For my mother, who loved dancing.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can do so much worse. I used to take words for granted. But words hold tremendous power. Arranged in the right order, they can make you cry with laughter or understand a stranger’s pain. And yet it only takes one to hurt another human being. In some countries there are laws against the use of certain words, and that’s a good thing. Those words are charged with hatred and need to be locked away until they and their power are forgotten.
The same is true of books, only more so.
Some books are harmful, even dangerous. They twist people’s minds and feed the darkest recesses of the human soul. They should be banned or destroyed. This is a story about one of them, written by one of the most evil men ever to have lived. I hope there are enough of you left out there to read it and believe and resist – before it’s too late.
Martin Baxter, yesterday
Welcome, sacred stranger. Enter the magickal Kingdom of the Dancing Jacks, with a brisk step and blessings upon you. Your place at Court is reserved and your presence long anticipated. Within these rousing pages, rewarding new friendships await. You are warmly invited to learn our ways and stories. Walk and play with us, repair by our fires and share our dreaming and restorative pleasures. Herein lie the understanding, acceptance and belonging you have so yearned to find. Join us, cherished reader, and escape the travails of those earthly measures that daily erode your humble spirit. Come to us – we shall coddle you, safe and close.
So mote it be.
Austerly Fellows, Imbolc 1936
The dance will go on…
Addicted to Dancing Jax?
The Wyrd Museum, Book One: The Woven Path
The Wyrd Museum, Book Two: Raven’s Knot
The Wyrd Museum, Book Three: The Fatal Strand
Beyond the Silvering Sea, within thirteen green, girdling hills, lies the wondrous Kingdom of the Dawn Prince. Yet inside his White Castle, the throne stands empty. For many long years he has been lost in exile and thus the Ismus, his Holy Enchanter, reigns in his stead — till the day of his glorious returning and the restoration of his splendour evermore.
THE DOOR SHIVERED. One more powerful kick and the lock ripped from the rotting frame.
It burst inward with savage force. Splinters and crackled paint exploded into a large, deserted hall and decades of dust rose up in a dry cloud. For the first time in too long, fierce daylight bleached its way in and insects clattered their escape over bare and lifting floorboards.
A pair of greedy eyes darted round the empty house as the man leered across the threshold.
Dragging the back of one grimy hand over his mouth, he stepped inside and the glittering dust whirled around him.
“Damp and the urination of rats.”
He was describing the stale must of the house, but the description suited him just as well.
He was a wiry stoat of a man, dressed in scuffed jeans and a torn biker jacket that had known three different owners, in almost as many decades, before it had come to him. He liked that it had a history and often claimed that it owned him, rather than the other way round.
His face was always alert, never still – feral and filthy and hostile. The skin that clad it was white and clammy and poorly nourished. When other substances were available, food was spurned by Jezza.
Even now his nicotine fingers were trembling and twitching. It was half eleven in the morning. All he’d had was a can of Red Stripe and that was only because he’d finished the last of the stolen vodka the night before.
Behind him a female voice asked, “Was this worth our last spit of petrol then?”
Jezza’s magpie eyes danced over the dingily patterned wallpaper that ran up the stairs to the landing. It was blotched here and there with black mould. The house was a big one and must have been impressive in its Victorian heyday, but now it was dark and damaged through years of neglect. Yet the man knew there were treasures to be harvested.
He was determined to gut the place and make a few quid. There was a bloke in Southwold who paid cash without questions for this salvage junk. Original fireplaces were bloody good money. If they’d already been snatched, there were always copper pipes, taps and internal doors. Most of the windows were boarded over and those that weren’t were smashed so there was nothing to be had there. Jezza’s rancid gaze ran over the banister rails. Yes, even them.
The girl edged in behind. She was no more than twenty, but the knockabout life with Jezza and the others had leeched the bloom of youth from her face. The peroxide had long grown out of her dark hair and now only the spiky tips remained a lifeless yellow. A straggling streak of turquoise at one temple was the last effort she had made, but that too was faded.
“Told you it was a big old place,” she said. “Keep us juicy for months this will.”
Jezza shrugged his narrow shoulders.
“Depends what’s left,” he answered, swaggering down the spacious hall towards a blistered door. He paused to circle a covetous, dirty finger around the tarnished brass knob, sourly reflecting that it was exactly the same colour as her hair tips, except that the doorknob had retained some shine. He wrenched it around.
“Sod all come here,” the girl muttered to his back. “I told you.”
Behind her, two figures pushed through the entrance. The first was around six foot tall. The other had a much shorter, slighter build. The burly one was dressed in a shapeless camouflage jacket, with a long, ratty ponytail hanging down his back and an unkempt beard half covering his face.
“Hello, home, I’m honey!” he announced, throwing his arms wide.
The other gagged as he pushed him inside. “Have you blown off again?”
“I’m a fart starter – a twisted fart starter!” sang the laughing reply.
“Your backside makes my eyes bleed, man.”
“Mmm… Bisto. You can dip your bread in that one, Tommo.”
The man called Tommo dodged around him and fled deeper into the hall. He wore grubby denim and his brown hair was loose and curly. “There’s got to be a rotting alien in your guts, Miller,” he spluttered. “Them guffs aren’t human.”
“Grow up, for God’s sake,” the girl told them irritably. “We should’ve brought Howie and Dave instead.”
“Howie and Dave don’t have our power tools,” Tommo answered, raising his hand and pressing an invisible trigger as he made a drill sound behind his teeth.
Miller lumbered further in and flexed his arms, sucking in his stomach at the same time. “And we is the muscle,” he declared. “Jezza needs he-men to rip this place to bits.”
“By the power of Greyskull!” Tommo called out, holding an imaginary sword aloft.
“The power of the Chuckle Brothers,” she observed dryly. Before the girl could stop them, he and Tommo seized her hands and started pulling her from side to side.
“To me, to you, to me, to you!” they chanted in unison.
“Get off!” she yelled, which only encouraged them to do it more.
“You lot!” Jezza’s voice called out to them sharply. “In here – now.”
The game stopped immediately. The girl threw them filthy looks. “Saddo losers,” she snapped, but there was a smirk on her face when she turned her back and followed Jezza into the nearest room.
“She meant you,” Miller told Tommo.
Tommo pressed his forefingers against the other man’s temple and made the drill noise again.
The girl’s grey eyes flicked about the spacious reception room. At first she could not see Jezza. The rags of light that poked through the imperfectly boarded windows contrasted with the deep wells of gloom around them. Apart from a card table and a red leather armchair, blackened with mildew, the room seemed empty. Then, as her vision adjusted, she found him. He was standing before a grand fireplace, leaning on the mantel as if he was already master of the house.
There was a sneer on his face.
“No one ever goes there, Jezza,” he said, repeating her words of the previous night and nodding at the opposite wall.
The girl turned and looked at the rotten panelling. It was covered in painted scrawl.
“Only kids,” she said with a shrug.
“Kids have sticky mitts,” he spat in reply before returning his attention to the fireplace and running his hands over it.
“Marble,” he announced, trailing his fingers through the mantel’s grime. “You have to tease these out dead gentle. Should fetch in plenty, and if there’s more, we’ll be laughing.”
The young woman touched the graffiti-covered wall, quietly reading the peeling words.
“Marc Bolan, The Sweet, Remember you’re a Womble, Mungo Jerry… this was a kid from a long time ago,” she said with a faint smile. “They’d be old as my mum now.”
“Young Wombles take your partners!” Miller sang as he and Tommo came waltzing in. “If you Minuetto Allegretto, you will live to be old.”
“You two won’t if you don’t stop dicking about,” Jezza warned them.
The men ceased and Tommo pointed to the mouldy chair.
“That’s what your fetid innards look like,” he muttered at Miller.
“You’re obsessed by my bowels,” the man answered with a bemused shake of the head.
“That’s because I can’t escape them! You keep making me breathe them in all the time!”
“You love it!”
Any further bickering was quelled by a fierce glance from Jezza. Then his eyes darted back to the girl. She was kneeling and rustling paper.
“What you got there?” he demanded.
“Kids’ magazine,” she answered, not looking up. “All yellow now and crinkly – look at those flares and the dodgy hair! There’s some old cans and sweet wrappers here too, Fresca and Aztec bars. Been a long time since this break-in.”
“Is it a girly mag?” Tommo asked brightly.
“For kids?” she snorted. “It looks like it’s all about the telly, besides – you’ve got enough of them mags already, Tommo.”
“He could open a library,” Miller agreed.
The girl looked at the magazine’s faded cover. Bold chunky type declared it was called Look–in, but there was also a name written on the corner in biro by a long retired newsagent:
She let the magazine fall to the floor.
Jezza stared about the room, his face twitching. “I don’t get it,” he said. “How come no one comes here? How come this place hasn’t been knocked down or tarted up by some rich knob with three cars and a split-level wife and an illegal immigrant nanny for their spoilt Siobhans and Zacharys? Prime, this place is, prime and begging for the developers.”
“The location, location, location’s no good,” Miller said, “We’re in the middle of nowhere here, and it was a long drive down that track full of potholes. We wouldn’t have guessed this place was here if we didn’t know about it and were looking.”
“Dirty big places like this don’t vanish off maps or land registries,” Jezza answered. “It don’t make sense. It must belong to someone.”
“If it does, they can’t care about it,” Tommo said. “Look at the state of it. Mr Muscle, where are you now?”
“We could squat in it,” Miller announced. “Get everyone over and fix it up a bit. Be a palace this would.”
“No!” the girl interrupted, rubbing her arms. “This is a sad house. It’s sad and depressing and I don’t like it.”
“All the more reason to pull it to pieces,” Jezza stated. “Nice, sellable, chopped-up pieces, and who’s going to complain? Perfect job this one, couldn’t be tastier!”
“I’ll start unloading the van,” Tommo said. “Come with me, Gasguts.”
“There you go again!” Miller cried. “You’re obsessed!”
“Wait!” Jezza barked suddenly. “Leave the tools for now.”
He was looking at the girl. She had risen and was staring into space, the expression drained from her features.
“Shee,” he said. “Shee!”
The girl started.
“How did you know about this place?” he asked.
The question nettled her and she moved towards the door.
“I just did,” she answered evasively. “I need a smoke and my lighter’s in the van.”
She hurried from the room, through the hall and out into the bright sunlight. The large, forbidding bulk of the house reared high behind her and she shivered as she fled back to the shabby camper van, parked up the overgrown drive. It was a horrible house. She hated it. She couldn’t wait to get out of it.
The VW’s familiar orange and cream colours reassured her and she let out a great breath of relief as she leaned against the dented passenger door.
“Stupid beggar,” she rebuked herself, pulling a cigarette out of her pocket and letting it hang in her lips as she lifted her eyes to gaze back at the imposing building.
It was a drab, ugly edifice, built of dull, grey stone in the heavy-handed, Victorian Gothic style, with a corner tower and too many gables. Planks and boards obscured the ground-floor windows, but higher up they were mostly uncovered and shaped like they belonged in a church.
Shiela hissed through her teeth at it. “Don’t you look at me like that,” she whispered.
Tall, misshapen trees crowded around it; there was even a tree growing in the middle of the drive, which was why they had to park the van so far away.
A rook or a crow cawed somewhere above and the lonely, unpleasant croaking made her shiver.
“Like a graveyard,” she murmured. “A graveyard for dead houses. There’s no life in that place, no life and never no love.”
Then a jangling rattle dragged her attention back to the front porch, where Jezza was standing, shaking the van keys.
“What freaked you out in there?” he asked as he sauntered over.
“I wasn’t freaked out. The air was bad. Stuffy and stale.”
“You put up with worse, with Miller in the back seat.”
“OK, I just don’t like that place. Give me them keys, I’m gasping.”
He snatched his hand away from her, dangling them just out of reach.
“That’s two questions you’ve avoided now,” he said, beginning to sound irritated. “Do you want me to force the answers out of you?”
“No, Jezza!” she said. “Just let me light up – for God’s sake!”
He threw the keys at her and a minute later she was dragging on the cigarette. Her fingers were trembling.
“It’s just a place I’ve heard about,” she explained, blowing out a stream of pale blue smoke. “Every town has one – the deserted old house. A place other kids dare you to go to, knock on the door, break in and spend the night.”
“What is this?” Jezza sounded annoyed. “Scooby sodding Doo? Don’t give me that crap.”
“It’s bloody true!” Shiela swore. “If you were from round here, you’d know, you’d have heard about it. Only in this case it’s not made up. That’s a… I dunno – a sick place. Not even kids dare each other to come here any more.”
“They’re too busy stuck in front of their Xboxes or glued to the Net to do anything real these days,” the man said.
“Good for them,” she muttered.
“The Web’s for rejects,” he pronounced. “All them misfits hiding in their rooms yakking away to other people they’ll never meet, using fake pictures and pretending to be someone else. No one knows who they are any more and those who do aren’t satisfied with it. You never know who you’re really talking to on there.”
She understood it was no use arguing with him. Jezza liked to make sweeping, preaching statements and wouldn’t listen to anyone who disagreed with him. He certainly hadn’t listened to her for a long time now. As for “misfits”, what else were they?
“It’s good for finding out stuff,” she said half-heartedly.
Jezza smirked sarcastically. “Yeah,” he said. “All that information, branching out from here and there. It’s the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Shee – and how mad is it that people are accessing it via their Apples! Ha – it’s Genesis all over again and we’re cocking it up a second time.”
“I wouldn’t call this Eden,” Shiela said.
“And you’re not Eve,” he told her bluntly, before considering the house again. “And you’re not blonde enough to be Yvette ruddy Fielding either. Got ghosts, has it?”
She shrugged and flicked some ash on the ground.
“No such thing,” he stated. “Only real things matter in this life, and there’s enough nasty realness to keep you worried and scared without inventing other mad stuff. The things to be frightened of in this world are just round the corner, hiding in your beans-on-toast existence. That’s where true evil breeds best. Under your noses, in plain sight: it’s the domestic abuse of the terrified wife three doors down and her neighbours who turn the telly up to drown out the noise; it’s the nurse in the care home who hates herself and takes it out on the patients; it’s the kids too scared to speak out; it’s the man kicking his dog in the ribs because it doesn’t bite back… it’s everywhere around us. Society, that’s the Petri dish where evil flourishes, not in empty old houses like this beauty.”
Shiela looked at him, at the sharp features that she had once found attractive: the sly, crafty shape of his narrow eyes and the unhealthy pallor that had marked him out as different and interesting. Then, unexpectedly, he turned his crooked smile on her and she was surprised to find that she still fancied him. She was always surprised. Jezza possessed a mesmeric charm, a way of making her overlook his bullying ego and ruthless self-interest. He exerted it over the others in the group too. He was, without question, their leader, and gathered waifs and strays to him like some kind of street prophet, and in their own inept, confused way, they were his disciples.
Taking the cigarette, he leaned beside her and stared intently up at the great, unlovely house.
“We could live off this dump for a year or more,” he said. “Must be all sorts in there. Might even be stuff left in the attics – or the cellars, and the odd stick of furniture too. You did good, Shee.”
“Wish I’d never said anything about it,” she said softly.
“I might just keep you around a while longer,” he chuckled with a wink, but she knew he probably meant that veiled threat.
Suddenly, inside the house, a man’s voice screamed.
Jezza sprang forward like a cat and rushed back to the porch. Shiela lit another cigarette and waited.
Bonded to the Ismus, though by no means his only dalliance, is the fair Labella, the High Priestess. She outranks the other damsels of the Court, yea — even the proud queens of the four Under Kings and see how their eyes flash at her when she parades by. Coeval with her are the Harlequin Priests — that silent pair arrayed so bright and yet so grim and grave of face. Let not they point to the dark colours of their motley — dance on and dance by quick, my sprightly love.
RICHARD MILLER WAS sitting on the stairs. He was sweating and shaken and seemed to have shrunken into his shabby camouflage jacket, like a tortoise in its shell. Tommo stood in front of him, looking completely bemused and wondering if he could risk laughing and not receive a thump or a kick in return.
“What’s gone on?” demanded Jezza when he came rushing in.
Tommo put one hand over his heart. “Nothing to do with me!” he explained hurriedly. “Pongo here had a fit going up the stairs.”
“Sounded like you’d fell through them!” Jezza said.
Miller lifted his face and looked warily over his shoulder. “There was something up there,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“What?” Jezza snapped.
“Dunno… just something.”
“Like nothing I ever felt before,” the big man answered slowly.
It was Tommo who answered that one. “Just up on that little landing there,” he said, with a definite chuckle in his voice. “Stopped dead in his tracks he did and then, wham – he bawls his head off and leaps about, like he had jump leads clamped to his bits.”
Jezza looked up to where the staircase turned at a right angle to the wall before continuing to the first floor. There was nothing to see in the gloom, except a tall, boarded window and a particularly large patch of black mould that seemed to bleed down from the upper shadows.
“Go on then,” Jezza said impatiently. “What was it, a floating face or a demonic monkey or something?”
“Nah,” Tommo sniggered. “Evil monkeys live in closets.”
“I’m sick of this ghost garbage, man,” Jezza said. “First Shee, now you.”
Miller wasn’t listening. He was tentatively sniffing the back of one hand. Then he pushed his sleeve up to the elbow to inspect his heavily tattooed forearm.
“What you doing?” Tommo hooted. “You madpot!”
Miller looked up at them. “There was a terrible stink,” he said.
“Always is with you!” Tommo agreed.
Miller shook his head. “A stink of damp!” he said. “Terrible stink of damp – like rotting leaves – or worse. Decayed and rotten and rank and death, cold death.”
“Just normal damp and wet rot,” Jezza told him. “What d’you expect in a rancid dump like this, Chanel No 5 potpourri?”
Miller wiped his hand on his clothes. “No,” he breathed. “No, it wasn’t normal. There was something else. When I touched…”
He jumped up, almost knocking Tommo over, and glared back at the staircase.
