The Gardener of the Dead
The Gardener of the Dead
The rusty old caravan stood at the edge of the woods, hidden by a row of tall pine which guided the footpath to the edge of the graveyard. A security light, fixed on the side of the sandstone church, clicked on as Barry and Chris approached. Under one arm Chris held a traffic cone, and a bulging bin liner swayed from his clenched fist. Barry held his retrieved satchel against his chest, the broken strap hanging down like a tail.
“Home sweet home,” said Chris, turning off his torch, and pulling open the door.
“You live in this?” asked Barry, rather disturbed.
“That I do, young man. The vicar kindly let me put up sticks here .”
The caravan rocked as Chris stepped inside. He flicked a switch beside the door, and the dingy interior flickered with pale, yellow light.
“You be growing moss if you stand there too long,” said Chris. “Come get yourself out of that cold, Barry.”
Barry followed him in and was pleasantly surprised by the approving reports of his unclogged nostril. It didn’t smell. Even though it looked like a wreck from the outside, it was actually quite nice within, except for one very strange thing: a long-dead, badly-stuffed black cat sat beside the window. It was grotesque; lumps of fur were missing; it’s claws were yellow and curled, and its mouth was full of sharp, crooked teeth. The taxidermist must have been visually impaired, or tinkering in completely the wrong hobby. Marbled yellow eyes seemed to stare at Barry wherever he moved.
Placing his belongings on the table, Chris quickly soaped and scrubbed his hands in the kitchen sink, muttering swearwords as he flashed them beneath the increasingly heated stream. He turned off the tap, dried his hands, then picked out a fresh hand-towel and soaked a corner under the cold tap, before handing it to Barry.
Clearing a pile of magazines from his narrow bed, the old man swept his hand in gesture for the boy to take a seat.
Barry plumped down, dropping the satchel on the floor.
“Put your head a little forward and squeeze it to the bridge of your nose. You’ll be right as the rain in no time,” said Chris, resting his own frame in a creaking wicker chair.
“Thank you,” sniffed Barry, pressing his nose with the cold towel.
“You’re most welcome... that you are.”
Chris opened up a cupboard and went to put the traffic cone inside.
“What’s that for?” asked Barry.
Turning with a grin, Chris raised the cone to his lips: “To scare people,” he boomed, in the same terrible voice he’d used in the woods.
Still wearing the grin, Chris put the traffic cone on the floor, then reached into the bin liner. With two fingers through the gills, he pulled out a long, fat, pink fish and held it up to the light.
“That’s what’s for, my lad,” said Chris proudly. “This beastie must weigh at least twelve pounds, and his two mates in that bag are nearly as big.”
“Wow!” said Barry, less impressed than he made himself sound.
“See?” the wizard began, lifting the traffic cone to show the jagged rim of the widened peak. “Down at the river, I put rocks in an old oil-drum and cut out a hole in the top. Then I cut down this cone and push it in the hole so big fish can get in and the little fish can get out. But the big fish can’t get out, see?”
“These three lovelies will have me fed for a month,” beamed Chris.
“But that’s poaching isn’t it? And isn’t that illegal?” said Barry, “I didn’t think you were allowed to take fish from the river like that?”
Chris squirmed, then laughed nervously: “Rightly so, young man. Not much gets through your net, that’s for sure, but it’s only illegal if you don’t have no license.”
“But it’s closed season, isn’t it?”
Chris frowned, looking at the boy with one half-closed eye. “Not for wizards,” he said, quietly, as he stuffed the fish back in the bag, then in the freezer compartment of his small fridge. He put the traffic cone in the cupboard; closed it, then washed his hands, and swore again.
“Your mother will be worrying for you,” said Chris, in attempt to brush thoughts of poaching out of the caravan.
Wiping the last of the blood from his tender nose, Barry folded the hand towel into a neat rectangle and passed it back to the wizard.
“She’s always out.”
Chris tutted. “That’s no good, boy. Children need parents.”
Barry fell quiet.
“So, those boys aren’t your friends I’d say?” asked Chris.
“No...” said Barry, looking to his feet.
Chris twisted a strand of his beard, and sighed. “When I was coming back from the river and I saw them chase you, it didn’t look like they was wanting to be swapping those cartoon cards with you.”
Barry stayed silent, his head lowered and eyes wandering around the carpet, looking at nothing in particular, like a scolded dog.
