Vengeance child, p.1
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       Vengeance Child, p.1

           Simon Clark
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Vengeance Child


  Recent Titles by Simon Clark

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  *available from Severn House

  VENGEANCE CHILD

  Simon Clark

  This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  First world edition published 2008

  in Great Britain and in 2009 in the USA by

  SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of

  9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.

  Copyright © 2008 by Simon Clark.

  All rights reserved.

  The moral right of the author has been asserted.

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

  Clark, Simon 1958–

  Vengeance child

  1. Horror tales

  I. Title

  823.9’2[F]

  ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-112-5 (ePub)

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6705-6 (cased)

  ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-104-1 (trade paper)

  Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

  This ebook produced by

  Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

  Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

  For Janet

  Prologue

  This midnight rain did not whisper. It struck the big house hard. Rain clattered at windows. Drops hit the patio table in a salvo of violent bangs. Heaven’s bullets. A sound like war. As if the earth had been invaded from above. Take no prisoners. Batter the house into the ground . . . Balls of water exploded against a sign on the wall until the force of it dislodged the board announcing Badsworth Lodge. The board’s fall revealed the old sign beneath: Badsworth Orphanage.

  The vicious crack of rain against glass had roused the children in the dormitory. Ten boys, aged between eight and eleven, tore along the corridor, laughing, shouting, pushing one another, and hell-bent on making the weird kid’s life a misery. Normally, they’d know better than to torment Jay, only this wild weather got into their blood. These were categorized as ‘problem children’. Their file notes bore headings such as Learning Disorder, Conduct Disorder, OCD, and a whole clutch of other phobias and compulsions. They’d get themselves into a storm of temper at the best of times. Now this ear-busting cacophony of rain bashing against the building cranked up their aggression levels so much they forgot all about words like consequences, recklessness, danger, and that all-important rule they learned from day one in Badsworth Lodge: don’t mess with Jay.

  Jay had his own bedroom. He’d only been in the boys’ dormitory three days when the rest took to sleeping in the corridor. Although he’d got his private sleep zone it was only a partial fix. The other kids rarely spoke to him. Today he’d spent the day in bed with a comic in his hands. The care staff recorded notes in his file. Since 10 a.m. emotionally withdrawn. Marked lack of physical movement. Unresponsive. Skin clammy. Jay: eleven years old, slightly built, with large brown eyes that made strangers look at him in surprise, as if there was something amiss that they just couldn’t place. Jay had skin the colour of lightly toasted bread: a pale gold. Jay was dangerous.

  ‘Little witch!’ A rubber mat pinched from the bathroom struck Jay in the face. He didn’t react. Nor did he appear to notice when ten boys, howling like demons, shot through his door. Some bounced on his bed. The tallest grabbed Jay’s jet-black hair and yanked his head sideways. ‘Little witch! Hey, piss face, get out of bed.’

  Raindrops snapped against the glass. Like the rattle of claws as if some night creature tried to rip its way through.

  ‘Comic . . . shitty comic,’ sang another boy. A second later pieces of it fluttered in the air. ‘Hey, it’s snowing!’

  One kid lost his balance as he jumped on the bed and landed on Jay’s lap.

  The boys sang, ‘Ricky loves Jay! Ricky loves Jay!’

  The storm outside caused the patio table to topple with a crash.

  ‘Open the window. Stick his head out!’ Ricky scrambled away from Jay. ‘Get the little witch outside.’

  ‘I’m looking for chocolate . . . I bet he’s got chocolate!’ A tiny boy, with a face old beyond his years, ransacked a bedside cabinet. ‘If I find it, it’s mine.’

  ‘Yeah, Archer, you eat it. You’ll catch what he’s got.’

  All through this Jay never seemed to even notice the boys running riot in his room. The biggest there pushed open the window. Rain sprayed on to Jay’s head. The water roaring in the storm drain could have been a monster’s bellow.

  The kids shouted, ‘Grab his head.’

