Summerhouse land, p.27
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       Summerhouse Land, p.27

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Obstruction. Impacts projected. Proceed?

  ‘Yeah, go for it,’ Sam said. ‘Confirm proceed, or proceed confirm … whatever.’

  Some of the smaller trees were uprooted as the car clouted them, but where it could the vehicle seemed to have the good sense to navigate around the larger ones. It never once faltered in its speed, climbing the incline behind the house as soon as it had emerged from the overgrown area, which thankfully was open meadow with no obstacles in the way.

  The sun was just tipping over the horizon, so Sam had no trouble seeing where they were going. The car built up speed, thumping along over the uneven surface as the last shreds of the fabric cover were blown away. Then the steering wheel spun and the car looped around onto what Sam recognized was the main track heading out of the village.

  To Sam’s delight a three-dimensional map had flicked up in the middle of the dashboard. The car was obviously following a programed route and Sam repeatedly checked the map as he went. After several more miles, he found he was in an area he hadn’t been to before. Either side of the track were brick-built industrial buildings, some with large chimney stacks that made them look decidedly Victorian.

  ‘Where are we?’ Sam asked the dashboard, wondering if he would get a response.

  Current Location? the display read.

  Sam smiled. ‘Yes, current location.’

  The Hallions it replied.

  ‘The Hallions? What’s that?’ Sam asked.

  There was no answer, but he hadn’t really expected one. He noticed that the 3D display was showing buildings that were now little more than moss-covered piles of bricks. Other large structures were in states of semi-collapse and gradually being reclaimed by the landscape, swathed in ivy and climbing plants.

  The buildings eventually came to end and he was in open countryside again. He spied a figure up ahead right in the middle of the track, pushing a laden barrow along. Before Sam had had a chance to ask himself what was going to happen – whether the vehicle would simply mow the man down as if he was a tree – it veered from the track and into the meadow, drastically reducing its speed.

  Veiling On the display read, as the car crawled along, separated by no more than a hundred feet from the man with the barrow. Despite its close proximity, the man didn’t once glance in the car’s direction. Sam couldn’t imagine why not. Even if the engine was too quiet for the man to detect it, there was no way he could have missed the sleek silver form reflecting the morning light.

  Then with the display showing Veiling Off, the car steered back onto the track again and sped up. Sam began to wonder where he was actually being taken and if he was making a dreadful mistake when he spotted a structure beside the track in the distance.

  As he came closer he saw that an area of the meadow the size of a football pitch had been enclosed on all four sides by substantial iron railings with vicious looking prongs on top of them. Sam couldn’t understand the reason for the fenced-off area – it seemed so incongruous out there in the middle of nowhere, with only grasslands all around.

  ‘Stop,’ Sam ordered the car. At least if it obeyed him, then he would feel a little more in control.

  The car immediately drew to a halt. Apparently it didn’t need confirmation for this command.

  ‘Where is this?’ he asked, noting that the 3D display was showing that the feature was there.

  Current Location?

  ‘Yes, current location,’ Sam said.

  Gallowsfield the car responded.

  ‘Right, and what’s that?’ Sam asked.

  As there was no reply, he tried the door and was able to open it. ‘Don’t go anywhere, will you?’ he told the dashboard, then stepped outside. ‘This is awesome,’ he said, taking a moment to admire the vehicle. ‘Never thought I’d have my own car!’

  He went over to the railings and looked in. It was barren inside – the grass was patchy, as though it was struggling to find nourishment, as if the ground had been poisoned. And there were scarcely any wild flowers on it; the ones he could see were few and far between, their blossoms dull.

  As he walked along beside the railings he came to an entrance, a locked gate. The words Gallowsfield were barely legible over the top of the gate because the paint was so weathered. It was then he noticed that inside the enclosure there were substantial blocks of granite, rectangular slabs fashioned from the mottled gray stone and laid flat on the ground as if they were oversize markers for graves. Sam counted ten or more of these. Keeping half an eye on the car, his curiosity got the better of him and he went right up to the gate and peered in through the bars.