“That wall!” he cried. “When I put my hand on it. The bloody stuff moved! Ran over my bloody hand and up my arm! I had to shake it off!”
“What stuff?” asked Jezza sternly.
Miller turned a bewildered, fearful face to him. “The mould!” he said. “The black bloody mould! I felt it on my skin – it’s alive!”
He gave the stairs one last look, then blundered towards the front door, only to find Shiela standing there.
“Jezza,” she called. “Let’s ditch this place. I want to go – right now.”
The man looked at her and placed his hand on the banister. “Just cos Miller puts his great mitt in a web and feels a spider run over him?” he said. “Don’t be a stupider cow than normal, Shee.”
“It wasn’t no spider!” Miller shouted.
“Roaches or woodlice then,” Jezza said, not caring either way. “Get real. There’s no way I’m leaving this gold mine. It belongs to me now. I’m going to strip it right down and flog even the bricks, if they’re worth anything.”
“Listen to Miller!” she told him.
Jezza ignored her and jumped nimbly on to the first stair.
“Jezza!” Shiela said urgently as he began to ascend. “Don’t! It’s a bad place.”
“Don’t go up there!” Miller joined in.
“Oh, Mr Ghostman…” Jezza sang out as he climbed slowly, step by step. “I’m so going to kick your see-through arse and evict you off my property. This is my gaff now, you hear me? And unless you can pay rent, in living cash, you aren’t welcome.”
“Ha!” Tommo laughed. “You tell him. Who we gonna call? Umm… just Jezza – he ain’t afraid of no ghost!”
“Belief in the supernatural is cut from the same twisted psychology as the need for religion,” Jezza began propounding. “It’s a man-made hang-up, yet another method of controlling the gullible proletariat by the fat cats at the top to keep us down and scared and not dare to ask real questions of the real people. Instead they made us kneel and pray against the terrors in the night that they invented. It’s always been about control; there is no evil substance to darkness – it’s just an absence of light.
“Like I always say, you should only be afraid of realness. It’s not some vampire that’ll get you along the lonely midnight lane, but the paranoid schizophrenic who prefers junk to his meds and believes his Ricicles are telling him to collect human livers in a blue bucket. Be scared of that poor sod, and the NHS trusts who turf him into the community expecting him to function without proper care because it’s cheaper and they can afford some extra salmon on the buffet when the next bigwig comes round for the usual glad-handing and a mugshot in the local rag.”
“Listen to me, for God’s sake!” Shiela cried. “I know who that kid was, the one with the magazine. I know what happened to him. Jezza – stop. Come down!”
The man reached the small landing. He half turned to grin at them. That conceited little grin which always preceded some proud, pig-headed action. Then, turning away into the wedge of shadow, he reached out with both hands and placed them squarely in the centre of the mould on the wall.
“Stupid to the power of ten,” Shiela uttered in disgust.
The three disciples waited. Staring up at the back of the man they knew only as Jezza, they watched and wondered. Jezza remained perfectly still. He made no sound. He just stayed with his hands against the wall and the moments dragged into minutes. Shiela dug her fingernails into her arms. The tension was unbearable.
“That’s enough!” she said, unable to take it any longer. “This isn’t funny!”
“Yeah,” Miller called. “Joke over.”
Jezza did not move.
Tommo smiled at the others. “Chill,” he told them.
“Rich,” the girl said to Miller. “Go get him. Bring him down.”
The burly man hesitated.
“Bring him down!” she repeated forcefully, pushing him forward.
Miller moved towards the stairs. Passing a puzzled-looking Tommo, he began to climb, reluctantly.
“Come on,” he called up. “Enough’s enough. You’re spooking Shiela.”
“You two are so over-reacting,” Tommo declared. “Jezza’s winding you up. Whirrrrrrrr – there you go.”
Miller neared the small landing. His forehead began to sweat as he recalled the terror that had overwhelmed him before. He took a deep breath and smelled the same putrid reek of decay, and coughed as it caught the back of his throat.
He took a step closer to Jezza. The man’s head was hidden in the gloom and when Miller leaned sideways to catch sight of his face, he could see nothing but a black profile.
“Jezza, mate,” he said. “Stop this now.”
In the corner of his eye something moved over the wall. He jumped back and stumbled down two steps.
“Jesus!” he cried.
And then Jezza stirred. He jerked his head back then turned slowly around. His narrow eyes danced over his followers as if viewing them properly for the first time and a smile spread across his face.
“Look at you,” he laughed softly. “Doesn’t take much to panic my little chickens, does it? Another minute and you’d be screaming – and all for the fear of nothing at all. Very instructive.”
“You’re bleeding hilarious you are,” Shiela snapped.
“And you’re terminally predictable,” he answered coldly.
His eyes left her mutinous, wounded stare and fixed on Miller in front of him.
The big man was looking past him, at the wall. But there was nothing to see in the shadows there, just the staining mould.
“You’re in my way,” Jezza told him.
Miller shook himself. Whatever he had thought he had seen was no longer there. He lumbered about and stomped back down the stairs, glad to feel the floor beneath him once more. With far lighter, almost dancing steps, Jezza followed.
“I wasn’t scared!” Tommo piped up. “Dunno what’s wrong with these two today.”
“Shut it, you tedious prat,” Jezza instructed, without even looking at him.
Shiela grimaced. Sometimes he repulsed her. He could treat people like dirt, even those closest to him. She saw Tommo react as if he’d been slapped and she wanted to be far, far away from this life she had chosen for herself. Why did she and the rest of them put up with it? Why did they keep coming back and seeking this creature’s approval? What did it ever get them?
“I’ll be in the van,” she declared, moving back into the sunlight that streamed through the door.
Before she even set foot on the porch, Jezza was behind her. He seized hold of her wrist and spun her around. Grabbing the back of her hair, he pulled her face to his and kissed her roughly on the mouth.
Shiela struggled and kicked him on the shin.
“Sod off!” she spat.
“Don’t go yet,” he said, releasing her. “Come on, there’s more to see. Let’s me and you explore on our own. Come on, girl.”
She blinked at him in surprise. He hadn’t kissed her like that for a long time.
“Tommo, Miller!” he ordered, “You two go look through the rest of these rooms down here.”
The men glanced at each other uncertainly. Neither of them wanted to be there any more.
Jezza turned the full power of his stare on them. “Only this floor mind,” he warned. “No one, but no one, is to go upstairs. Do you hear me?”
“I wouldn’t if you paid me,” Miller muttered.
“Be about it then, rabbits,” Jezza said with a nod towards the other rooms.
With a cautious look at Shiela to make sure she was OK, they made for one of the other doors leading off the hall. If they had rechecked the first one, they would have seen that the red leather of the armchair was now no longer covered in mould.
“Just you and me, kid,” Jezza said, smiling at Shiela.
The girl was wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “What have you been eating?” she asked, spitting on the floor. “Tastes like… soil or something. Have a mint!”
“I’m just an earthy guy,” he said and there was that wink again. Then he surprised her a second time by taking hold of her hand, only gently, far more gently and tenderly than he had ever been. “This way,” he said, leading her further into the hall.
“I don’t want to be in here,” she protested. “I want to sit in the van. I’ll wait there.”
But he was so insistent, his voice so coaxing and persuasive, that, before she realised, they were standing before a door in the panelling beneath the stairs. With a flourish, Jezza yanked it open.
It was pitch-black inside and a waft of cold, dead air flowed across Shiela’s face.
“What’s in there?” she asked, backing away.
“Cellar,” he replied.
“There’s no chance in hell I’m going down there! Even if we’d brought torches I wouldn’t.”
Jezza reached into the darkness and caught hold of a Bakelite switch dangling on a corded flex from the sloping ceiling. An instant later a dim bulb illuminated a flight of steps leading downward.
“How did you know that was there?” she asked. “How come the power’s still on?”
Jezza was already descending. There was a strange, barely contained excitement in him. It was as if he knew what was down there, as if he knew exactly what was waiting.
“It’ll be swarming with rats!” she said. “I’m not coming with you.”
He looked back at her – his eyes shining like an owl’s in the light.
“There’s no rats down here,” he assured her with consummate confidence. “They’re not allowed.”
Shiela watched his figure bob further down the steps. “Come back!” she called. “Jezza!”
He disappeared round a corner and she wished she’d kicked him harder.
“Jezza…?” she shouted.
She was alone. “Tommo, Miller…” she said, but her voice faltered and wherever they were they did not hear her.
Shiela looked anxiously at the open front door. The sunlight had dimmed and the outside seemed grey. A wind was shaking the trees.
“Save me, save me,” she whispered urgently. Everything appeared threatening. Shiela thought of the magazine and what had happened to the boy it had belonged to all those years ago. Suddenly a gust of wind banged the front door against the wall. It bounced back and slammed shut. The hall was plunged into darkness.
The girl yelled and flung herself down the stairs.
“Jezza!” she cried. “Jezza!”
She leaped down two steps at a time and whirled around breathlessly. The cellar was built of vaulted grey stone that formed small, dungeon-like chambers, each with a single light bulb suspended from the apex of the ceiling.
The first chamber was empty, but a draught was moving the hanging light and the shadows swung sickeningly around her.
“Jezza…” she called again. “Damn – what the hell am I doing down here? You need your brains testing, you crazy—”
She couldn’t find a word dumb enough to describe herself. She shivered, but noticed that although it was cold down here, it was the only place in that awful house that was not damp.
No answer. She moved warily across the chamber to the next archway. That too was empty, except for strange drawings chalked on the walls, but this was not childish graffiti like the scribbles above. Here were intricate geometric patterns, interlocking circles and squares, surrounded by florid lettering spelling out Latin words. Shiela stared at them and her skin crawled. She had seen Howie, another of Jezza’s disciples, tattoo similar pentacles on the backs of many heavy-metal fans and wallowing emos.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jezza spoke in her ear.
The girl flinched and hit him. “Take me to the van right now!” she demanded.
“Wait till you see this,” he said, leading her to the next chamber.
“I’ve seen enough!” she replied, tugging away from him.
“No, just this,” he said firmly. “Come on, girl.”
They passed into the third chamber. It was larger than the previous two. Three wide, concentric circles had been inscribed into the stone floor, in the centre of which were six large wooden crates.
“What’s them?” she asked.
“The jackpot, girl. Only the ruddy jackpot.”
“But what’s inside?”
With a triumphant laugh, he leaped into the circles. A rusty crowbar was lying across the top of one crate and he grasped it with both hands.
“Let’s open them and find out!” he yelled.
“No,” Shiela objected. “Leave it. There could be anything in there. Jezza, leave it!”
The man took no notice and was busily prising off one of the lids. The old nails squeaked and the wood splintered. Shiela looked around and cursed herself for ever suggesting they come here.
“Bobby Runecliffe!” she blurted, edging away. “That was the name of the boy. He was famous, all over the news back then. My mum knew him. They were in the same class. Bobby disappeared one night when he was thirteen. He was missing for three days. They finally found him wandering out on the motorway, but he was different – mental. He couldn’t speak. When they took him home, he killed all his pets, strangled them. Then he tried to do the same to his kid sister. He’s been locked up ever since. Nobody knew where he’d been, but it must have been here. Oh, God, it was here and it drove him crazy. Jezza – don’t open that! Please!”
He only laughed in answer as the final nail was torn free and he wrenched the lid clear.
Shiela was shaking. The adrenalin was coursing through her veins. She was ready to race away at the slightest thing.
“If something flies out of there,” she said.
Above them, in the rest of the house, Miller’s voice was bawling. “Guys! You will not believe this! Guys! This is seriously weird, man!”
Shiela spun around. “What?” she cried. “What did he say?”
Jezza dropped the crowbar and the noise of it clanging on the stone floor made her scream.
“Don’t do that!” she yelled.
“Calm down, baby,” he muttered, gazing admiringly into the open crate. “Calm down.”
“That was Miller,” she said. “He might need help.”
Jezza chuckled. “I think our flatulent friend has merely discovered my conservatory,” he told her. “Nothing to worry about.”
Shiela stared at him. “How do you…?”
He grinned up at her and beckoned with his cigarette-stained fingers. “Come look,” he said. “Look what we found.”
“I don’t want to see,” she told him. “I’m so out of here.”
Jezza dipped his hand inside the crate.
“Don’t be scared, my honey, my pet,” he said.
In spite of herself, Shelia remained. Jezza was always bizarre and never behaved as society expected him to. That was part of the attraction. But this was different. She had not seen this side to him before.
Now he stood before her, holding something that caused his eyes to widen, and he drew in a marvelling breath.
“Look at this,” he whispered reverently. “There’s plenty more in the box. Each one is packed with them.”
Shiela lowered her eyes to the thing in his hands and the surprise and relief almost made her laugh out loud.
“It’s just a book!” she exclaimed. “Just a… kids’ storybook!”
His grin grew wider as he gave it to her. In the stark glare of the bare bulb she could see it was old, but had never been read. The dust cover was in mint condition, with only a few foxed marks speckling it. The illustration was an outdated style, but it had a certain period charm and she read the title aloud.
Jezza pressed his face against hers. “Yes,” he said, breathing damp and decay upon her as he smiled. “It’s just a book, my fair Shiela… bella.”
And so: those rascally Knaves, who set the Court cavorting. How they do behave, it’s really worth reporting. The Jill of Hearts, a hungry temptress, she’ll steal a kiss from lad and lass. The Jack of Diamonds prefers shinier pleasures, gold and jools are his best treasures. The Jill of Spades is coldly cunning, a secret plot and you’re done in. The Jack of Clubs, beasts and fowl adore him, all raise a shout and sing aloud — four Dancing Jacks have entered in!
“SIT DOWN AND settle down,” Martin Baxter said in that practised tone that only experienced teachers ever seemed capable of. It was loud enough to be heard above the scuffle and din of thirty kids flooding into a classroom, yet it wasn’t shouting and it required no great effort on his part.
“Coats off. Hurry up. Glen, do that tie up properly. Keeley, take your earphones out. If I see them again, your MP3 player is going in my little drawer till the end of term. Don’t think I won’t – it’ll be company for the mobiles.”
Surly young faces stared back at him and he beamed pleasantly in return. That always annoyed them. He hated this Year 10. Yes, actually hated them. They were just as bad when they were in Year 9. Actually, no, not all of them; some of the kids were OK. There were some genuinely nice, bright ones. But most of them, even the most naive and idealistic of the new staff had to admit, were hard work and there were one or two that he had long since classified as downright scum. Unfortunately that very scum were in his lesson right now.
In the far left corner, Keeley slid on to her seat in front of her two friends, Emma and Ashleigh. The three of them immediately began singing a Lady Gaga song and only stopped when they caught sight of Mr Baxter staring at them.
“Where do you three think you are?” he asked.
“In a boring maths lesson,” the hard-faced Emma answered.
“We’re going to enter the next X Factor, Sir,” Ashleigh explained.
“Don’t you need even a modicum of talent for that?” he inquired.
“Yeah, so we’ve got to practise,” Keeley argued.
“We’re going to blow that Cowell bloke away!” Ashleigh said. “We’re going to be famous and be in all the mags.”
Their teacher looked surprised. “Are there many specialist publications just for gobby imbeciles then?” he asked. “Actually that’d be most of them,” he murmured under his breath.
“You’re mean and sarky, Sir,” Emma grumbled.
“Ain’t that the truth,” he retorted with a fixed grin. “You’ve got as much chance of being singers as three cats yowling in a dustbin.”
The girls pouted and fell to whispering to one another.
“‘When shall we three meet again?’ probably,” Mr Baxter muttered, although he knew he was slandering Macbeth’s witches. Over the past few years he had come to realise that these three girls had no redeeming qualities and were getting worse. They had absolutely no regard for anyone except themselves and constantly showed their displeasure at having to attend school instead of being allowed to stay at home watching Jeremy Kyle.
“And who do you think you are?” Mr Baxter told one boy who came traipsing in with his trousers hanging down over his backside, displaying his underwear. “Pull them up!”
“You can’t discriminate against me, Sir,” came the rebellious reply. “It’s my identity, innit. I’m doing it to support my brothers. I won’t yank up my saggys.”
Martin raised his eyebrows. “Your brother works in Halfords,” he said with a weary sigh. “And I didn’t realise bright purple pants with Thomas the Tank Engine on them were very hip hop.”
“Yeah, well, my best ones is in the wash and I wouldn’t wear them to this poxy school anyways.”
“Be that as it may,” Martin said, above the titters. “The fact remains, that’s not how you’re supposed to wear your uniform so pull them up or you’ll be staying behind every night this week and every night after that until you do pull them up.”
“You is well bullying me, Sir.”
“Owen,” Martin said with a weary sigh. “Why do you insist on speaking like that?”
“It’s who I is, innit.”
“No, it isn’t. For one thing, you’re ginger, for another – you’re Welsh.”
“I is ghetto.”
“You’re as ghetto as Angela Lansbury, only nowhere near as cool and I’m sure she doesn’t reek of Clearasil and athlete’s foot powder. Now save who you is till you get outside the school gates, then you can drop your trousers down past your bony knees for all I care.”
Owen hitched his trousers up and sat down noisily, slinging his bag on the desk before him.
Martin Baxter groaned inwardly. He didn’t mind what cultures the kids tapped into. It was normal and healthy to seek for an identity, but in recent years he’d become aware just how homogenised that identity had become. Was it any surprise though when just about every other television programme was fronted by presenters with forced mockney accents, as if working-class London was the centre of the cool universe and nowhere else mattered. It made him wince whenever he heard the kids here in Felixstowe trying to mimic the cod East End accents that grunted around Walford. Whatever happened to quirky individuality? Sadly he reflected that, like the coast here in Suffolk, it was being eroded.
The maths teacher felt it was going to be one of those days. Thank heavens it was Friday. He had no idea just how bad that day was going to become. No one did.