  ‘Get him by the arms, push him out. Mess the little shit up!’

  ‘Out by the ankles.’

  Screams of laughter made the air electric, as if the force of emotion charged everything it touched. Lights flickered. And with the outburst of mischief came a dangerous blaze of hysteria. One child who warned the others they might drop Jay to his death was loudly ridiculed as a ‘crybaby’. By the time they’d got Jay into a standing position by the window, the rain had soaked his face. His expression altered. When he all of a sudden spoke it was in soft tones, almost too soft to be heard, but it stopped the kids as suddenly as if a bomb had exploded.

  A silent pause then: ‘He said something.’ Alarm flashed across Ricky’s face. ‘What did he say?’

  Nobody else could bring themselves to speak. They stepped back from Jay. His elfin face unnerved them. Their eyes flashed with uncertainty; not sure whether to cover their faces, so they wouldn’t see what awful thing Jay would do next. Meanwhile, the rain fell faster. A frantic drumming sound. Ten boys stared in horror at Jay as they waited for the inevitable. Then he began to murmur slowly. It was the same word over and over.

  Ricky hissed, ‘He’s doing it again. I know it’s a name.’

  ‘Which one?’

  They all started to speak, the words bursting from their lips like sobs.

  ‘Is it my name?’

  ‘It better not be me!’

  ‘Nor me!’

  ‘I said it first.’

  ‘Make him stop.’

  ‘Can you hear what name it is?’

  An adult voice cut across theirs. ‘What’s all this then? You know you should be in bed.’

  Ricky turned to a woman of around forty in the doorway. She had the pleasant figure of an earth mother.

  Despite the scolding tone, she smiled warmly. ‘What’s the problem, sweetheart?’

  ‘Maureen, it’s Jay. He’s doing it again.’

  ‘Doing what again?’

  ‘Saying a name.’

  The smile froze. ‘You’re not telling me fibs?’

  ‘No . . . listen to him.’

  The way Maureen tensed a panther might have just crept into the room to bare its wicked fangs at them. She took a deep breath. ‘It’s OK, boys. You run along back to bed.’ Her eyes fixed on Jay as he murmured the name. ‘It’s all right, sweetheart,’ she soothed. ‘I’ll dry you, then you pop back under the covers.’

  Ricky tried to sound tough, but it came out scared. ‘What
name is he saying?’

  ‘Boys. Get back to bed. Now.’

  They clamoured anxiously.

  ‘We want to know what name it is.’

  ‘Tell us, Maureen.’

  ‘Please.’

  One sobbed, ‘You know what happened to Tod . . . you’ve got to say.’

  They began to shout, ‘Please, tell us,’ until the words fused into a howl of noise.

  ‘Boys! Enough!’ The second adult voice had enough authority to stifle the clamour instantly. Nurse Laura Parris added, ‘Thank you,’ in a gentler tone. ‘Back to bed. I’ll be along in a minute.’ Obediently, they returned to their dormitory. Laura shot Maureen a weary smile. ‘One day they’ll realize I’m all bark and no bite, then I won’t be able to do a thing with them.’ She noticed Maureen’s troubled expression. ‘What’s wrong?’

  Maureen swallowed, then nodded at Jay who stood by his bed, murmuring. ‘It’s Jay . . . he’s doing it again. Saying a name.’

  ‘Which name?’

  ‘I can’t make it out.’

  Laura shut the window, then plucked a towel from a shelf and put it round the boy’s narrow shoulders. ‘Everything’s all right, Jay. We’ll get you dry and settled back into bed. What’s that you’re saying?’ She leaned closer.

  Maureen’s composure was evaporating. ‘It’s a name, isn’t it?’

  Laura tried not to let her expression betray what she’d just heard from his lips.

  Maureen flinched. ‘Oh, God . . . it’s my name, isn’t it?’

  ‘I don’t—’

  ‘It’s my name!’ In sheer panic Maureen fled the room. Laura heard her repeating, ‘My name, my name, my name . . .’ as she raced down the corridor.

