Authors: James Herbert
my stories begin with the premise: What if . . . ? This has never been more so than with
. However, let me plead that there are some basic truths among the fiction. Have fun deciding which are which.
There are dark forces at work in this country about which we know little.
QUEEN ELIZABETH II (allegedly)
Pont D’Alma tunnel, Paris
31 August 1997
As her life ebbed away in the crumpled Mercedes she thought of her two sons.
Who would take care of them? Who would guide them through their early years?
Not their father. Oh God, not him and all he stood for. How could their lives be normal?
Now her mind, along with her flesh, was becoming cold. She could feel herself drifting away, far, far away from this ruined metal shell that entrapped and hurt her body so.
She was aware, vaguely, of incessant bright flashes, a gabble of shocked, greedy voices – the last sounds she would ever hear – as closure softened her remaining moments in this intrusive world.
Even as her life faded, her final concerns returned to those of the living. Her two sons – who would be there for them?
For the briefest of moments, their images followed her into the painless, velvet void, but then they were gone, leaving her to wonder for a second if in death she would find the soul of the barely born child she had lost.
Oblivion took her just as hands reached in to help.
PART ONE: THE JOURNEY
The untidy little man peered out from the bookshop’s window display, squinting to sharpen his vision.
He was watching the doors of the huge grey building that housed the BBC World Service offices and studios: those doors were in constant use, drawing in and disgorging a ceaseless stream of visitors and staff. The mark was still inside, but Cedric Twigg was patient as always, comfortable in his assumed role of book browser in the Kingsway WHSmith, pretending to be interested in the lofty novel he held in his hands. He had idled here for the last twenty minutes, having arrived half an hour earlier, picking up a hardback here and there to peruse its contents, replacing each volume, then choosing another.
The phoney shelf cruising had led him from the back of the store to the large plate-glass windows overlooking the busy street beyond and from where he chose a final volume entitled
Flat Earth News
, which he opened and brought up close to his face as if absorbed.
But every few minutes he would gaze distractedly through the windows as if considering the text while, in truth, he was contemplating the impressive edifice of the Aldwych building at the end of the broad and bustling Kingsway. There was another entrance/exit in the discreet courtyard at the back of Bush House, but he had an associate covering that. A call to Twigg’s Samsung would inform him if their mark had left the building that way.
His pretended attention returned to the book again and he turned a page, appearing to be engrossed in its warnings about the world’s news media.
Twigg was a fastidious individual who had once enjoyed the subterfuge involved in surveillance and tracking, learning the mark’s habits and regularly visited haunts. But these days he found the chase less agreeable; the long stakeouts tedious, the satisfaction coming only with the final dispatch.
Small in stature and unremarkable in appearance – he could reasonably have been taken for a poorly paid accounts clerk on his lunch break – which suited his role perfectly. Although Twigg appeared commonplace, his unblinking grey-eyed stare could be quite unsettling if directed your way. And although his shoulders were narrow, they were strong and capable of exerting great force through his deceptively dainty hands. With a pot-belly recently beginning to swell over his belt buckle, the assumed image was complete.
Now the mobile phone in his trouser pocket vibrated against his upper thigh, its ringtone switched off; he reached for it. The tiny screen showed the caller’s code name – Kincade – and Twigg thumbed the accept key.
‘Mark leaving the building now,’ the thin excitable voice of his apprentice blurted. ‘Rear exit, heading up the Strand. Alone.’
‘Right.’ Twigg broke the connection and slid the neat little instrument back into his pocket. He returned the book to its shelf and made his way out of the store.
He walked quickly along the pavement, almost invisible among the lunchtime throng, making his way towards the even busier Strand, searching ahead for his prey. He only caught the attention of one person, a pretty young office worker on her way to have lunch with a friend, and that was only because he reminded her of someone as he strode purposefully towards her. She couldn’t quite place the name, but the little man in his old-fashioned raincoat looked like the creepy actor who was in all those slasher movies a few years back. What
Then he’d passed her and the moment was gone. Now what puzzled her was why the little man with freaky eyes was carrying a furled umbrella under his arm on such a chilly but bright, cloudless day.