When the shuffling and unrest had subsided, he sat at his desk and pulled a sheaf of papers from his battered leather briefcase.
“Before we start,” he said. “Let’s have a look at last week’s test.”
One of the three huddled girls looked up in alarm.
“You’re not going to read the marks out, Sir?” she asked in exaggerated dismay.
Martin beamed again. “Oh, you betcha!” he said brightly. “Let’s all have a laugh and see who the thickies are – as if we needed reminding.”
“That is so not fair,” she said, covering her face.
“Shall I start with you then, Emma, and get it out of the way? Here we are, 23 per cent – that’s a new record for you. You must have actually been awake during one lesson. Now Ashleigh and Keeley, 19 and 21 per cent respectively.”
“No respect about that!” roared one of the boys, slapping his desk. “That is so shaming!”
Martin smiled at him next. “Kevin Stipe, a whopping 17 per cent! Who’d have thought chatting to your pals and larking about instead of listening to me would produce such lame results? There can’t be a connection there, surely? Coincidence? Nah…”
Kevin Stipe sank into his chair while Emma and her cohorts shook their hands at him and jeered.
“Quiet!” Martin called. He read out a few more pitiful scores before looking across to the side of the class where a thin-faced, pretty girl, was hiding behind her hair.
“Sandra Dixon,” he said, this time with a genuine smile. “Ninety-four per cent. Well done, Sandra. Now who would have thought that paying attention and getting on with your work in class could produce that result? You know, I really do think there’s something in that theory. Take note, the rest of you.”
Emma and her cronies pulled faces at Sandra’s back and Ashleigh scrunched up a scrap of paper to lob at her head.
“You just dare!” Martin growled at her. “You’ll be in the Head’s office so fast, your shoes will leave skid marks on the corridor floor.”
“Skid marks!” Kevin guffawed.
Just then the door opened and a tall, fair-haired lad with a sports bag slung over his shoulder came ambling in. Without so much as a glance at Martin Baxter, he headed for his empty seat. Keeley and Ashleigh whistled through their teeth at him. They had recently decided his was the best bottom in the school.
“Conor!” Martin said. “Where’ve you been? Why are you drifting in here so late?”
The boy looked at him insolently. “I was helping Mr Hitchin, Sir,” he said.
“Then you’ll have a note from him for me to that effect.”
“OK, you’ve just earned yourself some extra time here tonight.”
“Can’t do that, I’ve got football.”
“Conor, you’ve been here long enough to know how this place works. If you come to my lesson late, without a valid reason, then it’s automatic detention.”
“But there’s a match on!”
“If that was so important to you, you’d have made sure you were here on time and not get detention.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Excuse me, do I know you? Now sit down.”
Conor slumped in his seat and mouthed an obscenity when Mr Baxter wasn’t looking. Then he glanced round to see if any of his classmates had seen him do it. Sandra Dixon’s disgusted eyes met his and he mimed a kiss at her. Sandra turned away.
Martin Baxter looked up just in time to catch that exchange. He felt sorry for students like Sandra, the ones who enjoyed their lessons and worked hard. Even the ones who weren’t as capable but tried their best were a pleasure to teach, but the number of wasters and wilfully ignorant, disruptive kids was growing every year and the government’s policy of inclusion meant that they dragged everyone else in the class down to their level and held them back. As teachers, they weren’t even allowed to use the word “fail” any more; they were now instructed to adopt the phrase “deferred success”. Martin had to laugh at that; some of these kids would be deferring success for the rest of their lives.
The profession was not the same as when he first started, over twenty years ago. Now he was also expected to be a policeman and a social worker, but he absolutely refused to be a clownish entertainer like some of his colleagues. They had lost the respect of their pupils and now had to perform every lesson in order to engage and keep their attention. Consequently very little proper teaching was done. As far as Martin was concerned, the kids were here to learn and, for him, that meant the old-fashioned way of drilling it into them. He didn’t care if they found it repetitive; this method worked – or at least it did for those who listened and were prepared to apply themselves.
“OK, open your books!” he told them. “We’re going to find the area of triangles today – you lucky lot.”
He was deaf to the expected groans from the usual quarters.
“I haven’t got a pen, Sir,” Keeley drawled.
“I hear what you’re saying,” he answered, with his broadest smile yet, “and I’m filing it away under ‘Not My Problem’.”
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Two periods with Years 8 and 7 went by smoothly. They were usually the best years – the bored cynicism and slouching indifference hadn’t taken control yet – but even so, kids just weren’t the same as they used to be. Teachers were constantly being told to be mindful of attention-deficit syndromes, a condition which Martin always relabelled ‘bone-idle’. Those pupils with supposed limited attention spans were more than capable of spending hours on their PlayStations without any problem. They wouldn’t have been able to get away with that excuse thirty years ago, but now they were aware of it and played up to it – though not in his classes.
After detention, Martin Baxter walked down the polished corridor to the staffroom to make a much-needed coffee before heading home. For the umpteenth time that day he wished he could change jobs and do something else entirely, but at the age of forty-three that really wasn’t a viable option.
Entering the deserted staffroom, he deposited his briefcase on the nearest chair and rinsed a mug in the sink. The view from the window showed the staff car park and the school gates. A few of the older kids were still lingering beyond them. He recognised Emma and the other two members of her coven leaning against the railings, no longer practising their tuneless singing. He knew they’d never stick at it. Like so many other people nowadays, they expected wealth and celebrity without having to do anything to earn it. They saw other people becoming famous for having no discernible talent or having to work hard, so why should they? Role models now were celebrated, even idolised, for their stupidity; no wonder it was such a fight to get some of the kids to understand why an education was important.
“Can I have a word, Martin?”
A broad, big-shouldered man with a paunch and a florid face had popped his head around the door. Martin Baxter always thought the Headteacher looked like an actor who only ever played snarling detective superintendents on television. Maybe that was why he was such an effective Head. Most of the kids held him in awe. The good ones respected him and the rest instinctively recognised his innate authority. Barry Milligan tolerated no nonsense from anyone and even intimidated some of his staff.
He didn’t intimidate Martin. They’d both been at this school too long for that. They were the longest serving members of staff. Martin often reflected that if they’d committed murder instead of starting work here, their prison sentences wouldn’t have lasted so long and they’d be free by now.
“What can I do for you?” the maths teacher asked. “I can offer you a very horrible coffee, but I’m afraid all the Hobnobs have been pinched.”
Barry wandered over. He always looked like he was going to arrest you and yell, “You’re nicked, you slaaag!” right in your face. Martin suppressed a smile.
“I’ve had Douggy Wynn griping about some lad you kept in detention instead of letting him play football,” the Head explained.
“That’s the toerag. Our Mr Wynn isn’t happy that his best striker didn’t get to the match till half-time.”
“Are you having a go?”
Barry patted his old friend on the back. “Douggy never sees the bigger picture,” he said. “He only thinks about his own subject and winning trophies.”
“Well, he hasn’t won any in the two years he’s been teaching here,” Martin replied. “If that gymnasty has got a problem with me enforcing some kind of discipline on the mouthy Conors of this place then he can come say it to my face instead of moaning to you.”
Barry raised his hands. “Only passing it on,” he declared. “Mind you, if we played rugby at this school instead of football…”
“I wouldn’t dare spoil your favourite game!” Martin laughed.
“Game?” Barry gasped, looking mortified. “Don’t blaspheme, Martin! That’s my religion you’re talking about and I’ll be worshipping at the blessed temple of my beloved Saxons again tomorrow.”
Martin shook his head and chuckled. Barry’s main love had always been rugby. He had even played for Felixstowe in his youth. In their early years at the school, he would often appear on Monday morning with a curious, curler-shaped bandage in his hair or a black eye or scabby, scraped forehead where a boot had trodden on him. That was another reason the kids respected him, that and the way he used to fling wooden-backed board rubbers at the heads of the lads who weren’t paying attention in his classes. Yes, you could actually do that sort of thing back then and not be sacked or put on some sort of register – and so his legend had grown. Nowadays though, Barry Milligan was resembling the shape of the ball more and more.
Martin lifted the mug of steaming black coffee to his lips when he realised Barry was regarding him curiously. He mentally classified this expression as Do yourself a favour, you lowlife – and tell us what we want to know.
Then Barry said, “If the kids here ever found out about your religion, Martin, and what you were into, they’d make your life unbearable and eat you for breakfast.”
Martin grinned. He knew Barry was right. He blew on his coffee and glanced out of the window.
“Hell!” he shouted, slamming the mug on the side and rushing for the door.
It only took an instant for Barry to clock what was happening before he too rushed from the staff-room.
Outside, Emma and her friends were kicking and punching Sandra Dixon.
The Jockey: that tittuping mischief-maker in caramel colours, he who rides all at Court and makes them chase in circles for his impish glee. Not even the Ismus escapes his naughty, wayward pranks. Though they beat him, flail him and lock him in the tower gaol, this toffee-toned trickster always springs back, ripe and ready for more games and wicked japes. Tiptoe by, lest he set his jaunty cap at you and sets your dance a-spinning for his fun.
SANDRA HAD STAYED late to do her homework in the library. It was easier there than at home, with her two younger brothers arguing all the time and cranking their music up to deafening levels to spite each other. Besides, she liked being surrounded by the books and the glow of computer screens that weren’t displaying high-speed chases or shooting bullets at marauding zombies.
When Miss Hopwood, the librarian, turned the screens off and announced it was time to leave, Sandra and the other six members of the after-school homework club packed their bags and filed outside.
She was an intelligent, quiet girl who didn’t make friends easily. Throughout most of her school life her best friend had been Debbie Gaskill. They had gone everywhere together. They were both tall and willowy and had often been mistaken for sisters. They shared the same interests and had never quarrelled once. But last term Debbie’s father had been promoted and the family had been compelled to move to Leicester. So now Sandra found herself alone. Of course, she stayed in touch with Debbie via Facebook and texting; they spoke once or twice a week and visits were planned – but it wasn’t the same.
Sandra threw herself into her studies even more and ignored the jibes from some of the other pupils. She enjoyed maths and English and was good at French, so what? They enjoyed reading Heat and squealing at celebrities displaying cellulite or with spotty foreheads and wearing clothes that were a size too small.
As she passed through the school gates, she only became aware of Emma, Keeley and Ashleigh when they spoke to her.
“Miss 94 Per Cent!” Emma said in a taunting jeer.
“Miss Brown Nose!” added Keeley. “It’s right up Baxter’s behind.”
Ashleigh made a slurping sound behind her teeth.
“Don’t you get sick of sucking up all the time, you freak?” Emma asked, as the girls began to circle her.
Sandra tried to ignore them and walk on, but they weren’t about to let that happen. They were just warming up.
“You keep them cow eyes off Conor Westlake,” Keeley ordered. “You listening?”
“Yeah,” Ashleigh chimed in. “He’s not interested in a stuck-up drip like you so back off.”
Sandra couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Conor Westlake?” she laughed. “What are you on about?”
“Don’t give me that!” Emma screamed in her face. “I saw you two today. You was throwing yourself at him, flirting with him in front of everyone. Getting him to blow kisses!”
“Slapper!” Ashleigh taunted in agreement. “You got nothing he wants!” Emma continued, jabbing a finger in the girl’s face. “So jog on, you skinny munter!”
“Minger!” Ashleigh contributed.
“There’s no way anyone wants to bounce on a bag of antlers like you!”
Sandra stopped walking and, with a cool dignity that maddened the girls even more, said, “Conor Westlake has never read a book in his life that he hasn’t coloured in. He’s almost as retarded as the three of you, so why on earth would I…?”
Before she could finish the sentence, an incensed Emma had thumped her in the stomach and Sandra had crumpled to the ground. Then they laid into her.
Conor Westlake was brimming with resentment. At that moment he despised Mr Baxter with all his young heart. Because of that miserable old maths teacher he had missed the first half of the game, by which time it was too late and their team couldn’t hope to recover from the beating the other school was giving them. He had stormed off the field as soon as the whistle blew and grabbed his stuff from the changing room.
Still in his kit, the boy stomped towards the gates, the studs of his boots clacking over the tarmac path. When he heard the shrieks and squawks of Emma and her friends, he snapped out of his brooding resentment and stared at them for a moment, wondering why they were kicking a large coat on the floor. Then he realised that coat was really another girl and he raced forward.
“Hoy!” he bawled. “Get off her!”
Emma and the others looked up and glared at him, snarling like young lionesses over a carcass.
“Here’s lover boy!” Keeley spat at him.
Emma would have lunged at him as well, but it was then that Mr Baxter and the Head came rushing from the school.
The girls screamed abuse and ran off, leaving Conor shaking his head at them and Sandra quailing on the ground, clutching her sides and stomach.
“You all right?” he asked, kneeling down.
Sandra turned an ashen, angry face on him and only then did he realise who he had saved. “Stay away from me!” she yelled. “Don’t you touch me!”
“I didn’t do nothing!” he exclaimed. “Ungrateful cow! I shouldn’t have bothered.”
“Get off me!” she cried.
The thunderous voice of Barry Milligan interrupted them. “Westlake!” he hollered furiously. “Outside my office, now!”
“But I didn’t do…”
“I said now!” the Head shouted, his face turning purple.
Conor took a last, confused but angry look at Sandra and stormed back into the school.
“How bad is it?” Martin was asking the girl. “Can you move?”
Sandra nodded, but she was trembling.
“Get her inside,” Barry said. “She’s in shock.”
“She needs an ambulance,” Martin answered. “She shouldn’t be moved till they’ve had a look at her.”
The girl brushed his hands away and, with a grimace, raised herself off the ground. “I’m all right,” she told them as she picked herself up. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s a police matter,” the Head corrected her.
And then a new sound made all three of them turn. Behind the main school building, on the football field, there were furious shrieks and shouts and wild screaming. A pitched battle between the two teams and their supporters was under way.
“It’s a war zone, this place,” Martin muttered. “These kids are out of control.”
The next hour was a bit of a blur. Martin had helped Sandra into the staffroom and made her a cup of sweet tea, then called her parents to come and collect her. Meanwhile Barry had run to the field to see what was going on there.
Martin had been right. It really was a war zone. Douggy Wynn and the games teacher from the other school stood on the sidelines, powerless to stop the violence. They blew their whistles and tried to pull fighting groups apart, but it was no use. About forty kids were engaged in a fierce confrontation. Barry looked on in shock and disgust. This was pure animal savagery.
Here and there around the field, stunned parents were watching and at least one of them had already called the police because soon a siren could be heard racing down the main road.
Some of the kids scarpered at the sound, but others were locked in combat and were oblivious to the blaring wail that grew steadily louder and closer.
“What a bloody mess,” Barry said.
Two police cars turned up at the gates and the caretaker had been on the ball enough to open the barrier so they drove straight on to the field. Seven boys were arrested, two of them in their torn kits. The others pelted away.
Barry was in a cold rage and, if there was any space not filled with anger, it was topped up with shame. When he spoke to the police officers, he could see they held him, as Head, partly responsible. It was no comfort to discover that only three of the arrested lads belonged to his school. Then both of those emotions turned to shock when a police officer showed him the four-inch knife she had found on one of the boys.
“We’ve never had anything like this before,” he said.
“You do now, Sir,” the stern young policewoman informed him. “This could have been a lot worse than it was. There could have been a fatal stabbing here today. We’re going to need you and everyone else to make witness statements about this incident.”
Barry nodded then he remembered Sandra Dixon. “There was another incident, just before this,” he said. “One of our girls was beaten up outside the gates by three other girls. I was just about to call you about that.”
“Not a good day for this place, is it, Sir?” the policewoman said judgementally.
Barry Milligan had to agree with her.
Quarter to seven on a Friday night and Martin was still stuck in school. He’d called Carol, his partner, to warn her he was going to be late and give her a brief sketch of events, but she was incensed about something else. The bank had been on to her, or she had been on to the bank… either way she was livid. Martin was not in the mood to listen to her woes on top of everything else so he was relieved when Barry Milligan came into the staffroom and he could make his excuses and ring off.
“Tell me what else could go wrong today?” the Head barked, making a beeline for the kettle. “It’s a bloody asylum this place! The governors are going to love this.”
“Was anyone hurt on the field?” Martin asked.
“Busted noses and fat lips mostly. We was dead lucky it wasn’t worse. A knife, for God’s sake! A sodding knife!”
“It wasn’t one of our lads though.”
“Doesn’t matter whose it was, I’m not having that kind of thing anywhere near my school. I knew it’d happen here one day, but not so soon. This isn’t an inner city.”
“We still have gangs and hoodies and joyriders round here though.”
“Yes, well – just wait till Monday morning!”
“What do you mean?”
“Had a word with the police. They’re going to set up a knife arch at the gate first thing. If any of our lot are bringing knives in, we’ll know about it.”
Martin shook his head. “I remember when the most dangerous thing you’d find in a kid’s bag was a spud gun.”
“God, I miss those days,” the Head sighed. “It’s the feminisation of education, that’s what’s brought this on. And too much government interference, trying out each new trendy idea instead of leaving us to do our jobs properly. Just look what we’ve ended up with – a bloody chaotic shambles and kids armed to the teeth, thinking they’re gangsters.”
Martin wasn’t going to enter into that debate, even though he agreed with him.
“So how did it kick off?” he asked.
“More bloody oiling,” Barry told him.
Martin understood. Oiling was the latest unpleasant method of attacking someone in Felixstowe. Martin knew several people who had been oiled, his partner’s mother for one. It had been a terrifying and upsetting experience for her. Bottles of vegetable oil were cheaper than boxes of eggs and the oil itself was messier and smellier and more difficult to get out of clothes. A jumbo, 3-litre container was only a few quid and could be decanted into empty sports drink bottles, the type with the pull-up nozzle that could squirt several metres. Such small bottles could also be carried very discreetly in the large pockets of a fleece or a hoody. Gangs would steam through a crowded street and douse their selected victim with the stuff. It was disgusting. The situation had grown so bad that the police had advised local supermarkets not to sell vegetable oil to anyone under the age of eighteen.