“So they be picking on you?”
Barry said nothing.
“Would that be ‘uh-hu’ yes?”
“Yes!” said Barry sharply, looking up at the wizard with a hint of venom in his eyes to hide the shame he felt..
Chris hooked the glare from Barry and tightened his chin, making the white bristles under his lower lip stand out. “Barry,” he said, leaning closer, “it seems to me that bullies bully because they know they can do.”
“Derr,” sniffed Barry, “I know that already.”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “And if they know they can, then they’ll carry on doing it until someone lets them know they can’t.”
Barry’s eyes softened, and he looked to the old man with intrigue. “You?”
Chris leant back and shook his head. “Not me, Barry. It’s not my business to be doing that for you. You have your Mother and your teachers at school.”
“But you stopped them just before?” pleaded Barry, “Can’t you just magic them away, or magic them to like me?”
“I can’t be doing that, boy...”
“You can! I could go back home and get some enchanted water for you.”
“Can’t you put a spell on them?”
“No,” insisted Chris, becoming more agitated.
“Magic them to Zimbabwe? There are probably lions there. Please?”
Exhausted, Chris widened his eyes and said, firmly, “No.”
Barry slumped back with folded arms, his bottom lip trembling. He blinked fast and looked around the small room, then lifted abruptly to his feet, clenching Chris’s gaze. “If I were a wizard, I wouldn’t let people hurt my friends!” he yelled, moving to the door.
“Boy...” he said, in a gentler tone, “there are others that can help you and will help you if you ask. I can’t get in no trouble, see? It’s not proper for me to fight your battles.”
“Who’s going to help me? If I tell anyone else, Quentin and Paul will get me more than now. You could easily help, but you won’t because you’re not even really my friend, so get lost... and sod off too.”
With that, Barry punched open the caravan door and stormed into the night.
Chris sighed heavily and moved to the door. In the darkness, he could only hear the hurried footsteps as the boy followed the gravel path.
The footsteps stopped, then returned much faster than they had left.
Caught in the dim glow from the caravan, Barry reappeared with a look of such panic on his face that Chris’s heart leapt.
“What’s wrong, boy?”
Barry stopped, covered his face with his hands, then looked up.
“The key,” he cried. “Where’s my key?”
* * * * *
Constable Gable Valentine was considering changing his name by deed-poll as he placed his gloved finger on the doorbell and pushed. It was a revelation - almost a shock that he’d never thought of it before. All those years of cringing torment he’d spent in the Army could have been avoided if he’d just had that clarity at the age of sixteen. And, if his parents - though they flatly denied it - hadn’t been smoking illegal herbs that morning at the registry office, then school would, he was sure, have been a much kinder experience. Brett, maybe? Brett Valentine. Sounds like a movie star, he thought.
A light came on in the hallway of the house and a figure approached, distorted in the textured glass panes of the front door. A tall, slim, well-groomed lady with blonde, tied-back hair pulled the door open and gave a relieved smile. “Oh, thank you for being so prompt.”
“Yes. Do come in...” she said, opening the door further and standing back. Then, as an afterthought, she asked, “Oh, do you have some sort of identification? It’s Peter - my husband - he always insists that I ask everyone for identification now. Some money went missing when the builder came to put the new fireplace in, and who can one trust in this day and age?”
Valentine tightened his eyes. “You mean, this uniform, this helmet and this radio, and the fact you just phoned the station to request an officer isn’t enough to prove to you that I’m not a policeman-shaped conman?” is exactly what he didn’t say. He unzipped his jacket and removed his warrant-card, holding it between thumb and forefinger in front of the woman’s face.
“Thank you. I don’t think I’ve met a Valentine before. What a lovely name.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” he said, uneasily, as he walked into the warm hallway. And he meant it.
Mrs Hardcastle ushered the policeman through to the immaculate living room, where two boys and another woman were sitting together on a plump, flowery settee.
Valentine regarded the boys with a slow stare, then turned his attention to the other woman. She was grotesque and fat; blotchy, red pocks on her face; wiry, black, greasy hair; blank eyes, like on a morgue snap of a competitor in a serious road traffic accident; and protruding teeth that just weren’t justifiable on a human being. She was, quite simply, wrong. If he were allowed, he thought, he would have her locked away for gross indecency.
