The Moon Stealers and the Quest for the Silver Bough (Book 1), p.1Tim Flanagan
The Moon Stealers &
The Quest for the Silver Bough
By Tim Flanagan
Copyright Tim Flanagan 2012
Also by Tim Flanagan:
The Moon Stealers and the Queen of the Underworld (Book 2)
Table of Contents
1. The Graveyard
2. Inside MI6
3. A Call to Duty
4. The Secret Meeting
5. The Statue of Saint Vitus
6. Newton Rise Abattoir
7. London to York
8. A Birds Eye View
9. The Night Watchman
10. The Faerie Ring
11. The League of White Knights
12. The Box of Rocks
13. Proof of Identity
14. A Gruesome Discovery
15. Unlocking the Key
16. Sir Hadwyn's Inscription
17. The Theft
18. The Escape Tunnel
19. A Restless Knight
20. The Pathology Report
21. St Giles' Cathedral
22. Edgar tells the Truth
23. Bacteria on the move
24. Edinburgh Central Library
25. A Shocking Revelation
26. The Silver Bough
27. Attack of Parsley Bottom
28. Running into Danger
29. Bishops Green Station
30. Rosery Wood
31. The Ice House
32. One Way Out
33. The Magic Portal
34. Escape to Butterwick Hall
35. A Message from Afar
About the Author
Preview of Book 2
The Everlasting Night
A darkened veil upon the virgin Earth,
A seed for consumption gives rise to birth.
The wind of change is quick to bite,
And so begins the everlasting night.
Before the reign of man does close,
Faith will lie between old foes.
But Faerie help is far from sight,
A growing everlasting night.
From the shadow a hope emerges,
To bind, and in the night to join us.
A growing grain of pure white light,
To clear the everlasting night.
For dawn to come, a sun must rise,
To burn the cloud and scorch their eyes.
Unite together for England’s plight,
To cease the everlasting night.
1. The Graveyard
It all begins with Peter Crisp….
It was deadly quiet in Parsley Bottom graveyard and very, very dark. The reassuring light from the street lamps did not reach this part of the usually peaceful village, instead everything looked like a scene from an old black and white film, the stones and shapes picked out by the white glow from the moon. Cracked and crumbling gravestones stuck out of the ground, unattended after so many years of neglect, surrounded by clumps of long grass and the skeletal remains of bunches of flowers long forgotten. The rusty gate clung to the old stone wall by just one hinge, leaning on the dirt for support, unable to make a sound. Even the bats, which had been known to put on quite a show for the locals in the past, had hidden themselves beneath the eaves of the church roof and tucked their heads inside their leathery wings, knowing what evil was stirring amongst the gravestones below. Tonight, Parsley Bottom graveyard was not the place to be - unless you were already dead of course.
Peter Crisp lay on a blanket behind one of the larger gravestones not too far from the stone wall on the west side of the old decaying church, shielding himself from the cool air that seeped off the river at the bottom of the graveyard and across the ground. Because the night sky was so clear tonight, there was a late spring frost which had already started to make the grass around him crisp and stiff. The white stones began to shimmer magically as small crystals of water froze into dustings of ice and glimmered in the moonlight.
‘One night,’ he thought to himself, ‘that’s all I have to do.’ He tried to convince himself that it would be easy and that he would be fine as he nervously hugged the sleeping bag tight against him and pulled it high up beneath his chin.
‘One night,’ he said to himself again. Hearing his voice inside his head reassured Peter that he was not alone. But, Peter had never been alone, not truly.
He pulled his hand up so that he could just peep at his wrist-watch without letting out any of the heat he had accumulated inside the sleeping bag, so he could see what time the luminous clock face said.
Twenty-eight minutes past midnight.
The sun would be starting to come up at some point within the next six hours and he would have proved to everyone at school that he was as brave and tough as Jimmy Cox, not to mention winning Jimmy’s new skateboard in the process. If he didn’t manage it and went home early, he would remain the school weirdo that no one wanted to know. This was the dare of all dares: stay in the graveyard for one night.
Peter wasn’t what you would call a popular twelve year old boy. His mother could never keep up with his growth and as a consequence his clothes always appeared to be two sizes too small. His thick brown hair grew too quick for his head and often his fringe would cover his spectacles making him feel that he was constantly looking out of a window with the curtains half drawn. Peter was different to all of the other children at school: he could see things that they couldn’t, which often made them stare at him or call him names. On the brighter side, he could run fast. The other kids at school would often be impressed with the speed he could run, until his long uncoordinated legs caused him to trip over his own feet. Then they would laugh at him and mock the way his legs got tangled up amongst themselves. Jimmy, by contrast, was popular. He lived in a pub with his parents, was good at sports and always had clothes that fitted. In fact, some of them weren’t even strictly part of the school uniform, but Jimmy always seemed to be able to get away with it.