“By the way,” he said. “Sandra’s mother came while you were with the police. She’s taken her to casualty to be checked over, but said she’ll be in touch.”
“I bet she will,” Barry grunted. “I don’t blame her. Those three girls are going to get a visit tonight from the law. They already had a word with that Conor lad.”
“Oh,” Martin said. “Sandra told me he had nothing to do with it.”
Barry shrugged. “Well, they’ve taken a statement anyway. This coffee really is foul muck, isn’t it? You know what I need right now? About half a dozen pints. I’m going to swill this bloody awful day away – you joining me?”
Martin declined. Barry spent too many hours in The Half Moon in Walton. That and his devotion to rugby were what had driven his wife away two years ago. She had taken the Labrador with her too. Barry missed the dog far more than her.
At ten past seven, Martin Baxter finally sat in his car. As he drove out of the school, he tried to close his mind to the traumas of the day. No one, especially him, suspected that much worse was yet to come. This weekend was going to be the turning point in the lives of everyone. At long last the world was going to learn about Dancing Jacks and it would never be the same again.
JIM HOWIE’S TATTOO and piercing parlour, INK-XS, was tucked away off the Port of Felixstowe Road. It was a small place, but not too seedy. It was split into two halves: the back part was where the inking was done, behind a shoulder-height partition, and the front was for customers to wait in and browse the designs pinned to the walls and in the three folders on a low table. There was also a knackered sofa, which came in very handy for the squeamish ones who fainted when they felt the needle or glimpsed the blood. At the rear of the building was a monotonous vista of huge sea containers. They were dwarfed by the massive cranes straddling the horizon, which always reminded Howie of steel dinosaurs. Appropriate enough for the stark tundra of the largest container port in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe.
Howie was a big-bellied man in his thirties, with a square-cut, gingery beard, shaved head and enough tattoos on his fleshy body to reupholster that old sofa. He sported two piercings in his lower lip, another through his septum and one more through his right eyebrow.
Looking around at his shop, he moaned as Tommo and Miller hauled another of those large wooden crates through the door.
“Hey, c’mon,” he complained. “That’s five of them now. How many of these things are there?”
“Just one more,” Tommo told him. “If you’d give us a hand, you’d have seen that yourself. These aren’t filled with fresh air, you know; we could do with the extra manpower.”
Howie waved the suggestion aside. “I’m an artist, man,” he declared. “I can’t risk damaging these delicate instruments with a load of splinters.”
Miller and Tommo shoved the fifth crate alongside the others they had fetched from the van and leaned on it to catch their breaths and rest their aching muscles. It had taken two long trips from the strange, ugly house to Howie’s shop to bring all six crates over, to say nothing of the struggle hoisting them up from that cellar. Jezza had been insistent though.
“It’s time for them to leave home,” he had said, “and make their way in the world.”
“I can barely squeeze by them!” Howie grouched. “Just for tonight, capiche? I can’t have these blocking my shop. I’ve got a business to run – and don’t tell me what’s in them, I don’t want to know, but how hot is it? We talking tepid or scalding? If the filth come sniffing around, you’re not dropping me in it. You got that? I’ll tell them exactly who it belongs to – or doesn’t.”
“Peace, brother,” Jezza’s voice interrupted as he came in. “This is… legit merchandise.”
Howie raised his eyes heavenward. “Like the Blu-ray players you stashed here last month?” he asked. “Yeah, they was so bona fide they burned a hole in the lino!”
Jezza ran his hands along the edge of one of the crates. “I’m done with all that,” he announced. “The old life is over, no more hooky gear. I’ve got a better, higher purpose now – and if you’re a good little bunny, you can come with me. The door of destiny has just swung open and I’m inviting you to step through it.”
“Hallelujah!” Howie mocked. “He done seen the light!”
Jezza’s eyes glinted at him and he showed his crooked smile. “You couldn’t be further from the truth, Mr Tattoo Man,” he said.
Miller shifted uneasily and glanced at Tommo.
“Bring in the last box,” Jezza told them. “I want Howie to see what he’s storing for me.”
“An’ we want to see what we’ve been busting our guts over,” Miller said.
“Less of the guts, please,” Tommo pleaded. “Come on. Let’s go get the last Alexander.”
“The last what?”
“I’m wasted here,” Tommo sighed.
The three of them returned to the yard where the VW was parked, leaving a puzzled Howie scratching his beard. He’d never seen Jezza behave like this before.
“He’s been like that since we went into that vile house,” Shiela spoke from the doorway. “It’s weird, like… oh, I dunno – like it’s him, but it isn’t.”
Howie looked at her. “What happened in that place then?” he asked. “No one’s said.”
The girl frowned then shrugged it off. “Mad stuff,” she finally answered. “I freaked out big style and so did Miller – but Jezza…”
“I wish I knew – or maybe I don’t.”
“Are you all on something? Nobody’s making sense.”
“Wait till you see what else we found,” she said. “What’s still back there – in the manky conservatory.”
“Mind your backs!” Tommo called, lumbering in, carrying the final crate with Miller. “There! That’s the lot. Now my gaseous friend’s innards here are rumbling like Krakatoa so we’d better get some food in him. Come on, Methane Maker, let’s…”
Their exit was barred by Jezza. He was standing in the doorway, eyes gleaming.
“We haven’t finished yet, boys,” he said, removing the loose lid from the last crate and reaching inside. “This is only the beginning. You have no idea of the incredible honour you’ve been granted. You’re here, right at the start of everything. We’ve each been chosen and should be on our knees in gratitude. Take a breath and look around you. Remember this momentous night. The whole world is about to change and this is the last time you’ll see it like it was.”
A look of panic flashed over Howie’s face. “Bloody hell!” he cried. “You’ve never got guns in them boxes?”
Jezza laughed as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
“What then?” Howie demanded. “Bombs or something? You’re out of your greasy mind and way out of your league! You’re crazy!”
Jezza continued to laugh. It was a horrible, throat-rattling sound. Shiela clutched at the collar of her denim jacket. The voice she heard was not his.
Then he slammed his palm on the side of the crate and the laugh subsided to a dry chuckle.
“Guns and bombs have been tried,” he said in a far-off kind of way. “Tried and failed, tried and failed, time and again. That’s not how to do it. Wars are finite. They blaze for a few years and it’s fantastic and showy and spectacularly loud and operatic. Then suddenly peace breaks out like a rash and you’re back where you started and you have to foment it all over again. War doesn’t work. It unites more than it destroys.”
“What’s the matter with him?” Howie demanded.
Before the others could answer, Jezza flashed his teeth in a wide grin and threw something at him.
Howie ducked and jumped out of the way, half expecting it to be a hand grenade. This was lunacy.
The thing landed at his feet and he peered down at it warily. When he saw what the thing actually was, he thought it even stranger than if it had been an explosive.
“A book?” he exclaimed incredulously.
“It’s time for you all to have one,” Jezza said solemnly, his voice recognisably him once again. “Take them, cherish them… coddle them.”
He passed the copies around. Only Shiela had seen the book already, but she stared at it with the same fascination as the first time.
“Dancing Jacks,” Howie read. “Where did you get a load of second-hand kids’ books from? And what for?”
Jezza was relishing the looks on their faces as they turned the book over in their hands. They had no idea what they were holding.
Shiela flicked through the slightly musty pages, the occasional illustrations skimming before her eyes. There was a faint, almost inaudible sound as the leaves parted after being pressed together so long. It was like a soft, dry kiss between the ink and the paper.
“They’re not second-hand,” Jezza said. “Not one of them has ever been owned, not a single one has ever had eager eyes scan its pages. The moment they were printed and bound, they were packed away. They haven’t seen daylight or felt a human touch for seventy-five years. They’ve never been read. They’re fresh as virgins and just as ripe and anxious to be treasured and explored.”
“First editions then,” Howie said. “How much are they worth?”
“Everything,” came the cryptic answer.
“Who’s this Austerly Fellows?” Howie asked, reading out the author’s name. “Never heard of him.”
“Not many have… yet,” Jezza replied with the hint of a smile. “But they will. His name will ring out at last. We promise.”
“Is this all that’s in them boxes?” Tommo grumbled in disbelief – hugely disappointed. “Is this what I’ve broke my back for all afternoon? The way you was talking, I thought it was the family silver or something. I thought we was going to be minted.”
Jezza took out a book for himself and opened it at the first page. “This is worth far more than silver,” he guaranteed, the cream-coloured paper reflecting up into his eyes and making them unusually bright. “All things will be as dross beside this. We’ve waited a long time, but now our words are ready to be heard, to seep into the mind and smite the heart.”
“Riiiiiiight,” Tommo said. “So aren’t we going back to gut that house?”
“Not to gut it, no. Besides, we don’t need to now.”
“I was never one for reading,” Miller said dismissively. He put the book down and took out his mobile to order a curry.
“Beyond the Silvering Sea,” Jezza began, “within thirteen green, girdling hills, lies the wondrous Kingdom of the Dawn Prince…”
The others exchanged embarrassed glances as he read aloud. What was he doing? They each felt uncomfortable. It was a peculiar situation and Tommo almost giggled. It was so bizarre and silly – and so totally out of character for Jezza.
“And the Dawn Prince went into exile,” he continued, “vowing to return to the Castle of Mooncaster only when he deemed his subjects worthy of his golden majesty.”
Tommo found the matching page in his copy. Almost without realising, he began to follow the words as they were read out, his lips moving with Jezza’s as he spoke them.
“But who would rule in the Lord’s stead?” Jezza uttered. “Who would keep the knights and nobles, the Jacks and jostling Under Kings in order?”
Howie lowered his eyes to the book in his hands. Jezza’s voice seemed to be spinning slowly around him and the words were beating to the rhythm of his heart. There was reassurance here – a cosiness he had not felt since… he could not remember. It was an inviting, nostalgic sensation: back to when large hands scooped him up and held him close, when sweet lips kissed his grazed knee, when perfect comfort was a favourite blanket with a silken edge and a sucked corner. He felt warm and loved and safe. Within his rusty beard, his own lips began to move like Tommo’s.
“So forward stepped the Holy Enchanter,” Jezza read, his face alive and alight, “the one thereafter named the Ismus. Only he could command the quarrelling Court and bring order to the squabbling subjects whilst the Dawn Prince remained in exile. Yet first he must endure the Great Ordeal to prove himself…”
Shiela stared in mute disbelief at Howie and Tommo. Then she saw that Miller had retrieved his copy and was nodding in time to the tempo of the words.
“Stop it!” she cried suddenly, snapping her book shut.
“Stop it!” Jezza’s reading ceased and he lifted his gaze to her. His eyes narrowed and a gleam went out in them.
“Call Dave,” he instructed Miller, without releasing Shiela from his glance. “Say I want him here by eight tonight, no excuses. And get Tesco Charlie as well – tell him to bring his lorry. Don’t fail me.”
Miller and the others were blinking and rubbing their foreheads as if rousing from sleep. They closed their books reluctantly.
“Er… sure,” Miller said, pulling out his Nokia once more. “How about Manda and Queenie?”
“Why not,” Jezza replied. “Let’s make a party of it. You can do that on the way, Big Man. We’ve got one more thing to collect from that house this evening.”
“I’m not going back there,” Shiela stated. “It’ll be dark.”
Jezza turned back to her, his face impassive. “I don’t need you,” he said. “I’m taking Howie and Miller this time.”
“I’m not doing any heavy work,” Howie refused.
“Don’t worry, Leonardo, your lily-white handies won’t come to any harm.”
“What about me?” Tommo asked.
“You make yourself useful,” Jezza told him. “Get some cans and anything else you can lift. Those girls are too tight to bring anything.”
“But I’m skint!”
“Howie, give him cash.”
“Why me?” the tattooist cried.
Jezza grinned at him. “Cos we’re in your emporium,” he said. “And you’ll have had a busy day, raking in the readies from the witless drones who come in here wanting to copy whatever mass-market pap idol has been hyped to them this week, only to have them regret it once that particular scrap of ephemera has stopped flashing in the pan. Then there’s the tribal squiggles or bands of barbed wire smothering their pimply skin because they think it makes them look hard and macho or mysterious and more interesting than they really are. Why don’t you simply scribe ‘I’m a mindless sheep’ on their foreheads while you’re at it?”
“Pack that in,” Howie warned. He didn’t mind when Jezza pontificated, but not when he slagged off his clientele and, by extension, himself. Although… he suddenly recalled the nineteen-year-old upon whose back he had once inked, in the early days of his shop, a group portrait of the members of Hear’Say, only for her to return eight months later to ask if there was any chance he could go over it and make them look like the boys of Blue instead. At the time Howie had somehow managed to control himself and politely told her that, as Blue consisted of one person less than Hear’Say, it would be impossible. As soon as she had left in a dissatisfied strop, however, he had almost made himself sick with laughter.
The tattooist grudgingly opened his well-padded wallet. “Here’s forty,” he said, handing the notes over to Tommo. “But I want change!”
“Give him more,” Jezza told him.
“That’s plenty for beers and a cheap bottle of voddy!” Howie protested.
“It’s not for the booze.”
“Takeaways?” Miller suggested hopefully.
Jezza took Howie’s wallet off him and handed it to Tommo. “I want about thirty big bags of charcoal,” he said.
“Barbecue stuff?” Tommo asked.
“That’s right, we’re having a great big luau.”
“On the beach? Cool.”
“No, not on the beach, and it’ll be anything but cool.”
Howie grabbed the wallet back and removed all his plastic, except the Clubcard, then returned it. “Make sure you use that,” he informed Tommo. “I want the points.”
“Points?” Jezza scoffed. “You really think they’re doing you some sort of favour and actually rewarding you for being loyal? Were you born half an hour ago? Wake up, brother. What they’re doing is building up a detailed profile of everything you buy, every time you use that and every other card you’ve got. They know what you eat, what you wear, what you read, where you travel to every day and where you’re likely to be at any given time. They know what music you listen to, what TV you watch, what websites you visit and what you download, what turns you on and what makes you laugh on YouTube. They know what your politics are – it’s all on your file now and who’s merrily filled it in for them? You have, like the good little lemming consumer you are.”
Howie shrugged, “I still get money off,” he said.
“Peanuts,” Jezza snorted. “They’re conning you into building up a comprehensive database about yourself and paying you in half-price spaghetti hoops to do it. There’s a computer somewhere that can calculate how often you take a dump because it knows precisely how much aloe vera impregnated bog roll you buy and when you buy it. They know everything about you, my son. But you, and millions like you, aren’t even slightly disturbed by that. You’re just happy to get your reduced Hovis and bargain garibaldis.”
“Jammie Dodgers,” Howie corrected.
“Are we going or what?” Miller interrupted.
Tommo laughed. “Don’t talk about food when the gasworks here hasn’t eaten for a whole four hours.”
Jezza inclined his head – the sermon was over for now – and he herded them through the door.
“So where we having this barbie?” Tommo asked.
Jezza beckoned them round the side of the building and gathered everyone in the yard at the rear. Then he gestured to the alien landscape of the immense container port.
“In there,” he announced.
No one said anything. They each gazed at the wide prospect of stacked metal containers in the distance.
“You really have lost it this time,” Howie eventually said. “You’re out of it! Totally out of it. Why in there?”
Jezza’s eyes remained on the mountainous gantry cranes on the horizon. “Because the reception will be best,” he said enigmatically. “And you’ll be safer.”
“It’s a mad idea!” Tommo crowed. “And I love it! Let’s go rock that place!”
Howie tore at his beard in exasperation. “You’re both loonies!” he cried. “For one thing, you’d never get inside in a million years – the security is tight as an airport nowadays.”
“Then isn’t it lucky we know Tesco Charlie and his big shiny lorry?” Jezza answered. “He’s in and out of there all the time.”
The tattooist spluttered. “You’re not serious!” he shouted. “Do you know the heavy crap you’ll get into when you’re caught? And you will be caught! They’ve got their own police unit in there. Those guys are all ex-military, there’s no one under six foot five. They don’t play nicey-nicey and accountable like the town regulars. They’ll rough you up, crack your head open – and then throw you in the nick.”
Jezza put a calming hand on his shoulder. “The port’s pigs will be otherwise engaged tonight,” he informed him. “A lovely diversion has been arranged and they, and the fire crews, are going to be so very busy to even notice li’l ol’ us.”
“What?” Howie cried. “Even if you could arrange to get rid of them for a while, which I don’t believe, they’ve got top-of-the-range CCTV in there. Those cameras can zoom into bedroom windows across the water in Harwich!”
Jezza continued to stare at him. “Let this fear go, man,” he said. “Come on, don’t be so uptight. Live a little – or are you really going to miss out on this and stay trapped in your pinball boundaries with your loyalty cards and gas bills? It’s a once in a lifetime offer, Jimmy Boy – come join me. Leave all that just for tonight and follow me… Beyond the Silvering Sea, within thirteen green, girdling hills, come – be a part of something amazing. I promise, tonight will blow your mind.”
The tension in Howie’s shoulders eased and he nodded slowly. “OK,” he agreed. “But I must be even madder than you.”
Tommo whooped and grabbed Miller’s hands and the pair of them danced back to the camper van.
Howie and Jezza followed, leaving Shiela standing alone in the yard, silhouetted against the distant lights that were already coming on over the container terminal. To her, the giant cranes looked like titanic sculptures of giraffes.
“And me?” she called out. “What’ll I do?”
Jezza glanced over his shoulder and gave her an empty smile. “You got the most important job of all, doll,” he declared. “You’ve got to guard the books till we get back.”
“Here, on my own?”
“But you’re not on your own,” he answered in earnest. “The Dancing Jacks are with you.”
It was growing dark when the camper van pulled up the overgrown drive for the third time that day.