“Evening,” Valentine said flatly. There was a low murmur of reply.
Mrs Hardcastle closed the living room door. “Please, take a seat,” she said to the officer, as she took one of the vacant armchairs herself.
Valentine lowered himself into the chair, removed his gloves and reached to his inside jacket pocket for his notebook and pen. “So, what seems to be the problem?”
The young boy with bucked-teeth - assumedly the result of one man’s overindulgence in alcohol some awful night long ago - was the first to open his mouth, but the words were Mrs Hardcastle’s.
“Well, the boys were playing in the woods with a friend when they say they... saw something quite untoward.”
Valentine looked slowly at all of them, waiting for a continuation, but they were quiet. The boys looked afraid.
“Something?” asked the officer.
“It was a ghost,” burst the toothy boy, with a slurping of his lips.
His mother rolled her eyes. It made her even less attractive. “Don’t be so stupid, Paul,” she sneered, her shoulders jogging as she gave a deflective laugh. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“But there certainly was something or someone there,” interrupted Mrs Hardcastle. “My Quentin doesn’t scare easily, and his heart was beating like a rabbit’s when he arrived home.”
Valentine exhaled through the corner of his mouth and pressed the pen to his notepad. “Right then, I’ll just make a note of your names.” He wrote ‘X-file’ on the top of the page, then looked first to his host.
“Jane Elizabeth Hardcastle, and my son Quentin Anthony...”
Valentine scribbled down the details, then turned his attention to the woman he hoped never to see again in his life after the night was through. He couldn’t afford the counseling.
“Mary and Paul Bennet.” she said quickly... suspiciously quickly.
“And your address?”
“Why do you need that?” asked Mary, alarmed, “You didn’t ask her.” She butted in the direction of Mrs Hardcastle.
“I know her address, Mrs Bennet,” explained Valentine. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t already have it.” He raised his brow for the woman to answer his question.
“34 Waverly Drive,” she finally admitted.
Valentine wrote it down, making a mental note to check the woman’s record. Maybe there was something there that could have her locked up after all, he hoped.
“So,” he said, turning to the boys, “Can you tell me exactly what happened?”
“Well,” began Mrs Hardcastle, “They were in the church woods - the Church of England one we go to, not the Catholic Church - when...”
“Excuse me, Mrs Hardcastle,” Valentine said, holding his hand up.
“Please call me Jane,” she smiled.
“As much as I appreciate your input, I must ask that you don’t interrupt.”
“Fine,” she said, and stopped smiling. She looked across the room to the slate fireplace, raising a finger to the corner of her mouth in the best effort at nonchalance she could muster.
“So...” said Valentine again, returning his attention to the boys.
Quentin declared himself spokesman. “We were playing hide and seek in the woods by the playing field, when there was a red light and something shouted at us.”
“A red light?”
“Like fire,” added Paul.
“Hmm? And what did this ‘something’ shout?”
“It said ‘I am the gardener of the dead... and I will kill you,’” said Quentin in as deep a voice as his testicles would allow. “And then we ran off.”
Valentine tapped the pen against his teeth. “And this friend you were with? Did he witness all this too?”
“I think so, but he can’t run as fast as us.”
“Can’t run as fast... meaning?”
“He’s not that good a friend,” explained Paul. “We haven’t seen him since.”
Valentine looked to the two women in turn, then back to the boys. “So, you left him there and don’t know where he is now? You ran off and left him?” His voice didn’t conceal his displeasure.
“Well, he’s not much of a friend at all, actually, and we were surprised,” said Quentin.
“I nearly shit myself,” added Paul, a moment prior to his mother scuffing the back of his head with one porky hand.
“Watch your mouth in front of the copper,” she said.
The officer shook his head. “Okay... so this ‘friend’ of yours may actually still be out there, in the woods, and alone? Would that be correct?”
“I don’t know,” Quentin shrugged.
Valentine fixed an unblinking glare on the boy. “And what’s the name of your ‘friend’?”
“Barry the Bast...” began Paul, before another slap, this time on his ear.
“Barry Wise,” said Quentin.
* * * * *
Chris unscrewed the red filter from the lens of his battered army torch and shone it on the ground as he kicked aside bracken and twigs in search for a telling glint of metal.
Barry was sobbing beside him, but his eyes were alert and desperate.