  But Laura knew, just as Maureen knew, and all the kids knew – running away wouldn’t save her.

  One

  ‘Ouch.’ Victor Brodman understood this fact: unless I do it now, in five minutes he’ll be dead. And there was one more thing. The wire had sliced through that web of skin between Victor’s first and second finger. Blood ran into the fur of the fawn’s neck, which he gently supported. From there, the blood dripped into the river to form little clouds of scarlet. Giving himself the luxury of one more, ‘Ouch,’ he blanked the pain from his mind, then focused on saving the infant deer from drowning. The black-faced, blue-eyed deer, of the species known as the Saban Deer, had been feeding on kelp in one of the beach gullies when it had got itself caught in a tangle of steel wire. Now the tide had begun to sweep in, the water reached its neck. In another five minutes, its head would be underwater. The island’s uniquely precious herd would be reduced to 281.

  ‘Take it easy,’ Victor said gently as the fawn began to panic. ‘I’ll get you out in one piece.’ He glanced back over his shoulder. A shingle beach, bushes, then a grassy bank rising to a spine of stones. This, the remotest part of the island, boasted no houses. There was nobody out walking, either. ‘It’s down to just you and me, son. How we going to do this without cutting your leg off?’ He knelt in cold river water that now reached his waist. Carefully, he used his injured hand to keep the animal’s head clear. With the other hand he steadied himself against a sign that blazed DANGER! DEEP CHANNELS. QUICKSAND. FAST CURRENTS! Already the river pulled at him. Further out, the brown water formed pyramid shapes as an angry current powered over submerged rocks. Once Victor was sure of his balance he used his free hand to tug off his Island Warden’s green fleece. He hung it over the danger sign. The dry garment would come in useful if – when – he freed the animal.

  From the undergrowth another black face with blue eyes peered out. ‘Try not to worry, Ma. I’m going to bring your baby back just as soon as I can.’ He pulled his knife from its sheaf. Now or never. Using his free hand, he felt his way down the fawn’s leg until he found the wire again. Someone had slung the kind of line used in grass-strimmers into the River Severn. Eventually, it had been washed here, then waited in one of the beach gullies; as lethally effective as the old-time poacher’s snare (something demonstrated when he sliced his own hand when tugging at it). String he could have cut easily. This stuff had a toughness that resisted snapping, or even cutting.

  ‘Nothing for it.’ He took a deep breath. A second later he plunged his face underwater. The fawn struggled, its furry flank pressing against his face. A roar of bubbles filled his ears. Though he couldn’t see much through the murk he glimpsed the white of a pebble. Quickly he grabbed it, then used it as a makeshift chopping board. This was his last chance to save the animal that he devoted himself both professionally and emotionally to protecting. He managed to hold the wire taut against the stone. That done, he used the knife to saw at the steel line. By this time the water must have been over three feet deep. For all he knew, the fawn’s head might be submerged, yet he couldn’t afford to check, just in case he couldn’t find the stone again. Underwater, he heard the muffled scrape of blade against wire.

  Come on . . . you can do it . . . press harder. Harder! The words beat in his head. The infant deer twitched. Damn it . . . convulsions? You get no points for delivering a dead animal back to its mother. From the depths of this huge, ancient and pre-eminently dangerous river came a bass rumble . . . a sound of primeval voices . . . anger at the intruder. The sound always sent shivers along his backbone. He knew the cause of the rumble – the current rolling boulders along the river bed – but even so, he found himself glancing out underwater, half-expecting to see a dark shape torpedo toward him.

  Got you! The second he cut the wire he surfaced, the fawn in his arms. He dragged his fleece from the danger sign, wrapped the animal inside, then waded back to the shore, panting. As he paused in the shallows to catch his breath the sound of applause greeted him . . . a somehow sarcastic handclap. He wiped the water from his eyes.

  A man of around fifty, dressed in a dark blue business suit, clapped him without enthusiasm. ‘Bravo, Victor. Bravo.’