‘It’s just like camping.’ Peter told himself, trying to keep positive. That afternoon he had collected a few items from home to bring with him and help him through the night. To occupy his mind he mentally went through his list for the twenty third time, just to make sure he had everything:
Blanket and sleeping bag
Thick coat and hat
Can of Fizzy Orange
Peter squeezed his left arm reassuringly against his chest, making sure that Dudley, his favourite bear, was still there. He would never admit to owning a teddy bear at his age, but Dudley had been a favourite of his since he was one year old.
The sound of a sharp snap echoed around the graveyard. It suddenly made Peter forget about his list and remind him exactly where he was. Instinctively he sat upright and twisted to look towards where the sound came from. He stopped breathing and started to shiver; the sleeping bag had slipped slightly down around his shoulders.
He waited for another sound, but nothing happened. It felt like ages until the silence of the graveyard returned and he began to relax slightly again.
‘Probably just squirrels or hedgehogs moving about in the bushes looking for food. That’s all it was,’ he said to himself, trying to convince himself that the sound was nothing to worry about as he lay himself back down.
He decided to cough loudly to scare any small animals away then waited again. No other sounds disturbed the night air so he pulled his sleeping bag closer to him once again, pulled the zip up as high as he could, closed his eyes and squeezed Dudley against his chest. To stop himself from hearin
The arrival of the bright moon within the starry night sky had, unknown to Peter, begun to wake up another occupant of the graveyard, one that did not like the brightness of the sun but preferred the black cloak of night to do its hunting.
At first you wouldn’t even have known they were there, but as they moved out from the shadows of the stones, two hooded shapes slid slowly across the muddy grass. Their movement was so slow and smooth that they could have been travelling on wheels or skating across a frozen lake.
They were heading in the direction of Peter.
Peter was sleeping lightly, his ears unknowingly tuned into the sounds of the graveyard. Occasionally, he heard the rustling sound of the wind as it blew through the leaves on the trees or a gentle splash from the shallow river, all of which he subconsciously accepted and ignored. But there was another sound now, one he was unfamiliar with, that made him open his eyes. He lifted his head above the gravestone and looked around. Everything was black except for the shine of the moon reflecting off the cold white surface of the gravestones, just as it had been the last time he had looked. But something was different and he couldn't quite tell what it was. To start with, he could hear a sound that seemed to be out of place, a sound that reminded Peter of thick gravy bubbling in a pan ready for a Sunday dinner. There was also a strange smell like a piece of mouldy bread that had been left in its bag for too long to go damp and furry.
He took the torch out from the bottom of his sleeping bag, turned it on and swung the light around him like a beam from a lighthouse. It all looked normal, although the noise had now stopped. Reassured that everything was alright, he switched the light off and snuggled back down inside the sleeping bag.
After a few seconds Peter thought that he could hear the thick bubbling sound again, but this time it seemed to be nearer to him; so close in fact that it almost sounded like it was coming from the direction somewhere towards the end of his sleeping bag where his feet were.
'I don’t scare that easily, Jimmy,’ Peter shouted mockingly into the night, his voice echoing in the night air. ‘You need to try harder than that if you want me to go home early.' Peter thought it was probably Jimmy or one of his friends trying to scare him, but he wasn’t going to be put off that easy. He switched the torch on again and placed it on the grass beside him so that the beam was shining towards his feet.
Once again Peter settled down inside the warm sleeping bag and closed his eyes. He didn’t know if there was enough power in the torch batteries to last through the night, but he was sure that Jimmy would soon get bored and go home. After that, Peter didn’t remember much, he drifted comfortably back into his light sleep in the hope that the next time he opened his eyes the sun would be starting to come out.
The hooded shapes waited before warily moving closer towards Peter. In the middle of the night most people were fast asleep and could do nothing to help him. His screams and cries quickly became muffled by an unknown killer until all that was left was a blanket and sleeping bag tangled together in a heap behind a gravestone.
2. Inside MI6
It felt like most of the past two years that Steven Knight had been working for the British Government, had involved nothing but sitting behind a desk writing reports for senior officials. But, unknown to Steven, today was going to be different. He entered, as normal, through the high security checkpoints inside London’s MI6 headquarters and stepped into the highly polished glass elevator to take him up to the seventh floor where his desk was awaiting him, along with the pile of paperwork that he had left there the night before.