“Creepy as hell!” Howie exclaimed, staring up at the louring building. “Who lived here then, the Munsters or the Addams Family?”
“You raaaaang?” Miller droned in his ear.
“If I see a hand running along the floor,” Howie informed them, “I’m stamping on the bugger and breaking its bloody fingers.”
He studied the large house critically. It must have been expensive even back in the day, but it could never have been a handsome building. From a design perspective, it was simply hideous. Still, he knew several goths who would happily spend their holidays here and read gloomy poetry by candlelight.
“Inside,” Jezza said.
Slabs of shadow covered the large hall. Miller’s skin prickled as he entered.
“Don’t tell me,” Howie said, “designed by Tim Burton.”
“You’ve seen nothing yet,” Miller whispered. “You should go out back. It’d turn Alan Titchmarsh’s hair white.”
Jezza crossed to the stairs. Howie moved to follow him, but Miller hesitated.
“Stay there, both of you,” Jezza commanded. “Wait for me and don’t go wandering. This old place can be … dangerous in the dark.”
Miller shivered. He knew Jezza wasn’t talking about rotten floorboards. He suddenly wished he had stayed behind with Shiela. Besides, he’d like to read more of that book…
Jezza’s wiry figure disappeared up the stairs, into the impenetrable shadow of the first-floor landing.
In the spacious hall the two men waited.
Minutes ticked by.
“Who’s up there with him?” Howie asked.
Miller did not answer. He too had heard a muffled voice speaking in one of the rooms above, but he preferred not to mention it. Neither of them could make out what was being said up there, the voice (or was it voices?) was too remote and the creeping darkness seemed to soak up the sound like a sponge.
“I thought this place was empty,” Howie said.
Miller looked uneasy. “No one lives here,” he muttered.
“So is he talking to himself up there?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“What’s up with our fearless leader today? He’s been acting weird since you turned up with them first three boxes.”
“I think it’s going to get a lot weirder,” Miller predicted. He had never been more right in his life.
Suddenly there was a deafening crash. A tremendous, clanging weight had toppled to the floor over their heads.
Miller almost jumped out his skin and grabbed hold of Howie.
“What the hell?” the tattooist cried as plaster flaked from the ceiling and rained on top of them. “Did someone drop twenty pianos?”
“I’m gone!” Miller declared, heading for the front door.
Then a different sound commenced: a slow, scraping noise. Something unbelievably heavy was being dragged across the floor. Miller paused and lifted his face upwards. They could hear Jezza’s grunts and shouts as he strained and pulled whatever it was on to the landing.
“OK,” Howie murmured. “I’m officially freaked now – and this close to soiling myself.”
“I think I already have,” Miller breathed.
The scraping continued – down the length of the landing, to the top of the stairs. They heard Jezza struggling and swearing with exertion. Then there was a calamitous din that echoed through the house and shook the banisters.
Something large came smashing down the staircase, thudding and banging with a dull metal clash, like the chiming of a huge leaden bell. It slid like an avalanche of old bedsteads down to the small landing where Miller had experienced terror earlier that afternoon and thundered into the wall beneath the partially boarded window.
The two men stared, open-mouthed, and waited for the echoes, that were bouncing through every room and vibrating the broken glass in the window frames, to ebb away.
Then Jezza’s sweating, ghostly-white face appeared over the banister above and he laughed softly.
“Dear God!” Howie gasped, pointing at the great shape that had crunched into the wood of the half-panelled wall. “What the hell is that?”
And when the Dawn Prince was in exile, he sent neither message nor sign back to his Kingdom. So, whilst the Ismus and his subjects waited, they filled their days with merrymaking and happy pleasures. But every party has to end when the revellers grow weary, yet still the throne remained empty and no word came to Mooncaster… O how they longed for tidings.
“I’VE HAD MY identity stolen!” Carol yelled at Martin Baxter as soon as he opened the front door.
“Who are you now then?” he asked.
“Some scumbag has been using my credit card details to get flights to Barcelona, a huge flat-screen TV, a tumble dryer and God knows what else in Comet – and a massive shopping spree in Homebase. The best part of four grand they’ve rinsed me for!”
“Hello to you too,” he greeted her.
“I’m furious!” she seethed, brandishing a statement she’d printed out from her online banking.
“And I’m Martin. Shall I go out and come in again?”
The woman glared at him for a moment, then wilted and managed a smile. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m covered anyway, so I’ve not really lost that money. It’s so bloody annoying though. I was on the phone for over an hour trying to sort it out. Can you believe these people? How dare they?”
“There’s a lot of scum in the world,” he said. “It’s mad, isn’t it? You’ve got to shred every trace of who you are on every letter, bill and envelope before you throw them away, otherwise they’ll have you. Destroying yourself before someone else does. You wouldn’t believe my day, by the way. Where’s Paul?”
She pointed upstairs.
“Daft question really,” Martin said.
Carol went over to him and welcomed him home properly, with a hug and a kiss. “I’ve already heard a bit about your day,” she said. “Got a call from my mum who’d heard all from some neighbour or other. Sounded bad.”
“It was! Good job you picked Paul up today to take him to Gerald’s. It was mental.”
“I was just going to get changed. My shift starts at nine. We left you some lasagne. I’ll nuke it for you.”
“Thanks – I am starved.”
He took his jacket off and hung it in the narrow hallway before following her into the kitchen. Carol Thornbury was a pretty woman, seven years his junior, with dark brown hair and a feisty personality. If there was one word to describe her, it would be ‘capable’. But then, as a nurse, she’d have to be. Whatever life threw at her, she dealt with it in her usual efficient manner. She might have a bit of a rant to begin with, but she quickly applied her common sense to whatever the problem might be, without any unnecessary fuss or drama. When her husband had walked out on both her and their five-year-old son, she had been as organised at sorting out that mess as with everything else in her life. She had managed perfectly well without a man for several years until her path crossed Martin’s. Sometimes he felt that she had even organised getting the two of them together. If she had, he was thankful.
“You got a parcel today,” she said, waiting for the microwave to ping. “I think I see more of that postman than I do you. Wouldn’t mind if he was remotely dishy, but he looks like Fungus the Bogeyman’s uglier brother.”
Martin’s face lit up and he hurried into the lounge where a medium-sized parcel stood on the coffee table.
“Bless you, eBay!” he cried, snatching the package and dashing upstairs with it.
“What about the lasagne?” Carol called.
“In a bit!” he answered. “First things first.”
Carol rolled her eyes. “We’re going to need an extension at this rate,” she told herself.
It was a three-bedroom semi, but only two of those were ever slept in. Whenever guests came to stay, they were compelled to sleep on the sofa downstairs. The third bedroom was Martin’s own private sanctuary. Somewhere he could escape the grinding rigours of teaching at a modern High School and the Emma Taylors of this world. A place filled with things that his pupils would hang him out to dry for if they ever found out about them.
“Paul!” he shouted, knocking on the box-room door as he passed by. “It’s here!”
The maths teacher took a shallow breath before entering his own ‘inner sanctum’. Then strode inside.
The few visitors who were ever privileged to be ushered in here were always lost for words. There was too much to see, too much to take in straight away to be able to formulate any coherent sentence, so they always made the same sort of exclamations.
Only Carol’s mother had ever been practically minded enough to come out with, “How do you dust it all?”
Martin Baxter, the cynical, down-to-earth maths teacher who took no nonsense from any of his students, was a monumental, dyed-in-the-wool, sci-fi and fantasy geek – with a capital G.
His special room was crammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of merchandise: DVDs, costumes, props, limited-edition prints, toys, action figures, models, replicas, books, comics, magazines and framed photographs of himself meeting the stars of his favourite films and television shows. There were busts of just about every character in the Lord of the Rings movies and daleks of every dimension, from the tiny ‘Rolykins’ version up to life-size (a particularly extravagant, pre-Carol present to himself). Spaceships from diverse universes flew in formation from the ceiling – followed incongruously by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were Star Fleet uniforms, complete with a selection of various comm badges and tricorders, and even a genuine phaser from the first season of the Next Generation (another expensive present to himself in his bachelor days).
A preposterously long, multicoloured scarf festooned a hatstand, an Alien egg with the face-hugger just crawling out of it, a bottle of Tru:Blood, a prop business card used in the 1957 movie Night of the Demon by the black magician Julian Karswell – with the silver warning written on it – the Clangers, together with the Soup Dragon, Iron Chicken and froglets, a lamp housed within the golden head of C-3PO, several magic wands in display cases, a chunk of Kryptonite that glowed in the dark, a top-of-the-range lightsaber which made movie-accurate sound effects and many more objects which had taken Martin years to accumulate. One of his most prized acquisitions, however, was also one of the smallest – an actual authentic Liberator teleport bracelet from Blake’s Seven. Now that had been expensive!
Even with his mathematical skill, Martin had given up trying to calculate how much it had all cost him, but he knew it was far, far more than the sum Carol’s identity thieves had stolen from her account.
He set the parcel on his crowded desk and began tearing off the packaging. A young face appeared around the door behind him.
“Let’s see!” Paul cried.
Paul Thornbury was eleven. He had curly, fair hair and was small and slight for his age. He shared Martin’s love of fantasy though and the two of them could spend hours together glued to a DVD or poring over comics or discussing the latest monster in Martin’s all-time favourite show. Was it as good as the Zygons, or was it as dismal as the Myrka? During such conversations they spoke in a language that Carol, quite frankly, didn’t understand. She had no use for science fiction and fantasy. She preferred real life, but was more than delighted to leave them to it, while she sat in front of Casualty or House with a glass of white wine. Martin could never understand why she watched those programmes. Didn’t she have enough of that at work? Carol would always nod, but added that she enjoyed laughing at the mistakes.
Paul stood beside Martin and watched him pull the bubble wrap and newspaper out of the adapted cardboard box. He had found this for Martin. He had entered it as a special search in eBay and had been checking it for the past seven months, without success. Then, a few weeks ago, one had come up and now here it was.
Martin tore the last piece of packing from it and turned the glass object in his hands so that it caught the light. It was a fresnel lens. Quite hard to come by nowadays, but essential if Martin was going to build the full-size Police Box he had always wanted. It would be nothing without the lamp on top.
“Mum’ll go spare,” Paul chuckled.
This was their big conspiracy. They had been keeping it a secret from her for ages, ever since they discovered a website giving instructions on how to build one. When they had moved in, Carol had consigned all of Martin’s ‘toys’ to the one room and not even the mugs or fridge magnets were allowed in the rest of the house. If so much as an X-Files coaster appeared anywhere, it was swiftly returned to the inner sanctum with a Post-it note attached, on which she’d drawn an exclamation mark.
“We’ll just have to outvote her,” Martin said. “How good will one of these be in the garden?”
“Most excellent!” Paul agreed.
Martin rubbed his hands together gleefully then hid the lens inside an accommodating R2-D2.
“She’ll come round,” he said hopefully. “We’ll get it started one weekend when she’s working and she won’t be able to stop us.”
“What happened after school?” Paul asked. “I heard Mum talking on the phone.”
“Good job you had your piano lesson and weren’t there,” Martin told him. “Two very nasty fights. The Head is furious.”
“Wish I’d seen it,” the boy said, disappointed. Then he added, “She put too much salt in the lasagne again.”
Martin returned downstairs and discovered that for himself. Back in his own room, Paul surveyed the beginnings of his own crazy collection. His shelves were already full of fantasy figures and graphic novels. He was glad his mum had found and teamed up with Martin.
An email alert sounded from his computer and Paul hardly heard Carol shouting goodnight to him as she left for work. It was going to be a very busy, traumatic night in the hospital.
Paul frowned at the email. He didn’t recognise the sender. It was just a number, 7734, but it didn’t appear to be an advert for Viagra or a phoney bank scam and there weren’t any dodgy attachments.
“Tonight at Nine!” read the title.
He opened it.
Flash mob at the Landguard – tonight at nine. It’ll be a blast! Great sounds! Mystery A-list celeb! Bring your mates! Bring a bottle – or ten! Be a part of this awesome happening. It’s gonna be on the news. We’re going for a record!!!!!!!!!
“Weird,” Paul said. He had no idea who would send him anything like that. It wasn’t any of his Facebook friends. Not even Anthony Maskel or Graeme Parker, his closest friends at school, would have sent him something like that. Usually they sent him links to daft things they’d found on YouTube.
He thought about the Landguard for a moment. It was the huge old fortress down on the peninsula, dating back hundreds of years. It always struck him as strange that such a historic building should be slap bang next to the modern, industrial container port.
Paul rushed downstairs to tell Martin. The man laughed. He wasn’t the slightest bit interested in something like a flash mob and had looked forward to a quiet night of escapism in front of a DVD.
“But it’ll be huge!” Paul said. “Cameras and famous people. The email said so!”
Martin sighed. “You know,” he said. “The Internet is fantastic for stuff like eBay, but I think I preferred the world when it was simpler. When I was your age, the most new-fangled piece of kit we had was a pocket calculator and…”
“This isn’t the breast thing, is it?”
“Have I said this before?”
“You and your friends,” the boy recited wearily, “used to key in the number 5318008, then turn the calculator upside down and snigger.”
Martin chuckled. “Happy days,” he said.
“Ummm… whatever,” Paul muttered with a baffled grimace. He liked Martin, but sometimes he really did say some daft things for a forty-three-year-old maths teacher.
“Oh, go get your coat on,” the man told him. “I can watch the universe being saved again tomorrow night.”
Paul was already in the hallway zipping up his fleece.
“There’ll be no one else there, you know,” Martin said. “We’ll be stood there like two trainspotters without a station.”
In Felixstowe that evening, every young person under the age of twenty received that very same email. Afterwards, when the tragedy was being investigated, nobody could ever trace where it had originated.
The first part of the harrowing diversion was being created.
Where are the Exiled Prince’s sheep so rare, their fleeces of finest gold? Dead and dying from lack of care and frozen by the cold. Shun the Bad Shepherd, drive him from your sight. Where was he when the lambs did stumble and bleated in their plight?
EMMA TAYLOR THREW her hair straighteners across her bedroom and yelled an angry stream of filth. She had only finished half of her hair when they had sparked and smoke started to pour out of them.
“What do I look like?” she screamed at her reflection. “Britney Spears in meltdown mode!”
Stuffing her unfinished hair under a baseball cap, she stormed out of the house, without a word to her parents, and strode furiously down the street towards Ashleigh’s.
Taking out her mobile, she punched up her friend’s number aggressively and waited for her to pick up.
“What you gawking at?” she snapped at a group of teenage lads on bicycles, giving them the finger as she clomped by.
In her ear Ashleigh’s tinny voice answered. She was squealing with excitement.
“Ohhhh, myyyy God!” she cried. “You will not believe the email I just had!”
“I need to use your straighteners!” Emma demanded, ignoring her. “Life or death emergency. My crappy ones have exploded – thank you so much, Dad, you cheapskate. Nearly burned my eyebrows off! Seriously though – I was well terrified, no word of a lie.”
“Shut up and listen!” Ashleigh retorted and she read her the email about the flash mob.
Several minutes later Emma was sitting on her friend’s bed, frantically finishing off the other side of her hair while Ashleigh was trying to decide what jacket to wear. They had called Keeley, and discovered that she too had received the same email and arranged to meet her in fifteen minutes so they could go together.
“I bet the sly tart wasn’t going to tell us,” Emma said. “Bet she was going to go on her own.”
“She’d push anyone out of the way to get what she wants,” Ashleigh agreed, rifling through the wardrobe and pulling out possibles.
Emma grunted and peered around the room, making faces at what she considered to be minging tat.
“I love your room,” she lied.
“Can you believe it?” her friend blurted. “Something finally happening in this dead town! What if the celeb is a rock star or a footballer or someone off telly or films? What if we get papped? This could be the best night of my life! The start of something really big! Fame, Emma – proper fame!”
Emma looked at her own clothes. She hadn’t dressed for something so potentially glitzy. All she had anticipated was a typical Friday night hanging round on the beach outside a bar, cadging Breezers off the lads. She watched as Ashleigh selected her best leather jacket, a cheap copy of something Beyonce had worn once, and then started to apply her Saturday-Night-in-Ipswich face so she could pass for seventeen or eighteen.
“I’m not going in this,” Emma declared decisively. “I’m not gonna be the ugly one next to you and Keeley in your glad rags and prozzy paint that make you look better than you are. I’m going back home and changing.”
“You look fine!” Ashleigh commented, hardly looking.
“I don’t want to look ‘fine’!” Emma screeched back at her. “‘Fine’ isn’t going to get me in Hello, or a snog off a millionaire footballer so I can sell my story to the News of the bleedin’ World, is it?”
“You don’t have time to change. We’ve got to go if we’re gonna be there on time.”
“Then we’ll have to be late! I am NOT going like this! I haven’t even got my clubbing bra on!”
Ashleigh pouted her freshly glossed lips in the mirror. “I’m not waiting,” she said flatly. “There’s no way I’m missing a minute of this and Keeley won’t neither. These celebs don’t hang about. They do their appearance then jump back in their limos – it says so on Popbitch.”
“Fine!” Emma shrieked, flinging the word back at her. “Some mate you are! You go with Keeley and I’ll get a lift of my own. Selfish cow! And by the way, no amount of concealer is going to cover up those zits and you should’ve shaved your tache!”
She slammed the door and returned to her own house. The boys she had passed earlier jeered as they cycled by. They too had heard the news and were already heading to the Landguard Fort.
Emma sat in front of her small dressing table and worked quickly. She was about to phone around and beg a lift off someone when a text beeped in. It was an unknown and impossibly short number, but that fact was lost on her.
Get out of the house Emma!
The cops r coming 4 u!!!!!!