Lucy Duncan looked up from her receptionist’s desk as the heavy, black-painted entrance door was pushed open, allowing cold air to impinge on the comfortable warmth of the lobby.
David Ash, unshaven and weary-looking, hurried through, the front door slowly closing of its own accord behind him. He strode towards the desk, making for the carpeted staircase. As usual, he ignored the building’s claustrophobically small lift, preferring to take the stairs to the first floor where Kate McCarrick’s office was located.
He managed a brief smile at Lucy, but the smile didn’t quite make it to his eyes.
‘You’re late, David,’ the receptionist scolded him lightly. ‘The meeting started twenty minutes ago.’
Lucy watched as Ash climbed the stairs, two at a time, and gave an inward sigh. Such an attractive man, with his thick, tousled dark hair, flecked slightly with grey, and his deep blue but ever-melancholy eyes. This morning his chin was stubbled. Somehow it made him look sexier, though usually she preferred her men clean-shaven.
Lucy had replaced the previous receptionist called Jenny, who had left ‘to have babies’, although staying on an extra month to show Lucy the ropes and how to deal with some of the more questionable – and often distraught – phone calls that sometimes came through. Jenny had told her that Ash had been through some difficult times over the past few years, with two particularly unfortunate cases that appeared to weigh heavily on him. Perhaps they still did: he always seemed to be so downcast. Or ‘brooding’ might be more apt.
The phone rang as David Ash disappeared up the stairs and Lucy quickly picked up the receiver.
‘Psychical Research Institute. How may I help you?’
Ash reached the first-floor landing and paused to take a breath. The meeting with Kate and the prospective client had been due to start at 9.30 a.m., and he, as Lucy had already told him, was late. If only he could sleep peacefully at night in the darkness of his room. If only the nightmares that always culminated in his eyes snapping open, his body in a sweat, would stop. Dawn was always a relief. Only then could he sink into oblivion in the knowledge that he was safe now that the night terrors had expunged themselves.
Kate McCarrick’s office door was closed and he knocked before entering.
Kate, who was head of the Psychical Research Institute, looked past the shoulder of the person seated across the desk from her. She frowned slightly.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ Ash apologized both to Kate and the trim, dark-suited man, who had turned in his chair to appraise the new arrival. His expression was neutral.
‘David, this is Simon Maseby. Simon . . .’ her hand indicated Ash. ‘David Ash, the investigator we were just discussing.’
Ash raised his eyebrows at Kate as Maseby rose and extended a hand towards him. He was a short, smartly dressed man, somewhere in his forties, his dark hair slicked back from his forehead, his chin clean-shaven (unlike his own, Ash thought), and his eyes were a very pale shade of green in his fresh roundish race.
‘You’ve had some interesting times, Mr Ash,’ Maseby said with a faint smile.
Again the parapsychologist glanced at Kate, who gave him a slight but reassuring nod of her head. He shook the proffered hand, which was dry and firm to the touch.
‘I’ve just filled in your background a little for Simon,’ Kate said. ‘Your experiences are of great interest to him.’
Maseby sat, eyes on Ash, a hint of curiosity and – no, not humour, Ash decided, but a kind of bemusement in his expression.
‘So you believe in the supernatural, Mr Maseby,’ Ash asked as he took the other chair facing Kate McCarrick’s desk.
‘Well now, that’s a difficult question to answer.’ Maseby crossed his legs, and Ash saw that the dark-suited man’s shoes were polished to perfection, his grey socks made from some silky material. ‘I have to say that I haven’t given such, er, such things much thought in the past.’
‘But now you have, for some reason.’
‘Quite. For the moment, let’s say that my eyes have been opened to what I would have thought unbelievable only a short time ago.’
‘Shall I explain, Simon?’ Kate leaned forward on her crowded desk, at one side of which was a computer screen and keyboard. Bookshelves were filled with studies on psychic phenomena and the paranormal, with titles such as
The Vertical Plane
. Grey, chest-high filing cabinets overspilling with case-history folders took up one side of the room. Two tall windows behind Kate’s desk overlooked the busy city street below.
Maseby acquiesced with a bow of his head. He smiled at Ash, wrinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes.
But before Kate could begin, Ash jumped in with a question. ‘Can I ask you something, Mr Maseby?’