in German then said something quietly to the driver, a hefty fellow in fairly modern clothes. The driver reached down then tossed a leather pouch that clinked onto the ground. Clovis reached for it, undid the drawstring and pushed his meaty hand inside. When he was satisfied that all was as agreed, he spat in the dirt and withdrew.
“Such a barbarian!” the small man said. “My apologies, but you see, Frau Doktor, he reallyisa barbarian.” Then he awkwardly chuckled at his own joke.
Clovis returned, dragging JoJo with him and he began shouting again. Emily listened to the small man say that he didn’t ask for anyone else, he had no interest in a Negress, and he refused to pay more. He and Clovis angrily went back and forth until the driver tossed a few more coins onto the ground and that seemed to settle it. Clovis spat again and rode off into the forest with his retinue.
“All right?” Emily asked JoJo.
“Yeah, who’s this creep?” she replied in French.
“I’m sure we’re going to find out.”
“Such unpleasantness,” the small man said. “Well, you can expect better treatment from now on, Frau Doktor.”
“You seem to know who I am but I don’t know who you are.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Heinrich Luitpold Himmler at your service.”
Emily blurted out, “You can’t be serious.”
“But I am perfectly serious.”
“Who is he?” JoJo asked.
“He’s a bloody Nazi, that’s who he is. One of Hitler’s lot.”
Himmler smiled in delight. “I am pleased you know who I am. Do they teach about me in your British schools?”
“Oh, yes,” Emily said, shaking her head in continued disbelief. “You’re still in the curriculum.” It was one thing to meet historical figures like the Duke of Guise and Clovis, men she knew little to nothing about, but Himmler? Well, she knew a great deal about him. Suddenly, the evils of Hell filled her nostrils with a particularly vile stench. She seethed at him, “We like to remind ourselves over and over what your filthy gang did so we’ll be less likely to let it happen again.”
“I see,” Himmler said. “This sounds to me like a rather naïve approach to history. But please come. We have another journey ahead. It will be more comfortable than your night ride. You and your Negress friend will ride in my motor car.”
“I am sorry?” he asked with a squint of confusion.
“Her name is JoJo.”
“Excellent. She will sit beside my driver and you will sit beside me.”
“Where are you taking us?”
“Why, to Marksburg on the Rhine, near Koblenz. Frederick, the ruler of Germania, is most anxious to meet you, as I myself have been. If it were only for your scent of life that, I must say, is more fragrant than any blossom in Hell, you would be fascinating. But you are also a scientist, I understand. A physicist. My how I respect the mind of a scientist! Now come, get in quickly and we will be on our way.”
The women hesitated for too long prompting Himmler to advise them that they would do better to obey voluntarily than be coerced by his men. Once they had climbed into the automobile, the driver began furiously moving a lever at his feet, forward and back, forward and back, until the car began to make a moaning sound, like the resonant call of a whale, followed by a loud hissing which accompanied the release of plumes of steam.
Soon the hissing morphed into a whistle, like an exaggerated whistling of a kettle, and Emily exclaimed, “This is a steam car, isn’t it?”
“Yes, quite so,” Himmler replied. “It is extraordinary, is it not?”
When the driver was satisfied there was enough pressure inside the boiler, he put the car into gear and they were off, surrounded by a cloud of steam, chugging and choo-chooing away like an old-time locomotive.
Emily bounced violently on the leather bench-seat prompting Himmler to say, in a loud enough voice to be heard over the noise, that he was working to improve the rubber in the tires and the quality of the shock absorbers.
“You must appreciate the problems I have advancing the technology here,” he said, seeking her understanding. “The people who come here tend to be inferior in all ways. It is so remarkably difficult to find men who possess useful skills.”
Emily sat stiffly, her arms crossed angrily at the prospect of sharing the ride with this monster. “You mean to tell me there aren’t many Nobel prize-winning murderers and rapists about?”
This elicited a genuine belly laugh. He offered her a blanket that she passed over the seat to JoJo.
“We can put up the top if it rains,” Himmler said, “but it does little against the morning chill. I must say, it took me thirty years to find the men in Germania and elsewhere, each with a complementary skill, to produce a functional automobile. Of course, we do not have the ability yet, and I stress the wordyet, to drill for oil and to refine petroleum into diesel, so I had to settle for steam power. On a good stretch of road, they will go over fifty miles per hour. Old King Frederick’s eyeballs nearly popped from his head when I rolled out the first prototype. It was like giving a caveman fire.”
She also had to shout to be heard. “Are you the only ones with this technology?”