The girl swore, swept up her bag and coat and tore from the bedroom. Tottering down the road in her heels, she hurried as fast as she could and cut down the first turning to get off her street. She wondered if Ashleigh and Keeley had received similar texts. If this was about Sandra Dixon, the police would want to talk to them as well. She reached into her bag to call them. Then, remembering Ashleigh’s attitude, spitefully decided to let the girl find out for herself. It would be hilarious if a visit from the law caused Ashleigh to miss out on the biggest event to hit Felixstowe for years. Serve Keeley right as well.
Emma was so engrossed in relishing that thought that she didn’t notice the car crawling along the road beside her.
“Oi! Oi!” called a voice as a hand reached out and flicked up her short skirt.
Emma swerved aside and yelled abuse as she fell into a hedge.
Kevin Stipe was leaning out of the passenger window of an old Fiesta, snorting like a delirious pig. Behind him, two more lads she recognised from school were hooting on the back seat.
“Morons!” she bawled.
“Where you going on your own?” Kevin asked. “Where’s the rest of your posse?”
“Same place you’re heading I expect!” she replied.
“Ha ha!” the boys laughed. “Get in, we’ll give you a lift.”
“No way, losers!” she refused.
“Take you forty minutes to walk there from here, Lemon Face,” Kevin said. “You’ll miss the best bits. Everyone’s gonna be there.”
Emma considered the offer quickly. She knew they were right, but she didn’t want to be seen dead with any of them. They were spotty lads in hoodies and fleeces. But how else was she to get to the end of the peninsula, down the long View Point Road, on time? No chance in these heels. Besides, there was every likelihood the police would be out looking for her once they discovered she was not at home.
“Go on then,” she said. “But I’m ditching you soon as we get there – understood? So don’t get any ambitious ideas.”
The rear door opened. “Get in, Sexy Legs.”
“Err, in your dreams, mentals!” she snarled. “I’m not getting in the back of no car with you, Brian Eastland, and as for you, B.O. Humphries…”
“Shame!” they booed.
“Come on then,” Kevin relented, getting out of the front seat and squeezing alongside the boys in the back. Emma didn’t thank him, but clambered into his vacant place and slammed the door.
“What is that stink?” she complained, turning to the driver whose hood was pulled up over his head. “You lot drinking meths or something?”
“Here!” she cried in sudden recognition. “Danny Marlow! What you doing?”
“That’s our Baz’s overalls,” he told her, meaning the smell. “He does decoratin’. I bunged them and the turps rags under the seat. Don’t worry, you won’t get paint on you.”
“That’s not what I meant!” she said. “What you doing in this motor?”
Behind her, Kevin tapped her on the head and leaned into the gap between them. “’S all right,” he said. “It’s his brother’s car, innit. It’s not nicked or nothing.”
“But he’s like, in our year – so that makes him the same age as us!”
Kevin guffawed. “See!” he laughed. “You are good at numbers – Sarky Baxter would be proud!”
Fifteen-year-old Danny revved the engine and, even as Emma hastily fastened her seat belt, the Fiesta roared away.
Conor Westlake had left the house as soon as he received the email from 7734. A mad night out would do him the world of good after today. The haunting image of Sandra Dixon’s pale face glaring up at him was a memory he wanted to wash away, or at least dilute. The fridge at home was empty though so he hoped to bump into some of his mates down at the Landguard. None of them were answering their phones right now, but he was certain they’d be there.
A cold wind was blowing in from the North Sea and the darkening sky looked threatening. He pulled his hood up and continued walking. When he joined View Point Road, he saw that there were many other young people heading down the peninsula, like a great herd of thirsty beasts seeking a watering hole. Most were on foot, but there were also some cars driving past and groups of cyclists. Two figures were even weaving in and out on Rollerblades. The skateboarders who usually hung out near the cinema were here as well.
The road was long and, apart from a kink at the beginning and end, ran a tediously straight course. On the right, behind its high perimeter fence, was the container port. To the left, a caravan park that gave way to a stretch of sandhills and the sea.
Casting around, Connor guessed many of his fellow eager pilgrims were older than him, but he saw a few who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, dragging their older brothers or sisters forward. Here and there the odd parent stood out like a watchful pillar of negativity and disapproval and he hoped they would have the good taste to merge into the background at the Landguard. Tonight was no place for the olds.
He could feel a buzz of anticipation and excitement in the air. It was a carnival-like atmosphere. Some had brought torches and were waving them about, making patterns of light in front of them. Once the caravan park had been passed, they shone into the dark desolation that stretched between the sandhills and the road – startling the rabbits. Those sandhills formed a high, humpy spine all the way to the fort and Conor could see figures silhouetted against the sky on the ridge path, making their way along them. They were approaching the Landguard from the other side, to loop around it and join the rest of them in front of the gatehouse.
Everyone was hoping for something special that night, a new experience – a new thrill. There was a tremendous feeling of not knowing what was going to happen. It was almost quarter to nine and around the last bend in the road, the squat, solid bulk of the pentagonal fortress appeared in the distance. Conor half expected to see searchlights fanning the sky and sweeping dazzling discs over the fort’s brickwork, but there was nothing, just the steady march of the people river heading towards it and the glittering expanse of the port next door.
The present fortress on Landguard Point is a hybrid spanning the centuries. The five-sided structure, with its bastions at every corner, was built in 1744, but heavily modified and refurbished in 1871. Yet there had been some type of fortification there since the days of Henry VIII, for the harbour is the deepest water between the Thames and the Humber and of strategic significance. If an enemy could land troops there, they would be dangerously close to London. In 1667 the last opposed invasion of England took place when the Dutch attacked the fort. Their aim was to burn the ships in the harbour. But the garrison stationed in the Landguard defended it brilliantly, despite being vastly outnumbered, and the Dutch forces were successfully repelled.
That night a new invasion looked to be taking place. As Conor drew closer to the fort, he was amazed at the numbers. There were thousands of people gathering there. They filled the small car park, stood on the mounded verges and pressed against the railings of the empty moat. Conor had only seen such crowds at football matches or gigs before and he clapped his hands appreciatively. It was going to be an unforgettable night.
Martin Baxter and Paul were also making their way down to the fort. They too were astonished at the volume of human traffic and Martin began to grow concerned. There didn’t appear to be any safety measures in place, no crowd-control stewards anywhere. People were drifting across the road. There was no pavement, just a narrow strip of scrappy grass on one side. When cars beeped to get through, the pedestrians shouted and banged on the car bonnets before getting out of the way.
What Conor had found so exhilarating, Martin felt intimidated – even threatened – by.
“You know,” he said to Paul. “I’m not sure this was such a good idea.”
The boy couldn’t disagree more. “It’s brilliant!” he said. “We’re almost there now – almost at the fort. We’ll be able to see who it is!”
But Martin wasn’t certain there was anything or anyone to see. There were no vans, no swanky cars and certainly no cameras. The Landguard looked the same as it always did at night – blank and brooding and more than a little sinister.
Martin pulled out his mobile and made a worried call to the police.
It was five to nine and the crowds who had got there early were getting shunted against the fences and railings by the relentless influx of people pouring down the road and up from the beach. Many of them were drinking.
Somewhere in there, Ashleigh and Keeley were bitching about Emma and peering up at the fort doubtfully.
“Why’s it so dark though?” Ashleigh asked. “Where’s the lights and stuff? Where’s the music?”
“Must be inside,” Keeley answered. “There’ll probably be a big blast of sound and them big doors’ll open and it’ll all start.”
“Hey – who you pushing!” Ashleigh yelled as someone stumbled into her.
“This is literally crammed and I mean it,” Keeley grumbled.
At two minutes to nine, Martin pulled Paul to the very edge of the road and refused to go any further. People jostled and shoved by them. It was getting alarming now.
“But Martin!” the boy cried. “We’re so close!”
“No,” he said firmly. “This is madness. We’re going back.”
Paul stared at him beseechingly, but Martin would not be persuaded. The eleven-year-old caught himself about to whine and stopped it immediately. Carol had raised him not to be one of those people who pestered and sulked to get their own way. He didn’t like Martin’s decision, but he had to accept it.
Trying to walk against the oncoming flow was almost impossible though. The best they could do was stand by the edge and let people pass until the numbers began to thin.
Conor checked the time on his phone. It was dead on nine.
The assembled multitude halted and every face was trained on the Landguard Fort’s stout walls. It felt like the countdown to New Year. They held their breath and expected a fanfare, fireworks, an explosion of light and sound and colour. Flashes sparkled from phone cameras and they waited.
Murmurs of discontent began to ripple through the massive crowd. Someone began a slow handclap and others joined in. Voices chanted, “Why are we waiting…?”
“This is so wrong!” Ashleigh moaned.
“Where’s the celeb and paps?” Keeley griped. “I am sincerely freezing my legs off here.”
There was a rumble of thunder overhead.
The people still on the beach who could not see that nothing was happening around the front of the fort were getting restless and resentful. They started pushing and trying to get on to the path. Others played their own music from their phones. Tempers began to flare. The expectation and excitement had completely gone, replaced by a sense of being cheated, and people were now feeling angry.
Conor turned around and thrust himself back through the crush. This was a washout, a hoax – someone’s lame idea of a joke. He wasn’t going to waste another minute of his precious Friday night squashed here. He barged through, none too gently, standing on heels and kicking ankles. Someone roared in his ear and he felt a thump in his back. The fighting began.
It spread through the vast crowd in a violent wave and panic took over.
Ashleigh was slammed against Keeley as a lad blundered into her, felled by a headbutt. The girl kicked him then swung her elbow into his stunned face and broke his nose.
“I’m leavin’!” Keeley cried above the riot. She took her perfume from her handbag and held it in front of her, like a vampire hunter with a bottle of holy water, and sprayed it in the eyes of anyone who came too close or whoever she didn’t like the look of.
Fists and bottles were flung in every direction.
Walking back along the road, Martin and Paul heard the fierce shouts and screams behind and they turned to see the furious mob that the crowd had become.
“Hell!” Martin said as it spilled back on to the road and a bottle came sailing through the air to explode into white dust on the tarmac. “We’ve got to get out of here, fast.” Taking Paul’s hand, the two ran into the nature reserve and across to the sandhills.
Chaos and aggression raged behind them. He could hear children crying in that seething rabble, but the parents and older siblings who came with them managed to get them out of the brawl and they too came fleeing on to the dark sands.
Conor Westlake dodged the punches aimed at his head, but when he felt a kick to the back of his thigh, he whirled round and retaliated. The gangs were here tonight. He had seen them with their hoods pulled up and saw the bottles of golden liquid in their hands. He battled his way through the thickest heart of that thronging sea, wrenching at coats and smacking hands away from his face.
Ashleigh and Keeley were locked in the very middle of it. Ashleigh had lost a shoe. The perfume bottle had been dashed from Keeley’s grasp and her bag had been ripped from her shoulder. It was impossible to move unless it was by the current of the crowd. Then Ashleigh felt something wet and heavy on her head. At first she thought the storm had broken, but then she heard the braying laughter and another bottle was tipped over her. The two girls suddenly saw they were hemmed in by one of the gangs and litres of vegetable oil were being chucked and squirted at them.
Ashleigh screeched and the stuff splashed into her open mouth. She choked then lashed out and clawed the lad in front of her. Seeing a gap, she ploughed through it, retching and dragging Keeley after her.
A dozen plastic bottles went spinning after them, spilling their contents as they flew through the air. People began to slither on the oily road and when other idiots saw that, they lobbed their bottles as well.
Danny Marlow’s foot was down on the accelerator and the Fiesta left curves of rubber behind as they turned the corner into View Point Road.
“Slow down,” Emma told him. “I want to get there in one piece.”
“I’m built for speed, baby!” Danny bragged, turning the radio on and switching to fourth gear.
“So I’ve heard,” she said witheringly.
Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came on and Kevin reached through sharply to turn it right up.
“Do the Wayne’s World thing! Do the Wayne’s World thing!” he shouted, wagging his head up and down far too early in the song.
Brian and B.O. joined in. Emma mouthed a string of expletives as she pressed her forehead against the passenger window and took a cigarette from her bag. She lit it and blew a stream of smoke from the side of her mouth.
“I’m stuck in a car with the Muppets,” she muttered. “I like a woman who smokes,” Danny said. “It’s dead sophis.” He’s just a poor boy, from a poor family…
He took his left hand off the wheel and clumsily placed his clammy palm on Emma’s thigh.
“OFF!” she demanded instantly.
“Don’t be like that,” he said.
“If you don’t move your sweaty mitt, right now, I swear…!”
Danny didn’t hear her. He was staring ahead. There were countless people swarming around the Landguard. He had never imagined it would be so engulfed with them. But something wasn’t right. It didn’t look like the fantastic happening the email had promised.
Emma didn’t let him finish the question. With a vindictive smile, she touched the back of his hand with the glowing cigarette.
“OWWW!!!” he yelled, snatching the hand away.
The cigarette was knocked from her fingers. It disappeared between the seats. The car lurched across the road.
“Watch where you’re going!” she shouted.
The boys in the back had stopped headbanging and Kevin was peering forward. “That’s a fight!” he hooted. “There’s thousands of them!”
Suddenly a siren began to blare and blue lights were bouncing in the rear-view mirror.
“It’s the fuzz!” Kevin laughed. “Are they coming for you, Danny, or to stop the barney? Ha ha ha ha!”
Emma wondered if they were coming for her.
And then it happened. The turpentine-soaked rags under the seat burst into flames and the boys in the back yelled in fear. Emma thrashed her legs wildly and scrabbled with her seat belt.
“Let me out!” she screamed.
“Stop the car!” the boys bawled.
…No! We will not let you go!
Danny was flustered, confused and petrified. He didn’t know what to do. The police lights panicked him. The flames terrified him and the voices of his passengers were deafening. The blaring song seemed to be mocking him. Instead of pressing the brake, he reached for the gear stick, but a ribbon of flame scorched his fingers and he threw his weight against the wheel. His foot slammed the accelerator to the floor.
The Fiesta’s headlights came bleaching along the peninsula.
Martin Baxter and Paul were standing on the high path of the sandhills. It commanded an excellent view. The port at night looked like a gritty space dock from one of Martin’s sci-fi movies and he had always thought those cranes resembled Martian war machines from War of the Worlds. On the road below them, they saw the car go streaking by, its occupants screaming, smoke flooding from the open windows, and that too seemed part of a film – with a rock soundtrack by Queen. It was so unreal.
Dripping and sodden with vegetable oil, Keeley and Ashleigh came staggering and slipping from the thuggish riot as the headlights raced toward them. Caught in the glare, the crowd turned and saw the car hurtling straight on. Anger turned to fear and they fell back like a tide down the shingle, but not all were quick enough.
“Stop the car!” Kevin was shouting, shaking Danny’s shoulder.
Danny saw the blanched faces of the horror-stricken people ahead and he finally found the brake. He stamped on it hard.
But the car did not stop. Its tyres had crunched over half empty plastic bottles and they were skating over the spilled oil.
The Fiesta spun in the road. Danny heaved the steering wheel to the right, but it was no good. The vehicle went careering into the people-skittles.
Stark faces flashed by the windows. There were thuds and other, more dreadful noises. Freddie Mercury was raging out the lyrics and the headbanging truly began.
From his vantage point up on the ridge, Martin saw it all. He drew Paul to him and wouldn’t let him watch.
Finally the Fiesta crunched into a parked car and stopped dead. The night was filled with screaming. The maths teacher wondered what he should do. If he went back there, would he be of any use? The two police cars were already on the scene, the officers leaping out to give assistance.
Conor Westlake had dragged a woman out of the way as the Fiesta went crashing into the other car. To him it seemed as if the world had slowed right down and he was viewing the whole horrendous scene in slow motion and silence. Then he saw Emma Taylor’s face at the smoky window and the noise and clamour came rushing back in. The boy dashed forward.
He yanked the door open and hauled the girl out. She collapsed on the ground and there was Kevin Stipe, crawling out of the back, trying to help his friends out after him.
Emma was shrieking.
“You see to them, yeah!” Conor shouted at a group of staring hoodies. “Get the driver out!” He put his arm round Emma, hoisted her to her feet and led her away from the burning Fiesta.
Suddenly there was a flash behind them and the car exploded. The fireball climbed high into the dark sky. People were running away blindly, and so were Conor and the girl stumbling along beside him.
“Dear God,” Martin breathed. How could this be real? Surely it should only be a gruesome special-effect sequence in an action movie? It should have chromed Terminator skeletons stalking through those flames, shooting laser bolts from their guns, or alien saucers hovering overhead.
No, this was genuinely happening. This was real life; it wasn’t just fantasy.
A second larger explosion shook the peninsula. The other car’s petrol tank had been full.
“Flash… and mob…” Martin observed in a sickened, cracked whisper.
The email had not lied. That night had been a blast and would indeed be on the news. If Martin had allowed himself to believe in such things at that point, he would have realised who the mystery celebrity had been, walking unseen among those young people that hour, choreographing the entire show.
Yet this was just the diversion; the main event of the night was about to take place in the container port.
Lightning jagged across the black heavens.
And the Holy Enchanter had to prove himself worthy to rule whilst his Lord was in exile and so he suffered the Great Ordeal that no other had ever endured, save for the Dawn Prince himself. And thus was their contract made, writ large upon a page that could never be cast away, or misplaced, or stolen by the Jockey, for he could work much mischief with such a deed. And so the Holy Enchanter declared himself the Ismus and his reign in his Lord’s stead commenced, with neither challenge nor question, and the new order began.
INSIDE THE METAL container on the back of Tesco Charlie’s lorry, Jezza’s eyes roved round his disciples. The spectral light in there was courtesy of three cheap LED caravan lamps stuck to the cold, corrugated sides. Everyone had dutifully obeyed his summons.