“There!” he shouted suddenly, making the old man jump. He dropped to his knees and scratched fervently through dead leaves. His burst of hope was cast back as he retrieved a small, square, foil packet which was ripped down one side.
Chris watched with a cringe as Barry threw the condom wrapper back to the ground.
“You’d better be washing your hands when we get back.”
“It’s no good,” wailed Barry, shaking his balled fists in frustration. “Mother will kill me now.”
“Be calmed,” said Chris. “Getting in a tizzy will help nothing and no one, and losing a key does not make the end of the world, young sir. Your mother will understand.”
“She’ll disappear me,” sobbed Barry again. “I have to find it.” His head swept from side to side in sharp, jerky movements, as if he’d broken.
“Well, one thing is sure and that is there’s no finding it tonight, not in this light.” Chris looked up, through the branches, to the absent stars. “Or, more, this dark.”
“No buts, my boy. Time to go back.”
“Ahh now,” said Chris, raising a silencing finger to his lips.
Barry made a whine like a distant turbine cranking up, then huffed the most displeased huff he’d ever huffed.
“We’ll come back in the morning and search with daylight on our side,” said Chris, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Lost things have a liking to being found, don’t you worry.”
Barry stamped a foot. “Don’t worry? Don’t worry? You don’t understand. She’ll get so enchanted if I don’t get it back. If it’s lost... if...”
“Settle down, now,” Chris said, raising the torch to highlight the path back through the woods.
Barry stood firm, crossed his arms and watched the old man follow the circle of light.
“Ghosts, Barry,” Chris called back.
The cold prickle of a thousand pairs of unseen, demonic eyes spurred Barry into a brisk trot and he was soon at the side of the old wizard again.
“You promise you’ll find it?”
“On my oath,” assured Chris. “But now for some food, then we’ll see you home.”
“Food?” said Barry, remembering he was hungry. “Yum!”
* * * * *
The policeman stood back from the front door of 14 Willow Way - the Wise household - and looked to the windows for signs of life. All was in darkness.
He clattered the letterbox again.
“She’s not in,” a voice declared, suddenly.
Valentine span, reaching for his sidearm, before remembering the change of occupation. A baton would never be the same as a bullet, and they wouldn’t let him in SO19 - not after the psychologist’s evaluation.
He hated people sneaking up on him. The agitated look he gave the short, fat, generally stubby-looking woman wasn’t correctly received.
“She’s out,” came the elaboration.
“Mrs Wise?” asked Valentine, his trigger-finger soothing.
“Yeah... she’s out.”
“Do you have any idea where I could find her?”
She lit up a cigarette and grimaced through the smoke. “No, what’s she done?”
“Just making inquiries,” Valentine said.
In her other hand, the woman held a retractable dog lead which she pulled and locked repeatedly, like an irate angler, until a scratching, bulbous-eyed terrier panted to her side, half choked. It looked up at Valentine and gave a near-ultrasonic yap.
The woman searched the policeman’s face, but there was no more information coming from that source. She needed information. Without information she had nothing to tell the people who didn’t want to listen to her. “Well, then...” she said, before dragging the straining creature with her as she waddled off down the street.
Valentine sighed, returning his attention to the house. The boy obviously wasn’t at home. It was nearing ten o’clock, it was dark, and it was very cold. He lifted the handset of his radio to his mouth. “214 to control.”
With a static snap, the reply came: “Control to 214, receiving...”
“At the address. No sign of the boy or his mother. Proceeding to Church Wood.”
The policeman relaxed his grip on the handset and looked up into the night. Roger Valentine, he considered, was a good, almost normal name.
* * * * *
Chris opened the caravan door to clear the blue smoke rising from the chip-pan, then pulled the tray from under the grill-toaster to reveal four crisp rashers of bacon, still sizzling and bubbling.
The smell made Barry salivate and his stomach gurgled ‘faster!’.
Turning off the solitary hot plate ring, Chris lifted the basket from the overheated oil and rested it on its hook to drain. The chips were perfectly golden. He laid the rashers on waiting plates, lifted the basket again, shook it and emptied its contents equally between each plate. With a light sprinkling of salt, the meal was ready, and he passed one of the plates to the eager boy.
“Thank you,” gleamed Barry, brandishing a fork. He stabbed a plump, crisp chip and popped it into his mouth, pursing his lips to give short, cooling pants when he realized how hot it was.
