Authors: James Lovegrove
Tags: #Science Fiction
1. THE CHICAGOAN
here were two of them waiting on the quay: Sam and the man she had first encountered a couple of hours ago on the train, the man who'd been carrying an invitation like hers. She had spotted him in the buffet car as she was returning to her carriage from a trip to the toilet. He was ordering a cheese sandwich and a "club soda." African-American. Tall. Well put together. Nice, firm buttocks. Standing straight-spined, so much so that everyone around him seemed to slouch by comparison. Chicago accent? Yes, Chicago. Chewy on the syllables. He was very handsome; in particular she'd liked his nose. His nostrils were naturally flared, a sign of self-assurance and the right kind of pride. And while he waited for the woman behind the counter to fetch his food and pour his drink, he'd taken the invitation out of his pocket to inspect it, doubtless not for the first time. Identical to the one Sam had in her handbag, printed on snowdrift-smooth card in an elegant formal font, the kind of thing you might expect to receive from the host of a truly classy party. The Chicagoan had frowned at it, shaken his head, then tucked it away again. In the time he'd spent studying the invitation Sam could have gone up to him, produced her own, said something like "Snap" or "You've shown me yours, now I'll show you mine," something coy and wry like that, and introduced herself. But she hadn't. She'd just slipped past the man and gone on to her seat, and the train had continued rumbling on its way, towards the terminus from where she was to catch a taxi to the coast, to this stony little port town, this quay.
The Chicagoan was now sitting on a mooring post. He had his mackintosh collar turned up all the way to his chin and was huddled in on himself, looking miserable in the damp, bitter wind that was gusting onshore. It was a freezing early-January day. Sea and sky appeared to be in competition as to which was murkier and more tormented. Gulls plodded along the slick stones of the harbour wall, beaks to breasts, feathers ruffled.
Sam stood off at a distance from the man, sheltering in the doorway of a fish and chip shop which according to the sign hanging in its door was open but looked very firmly closed. She knew the Chicagoan had clocked her and had identified that she was there was for the same reason he was - both of them answering the same oblique, enigmatic summons. The small suitcase at her feet gave the game away. He had an item of luggage too, an overnight bag with wheels and an extendable handle. But he seemed to respect the fact that she didn't want to strike up a conversation with him, at least not just yet.
Out of the corner of her eye Sam spied a group of people approaching along the main harbourside street. More invitees? No, a young couple with two kids, one of them in a pushchair. Winter holidaymakers. The adults were bent forward against the wind, and the face of the older child, a boy of eight or nine, was one big scowl - angrily baffled as to why his parents had insisted on dragging him outside in such foul weather when he could be warm indoors with the TV and his Nintendo. The baby, by contrast, was snugly bundled up and blissfully asleep.
They passed by Sam on their way to the tip of the quay. She nodded to the parents and deliberately didn't look at either of the children. Especially not the baby. The family returned soon afterwards, and with grim jollity the father remarked to her, "Bracing!" She nodded again, and this time couldn't prevent her gaze straying to the sleeping infant.
Just a child. Just somebody else's child.
But so small. So serene in slumber. So chubbily perfect.
Sam's throat caught. Her gut knotted. She felt as if she were plummeting in an express elevator.
Her counsellor had told her there would always be moments like this. However much time went by, the feelings would never fully go away and would sometimes catch her unawares. She simply had to bear it, work through it. The moment, like all moments, would pass.
She focused on the coldness of the air, the salt tang of the wind, the rank smell of fish and cooking fat that emanated from behind her, sensations from the present, her immediate surroundings, reality, now.
The past belonged to the past.
Gradually her breathing returned to normal, the dizziness abated, her stomach unclenched. She was herself again.
A small wooden-hulled fishing smack came chugging into the harbour. It drew up alongside the quay, and the captain stepped up to the gunwales and called out, "Bleaney Island. Any here for Bleaney Island?"
Both Sam and the Chicagoan went over to the boat, and the captain helped them aboard.
"You'll be the last two then," he said. Ruddy-cheeked, bushy-sideburned, twinkly-eyed, he was the living epitome of a salty old fisherman.
"If you say so," said the Chicagoan. "How many others have there been?"
"Ten all told. Three trips I've done today, there and back. Why you couldn't all come at once I don't know. But then what do I care? I'm getting paid by the journey, and good money too!"
He started up the engine, brought the boat about, and soon they were pulling out of the harbour, onto the open sea.
Other than the wheelhouse, which had room for the captain only, there was no cover on deck. Sam sat on an upturned plastic crate while the Chicagoan stood, hands in pockets, peering ahead to the horizon. He looked at ease, comfortable despite the smack's dipping and yawing, his legs bent slightly to help him ride the swell.
Eventually he turned to Sam.
"'Bout time we met," he said. "Can't go on ignoring each other for ever." He stuck out a hand. "Rick Ramsay."
They shook. His grip was tough, gnarled, tight.
"I noticed you on the train," he said.
"You did?" She couldn't mask her surprise.
"You're hard not to notice." His eye roved; returned. "When I was buying that goddamn awful sandwich made of cardboard and rubber. How do you Brits eat that stuff?"
"We don't," Sam replied. "Only tourists are daft enough to try."
Rick Ramsay grinned, dazzlingly. "Touché. That's when I spotted you, anyways. And you did your darnedest to ignore me."
"In your dreams, Casanova."
"Whatever. So what's going on? What's your take on all this?"