Queenie and Manda, “the floating girlfriends”, as he termed them, were having a whale of a time. Queenie loved hanging with the group: it made her feel younger than her forty something years, but then so did the jet-black hair dye she anointed herself with – and the biker-chick outfits she wore. Pushing her hands up through her unnaturally raven hair, she gyrated when the container shook and made a stuttering dance of her attempts to keep from falling over. Manda was her plumper friend who had abandoned trying to keep up with Queenie’s skimpy dress sense and just as skimpy waistline long ago. Manda was currently spending much of her time with Miller and it was him she held on to when the container juddered. Richard Miller didn’t seem too happy about that because he wanted to look at his copy of Dancing Jacks, but she kept getting in the way.
Jezza looked from them to Dave. He was an unlikely member of their varied little band. He was an impressionable nineteen and looked up to Jezza in most things. Jezza in turn enjoyed the gradual kneading of his receptive, doughy mind, feeding it the yeast of new ideas that Dave had never dreamed of and couldn’t quite comprehend.
Howie and Tommo were sitting on some of the charcoal bags stacked at the end of the container. The tattooist was trying to read more of the strange children’s book by the ghostly light of one of the LED lamps. His head was nodding, partly from the motion of the container, but mainly from the rhythm of the words on the pages. He was lost in the world of Austerly Fellows.
At his side, the shaking and lurching about made Tommo feel nauseous. One of the bags had split and the disgorged briquettes were rolling up and down in front of him, making the sensation even worse. Close by were three large water carriers that Jezza had put on board and the sloshing noises they made didn’t help steady Tommo’s stomach either. At least he wasn’t anywhere near Miller’s backside though. He raised his eyes and stared at the other thing the others had brought back from the house.
Shiela was staring at it too. It dominated the centre of the container and it frightened her.
She had spent the better part of an hour waiting at the tattoo parlour alone and hated every minute. She wasn’t sure why, but those crates of books unsettled her so she took herself to the rear of the shop and reclined on the tattooist’s chair. Yet the thought of the books on the other side of the partition began to gnaw away at her mind and she couldn’t stop thinking about them. For reasons she was unable to explain to herself, Shiela began to wonder what they were doing. Were they still in the crates, or had they got out somehow? It was a ridiculous notion, but she couldn’t stop herself from glancing over her shoulder more than once.
Eventually she could bear it no longer and had to return to the front of the shop to make sure they were still present in their big wooden boxes. What was it about these strange old books? Why did they fill her thoughts so much? Why did they make her so uneasy? What had happened earlier when Jezza had read from them? Why were the men behaving so weirdly?
Looking at the sofa on which she had flung her copy, Shiela’s eyelids drooped. The next thing she knew she was sitting there, the green and cream book in her hand, and she was turning to the first page. She experienced a rush of excitement and felt safe and content. The tatty sofa became a stone bench beneath a castle window, strewn with sumptuous velvet cushions. Golden wire was twisted in her braided hair, a tear-shaped piece of amethyst dangled at her brow and a heavy jewelled brooch was fastened to her bodice. Somewhere in the castle the minstrels were playing; she could hear strains of their music drifting through the galleries. She gazed out of the window that looked down on to the courtyard. The silver fountain was tinkling sweetly, the cascading crystal waters sparkling in the shafts of evening sunlight.
And there was the Queen of Spades, dressed richly in silks and velvets of the deepest midnight blue and studded with sapphire gemstones. Hurrying after was her dull-witted ally and confidante, the Queen of Hearts. As usual, the Queen of Spades was casting around, making sure no one was within earshot, and whispered something to her. The Under Queens were always full of intrigue, Shiela found herself thinking, and that wily one was the worst. What new conspiracies or gossip was she disseminating now? Shiela should speak to the Ismus about her, or maybe the Harlequin Priests could point to a sombre colour on their robes when they…
A car pulled up outside the window and Shiela jolted back on the sofa. Breathing hard, she looked down at the book in her hands and dropped it as if it had burned her. Then she jumped up and hurried to the door.
“All right, She-luv!” Queenie had greeted, carefully negotiating herself out of the car in her ultra skinny jeans. “You OK? You’re white as Manda’s bingo wings.”
“Where’s Miller?” Manda had asked, slamming the other door and looking round. “His bike’s here.”
Shiela had stared at them, speechless, trying to understand what had just happened.
Then there came the sound of a motorbike and Dave came roaring up on his Honda.
“Here’s Babyface!” Queenie had cried, throwing her arms wide in welcome and clattering her acrylic nails over his crash helmet before he had a chance to remove it.
The VW was not far behind. But… there was something tied to the roof rack. Something large and unfamiliar, Shiela could not make out what it was. A Gothic sledge? Before they could ask, Tesco Charlie’s lorry came lumbering along the road.
“Well met!” Jezza had greeted everyone with a flamboyant bow. “Now let’s get this into Charlie’s lovely truck.”
By the time Tommo had arrived in a borrowed estate car with everything he had been instructed to fetch, the ‘thing’ had been manoeuvred off the camper’s roof rack and into the huge metal container.
Now, in the phantom light of the white LEDs, Shiela stared at its skeletal frame and feared it.
They had been ordered to remain silent. Tesco Charlie was uncharacteristically forceful about that point. If he was going to smuggle them into the port undetected, they had to be quieter than mice doing a sponsored silence.
Queenie found this rule particularly hard to adhere to. She deplored the quiet and had to plug any silence with noise and even left her television on when she left her flat because she loathed coming back to a mausoleum.
Dancing to tunes in her head, she had wriggled and swayed all the way from the tattoo parlour towards the port entrance and had to be warned by Jezza when she got carried away and started drumming on the metal side. This was a great adventure for her and she was going to live it to the max.
“We must be nearly there,” Jezza said softly as they felt the lorry slow down and eventually stop.
They could not hear the bantering exchange between Charlie and the security guard at the gate, but it was soon over and the lorry was off again. It drove into the container port and continued going for what seemed an interminably long time before finally coming to rest. The engine stopped with a shudder and all eyes turned to Jezza.
“Now we wait for the signal,” he told them.
Dave looked at his watch. It was a few minutes past nine. They didn’t have long to wait. Even inside the container they heard the Fiesta exploding. Tesco Charlie left his cab and began unlocking the doors at the end of the container.
The cool night air blew in.
“How did you manage that?” the long-haired driver asked, peering in at them through his thick spectacles. “It was enormous – it…”
The second explosion drowned whatever he was about to say next. He ran around the side of the lorry and saw the fireball boiling up to the night clouds. Jezza sprang down and joined him. The fire danced in his eyes.
Charlie had driven his great lorry deep into the massive port. Huge containers just like the one that had smuggled them in were all around, stacked five high. Tommo clambered out next, glad to be back on solid ground, and he recovered rapidly.
“Like ants in a Lego set,” he chirped, gazing about him.
A streak of lightning ripped through the darkness and the thunder rolled. Then sirens started – lots of them. The port police were responding to the emergency outside the Landguard Fort. So too were the fire engines and the ambulances. In a matter of moments, they were all speeding through the gates.
“What’s going on out there?” Shiela asked as she drew alongside the others. “Is that screaming?”
Howie was holding the book to his chest. “The flock is bleating,” he muttered. “They are lost and abandoned and searching for the way. I shall paint this night, I shall paint…”
A savage crack of lightning directly overhead caused everyone to look up. There were sparks spitting from the lamp towers.
“They’re going to have to buy new cameras tomorrow,” Jezza said simply. “Let’s get on with what we came here for.”
Miller, Dave and Charlie heaved the great Gothic-looking object out of the container and set it down the right way up. A reverberating clang went echoing between the container canyons.
Shiela approached it warily. It was a great metal chair, no – it was more like a throne. She wandered around it, careful not to get too close. There was something unpleasant, almost malevolent, about it, not just because it was heavy and ugly or because it was too large for a normal-sized person to sit on comfortably. Crafted from fancy cast-iron work, with curling fronds and interlocking patterns, it seemed more than what it appeared to be, as though it had another purpose. Each arm was formed to be like a cage, so was the seat and the high back.
“It’s horrible,” she said.
Queenie had no such misgivings. She was already using it as a prop to dance suggestively around. Manda had found the beers and was necking her first while Tommo brandished a plastic bag and brought out a packet of burgers and some baps.
“Let’s get this party cooking!” he said.
“Don’t be a cretin all your life,” Jezza told him severely. “Chuck that crap away and get the coals.”
The lightning continued to crackle overhead.
“I’ve never seen an electrical storm like this,” Charlie declared. He lifted his hand and viewed it through his thick lenses. The hairs were standing on end. “The air is charged with static!”
“Gather around the Waiting Throne,” Jezza told everyone. “Not too close, and keep away from the containers. It might get a bit … frisky up there.”
“Ow!” Manda cried as a whisker of blue light leaped from the can to her lip. She dropped it and the beer went foaming over the floor.
“What’s going on?” Miller called.
“We’re just charging up,” Jezza answered. “This is the best place for it – all this wonderful metal, like a massive aerial.”
“Tuning into what?” Shiela asked.
The man smiled at her. “Whom,” he said.
“I love it!” Queenie shouted, tingling as she stroked the arm of the iron chair.
“Ow!” Manda cried again. This time her necklace was throwing out millipede legs of energy and she removed it hastily. It jumped and twitched on the ground.
“I advise you all to get rid of any jewellery now,” Jezza told them.
Bracelets and rings were hurriedly taken off and Charlie had to lose his glasses. Shiela could feel her hair lifting and there was an unpleasant tang in her mouth.
“Like licking a battery,” Tommo said, voicing her own thoughts.
He had been bringing out the bags of charcoal. Now Jezza ripped them open and, taking one to the chair, twisted one of the designs in the ironwork. The top of an arm hinged open. It took three bags to fill the space beneath. Then he went to the other arm and did the same there.
The lightning continued to flash and split the sky.
Shiela had been staring up at the giant cranes. The electricity was leaping between them, arcing across the port in a spectacular display.
She could not understand what was happening. Why were they really here? When she lowered her eyes, Jezza had filled the seat and the back of the chair, with only one bag to spare. The throne was now packed with charcoal.
“Get the water carriers,” he ordered Tommo. “I want them close.” Then he gestured for everyone to stand clear.
“I don’t like this,” Manda said. “I thought we were going to have a laugh. This isn’t a laugh. It’s mad.”
Miller reached to hold her hand. A spark flew across and they jumped apart.
“I want to go home!” she cried.
“Muzzle her,” Jezza snapped. “You should be grovelling on your faces to be here, to witness the contract.”
Shiela agreed with Manda, but Queenie’s eyes were sparkling. She felt more alive than she had in years; she didn’t want this to end. She lifted her hands in the air and dared the lightning to strike her, laughing hysterically.
Dave stared at her. Filaments of energy were branching off her body as she danced. He didn’t know whether to be terrified or surrender himself to the experience and see what happened. Tommo could feel his hair crackling with the static. It tickled him and he hopped about manically. Spiders of light came leaping from his arms and legs.
Tesco Charlie could barely make out what was happening. It was a blur of brilliant blue zigzags and shapes, but he thought it was amazing and threw back his head to yell out his delight.
“Begin,” Jezza said to Howie.
The tattooist had been very quiet and now, when they looked at him, they saw that his piercings were spitting with strands of flickering blue flame and yet he seemed oblivious to it.
“And so the Holy Enchanter dared what only the Dawn Prince before had done,” he said, reading out loud from the book. “For there was no other way to bring order to the warring Court. With great courage, he stepped up to the Waiting Throne and proved that only he was worthy of becoming the Ismus. Only he could rule in his Lord’s absence and so the pact was made and sealed with fire!”
On that last word there was a deafening clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning came shooting down. It slammed into the iron chair. There was a shrill, razoring chime and the coals within exploded in flames.
Everyone cried out and covered their faces. Shiela turned to run, but the alley between the containers was alive with electricity. The forking streaks were rebounding from wall to wall, forming an impassable and lethal fence.
Manda was sobbing into her hands, but Howie’s voice was louder.
“From that day the Holy Enchanter’s word was law,” he declaimed. The studs in his bottom lip were wreathed with cold fire that snaked throughout his gingery beard. “And none who beheld that contract dared conspire against him! His authority was absolute.”
The coals within the iron chair were blazing and beginning to glow a cherry red. Then Shiela realised what was about to happen.
“No,” she breathed in horror. But she couldn’t stop it. Though her mind told her it was insane, she knew this was meant to be. This was how it must be. Howie’s voice was fogging her judgement. She thought she was back in that castle, looking up at the throne, and the entire Court was gathered around them, holding their breath with fear and wonder.
Jezza removed his leather jacket and slipped off his boots. Howie continued reading from the book and still Queenie danced.
Then the rain began. The iron chair hissed and the flames died within the charcoal. The electric forces around them dimmed and were extinguished. Jezza was naked now. With his head bowed, he approached the Waiting Throne.
“Don’t!” Shiela begged, her reason struggling to the fore. “You’ll die!”
Her boyfriend did not respond, but Howie turned to her and in a solemn, commanding voice said, “Have faith, Labella.”
And then, as the rain teemed down, Miller stepped forward, all expression gone from his face. The burly man lifted Jezza by the waist and lowered him on to the scorching metal of the chair and Jezza pressed his bare back against it.
Shiela covered her ears. His shrieks were louder than the thunder that boomed across the harbour. She saw him clench his teeth so tightly that every vein stood out across his neck and chest and he placed his arms on those of the chair. Another howl of thunder – or was it merely him?
Miller bowed and walked backwards.
“Enough!” Shiela screamed, breaking through the enchantment that had smothered her. “That’s enough!”
Darting forward, she seized Jezza’s hands and pulled him clear. He went rolling on the ground, curled up in a ball, choking with his pain-filled cries.
When she saw the state of his back, she grabbed one of the water carriers and emptied it over him.
“Call an ambulance!” she shouted. “Hurry!”
“No!” Howie answered.
“He’ll die!” she yelled. “Look at him – look at that!”
“It’s beautiful,” the tattooist said admiringly. “Such exquisite work.”
The girl stared at him for an instant. Had everyone gone crazy? Howie was normally so level-headed and sensible. She reached for her phone and was about to dial 999 when a trembling hand knocked it from her grip.
“No hospitals!” Jezza struggled to say. “No doctors! I must… endure it alone.”
“Jezza!” she protested. “You need help.”
“There is no Jezza!” he screamed back at her. Then he collapsed and lay sprawled face down on the floor, the rain lashing across his body.
Shiela looked round at the others. They were staring at the man at her feet. The throne had seared strange symbols and ancient writing into his flesh.
“The contract is made,” Howie announced. “Lift the Ismus. We must bear him from this place.”
With the utmost reverence, Miller, Tommo and Dave approached the unconscious man. Tesco Charlie had put his glasses back on and brought a blanket from his cab. They covered the Ismus with it and gently carried him inside the container on the back of the lorry.
Shiela watched in disbelief. Even Manda and Queenie were playing along with it now, walking behind them like overawed worshippers.
Howie emptied the other two water carriers over the Waiting Throne and clouds of steam billowed upwards.
“Come, Labella,” he said, emerging from the white vapour with a beatific smile widening in his beard. “Rejoice. We have a Lord to rule over us and govern the Dancing Jacks. When the Ismus recovers from the Great Ordeal and arises, order shall be restored.”
Shiela could not comprehend what had happened that night. But she knew they had all taken a step towards something sinister and final and there was no going back.
“IT’S ALL QUIET here today, but on Friday night, right behind me, outside the historic Landguard Fort here in Felixstowe, tragedy occurred – a tragedy that claimed the lives of many local young people. At nine o’clock last night several thousand were gathered here to take part in a supposed flash mob. Each of them had been invited via an anonymous email that the police are currently trying to trace. Details are not completely clear yet, but something sparked a riot and, while that was going on, a car came hurtling down this approach road, seemingly out of control. It skidded then crashed into another car, parked over there in that car park, and exploded. The second car followed moments after. You can only imagine the terror, the panic.”
A cool female voice interrupted.
“Have the police made any further statement as to how the car came to be out of control?”
The man on the screen shook his head. “Not as yet,” he said. “The forensic teams are still combing the wreckage and the area, as you can see behind me. But eyewitnesses we’ve spoken to say there was smoke coming out of the car even before the crash. Others claim to have seen flames.”
“Thank you, Justin, now we can head over to Lyndsay Draymore outside Felixstowe General where the injured and the dying were taken last night.”
The image of the suited man standing upon the sandhill, with the road behind him, was replaced by a smart young woman, in front of a red-brick, arched entrance.
“Lyndsay, what more can you tell us about this tragic incident?”
“Well, Tara, medical staff have been working round the clock, through the night here. I understand there was something in the region of a hundred and twenty casualties, impact injuries and burns being the majority of cases that had to be dealt with.”
“And I gather the death toll has now risen again?”
“Yes, within the last hour, it has been announced that two more have died as a result of their injuries, bringing the total now up to thirty-eight – with five more still in intensive care and fighting for their lives. An unbelievable loss of life in this usually quiet seaside town, here in Suffolk.”
Behind her a nurse emerged from the entrance; she looked tired and drained. Someone behind the camera must have alerted Lyndsay because she turned and almost ran over to her, eager for a word from the front line.
“Can you tell me what it’s been like in there?” she asked, shoving a microphone forward.
A startled Carol Thornbury looked quizzically down the lens that came after.
“How is the mood of the medical staff?” the reporter asked. “What can you tell us? How are the families of the injured feeling at this time?”
“Are you bloody stupid or something?” Carol snapped. “How do you think they’re feeling? Get that ruddy camera out of my face or I’ll give you a colonoscopy with it! And keep this area clear!”
Carol barged impatiently past the camera crew, leaving a thick-skinned Lyndsay smiling benignly. “As you can see,” she continued without a blink, “the atmosphere here is tense and tempers are running high. This is Lyndsay Draymore, Felixstowe General, for BBC News.”
The picture switched back to the anchorperson, perched informally against the news desk, casually displaying the shapely legs that had served her so well in Strictly Come Dancing the year before.