“Careful now,” said Chris, amused, “No one here be taking your food, so take your time, young sir.”
Barry continued the masochism regardless, the message from his stomach overruling the protest from his mouth.
Chris shook his head. The boy was hungry as a fox.
“So,” said Barry, between stinging chips, “What’s it like being a wizard?”
Chris, gently blowing on the chip he was about to eat, shrugged his shoulders, almost with embarrassment. “Nothing special,” he said, flatly. He put the chip in his mouth and savoured it with careful crunches before swallowing. “Nothing to report, Captain!” he smiled.
Barry was visibly disappointed. “If I were a wizard, I would do special things.” He picked up the stainless steel knife and sliced a rasher in two, shoveling it into his mouth.
“You would, now?” said Chris. “Such as?”
Barry thought for a moment; lifted the final chip between his fingers; contemplate it, and said, “I’d stop people being hungry, for starters.” He ate the chip and felt the warmth travel to his stomach. “Nobody should be hungry... ever.”
“Very noble, young man. Very noble indeed.”
“And I’d bring back the Titanic...”
“Oh, you would?” said Chris, with a raised eyebrow.
“... the World Trade Centre...” Barry continued, “... the dinosaurs...”
Chris almost laughed at the addition of prehistoric lizards to the wizardly wishes, but three solemn words killed the laughter in his throat:
“... and my Dad.”
Barry’s eyes drifted to another time and place, and a faint smile crept momentarily to his lips, before fading to a tight, straight sadness. Then, with a mischievous flash of life back in his eyes, he giggled, “I’d set a Tyrannosaurus Rex on Quentin and Paul.”
The chuckle spread from Barry to Chris as they shared the mental image and finished the last of their meal.
* * * * *
Valentine pushed on through the wood. It had begun to rain and the mist falling from the trees caught in his torch beam, giving an eerie Blair Witch claustrophobia to the inky dark. It gave him the creeps. He unclasped the fastener on his CS gas canister, just in case.
“Barry!” he shouted. “Barry?”
Step by careful step, he moved deeper into the wood. It was his military training that made him overly cautious, and here, without backup, he felt just a touch vulnerable. Scared? No. Nothing actually scared him, he told himself.
He wasn’t scared by the poor squirrel either, he assured himself later, which dropped out of a tree in front of him, quite by surprise. The squirrel was surprised, too, when a burst of cold but burning liquid hit it square in the eyes. Its tiny paws rubbed at them frantically, as if in disbelief, before it scampered blindly away through the undergrowth, bumping into tree trunks, in a hasty escape.
Valentine replaced the CS canister, annoyed with himself. He thanked his atheist god that there were no human witnesses to carry that unfortunate incident to the station canteen. They’d love that, the shower of bastards.
“Barry!” shouted Valentine, louder this time. “Answer me!”
* * * * *
Barry was curled on the bed, asleep, his eyelids trembling in a dream.
Chris set the plates down beside the sink. He would wash them in the morning. From an overhead compartment he took a clean blanket and draped it over Barry, gently pulling it around his shoulders, so as not to wake him.
The old man sat back in the faded varnish cradle of his wicker chair and poured a glass of single malt. He took a deep gulp, and looked at the boy with sad concern. He was a good kid; sure, he had his problems, but he saw there was a lot of potential if he had the right conditions. A part-time mother; an absent father; a couple of cowards on his back. Right conditions they were not. There was something else, though... something which troubled Chris deep in the recesses of his mind.
“Barry!” came the far off voice, outside the caravan, “Answer me!”
Chris sighed. “What trouble comes to my door now?” he muttered under his breath, recovering the torch. He stood up and quietly left the warmth of his home.
* * * * *
The boys said there had been a red light, then a voice. Valentine had taken their words with a large pinch of bollocks, but now, here in the woods, at the dead of night, there was the light; red, flickering like flames, and coming straight for him.
With a well-practiced flick, he opened the telescopic baton, clipped the torch to his chest, then readied the CS canister with his other hand, holding it at arms length. If this was another squirrel, it was a big one... and on fire.
Valentine braced himself, locking his legs in a sideways stance, wagging and feeling the weight of the sturdy baton. “Police!” he shouted towards the light. “Who goes there?”