From the seating area in the atrium of the building, where many suited men whispered selective truths into the ears of their colleagues, a tall man dashed across towards the lift just as the doors were about to slide shut. As Steven reached for the button to hold the doors open, the man athletically slid his tall frame through the narrow gap, nodded good morning to him and stood looking out of the glass lift as it began to move smoothly up.
Steven thought that he recognised most people in the building, but not this man. And his appearance was not one you could forget in a hurry. His height was the first striking thing about him; by comparing him with his own height, Steven judged him to be around seven foot tall. His black hair hung in dreadlocks to his shoulders and he obviously kept himself fit as Steven could make out the curves of the shoulder and back muscles beneath the man’s tailored dark blue pin striped suit. But the most unusual thing about this man was the silvery white scar that cut deeply into his black skin from below one eye to his jaw line.
After a few seconds the elevator stopped at the fourth floor and another man entered.
‘Morning, Knight,’ said a handsome man to Steven. ‘Have you caught any aliens yet?’ he continued with a mocking smile on his face.
‘Not yet, Davison,’ replied Steven. Despite trying to look comfortable with the jape, he knew that he was the butt of all jokes within the building, together with the rest of the department he worked in.
‘Actually, I was going to come and talk to you,’ continued Davison trying to be charming and sincere. ‘Something strange happened to me this morning at breakfast. Just as I was about to take the last mouth full of cereal from the bowl, it looked like it had arranged itself into letters that spelt out a word.’
‘Really?’ asked Steven, slightly warily, waiting for the punch line.
‘I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.’ Davison pulled a notepad out of his inside pocket and thumbed through it. ‘Here we go; it spelt out the word ANILE. Strange, eh? Anyway,’ he paused, ‘I thought you should know.’
‘Thanks,’ nodded Steven trying to work out if Davison was being serious or not, ‘I’ll look out for any other cereal related reports and let you know.’
Desperately trying to stop himself from laughing, Davison turned his face down towards his feet, his lips tightly clamped together not wanting to betray his joke.
‘Here’s my stop,’ said Davison as an electronic bell chimed the arrival to the sixth floor and the doors began to open. ‘I’ve got some real foreign threats to catch. Bye.’ He enthusiastically jumped out of the elevator and disappeared from view, but as the doors closed, Steven was sure that he heard Davison burst into laughter from further along the corridor.
As the elevator hummed into action once again, the tall man continued to look out of the glass as if he were on his own. At the next floor Steven stepped forward to get out and glanced back towards him. For a split second he thought that the tall man was using the reflection in the glass to discreetly assess and observe Steven, but he could be doing nothing more than simply looking out of the glass. Steven felt an uncomfortable shiver work its way down his back and was glad to hear the doors close behind him as he walked down the long corridor towards his office.
Steven was a member of the Unexplained Foreign Activity Department (UFA), a lesser known section of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. During 1950, in the aftermath of panic caused by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds as well as supposed real alien sightings like the Roswell Incident in America, the Prime Minister at the time, Clement Attlee, commissioned UFA. Since World War II, he considered Britain’s security to be at risk not only from other countries, but also from other life forms.
But so far, no alternative life forms had ever been found.
Or as the conspiracy theorists would say, none that had been officially reported.
To date the most interesting things that had landed on Steven’s desk included reports of strange activity in a laptop in Appletreewick, North Yorkshire, a possessed Caretaker at a School in Piddle River, Dorset, and a Hamster called Nibbles that was thought to be 452 years old in Tutts Clump, Berkshire. It seemed that all Steven had done so far was investigate hoaxes. Never once had he felt like there was any possible shred of genuine alien activity in Britain, or ever likely to be.
Recently, Steven had been
Ever since Steven was eight years old, he had believed that there must be something else out there and he wanted to be at the front when it was discovered. Probably the biggest reason for his motivation was simply the fact that he was endlessly searching for his parents who had mysteriously disappeared in the Forest of Dean. To this day he still kept the newspaper cuttings about his parents' disappearance inside an old scrap book, the paper yellow now with age and going soft along the well thumbed edges.
Steven approached an office door with the words ‘Unexplained Foreign Activity Department – UFA’ etched in the glass. He swiped his security card through the electronic reader and waited for the click of the lock to disengage before pushing the door open. Once through, he walked to his cubicle, a small area enclosed on three sides by a thin partition to the other cubicles that joined onto his. His small desk was overloaded with books on conspiracy theories, and brown cardboard folders stuffed with paper and stacked in a pile that had overflowed across his computer keyboard.