“And we’ll have more of that terrible incident in Suffolk on our main bulletin at six,” she purred. “You can tweet us your thoughts and condolences at the address at the bottom of the screen. Now over to our showbiz correspondent to see which pop diva has lost a size, shredding twenty pounds thanks to a new diet from…”
Martin turned off the TV. “Good on you, Carol,” he said proudly.
“She looked shattered,” Paul commented.
“Must have been a horrible night there,” Martin answered. “I’ll run a bath for her and do some toast. She’ll want something before she crashes…”
He flinched, not believing his unthinking choice of word, and the horror of the previous night rushed in again. He and Paul had returned home in a kind of dream state. The night had been alive with sirens and whirling lights and they had both fallen asleep in front of the rolling news.
The phone rang. It was Carol’s mother.
“Hello, Jean. Yes, I saw her on the news just now too. No, television always makes you look fatter than you are. Yes, it’s been awful. No, I don’t know how many were from the school, they haven’t released that information yet. Paul is fine. I’ll tell her you rang, soon as she gets back. OK, you too, Jean. Bye now.”
It was the second time she had rung. The first was at half six that morning when she had first heard about it on the radio. Other people had called: Barry Milligan had sounded irritable and hungover and his mood wasn’t helped by the fact that the rugby game had been cancelled out of respect. Gerald Benning, Paul’s piano teacher, had checked to make sure he was safe, and so had members of the family who hadn’t been in touch for years. It was positively ghoulish.
When Carol came through the door, she gave her son the biggest, chest-crushing hug he’d ever had. She had worked an extra four hours over her shift. Her face looked grey and drawn and her hollow eyes seemed to attest to the things she had seen in the casualty department.
Martin passed her a cup of tea, which she took gratefully, but refused the toast.
“I couldn’t,” she stated.
Neither Martin nor her son uttered a word while she drank it. Then, cradling the cup in her hands, she said, “I never want to go through another night like that as long as I live.”
“You were just on telly,” Paul ventured. “You were fierce!”
“That stupid, stupid woman. Why do they ask such inane, crass questions?”
“It’s what they do,” Martin said.
“I almost punched her, but you know what stopped me? I knew it’d help her flaming career and I’d end up on some cheap blooper programme that’d be repeated for the rest of my life.”
She closed her eyes and seemed to sag.
“There’s a bath waiting,” Martin told her. He had never seen her like this before. Carol always left the grimness of the job at the hospital and was able to detach herself from it. Not this time. She was too limp to manage the bath. She just wanted to flop into bed.
Halfway up the stairs, she stopped and said, in a small, defeated voice, “I recognised lots of them. Some had been your pupils, Martin. A few of them still are… or were.”
Across town, Emma Taylor sat on her bed, staring blankly at the wallpaper. Conor had gone with her in the ambulance. Both had been too stunned to say anything. In casualty Emma had been checked over: superficial burns to the back of her legs, which had been appropriately dressed and, due to the volume of more serious cases coming in, she had been discharged. Conor had been treated for the cuts and bruises he had sustained in the fight, but the sights that wheeled by while he waited never left him.
Emma’s usually disinterested parents had been loud and vocal in their sympathy, but of zero use and were more keen to find out if any compensation could be claimed. For the first time, the girl had not milked a situation to her utmost advantage. Instead she went quietly to her room, plugged her earphones in and replayed those moments over and over in her head. She hadn’t slept all night.
When her mobile rang, she didn’t hear it, but saw the flashing of the screen. She stared at it like it was something new and unrecognisable. The number was certainly unfamiliar. She picked it up and pulled out one earphone.
“How’d you get my number?”
“Nicky Dobbs gave it me. I knew you two used to go out…”
“Nicky Dobbs is a waste of space.”
“So I thought I’d…”
“What do you want?”
“About, you know. I can’t talk to anyone here about it. They won’t be able to understand.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But you were in that car – you know what happened. The police are going to start asking…”
Emma bristled. “Are you going to grass me up?” she said. “Others will have seen you in it.”
“They was too busy running for their lives. Only you and me know I was in that car. Danny, Kevin, B.O. and Brian won’t be telling no one now, will they? They’re burned and gone. We both saw Kevin flapping about on fire. So you just keep your trap shut, yeah?”
There was a silence.
“You hear me?”
“I’m not sure,” Conor said at length. “I can’t get my head straight.”
“Then try harder!” she told him. “Don’t you think I’ve been through enough?”
“But you want to set the law on me as well? I wasn’t even driving!”
“No. I dunno. I can’t think.”
Emma ground her teeth. “Look,” she said, “there’s no way I’ll be let out of this house today. They’re useless, but think I need to stop in so they can claim extra for the trauma. I’ll work on them tomorrow and meet you then, yeah? We’ll talk it through, yeah?”
“Tomorrow? I’m not sure I can wait…”
“Just sit on it for one more bloody day, will you!”
“Down by the boot fair then, about three.”
“The boot fair?”
“Where else is busy on a Sunday here? I’m not going to traipse up a lonely beach with you. It’s not a date.”
“I wasn’t asking for one!”
“See you then, then.”
“Umm… and Emma…?”
“I’m sorry about Keeley and Ashleigh.”
The girl’s mouth dried. “Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.” She ended the call and closed her eyes. Images of her two friends caught in the Fiesta’s headlights reared in her memory.
Emma snapped her eyes open and continued to stare at the wallpaper.
The rest of that day passed quietly for the shocked town.
On Sunday the papers were full of it. There were sensationalised eyewitness accounts from whoever they could get to talk about the incident locally. Half of those interviewed hadn’t even been there. There was a two-page spread with a dynamic graphic of View Point Road and the progress of the car along it, with arrows indicating where the vehicle was going to crash and explode. There were photographs of the deceased, each taken at some point the previous year – all young, all smiling. Danny Marlow had been singled out as the cause of the disaster, but none of his family, especially his brother, would give an interview so the papers had to make do with the gossip they had wheedled out of neighbours and unnamed “close family friends”.
As well as all that, there were the usual scaremongering articles on the dangers of the Internet. Sporadic, starred panels voiced the opinions of waning celebrities whose publicity agents had eagerly volunteered their clients’ condoling sound bites about the tragedy, even though most of them had no idea where Felixstowe actually was. A photo shoot had been hastily arranged for a teen pop sensation, coyly wearing a firefighter’s helmet and little else, to show her support for those brave heroes who battled the flames, while also plugging her latest single, the release of which had been specially brought forward and was available on iTunes that very day.
Barry Milligan read through every paper and cradled his head in his hands. The death toll had now risen to forty-one. Eight of them attended his school. A further twenty-three had been former pupils and twenty-seven were still in hospital. Special services were being held in churches across town that morning and he had sat and prayed with everyone else, to whatever might be listening.
Then he drove to the school. There was an emergency meeting of governors and department heads at 2 p.m. and he wanted to be the first one there. He needed to be in his office to sort out the details for tomorrow. As he approached, he saw that floral tributes and messages were already being laid outside the gate. There was another reporter hanging about, ambushing groups of sobbing girls. News editors loved intrusive images of raw grief. Snot and tears are real attention-grabbers. Barry slipped by them and entered the building.
A school after hours and during the weekend is a strange, lonely place. It needs children to bring it to life and give it purpose. Standing in the corridor, which echoed and smelled of floor polish, Barry wondered how he was going to get through Monday’s assembly tomorrow morning.
The meeting only lasted an hour; no one was in the mood to argue and everything was settled. There would be counselling available for any child who needed it throughout the week. It was going to be a rough time and like nothing Barry had ever experienced in his professional life. Downing Street had even been in touch. The Prime Minister would like to come and deliver his condolences in person and give a sympathetic yet inspirational speech to the students. Only one discreet camera crew need be present, the press office assured him. Barry had vetoed that immediately in very colourful language. The week was going to be difficult enough without an unctuous Prime Minister and his entourage having to be considered. The Headmaster’s sole duty was to the children. Publicity-hungry politicians seeking to boost their ratings in the opinion polls by exploiting such a tragedy didn’t even figure. It made Barry furious.
After the meeting and making the necessary phone calls and doing everything he possibly could, Barry returned home. He donned his favourite rugby shirt and spent the rest of the day with a bottle of twelve-year-old malt. The pubs were infested with reporters, sniffing for grime.
The rest of Felixstowe could not remain indoors any longer. The grieving town needed company: they needed to see familiar faces, to stop and talk, to share their sorrows and disbelief and give thanks if their immediate circle had not suffered a loss.
So that Sunday afternoon saw unusually high numbers wandering down to the seafront. They chatted in hushed, respectful tones while they walked past the cheerfully painted beach huts and deserted amusements, and found their steps gravitated towards the peninsula. But they demurred at completing that solemn journey just yet. Instead they stopped at the Martello tower along the way and browsed through the boot fair that was held there every Sunday, floods permitting, on the surrounding wasteland.
Conor Westlake was sitting on the low sea wall in front of the boot fair. His face still bore the discoloured marks of Friday’s fight, but they looked worse than they felt.
The gulls were floating above, shrieking mournfully and swooping down on any scraps that the chip-eaters flung their way. The sea was grey and featureless, except for the movement of the enormous container ships that sailed from the dock around the infamous headland. They were so immense they looked like drifting cubist islands. Conor checked his phone for messages, but there were none. He swivelled about on the wall and looked across the car roofs and bustling boot fair.
The tall, solid, round shape of the Martello tower dominated everything. It was one of many built during the Napoleonic Wars for an invasion that never happened and was now a Coastwatch Station. Others had been turned into eccentric homes, while the rest were crumbling. Suffolk was peppered with old defences along its sea-ravaged coast: pillboxes from the Second World War, or concrete bunkers from the First.
Conor’s grey eyes scanned the crowds. The boot fair was busier than usual. More people than ever were inspecting the unwanted junk arrayed behind the cars. He recognised several faces in there. He checked his phone again. Emma was late.
Cursing under his breath, he looked back at the sea. Yesterday had been a blank fog for him. No one at home knew what to say and the more they fussed the more he resented them. Now he felt like a can that had been violently shaken and was ready to explode at anyone who said the wrong thing. The sight of the sea was calming though; he could watch it for hours.
“I don’t have no money or nothing,” Emma said flatly. “So you can forget that right way.”
Conor looked around. The girl was standing beside the wall. He had been so wrapped up in himself he hadn’t heard her approach. She was chewing loudly.
“I’m not stopping long,” she told him, flicking her ponytail behind her with a toss of the head. “What do you want?”
“Money?” he repeated in confusion. “What are you on about?”
“You tell me, Goldilocks. Aren’t you after something to keep you quiet? That’s blackmail, you vile sicko. If it’s not money you’re after then it can only be the other and you have got to be kidding, you filthy perv.”
Conor held up his hands defensively. “Oi!” he cried. “I only wanted to talk about it, nothing else. You got it so wrong.”
Emma folded her arms and eyed him sharply. She couldn’t understand any motive that wasn’t selfish.
“So talk,” she said at length.
The boy wasn’t sure how to begin. He glanced down at the tracksuit bottoms she was wearing and guessed she was deliberately hiding her bandaged legs.
“How are they?” he asked.
Emma shrugged. “I’m not about to marry Paul McCartney,” she said.
Conor watched as three gulls fought over a generous piece of battered fish skin.
“It keeps going round and round in my head like a bit in Grand Theft Auto I can’t get past,” he said. “Nobody who wasn’t there can understand.”
“Are you confusing me for an agony aunt? I’m not Denise bleeding Robertson. You got problems with it? Go to a head doctor or chuck some Prozac down your neck.”
“Don’t you keep seeing it in here?” he asked, tapping his forehead. “Those faces – the screams and the panic…”
Emma turned away. “That’s my business,” she replied.
“But Ashleigh and Keeley…?”
“What do you want me to do, shave my hair off or something? They’re in the morgue, dead and blue, but I’m still here. There’s no amount of talk or blowing my nose going to bring them back or make it go away. No sense in banging on about stuff like that. It’ll do your brains in.”
Conor shook his head. “God, you’re hard,” he said. “They were your best mates.”
“I’m my best mate! Have you finished, pretty boy?”
“Not yet. I saw the papers today. No one knows why the car was out of control. What happened?”
Emma chewed and clicked the gum in her mouth. “Danny Marlow was driving, that’s what happened. He was a useless pillock. It was his fault – all of it.”
“Why don’t you tell someone? You should.”
“Who? The fuzz? Are you from Norfolk or what? I had a visit from them last night about that Sandra cowing Dixon. I’m not going to give them an excuse to come back and ask me a load more questions. I had nothing to do with that crash. I was just lucky to get out of it alive. The other poor pieces of toast didn’t.”
“Danny’s family would want to know. So would Kev’s and the others.”
“So what? Not my problem and it’s not yours neither.”
Conor couldn’t think what else to say. He should have known better than to try and speak to flint-hearted Emma Taylor about this. The fact that he had probably saved her life that night didn’t even occur to her, or if it did, she wasn’t going to acknowledge it, let alone thank him.
He changed the subject.
“I saw Sandra Dixon back there before,” he said, nodding towards the boot fair.
“She was lucky we thumped her,” Emma declared proudly. “She might be lying on a slab right now with the rest if we hadn’t. I told the police that last night. Not that they took any notice. She should be bloody grateful.”
“She isn’t the sort to go to a flash mob,” he answered.
“Don’t go sticking up for her! She’s so far up herself you don’t have to. And she deserved what we done. You know she said you was thick and couldn’t read a book without colouring it in. Snobby cow.”
Conor managed a grim smile. “She’s right there,” he agreed.
An elderly couple had been admiring the sea as they walked along the promenade. Drawing close, they paused when they saw the two young people and let out sympathetic groans.
“Oh, you poor lad,” the woman cried. “Your bruised face. Were you caught up in that terrible disaster?”
“Awful business,” the man added consolingly.
Conor didn’t know how to answer them, but Emma said, “Bog off, you nosy coffin-dodgers! Go find someone else to patronise or I’ll squeeze your colostomy bags so hard your false teeth will shoot out!”
The couple backed hastily away from the hostile, hard-bitten girl and walked off as quickly as they could. Conor exploded with shocked laughter. She really was relentlessly foul.
Emma watched them leave with a snarl on her lip. Then she reflected it might have been a mistake wearing tracksuit bottoms. Conor bore signs of battle; perhaps it was time she displayed her wounds too. She had a feeling she would need all the sympathy she could get, especially if that Sandra was going to make a stink. She had been looking forward to at least a week off school, but now she thought it would be smarter to make an appearance tomorrow, with her poor bandaged legs on show.
“Have we done here?” she asked the boy.
Conor didn’t think there was anything more to be said.
“So you’ll not tell anyone, yeah?”
He felt conflicted. “Not today,” was all he could promise.
“Just keep that gob buttoned,” she warned. With that, she strode away.
Conor chewed his bottom lip. He didn’t know what to do. A brazen seagull alighted on the wall and took a stalking step towards him, hoping for something to eat. Another landed beside it and came bullying forward.
“I haven’t got nothing!” the lad said, showing his empty hands. One of the gulls pecked greedily at his fingers and he pulled his hand back.
“Vicious little beggar!” he cried. “Bet your name’s Emma as well.”
He swung his legs around and jumped off the wall, into the boot fair.
The laden tables sported the usual tat: old toasters, garish souvenirs brought back from abroad, boxes of broken jewellery, rusty tools, redundant VHS tapes, typewriters, ugly clocks, unfashionable shoes, chipped vases, bent candlesticks, incomplete jigsaws, cracked crockery, vinyl recordings of cover-version compilations, empty picture frames. There was nothing here the red or blue teams of Bargain Hunt could take to an auction and make a profit on.
Conor moved through the crowd, only vaguely noticing what was on sale – until he came to a beaten-up camper van where a young woman was standing behind a wallpaper table covered in a display of old books. The same old book, with a green and cream cover.
With Emma’s spiteful account of what Sandra Dixon had said about him still in his mind, the boy stopped and picked one up.
“Dancing Jacks,” he read.
The woman behind the table regarded him oddly, shooting him warning looks. Almost as if she was telling him not to look at it, never mind buy it.
Ignoring her, he flicked through some of the pages. The black and white illustrations looked archaic to him and the thought that they really did need colouring in suddenly popped into his head.
“Ha!” he blurted. “You don’t want that,” the woman muttered. “What’s it about?”
“You won’t like it.”
“You’d be wasting your…”
Her voice was cut off as a movement sounded from within the van and a lean-faced man emerged from the sliding door.
“Peasant coins are all we seek!” he said with a crooked grin. “Just thirty of your shiny new pennies.”
“Thirty pence? Is that all?”
The man bowed. “For this day only,” he said. “Next week they shall be ten pounds each and after that… who knows, a hundred – a thousand, maybe more?”
Conor almost laughed at him, but something about the man’s manner commanded more respect than that. Then he noticed that the scuffed leather jacket he was wearing had been added to and was now sporting two long tails, like an old-fashioned fancy dinner jacket. There was an illustration of a character wearing something like that in the book. In fact, it even looked a bit like that weaselly man.
Conor handed the money over and walked away with the book under his arm.
The man’s eyes gleamed. Then he turned to the woman and took her hand to kiss it.
“You must endeavour to be more persuasive in your vending, my fair Labella,” he told her.
Shiela nodded slowly. “Yes, Ismus,” she said in a fearful voice.
Protecting the Ismus, night and day, keeping vigilant watch upon his Holy person are his devoted bodyguards: the three Black Face Dames. No dainty damsels they, but brawny bruisers in black skirts and iron-studded boots, with midnight ribbons tied about their knees and arms. Soot bedaubs their cheeks and brows, for they have renounced their true names and their stomping dance is the deadliest of all. Seek not to gambol with them, only the Jockey has e’er frolicked and jigged in their midst and lived to laugh. Beware their Morris, beware Old Oss’s poisoned bite and Scorch’s fiery tongue.
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