The lack of an immediate reply was unnerving.
The flickering ended as the light came ever close, focusing into a tight ball of red which floated and bobbed a few feet above the ground.
“Who goes there?”
The red light lifted, vanished for a moment, then burnt white, leaving the policeman exposed. He held the baton with purpose, ready to arc it up in defence.
“On the prowl for moonlighting lumberjacks?” asked a jovial voice behind the light.
Valentine eased, but kept the baton tightly gripped at his side. He hated disrespect. When a police officer asked a question you gave an answer, and without delay, or you fell down the stairs. This wouldn’t have happened in the Army. At least - though, of course, he didn’t give credence for a moment to the toothy boy’s words - there was nothing unearthly about the events of earlier in the evening.
The light came close. Torch light. Nothing mysterious whatsoever.
Tucking the CS canister back in the leather pouch on his belt, Valentine unclipped his bowing flashlight and caught the strange old man in a xenon glare.
“Who goes there?”
One hand lifted over his eyes, Chris stopped, almost stumbling as a branch snapped under his weight. He balanced and said, “Oh, no one of importance. What seems to be the problem?”
Valentine clenched his jaw and wished for a nice set of concrete steps. “Your name, please?”
“Christopher what?” said Valentine, his patience waning.
“If it’s my full title you be asking for, then Christophe Allain DeBour, the twelfth, if that suits you?”
“The twelfth?” snorted Valentine.
“I would say you may understand better if I say as in ‘Elizabeth the second’. A long line of us Christophe DeBours, and you did seem quite particular to know. No disrespect, sir.”
Valentine liked the ‘no disrespect, sir’... that was more like it. “Some sort of royal, are you?”
“A prince among men, perhaps.”
Valentine shook his head. “Looking for a youth by the name of Barry Wise. Have you seen him around here tonight?”
“Don’t ring no bells,” shrugged Chris.
Moving closer, Valentine retracted the telescopic baton and replaced it. There was nothing his fists couldn’t deal with here. The two men stood a few feet apart, faces softly illuminated by respectfully and respectively down turned torches. “Some kids were here.”
“Kids, eh?” said Chris, without offering more.
“Three of them.”
“Three kids?” Chris stroked his beard like it was an injured bird in need of warmth.
“There were three kids here earlier. In these woods.”
“Earlier, you say?”
Valentine bit his lip. He hated this rhetorical questioning. It minded him of the ‘interrogation’ by the military psychologist back in Aldershot. He could still see the idiot, lying flat with his back to the floor of that poky room, his legs hanging over the fallen chair, his bloodied face and wobbly double-chin as he peered in surprise. It was only one punch - no more than a tap really - but it ended the life he loved. The report was wrong; he wasn’t out of control, but if he saw that scroat again, he’d make sure they never found the body
Valentine invaded a step closer, nose-to-nose with the shadowed man. “Listen to me. Three kids were here, in these woods, earlier in the evening. Two ran out and one is missing, and I want to know where that third kid is. They saw a red light, and so did I, which leads me to presume that you were also here earlier, in these woods, at the same time the kids were. Now don’t play silly beggars.”
“Now, then...” said Chris slowly, as if dredging his memory. “There was some noise earlier. I thought troublemakers, so I chased them off.”
“Chased off three young boys?” simmered Valentine.
“Shouted them away, I did. Terrible racket from them, and disrespectful so near as it is to the graveyard.” Chris nodded to the edge of the woods behind him.
“You shouted that you were the ‘Gardener of the Dead’ they said... Do you like to scare youngsters, Mr DeBouf... the twelfth?”
Chris burst into laughter.
“You think that’s funny, do you?”
“That they should say that I’m a grave robber? I think that’s funny, aye.”
Valentine paused. It was something he hadn’t considered earlier, but the mention of grave robbery didn’t seem above the old tramp; his clothing looked like the spoils of such an activity.
“I recall shouting that they would ‘wake the dead’, if that’s what they heard? Words on that sort of line, anyhow.”
“And the boys? What happened then?” asked Valentine.
“Skidaddled,” said Chris, bluntly.
“Young Wise..? Him too?”
“I’m presuming so, officer.”
Valentine paused. The pieces were in place, with the exception of the missing youth. Something rankled him about the old man, though. “What are you doing here at this time of night?” he asked, with clear suspicion in his voice.