  ‘Good afternoon, Mayor Wilkes.’ Although Victor would have preferred to substitute Mayor with ‘Pompous fart-bag’.

  ‘You’ve cut yourself.’

  ‘So I have.’ Victor adopted a deliberately understated tone when what he’d like to have done was lobbed the man into the river.

  ‘I’d give you a hand but –’ Wilkes smiled a political smile – ‘you can see I’m not dressed for the job.’

  ‘Another golf club lunch?’

  ‘Don’t start that again, Victor. I take my role as the island’s guardian very seriously.’

  ‘Seriously enough to rip up meadow for a fairway.’

  ‘It would have brought new income to the island. And jobs.’

  ‘We need income. We need jobs. But that’s not the way.’ To the fawn Victor said, ‘Take it easy. There.’ He set the animal down on the shingle then gently dried it using the fleece. He caught the pleasant scent of its fur. Rose pelt, as it was called, had been popular in years gone by. Aristocratic ladies would have a pinch of the fur sewn into the corner of their handkerchief so they could delicately inhale its fragrance as they walked down the fashionable streets of Cheltenham.

  ‘Pleasantries aside.’ The mayor’s voice became tart. ‘I’m here to do you a favour.’

  ‘So you’re agreeing with me that we introduce a grass management programme? Good. That’ll help restore the butterfly numbers.’

  ‘That still has to go before the committee, Victor. As you know.’

  ‘You also head the committee.’ Victor checked that the wire hadn’t cut the animal’s legs.

  The mayor eyed Victor distastefully. ‘You’ll find they still have two at the front and two at the back.’

  ‘It became entangled in a line. If it’s broken the skin it’ll need a stitch.’

  ‘My God, you really do love those creatures. Thirty-five, aren’t you? Pulling beasts out of the river – is that a proper career for a grown man?’

  ‘It’s the Saban Deer that bring the tourists.’

  ‘And I know the old wives’ tale as well. They’re people in a
nimal form.’

  ‘Do you believe it, Mr Mayor?’

  ‘Do I hell, but I happily believe in the money they generate. If the National Trust allowed us to sell their stuffed heads as souvenirs I’d be even happier.’

  When Victor was satisfied that the animal hadn’t suffered any cuts he took away the fleece. It shook itself, then trotted to the undergrowth where the other deer stood. From a black face its blue eyes closely watched the return of its offspring before both mother and fawn slipped silently away.

  ‘You know . . .’ The mayor looked thoughtful. ‘Maybe a book . . . it could tell the story of the Saban Deer. How does the legend go? A thousand years ago there was another island out there in the river. It sank underwater but the gods took pity on the islanders’ children, turned them into deer, and they all swam across here to live happily ever after. We could turn the story into a colouring book. Parents would go for that. We could sell them over the Internet.’

  ‘You’re the man to do just that, Mayor. Don’t you still own a print works in Bristol?’

  ‘You think I’m only interested in making money out of the island?’

  ‘Didn’t you say that you’d come here to do me a favour?’

  ‘I did.’ He eyed Victor, as he stood there dripping river water. ‘You’re expecting a batch of orphans tomorrow.’

  ‘From Badsworth Lodge. They’re coming down for the week. But we no longer call them orphans, Mayor.’

  ‘Orphans, waifs, inmates, I’m not interested. They’re a negative drain on the island. They don’t generate cash revenue.’

  ‘You could always train them up as golf caddies.’

  That touched a nerve. The man flinched before stating coldly, ‘The visit’s been cancelled, so you’ll need to rearrange your schedules.’

  Victor shook his head. ‘You politicians and your funding cuts.’

  ‘Not this time.’ The mayor smiled. ‘One of the orphanage staff took it upon themselves to stand between two buses. One reversed into the other with the clueless mare in the middle.’ He clapped his hands together as if crushing a fly. ‘Now, go home and get changed. You’re going to catch your death of cold.’

 

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