  Sam decided he’d have to ask Damaris and the others what the area was for, then it hit him that he might never see his friends again if he actually found Curtis and the man was able to help him. As he was mulling this over, the feeling grew in him that there was something unwholesome, something toxic contained in the area before him.

  All of a sudden he cocked his head, certain he’d heard a guttural shout. It was muted, but he strained his ears, listening out in case it came again. There was nothing for several seconds, then he heard a wail. As a light wind had swept down the side of the valley, ruffling the grasses, the cry was so faint that Sam wasn’t sure if he’d really heard anything. With a shrug, he returned to the car.

  After another hour of driving, Sam began to get a little blasé, lounging back in the seat with his hands behind his head as the steering wheel adjusted itself in front of him.

  ‘Can you play some music?’

  Nothing.

  ‘Any CDs I can listen to?’

  Again nothing.

  He pitched more questions at the car, but there was still no response until he asked, ‘Who built you?’

  Curtis, it replied.

  ‘Thank you,’ Sam said.

  The track eventually wound its way into an area of woodland and here the going wasn’t so smooth. Not only was the surface of the track very rutted, but the vehicle was also forced to swerve around trees and larger shrubs that had encroached on the sides. Without any warning it deviated completely from the track and sped down a steep slope covered in tall shrubs.

  Sam was really quite shaken as the car shot through this undergrowth for at least a mile, branches lashing the windows. Then it abruptly drew to a halt.

  Destination reached.

  ‘What – here? Are you sure this is the right place?’ Sam asked, peering at the solid wall of foliage that surrounded the car on all sides. ‘Where are we?’

  Home the display flashed up without a stutter.

  Sam had to push hard on the door to open it because of the bushes in the way, then he began to struggle through them, shielding his face from the thorns.

  ‘This is impossible,’ Sam said, after he’d gone less than ten feet and the dense undergrowth didn’t seem to be letting up. He took a deep breath and resumed.

  A little farther on, as if a prickly green curtain had been yanked open, the bushes suddenly parted and Sam burst out onto a manicured lawn. The most improbable sight confronted him after all the miles of woodland he’d traveled through – in front of him and like some sort of oasis there was a sunken garden. He scanned its formal layout, with box hedges, carefully tended beds and a burbling fountain, then looked beyond it.

  ‘No,’ he exhaled.

  He was completely unprepared for what he saw. The house was huge, with an intricate facade of granite and brick, and numerous candy twist chimneys poised on its roof of topaz-colored slate.

  Sam descended a short flight of steps into the sunken garden and crossed through it, examining the exotic displays of flowers and the lazy fountain on the way. As he climbed to the top of another set of steps on the far side of this walled area, still shaking his head in disbelief, his gaze fell on a woman. Surrounded by four of the spaniels as she quietly worked away, she was kneeling in front of one of the borders at the edge of the main lawn. Beside her was a wooden trough of cuttings from the plants she was pruning.

 
Sam trod uncertainly on the velvety turf toward her. ‘Hello,’ he said.

  She stood up, dropping her secateurs as if she was startled that anyone should be there. The woman’s eyes were locked on Sam – he could see them glint under the brim of her hat. The spaniels were throwing her looks as if they didn’t know what to make of his unscheduled entrance either.

  ‘Hello,’ Sam said again, stepping more slowly now. ‘The car brought me here.’

  The woman didn’t reply, and her expression was less than inviting, forbidding even. Sam came to a standstill, feeling very unsure of himself and out of place.

  ‘Um … does Curtis live here?’ he asked. ‘I’m looking for him.’

  All the spaniels were on their feet now, even the two that had been stretched out on the grass as they dozed. Although they didn’t bark or make a sound, the quartet was watching him in a way that Sam could tell they were ready to protect the woman.

  He wasn’t certain but he thought he saw the woman nod to herself.