“Heard you shouting and came to offer my assistance.”
“And you live..?”
Chris felt his wrist. “Aye... I do still.”
“You live where?”
“Just out the woods - my caravan in the church grounds.”
“King of the Gyppos?”
“Nazi?” Chris countered, sharply.
“Don’t you take that tone with me!”
“Nor you with me! Far from an appropriate use of language for a man of the law - a man with such a job of honour. Shame on you!”
Valentine glared silently. Political correctness? Bollocks, he thought. He could almost read the headline, though: Racist Army Medical-Dischargee Maims Squirrel. It was a bad night. Containment was the order of the moment.
“Traveler?” rephrased Valentine after a moment, his voice looser.
“Something like that. What of it?”
The policeman took a deep breath. He wanted to find the boy, get back to the station, finish his paperwork and the shift, then sleep. “May I... inspect the dwelling?”
“If it rests your mind, officer, you may indeed.” said Chris. “Follow me.”
With genuine surprise that there was no protest of the invasion of privacy, the requirement of a court warrant, or police oppression, Valentine followed.
* * * * *
Barry opened his eyes, confused. For the first time in his life he hadn’t awoken either in his own bed, or the mattress laid on the cellar floor. He looked about the alien surroundings with bleary eyes. There were dirty plates here and there were never dirty plates at home. Then he remembered the scrummy meal which had dirtied the plates... and meals were never scrummy at home.
Lowering the blanket from his chest, he sat up straight from his slumbering position and stretched out a grand yawn. He wiped a crust from him lips with the back of one hand, then rubbed the gravel of sleep that had formed in the corners of his tired eyes. The dull glow of a shaving light filled the room with shadows.
The wizard wasn’t here. He was alone. Almost.
A pair of pale yellow, glassy eyes weren’t staring at him from the window-ledge, but it felt like they were. He regarded the stuffed cat like it was a biscuit tin abandoned on a seat in a tube-station. It sent shivers through him. Barry leant from side to side, but those eyes followed him without moving. He felt like taking it outside and putting it where it belonged - in a grave.
Looking for a less threatening distraction, he turned away from the bedraggled ornament and noticed a thick, leather-bound book on the bedside table. He picked it up, feeling the weight as he turned it over in his hands. The tightly bound pages were edged in gold leaf and a brass lock on one side kept it firmly shut, which intrigued Barry all the more. He tried to pull a corner of the leather, but it wouldn’t give, so he put it back down on the edge of the table. He didn’t want to break it.
Picking up the satchel by his feet, he inspected the damage. The strap wasn’t too badly broken and he was sure he could fix it before Mother saw. There were a pair of pliers in the cellar that would bend the buckle back into shape. Opening the flap, he checked inside: all of his exercise books, his ruler, pens and his personal stereo were still there.
There was a crunching outside, then the caravan door opened. Barry dropped the satchel as Chris stepped into the small room and lifted an urgent finger to his lips. “You’re welcome in, officer. See for yourself.”
Barry threw the blanket over himself and lay back, very still.
Valentine poked his head through the door with distaste, saw nothing and retreated.
“Very well,” Barry heard the strange voice say, almost disappointedly. “Do you have a permit for this... thing?”
“Permit, no. Permission, aye. A private agreement. You can ask the vicar if you please.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Now,” said Chris, “I’ll be wanting my beauty sleep as I expect I’ll be baking hedgehogs in clay early the morrow, and selling heather door to door.”
“You’re ticket’s marked, mate,” said Valentine with a snort, then left.
Chris closed the door and flicked the lock.
Barry pulled the blanket and looked to the wizard with surprised eyes. “Didn’t he...”
“Shh,” hissed Chris, finger pressed to his lips. “Wait a minute, now.”
The two were silent as they heard the footsteps fading.
Barry counted sixty elephants. “Was he looking for me? How didn’t he see me?” he whispered.
“I suppose he wasn’t paying attention, the pup - all bustling feathers but none of those eagle eyes.” Chris shook his head and sat down.“Aye, he was looking for you. So we must get you home soon, or I’ll be getting myself in all sorts of trouble.”
Barry remembered the missing key and his heart sank. “But how will I get in? Magic?”
“We’ll find a way, don’t you worry,” Chris calmed, in anticipation of another tantrum.
Suddenly, Barry jumped up and ran for the door. It was stuck.