He didn't have to specify what he meant by
"I have no idea," Sam said. "All I know is what it says here." She took out her invitation, which read:
MISS Samantha Akehurst,
You are hereby invited to attend a gathering which may lead to a proposition advantageous to yourself.
Your personal circumstances are known to me.
Your opportunity to seek redress has arrived.
The invitation was unsigned. A date, location and suggested travel arrangements were printed on the reverse. A cheque to cover costs - generously - had also been enclosed in the envelope.
"Yeah," said Ramsay. "Fancy, huh? I had to look up 'redress' in the dictionary. I thought maybe it had something to do with drag queens."
No, you didn't
, Sam thought.
You're a damn sight smarter than you're letting on
"Tweaked my curiosity all the same," he went on. "I thought, if nothing else, it's an all-expenses trip to merrie olde England, why not go? Do this, then pop down to see Stonehenge and maybe pay the Queen a visit at Bucking-ham Palace."
"So you're not the sort who normally responds to anonymous, vaguely worded invitations that drop on your doormat?"
"As a rule, no. And neither, I would guess, Sam Akehurst, are you. And yet here we are. What's that say about us, I wonder."
Ramsay gave a husky chortle like rainwater gurgling down a downpipe. "Ain't that the truth."
2. ON BLEANEY ISLAND
leaney Island was a low-lying hump of land like the corpse of some vast, ancient leviathan, lying dead in the water. Between outcrops of bare black rock there were stretches of grass and gorse, and the remnants of dry-stone walls could be seen, still parcelling up the ground decades after the last inhabitants had left. A concrete jetty jutted out from a steep shingle beach, and a small man hunched inside a large puffy parka was waiting at the end of it to greet the boat and the new arrivals.
"Jolyon Lillicrap," he said, blinking through spectacles misted with sea spray. "Apologies for both names. Neither my fault, but each nonetheless in its own way a source of embarrassment. Captain Fuller radioed ahead to tell us you were en route. It's Rick and Samantha, right?"
"Sam," said Sam. "Nobody's ever called me Samantha apart from my parents."
The fishing smack reversed, came about and swung away in a cloud of diesel smoke, Captain Fuller bidding farewell with a double blare of his horn.
"Let's go," said Lillicrap, shivering. "It's not getting any warmer. This way. Step lively."
He trotted along the jetty onto a track that curved between two shallow folds of hill. Sam and Ramsay followed, walking fast to keep up. Lillicrap seemed a creature of nervous energy and brisk efficiency.
"Excuse me," said Sam. "Mr Lillicrap? Jolyon? Where are you taking us? Are you the one who invited us here?"
"Questions," said Lillicrap over his shoulder. "I'm not supposed to answer any questions."
"Well, I think that answers your second one," Ramsay muttered to Sam. "Monkey, not organ grinder."
The track terminated at a cave-like entrance set into the earth, braced all round by concrete and inset with heavy steel doors. As the three of them drew near, the doors rolled ponderously open, activated by a remote control from Lillicrap's pocket.
"What is this, fucking hobbit-land?" Ramsay said with a grimace. "We going to meet Gandalf?"
"Second World War bunker actually," said Lillicrap. "Bleaney Island was used as listening post, keeping an ear on German naval radio traffic and U-boat sonar pings in the North Sea. It was also going to be a last redoubt if things started to go wrong. Churchill and the rest of the war cabinet would have been spirited away here to, I don't know, make patriotic broadcasts while the Nazis hoisted the Swastika over the Houses of Parliament, something like that. The bunker was completely derelict until about seven years ago, when we started work. Don't worry, we've made it quite an agreeable place to live. Central heating, ventilation, the lot. Damp's still a problem in a few places but otherwise it's all perfectly civilised."
"Perfectly civilised," Ramsay echoed. "How come that phrase sends a chill down the back of my neck?"
"Because you're not British?" Sam offered.
"That'd do it."
The steel doors began to trundle shut behind them. Simultaneously overhead lights came on, revealing a pillared, low-ceilinged space like a storey of a parking garage. The walls were streaked with dried water stains. The floor was dotted with what looked like large wet blisters - build-ups of sediment, proto-stalagmites.
Lillicrap briskly crossed the empty area, making for the far side and a door whose locking mechanism was controlled by a handprint scanner. Sam had been beginning to wonder if perhaps she and Ramsay were the victims of some grand, elaborate hoax and there was no more to this dingy subterranean place than met the eye. The handprint scanner put paid to that. There was, self-evidently, a great deal more.
A broad corridor led them past a series of closed doors. Rock music thumped from behind one. Living quarters, she guessed. At the end lay a staircase, down which they went, Sam with a deepening sense of trepidation. What was she getting herself into? There was the feeling that she was descending into something inescapable, irrevocable. She could be about to disappear off the face of the earth. No one knew she had gone to this island. There were no witnesses to her travelling here except for Captain Fuller, and he was in the employ of whoever had organised this whole enterprise. If she vanished, who would notice? Nobody. That was the sad truth of her existence. She had no family, no close friends, not any more.
Tragic though this was, it was also perversely comforting. Whatever fate awaited her, it would affect her alone. Sam Akehurst would not be missed. Her absence would not leave a hole in anyone's life.
Rick Ramsay's presence was likewise comforting. If this situation was all some elaborate trap, a snare for the curious and unwary, she didn't think he would hesitate to fight his way out of it. And neither would she.