  Then she pointed at the house.

  Full of trepidation, he started toward it.

  Chapter Seventeen

  ‘What is it?’ Mrs White asks listlessly, as her husband hovers there. Using the remote she turns down the television that she’s been staring at through glazed eyes. ‘And who was that at the door just now?’

  ‘They brought Jesse’s things back. His clothes and …’ Mr White holds up the note Jesse left behind. It’s still in the evidence bag the police placed it in when it was taken away for examination. ‘They didn’t have anything much to add.’

  ‘No? Why should they?’ Mrs White replies, a distinct lack of warmth in her voice because she just wants to be left alone. ‘I’m pleased it wasn’t me who answered the door. I don’t want anything to do with them, ever again.’

  She and her husband had been questioned a number of times as the police went by the book and made sure that they’d had nothing to do with the death of their second son, particularly because it was so soon after the incident with Sam.

  ‘To lose one son is unfortunate, but to lose two raises some big questions,’ Mrs White fumes, quoting what the DCI had said to her in one of the interviews.

  Mr White shrugs. ‘You can’t hold it against them – that’s standard procedure. They have to be seen to be doing their jobs.’ Mrs White is about to react to this with some vehemence when her husband continues. ‘One thing though … they found DNA from Sam on here,’ he says. ‘On the note.’

  Her brow furrowed, Mrs White seems to have difficulty in focusing on the bag that Mr White is holding up. After a moment she answers, ‘So what does that prove? That it’s an old piece of paper that’s been knocking around upstairs for a while? It wasn’t unknown for them to go into each other’s rooms, you know?’

  ‘Yes, that’s what the forensics people thought. But …’ Mr White says, taking a breath, ‘what Jesse has written just doesn’t make sense now I look at it again.’ He begins to read the message, ‘Dear M&D, I killed Sam.’

  ‘Stop,’ Mrs White murmurs, her face draining.

  Her husband carries on regardless. ‘It’s all my fault. I hit him and I’m so sorry. I can’t go on like this. Jesse.’ Mr White looks at his wife. ‘It doesn’t sound like him, and why would he put that anyway? It simply isn’t true. We know what happened with Sam – he was in pain and disoriented due to post-operative complications, and he fell … and at the end of the g—’

  ‘Please shut up … I don’t want to hear this. Just get out,’ Mrs White interrupts, waving him away tensely.

  ‘But there’s something else I noticed. When I compared it with his school books, it doesn’t look much like Jesse’s writing. If anything, I have to say it’s more similar to Sam’s h—’

  Mrs White simply switches the sound back on with the television remote and cranks up the volume until it’s so loud her husband’s words are drowned out.

  Mr White stares helplessly at her for a few seconds, then leaves.

  Sam crossed the terrace and entered the house to find he was in a large hall with plain white walls. Sunlight speared down from the high windows, throwing mote-ridden shafts on the works of art displayed around the room, including a faded tapestry that looked very much like Lucy’s work. As he craned his neck to see the dark wooden timbers of the roof overhead, there was a distinctive aura to the house, as if it was ancient yet ageless. Sam had the feeling that he was somewhere venerable, like a church or a cathedral.

  His feet on the highly waxed floor were the only sound as he came to a halt in the middle of the room. Directly in front of him was a fireplace, wide enough to step into, the hearth scorched a deep charcoal black. His eyes rose to the chimneypiece above it, where a curious display of large and extremely rusted cogs with worn teeth were displayed inside a thick gilt frame.

  ‘I kept those for sentimental reasons.’

  Sam turned to find a man propping a door open in a shadowy corner of the hall.

  ‘They’re parts I cast once my very first foundry was up and running.’ The man had been staring absently at the cogwheels, but now switched his gaze to Sam. ‘Foolish to hang onto them I suppose, but it was an important moment for me. I’m Curtis, by the way.’