He shared the office with three other people: Jake, a fat balding single man who thrived on conspiracy theories and regularly updated a blog which officials at Whitehall naturally monitored and censored when necessary, giving fuel to Jake’s obsessions. Gwen, a divorced woman, who seemed to have one mission in life and that was to disprove any possible signs of alien life and on the way, cut men down at every opportunity, just for her own amusement. Definitely an aggressive non-believer. The fourth member of the team was Sir Adam Brooks, the official long suffering Head of the UFA. He had worked in the Department for longer than Steven had been alive and, although decorated with a Knighthood, continued to be the object of many a joke within MI6, even amongst other senior members of staff. Unlike many of the other MI6 Heads of Department, Sir Adam didn’t carry an aura of power and authority with him, which is why Steven liked him. But it also made him feel sad; could he end up like Sir Adam, endlessly searching?
While he waited for the computer to warm up, he scribbled the word ANILE on his note-pad. He had been thinking about what Davison had said in the elevator, and as he looked at the word, he realised that if he rearranged the letters it could also spell ALIEN, so it was probably just Davison’s idea of a joke.
He picked up the folder he had left at the top of the pile the night before and slid the top sheet out. It was the latest hoax that he had been given to investigate. He had received a memo from a local police station in the small town of Wettyfoot in Scotland, where a local resident had reported seeing Lock Ness monster babies in his garden pond. Steven was waiting for a full report from the police at Wettyfoot, but a sample of the water and a dead baby monster had already been delivered to him.
Steven had already sent the sample of water, which was dark green with algae and as thick as custard, to the in-house laboratory for analysis and started researching all of the logical possibilities on the internet.
Although the creature had six lips and warty skin, it seemed that the most likely candidate for such a monster was a 4inch long worm called a Nematode and not anything extra-terrestrial at all.
As soon as he received the official reports and analysis, he could put the file away in the temperature controlled storage facility kept in the ground directly beneath the MI6 building and move on to the next wild goose chase.
‘Good morning, Steven,’ said a clear and well spoken voice approaching the cubicles.
‘Morning, Sir Adam,’ Steven instinctively replied as he stood up so that he could see over the partitions surrounding the cubicle.
‘Good to see you’re in early as usual. I wonder if you would come with me; I have something I need to discuss with you.’
‘Of course, Sir,’ Steven agreed.
‘Better leave those here,’ Sir Adam indicated to the note-pad and pencil Steven had just picked up off his desk. He turned around and began walking in the other direction, away from his own desk.
Steven struggled to keep up with his boss, even though he was about 40 years younger. What was a normal walking pace for Sir Adam was a breathless gallop for Steven.
‘Can I ask what this is about?’
‘Probably best not to. Not yet, at least,’ replied Sir Adam vaguely.
Neither of them spoke any further as Sir Adam led Steven through an endless series of corridors and security doors that Steven was sure were in another part of the building that wouldn’t normally be accessible, especially to staff of his lowly rank. He even wondered if they were in a totally different building altogether. He had heard rumours that there were tunnels and passageways under London’s streets that lead to other government buildings to provide easy access for the Prime Minister and other senior members of the government to move quickly around London, especially during times of crisis, without anyone knowing.
One of the corridors turned sharply to the left and as they turned the corner Sir Adam placed a firm hand on Steven’s chest preventing him from walking any further.
‘A word of warning, Steven,’ Sir Adam whispered with a nervous look upon his face. ‘Do not trust everything and everyone you are about to meet. What you are about to see is only half the story. There are things they won’t tell you.’
‘What do you mean?’
Sir Adam looked around him nervously. ‘I can’t say any more. We are standing in a camera blind spot. We must keep walking. Our movements are being monitored. If we don’t walk seamlessly round the next corner, they will know we have delayed.’
Before Steven could ask any more questions, Sir Adam had taken a step round the corner leaving Steven no choice but to follow, even though he was now more confused than ever. At the end of the corridor he noticed the glowing single red eye of the camera watching as they approached what looked like a metal door.
To the right of the door was a card and retina scanner which Sir Adam automatically leant his head down to. After a few seconds the thick bolts inside the door frame clicked and a green light shone permitting access. The door swung slowly and heavily outwards towards them, revealing a small white washed room with no colour or decoration on the walls just a sterile metal conference table in the centre. Two people were already sitting at the desk with their backs to them. Steven reluctantly took a step inside the room followed by Sir Adam and the door closed silently behind them.
One of the men stood up and turned to face Steven, it was the tall scar faced man from the elevator.