“I think so, yes, but it is difficult to know for sure. There are rumors about Francia, rumors about Russia. Communication is one of our many difficulties. We have a few hundred miles of telegraph lines in Germania but they stop at our present borders. The English have this also. The French too. But most of our information about our enemies comes from spies. That is how we knew about you.”
“You seem pretty well plugged in for a man who’s only been here for seventy years.”
Himmler nodded earnestly. “Yes, you are absolutely correct in this regard. You are such an intelligent and perceptive young lady. This is a place that favors the men who have survived for centuries, men such as Frederick. Once a man has power, he is favored to retain that power. To do this he must surround himself with men who are content to bask in his favor and he must ruthlessly eliminate potential usurpers. That is why all successful monarchs have networks of men to evaluate new arrivals to their territories and spies to monitor foreign lands. In my case, when I arrived here I made a quick assessment of the situation. I told the ruffians who swept me up that I demanded to be brought to whoever was the leader of the realm and that failure to do so would place them in jeopardy, as I was no ordinary fish in the pond. I was passed up the food chain, as it were, to others who had heard of the Third Reich and within a short time I was standing in front of the king himself.”
“I imagine plenty of your Nazi pals wound up here.”
“We are not so scarce, that is true. I did not impress the king at first, as I do not cut an imposing figure. I think his first impulse was to eliminate me as he did with Hitler and most of our senior ranks.”
She curled her mouth in disgust. “What happened to good old Adolph then?”
“I understand he presented himself with great arrogance. This is a mistake with a man like Frederick who has encountered men far more fearsome than Hitler during his thousand-year reign. Hitler was a mouse who roared, a man who was physically weak and relied on others to do his bidding. Frederick, as I have been told, tolerated his rant for only a few minutes before rising from his throne and personally taking his head. He is in a rotting room somewhere. I have not visited.”
“But your head is right where it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?” she shouted over the din.
Himmler clowned around by probing his head with his hands. “Ha! So it is. Well, I was cleverer than Hitler, more intuitive, I would say. I appeared before Frederick only a month after Hitler did—yes, we died within a month of each other, both honorable suicides. I told the king that my only interest was to become his humble servant and to bring my skills as a wartime administrator to his court. I told him he was always a hero of mine and that my goal for the Third Reich was to recreate the glory of his bygone era. I sealed the deal by telling him that I had personally named our invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, in his honor. He liked that immensely as it seems he hates the Russians as much as I do. But the larger issue is this: kings and führers require persistent and aggressive praise. This is something I understood completely. I asked him to indulge me for a time so I might inspect the state of Germania’s offenses and defenses and make some recommendations. He accepted this and gave me his protection. In the course of my investigations I found the realm lacking in certain command and control functions and with no comprehensive way to develop new weapons and capabilities. Hell has all the natural resources of Earth but it lacks intellectual capital. The growth of civilization is stunted here. I aim to change that.” He swallowed hard as if the exertion of all the shouting had strained his throat.
“How, pray tell?”
“Up until now it has been slow and incremental, finding a person here, a person there who has some special skills I can utilize. This steam car, as simple and archaic as it may be to modernists such as ourselves, is the pinnacle of what I have been able to achieve. This is pathetic although the steam engine was the precursor to many great achievements. Still, the pace is too slow. Look at this!” He parted his jacket to reveal his holstered pistol. “A flintlock! I can’t even find competent modern gunsmiths. But now I have something which I hope will enable me to leapfrog our enemies and allow Germania to reign supreme throughout our world.”
“And what is that?”
“You, Frau Doktor. It is you.”
She was already sitting as far away from him as possible on the short bench but she pressed herself harder against the side of the car. She decided to stop talking and he seemed content to rest his vocal cords.
The day brightened to its usual pale shade of gray and she got a good view of the road for the first time. It was level and fairly smooth, made of hard-packed dirt, graded to a gentle concavity to allow for the runoff of rainfall. She imagined that Himmler might have been the one to arrange for crews of forced labor to build it for his precious steam cars. He had a knack for organized labor, didn’t he? After all, he’d been the architect of the slave labor camps during the Second World War. She wondered whether she could ever find it within herself to stick a knife into a man’s throat, but if she could, Himmler’s would be a good place to start.
After a while he offered her some cold meat and bread from a hamper that she passed to JoJo. She had no appetite. She was desperately tired and as she dozed, she made sure to lean away from her seatmate, lest her head wind up on his shoulder.
It was a five or six hour noisy and bumpy journey to the Rhine and the heart of Germania. The convoy of three vehicles stopped a few times for the call of nature and for water to top up the boilers. Emily gave some thought to running away but she doubted it would serve any purpose other than getting herself into even more trouble at the hands of roving bands of heathens.