  Sam didn’t move from the spot, his heart racing as all his confidence deserted him. Here he was, facing the fabled creator of the valley who nobody had laid eyes on in living memory, all because of some crazy notion that the man might be able to help him. ‘I’m S—S—’ he began to stammer.

  ‘Sam White,’ Curtis interrupted. ‘Yes, I know who you are. I’ve been expecting you.’ He motioned the boy over with a sweep of the hand. ‘We can talk through h—’

  It was Sam’s turn to interrupt – he felt as though he had to somehow justify his presence there. ‘I know your name too … I mean, I saw it back in my world.’

  ‘Really? Where?’

  ‘There was a message at school, written in the back of a book.’

  ‘What did the message say?’

  ‘That I should find you.’

  There was no question that Curtis was intrigued as he stepped fully into the hall, the door slamming behind him. ‘How do you know it was me that it was referring to?’

  ‘Um … I don’t, except I hadn’t written it and it was my handwriting,’ Sam said, thinking how irrational that sounded and feeling even less confident. ‘And, of course, I didn’t know your name or anything about you before I came to the valley,’ he added.

  ‘No, quite,’ Curtis said, his eyes lighting up as he moved into a shaft of sunlight. ‘So a future you was reaching out. Which means we do it … you and I manage it.’

  Sam frowned, not understanding.

  ‘It means that if we play our cards right, then we succeed in getting you back to the world,’ Curtis explained.

  ‘It does?’

  ‘It also means we might be able to solve your current predicament. It’s not a forgone conclusion you’re going end up as a human firework, as Baby Pain so insensitively put it.’

  ‘You know about that … about what’s happening to me? You can really do something?’ Sam asked in quick-fire succession, his words tripping over one another. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing from the man everyone in the valley held in awe, even if they didn’t approve of his methods. And Sam couldn’t quite also allow himself to believe yet that his problems might be over and he was going to be saved. He had to ask the question, ‘So I’m not going to burn up?’

  ‘Not necessarily.’

  ‘What do I have to do?’

  ‘What do we have to do?’ Curtis corrected him, as he pushed the door leading from the hall open again, waiting for Sam to make his way over. ‘I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.’

  And as Sam stepped closer to Curtis, it was only then that he could get a measure of the man. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but Curtis wasn’t that tall and, indeed, his slim build made him appear quite similar to Simon. He was also around the same age
as the sad captain, in his mid-thirties, as much as that meant anything in this world. His hair was close cropped, and he was wearing a dark jacket.

  ‘I trust everything went smoothly with the journey here?’ Curtis inquired, as they passed down a short corridor. ‘I programed the car to respond to you.’

  ‘You did?’ Sam said, stopping in surprise. ‘But how did you know I’d even find it?’

  Curtis was smiling. ‘I was relying on the first rule of infinity.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Sooner or later, everything that can happen will happen. It’s only a matter of time.’

  ‘I don’t understand. Why didn’t you just come and get me?’ Sam said, not sure if he was speaking out of turn.

  ‘You had to make the first move. I couldn’t very well march into the village one fine morning and whisk you away with me, could I?’ Curtis raised his eyebrows and pulled a less-than-serious face. ‘Can you imagine how all the simple souls there would have bleated if I’d done that? No, it had to be your decision to find me. You had to be ready.’

  I was ready, all right!

  Sam was about to ask Curtis more when a crackling noise reverberated through the corridor. It cleared to leave the sound of a voice, although it was too quiet to make out what was being said. It seemed to be coming from one of the rooms farther along.

  ‘Ah, good!’ Curtis exclaimed. ‘Found something … I’ve been searching all day. Do you mind terribly if I listen to this? You might find it interesting too.’

  Curtis didn’t wait for an answer as he strode toward a doorway and went in, Sam following him. Inside the room there were armchairs and a sofa draped with animal hides, and a few pieces of wooden furniture. As Sam stood there, there was another burst of static, which subsided to reveal the tones of a very faint and very English voice, each word precisely enunciated.

 
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