“Whoa!” called Chris, springing up from his chair. “What’s wrong?”
The caravan rocked. The thick, leather-bound book fell from the table and dropped almost silently, into Barry’s satchel - its lid flapping closed in reaction.
Barry was wailing: “Get it away - get it away!”
Chris grabbed the boy by the shoulders. “Get what away?”
“There!” pointed Barry, struggling from the grip of the wizard. He pushed the window beside the bed, but that held fast too.
Chris turned. There was nothing there but his cat, licking his paw to brush the dusty fur around its ears.
“What, Barry? What is it?”
“That stuffed animal - it’s moving!” cried Barry, pushing the window harder.
“Now calm yourself, boy. He’s not stuffed. He hasn’t even had his dinner yet.” Chris began to bellow a laugh. “He’s my little friend, Pox.”
Barry turned his head fearfully, looking at the mangy creature. The eyes weren’t following him any longer. It didn’t seem at all interested in the commotion he was making. It sat back, lifted one leg straight into the air and began to lick its bottom.
“He won’t harm you,” Chris chuckled, watching relief pour back into the boy’s expression.
“It’s alive?” asked Barry.
Chris walked over to Pox and stroked his head. The cat looked up and gave a low, friendly grumble, then returned to his grooming. “Just about, aren’t you old boy?”
Barry flickered his eyelids, confused. “But, I thought... I thought...”
“Well, he’s not in the best of wear these days. He’s very old, but he’s very much with us. And never a better cat will you have the pleasure to meet,” smiled Chris.
Barry stepped closer. The cat looked at him again, but just for a moment.
“It’s so ugly.”
“Many of us are ugly to strangers, young man, and he’s a he, not an it.”
“And its... his... name is horrid.”
“Short for 'Apocalypse',” Chris explained. “He was born a very, very long time ago, the same day they dropped the first atom bomb on Japan. The oldest cat in the world, he is.”
Barry scoffed. “That was in World War Two... no cat is that old. I read the Guinness Book of Records, you know. Why isn’t he in there?”
“Likes to keep himself to himself, does my little friend.”
“As if...” said Barry, curling his lip.
“Any-road-up, it’s time to get you home, boy,” Chris declared. He twisted the lock on the door and pushed it open. “We don’t want the law coming again, now, do we?”
Barry felt sad, but he knew he had to go home. He picked up his satchel and held it at his side as he and the old man stepped out into the cold, dark air. “And you promise you’ll find...”
“I promise to find your key, yes,” said Chris. “Now come on.”
* * * * *
Valentine slapped the torch against his hand. It seemed to have packed in for no reason, and twisting the lens-cap wasn’t making any kind of difference. The bulb must have blown. Without light, the woods were a treacherous obstacle course. He cursed the torch, sighed, and waited for his night-vision to come so he could get back to the road.
A distance away, in the darkness, a branch snapped... then another, and another.
The policeman raised and dropped his eyes. “Remembered something, have you?” he called to the old man.
Clearly footsteps, they came closer; faster; with purpose.
Valentine frowned. He couldn’t see a thing, and there was no torch light coming from the direction of the steps. “Who goes there?” he asked.
The crunching was falling into a run, approaching at speed. Each heavy footfall was louder than the last and quieter than the next.
Grasping his baton, he flicked the extension and faced the approaching assailant.
“I’m not messing about here,” shouted Valentine. “Who goes there?”
The footsteps stopped. There was no reply.
Valentine was at a disadvantage. He swiped the telescopic baton before him, like a blind man. It knocked against a tree… definitely a tree.
“Come on, now?” he asked again. “Don’t play silly beggars!”
With a roar, something solid punched him in the chest, lifting and throwing him backwards. He felt branches whip against him, then a feeling of weightlessness. His legs buckled as he landed, tumbling him over, up again, then back until his head cracked against a sturdy tree.
Consciousness fading, he heard the footsteps thump towards him again. The baton was lost. He tried to reach for the CS canister but the strength was draining from his body.
The heavy footsteps stopped directly in front of him. He could hear, and smell slow, deep breaths. Squinting upwards, and with a faint definition between dark blue from black, he saw the silhouette of something very large looming over him.
With a petrified, teeth-clenched whine - the last of his energy gone - Valentine slipped into a thankful unconsciousness...