And then, after a two-hour final leg, Himmler nudged her awake and pointed his small, boyish hand. There, high on a green bluff over a mighty river was a towering, turreted castle, made of pale, almost flesh-colored stone.
“This is one of the king’s many castles,” Himmler said, almost proudly, as if he had played a role in its creation. “He favors it above all others. You know, on Earth, this was the precise location of the Marksburg Castle which was built a century or two after Frederick’s time. And as on Earth, it is a naturally defensible position. I believe it was perhaps inevitable that the king would decide to build his own fortress here. Who knows, maybe some of the same laborers who built Marksburg wound up in Hell to build this one, which, I can guarantee you, is an excellent facsimile to the castle I well remember from my youth.”
JoJo turned and asked Emily a question.
“What did she say?” Himmler barked irritably.
“She asked how we’re going to get across.”
“Ah, just upriver a way, there is a good wooden bridge, strong enough to support the motor cars, one at a time. The king was not so keen to allow invaders so easy a means to cross but I persuaded him that allowing passage of the steam autos offered a strategic advantage. We can always destroy the bridge if need be.”
When the time came to make the crossing, Emily held her breath and while the car chugged slowly across she sneaked a glimpse of the swift, murky waters of the Rhine gorge. Once across it was a matter of minutes until they navigated a windy, upwardly spiraling road to reach the castle walls. A massive drawbridge gate was winched down and the car rolled through a dark, vaulted tunnel through another gate. Soldiers waved them on and they entered a broad courtyard. The steam boilers decompressed.
Emily got out of the car and took some small pleasure in the sudden stillness. Above her, a lone bird of prey, a kite perhaps, soared on the thermals searching for food. Its solo quest made her melancholy. She felt so very far away from home. Then she caught herself and bore down. She needed to keep sharp, stay focused. To get back to Dartford and to overcome the daunting obstacles that inevitably awaited her, she couldn’t afford to succumb to melancholia.
Just as she registered this thought, a man appeared, not young, not old. He came gliding through a palace door in a monk’s robe, so pale and thin, he seemed like an apparition. He locked eyes on her, as if she were the only one in the courtyard and then he did something that was wholly unexpected. He smiled. It wasn’t a smile of evil or cunning or lechery, the usual fare she had become accustomed to, but a smile of kindness.
Himmler called to him but the man ignored him and went to Emily and bowed his head in a show of humility. He asked if she knew his language and when she nodded, he seemed pleased and launched into a speech, his German a mix of archaic and modern constructions.
“I welcome you to Germania. I am Rainald van Dassel, the king’s chancellor. I am sorry we seized you as we did but I can assure you, your treatment here will be better than what that scoundrel, the Duke of Guise, had in store for you.”
Himmler interrupted the welcome address. “Clovis dealt with Guise. One more French shark we will not have to contend with. Is the king well? I want to show him my trophy.”
Rainald’s countenance hardened. “She is not a trophy, Herr Himmler, she is a woman, who I imagine is bewildered, tired and hungry. Frederick will see her soon enough. First, we will offer our best hospitality.” He cast his gaze on JoJo. “Who is this?”
“She’s my friend,” Emily said. “She’s French. She was one of Guise’s women.”
Rainald’s face softened again. “Ah, friendship. That is unusual here, something to be treasured.” He waved his arms at the massive palace and all the outbuildings. “We have room enough for one more soul.”
“Well, I am going to have a wash,” Himmler declared. “Make sure you send for me at the appointed time, Rainald. I am the architect of this operation, not you. You would do well to remember that.”
Rainald turned away from Himmler and asked the women to follow him. Soldiers and guards appeared, as if attracted by Emily’s scent, leering at the women as they passed. Rainald saw their stares and shouted at them, forcing the men to rush off, their eyes cast down. Emily realized the reason Rainald looked like he was gliding. It was his coarse robe that obscured his feet as it brushed the ground. They entered the palace through a small door that opened to a dark, empty hall. Rainald gave a shout and an enormous, pudgy man, with a bald pate and a long, scraggly fringe appeared, holding a torch.
“This is Andreas,” Rainald said. “He will attend to you. You do not have to worry about his intentions. Frederick made him a eunuch a very long time ago so he could safely shepherd his concubine.”
Andreas grinned. His few remaining teeth were brown as nuts. “No balls,” he said, pointing to his crotch. “No worries.”
The eunuch took them up several flights of stone stairs until they entered an ample room suffused with light, its window offering an expansive view over the river gorge. There was a bed, a chest, and a separate privy chamber.
“Above us is another room,” Rainald said, pointing at JoJo. “You will go there now.”
Emily said she’d prefer staying with JoJo but Rainald answered that this was not possible. Emily touched her shoulder and told her not to worry then Andreas led JoJo away.
Rainald stayed behind. “Andreas will bring you food, drink, and fresh clothes, and will prepare a tub for your bathing. Later you will see the king as he is most anxious to meet you and learn how it is you were able to enter this world of ours without first knowing death.”
Emily was not going to let him leave without asking some of her questions. “You’ve been a gentleman. I do appreciate that. Will you give me your assurance that we will not be abused?”
Rainald raised an eyebrow and she saw that his eyes were green, like ripe olives. “You are under my personal protection. No one will lay a hand on you. The only man in this kingdom I do not command is the king and I can assure you that he is no threat to your person.”
“What about her?” she said.
“Your friend is an ordinary Heller, though her skin color and womanly attributes makes her rare and thus desirable. I was not expecting her but now that she is here, she will be put to good use by the dukes and princes of the court.”
Emily was defiant. “Unless you protect her too I will not utter a word to your king or anyone else. I’m Scottish, you know, and we can be very stubborn.”
Rainald smiled again. “Very well. I will undertake her protection as well. Is there anything else?”
“Yes there is. I don’t want to have anything more to do with Heinrich Himmler.”
Rainald sighed. “I share your views. He is most foul. Let me tell you a brief story. I was King Frederick’s chancellor in life. I was a man of God, the archbishop of Cologne, before I was drawn into affairs of state. Frederick was a most worthy king, a unifier, a great statesman whom I greatly admired. In truth, I was surprised that he, let alone myself, would have descended to Hell upon our passings. After all, he was the Holy Roman Emperor! I can only imagine that in my case, a brutal response to an uprising among our subjects in the city-state of Milano sealed my fate. Or perhaps one or two other difficult incidents. But I digress. I came to Hell a decade before the king and helped him gain the throne of Germania from a barbarian warlord. Frederick has ruled for a thousand years now. I have been at his side as his principal advisor all that time and the most serious challenge to my authority has only come in the last years from this Himmler. He has wheedled himself into a position of considerable power with promises of new weapons and modes of warfare. The king has even made him vice-chancellor! Now my days are spent guarding against a sneak attack from this snake. If the king were not so taken by his promises I would have him thrown from the castle keep into the river. So, I will do what I can to keep you away from Himmler, but I can only go so far with my assurances.”
“If he touches me, I’ll rip out his eyes.”
Rainald seemed to enjoy the imagery. “And if I see them rolling on the floor, I will emphatically stamp on them with my shoe.”15
John jumped from the rowing boat and sloshed his way onto the pebbly beach. To a man, every member of the landing party paused to remove boots and empty out water and sand. A second boat discharged its crew of Captain Hawes and a troop of armed marines. Both vessels were heaved onto the shore and securely beached. TheHellfirestood proudly at anchor a few hundred yards off the wild coast of Francia.
John looked up at the white, chalky cliffs. They were less imposing than those of Dover but nonetheless striking. He tried to get his bearings. They had to be at or near Calais, where on Earth, the Germans had mistakenly expected the allied invasion in World War II. The cliffs were sheer at this point. They certainly weren’t going to get onto the plain from here, not without climbing gear. John told Luca, Simon, and Antonio that they would have to hike up the coast to a point where the cliffs tapered off.
Captain Hawes approached and they all agreed to travel together for a while. The galleon was not provisioned for an extended journey and Hawes intended to lead his troops to pillage the first village they encountered, secure pack horses, then return to theHellfireand await John’s return. If all went according to plan, John would find Emily, bring her back to the ship, and they would cross the channel to return to Dartford. Then theHellfirewould sail for Italy to join forces with this mysterious man who offered hope.
“How long will you need to find your lady?” Hawes asked.
John passed the question to his new comrades.
Simon said, “If we get horses then we should be in Paris in two days. If we can free her quickly then, well, let’s say four or five days from now.”
John nodded warily. That would give them a cushion of a couple of days until the second MAAC start-up. He hoped the plan would play out that way but in thisterra incognitahe didn’t feel able to handicap the odds.
Hawes gave his men the order and they began trudging along the uneven beachscape. They had only been trekking for a minute or so when John heard a soft, high-pitched sound, no more than an atmospheric disturbance. One of Hawes’s men jerked around, an arrow piercing his back at an acute downward angle.
Then the arrows fell like rain.
John instinctively ran toward the base of the cliff to cut off the angle of attack from on high. One group of men joined him; another chose to follow Hawes to some protective boulders a short distance away. Another of Hawes’s men was hit in the arm, and as he ran for cover he pulled out the arrow spouting a stream of invectives. Then the musket fire started and the lead balls began splattering the beach.