3. A Call to Duty
Joe Allen lay awake on top of his second-hand mattress that sagged slightly in the middle, looking up at the ceiling. There had been an early morning knock on the front door to their small two bedroomed terrace house that had woken him up. He had heard his dad’s tired feet making their way down the stairs to answer and now he could hear the deep voices of two men talking from the kitchen below. Joe turned and looked at his alarm clock, wondering whether to get up or not, but decided to stay where he was for a bit longer, despite the springs in the mattress digging into his back. He then heard movement from the room next to his; his grandmother must have heard the door knocking too. He listened to the creaking of the floorboards as she slowly shuffled herself down the stairs, followed by the sound of water filling a kettle and the clatter of mugs. If his gran was up, then he may as well go downstairs too.
At the kitchen table he saw his dad talking to a round bellied man with long bushy sideburns that continued down both cheeks.
‘Morning, Mr Blundy,’ said Joe politely. Gregg Blundy was the desk clerk at the local police station where Joe’s dad also worked. Instinctively, Joe went to the kitchen cupboard, took a bowl out and began filling it from a cereal box whilst trying to listen to the men’s conversation without it looking too obvious.
Joe’s gran placed a mug of tea on top of the note-pad on the table for each of the men and affectionately placed a hand on her son’s shoulder.
‘So what time did he leave?' asked Sergeant Allen to the other man. He moved his cup of tea off the pad of paper and put it on top of a newspaper instead, freeing the paper to write on. He picked up a pen ready to make notes.
‘His mother said that he left around about eight o’clock last night. He told her that he had arranged to stay at a friend’s house. She watched him go out of the door and said she saw his reflection go past the front window as if he was heading into town.’
‘And she didn’t check with the friend first?’
‘As it was the start of the holidays, she wasn’t worried about him staying over someone elses house. She said that she was just glad that Peter had made friends. It wasn’t until this morning that she rang the friend’s house to see what time he was coming home and apparently he hadn’t been there at all.’
‘What about other friends? Has she rung around them?’
‘Sounds like he didn’t really have many friends. Never had anyone over for tea. Used to prefer sitting on his own amongst the long grass of the field behind his house for hours drawing small creatures in his sketchbook. Sounds like a bit of a loner really.’
Sergeant Philip Allen looked out of the kitchen window. It was rare for him to be able to experience the beauty of the orange and pink clouds of a morning sunrise. Although it was early, there was something very beautiful and peaceful about the world at this time of the day; even the two birds tweeting excitedly to each other outside the window seemed to agree. But Sergeant Allen knew that it would not last for long and from what he was hearing it seemed that it was not likely to be a good day. It was unusual for anything to happen in Parsley Bottom, except for the odd car accident or minor disturbance, but a missing child was definitely unusual.
‘Is there anything missing from his room?' he asked his clerk.
‘She’s had a look and the only things that are missing are some bedding and his teddy bear. She said he had a small bag with him when he left.’
‘So he definitely intended going somewhere for the night,’ replied Sergeant Allen.
Joe noticed that his gran had already started to make some sandwiches for his dad, knowing that he would be going into work shortly.
‘There is nothing else missing that she can tell: no money or photographs. He had some birthday money stuffed inside an old pottery money box which doesn’t appear to have been touched. Also his sketchpad is still in his room,’ added PC Blundy.
Sergeant Allen lifted the cup of tea to his lips and took a small sip as he listened once again, wincing as the hot water stung his lip. Despite the burn, it felt good feeling the warm liquid dribbling down inside his throat, heating up his stomach.
He chewed the end of the pen as he thought about the information he had already been given and what answers were still needed. Joe brought his bowl over and sat down at the table next to his dad. He purposely munched his cereal slowly so that he could still hear the conversation despite the crunching echoing in his ears.
‘And she’s checked the loft and shed to make sure he’s not hidden in there?’
‘She’s checked every place she can think of.’
‘Are there any other family members he could have stayed with?’ They were obvious questions but from what he had read in other missing person reports, children didn’t usually go very far from what they were familiar with.
‘His dad’s away working in the North Sea. He’s a welder on the rigs so only comes home every few months. The only other family member is an elderly grandmother and she lives in a nursing home.’
‘Had he been acting normally recently? Did he mention anyone new that he’d met?’
‘No, but she did mention something a bit strange. She says that she has always felt like they were being watched. I don’t know how much of this is in her imagination but apparently, when they had lived in Liverpool, there had often been an elderly man hanging around wherever they went. But when they moved to Parsley Bottom three years ago to care for her mother, she says she still sees the man everywhere only now he has a pointed white beard. But she’s sure it’s the same person.’
‘Might be worth checking it out. Send PC Lloyd round to talk to Mrs Crisp and get a detailed statement as well as a recent photograph of her son. We need some background information; was he having any problems at school that she knew of? Was he happy? Check social services records as well as police records from Liverpool, make sure it’s been a happy household and there have been no other reported problems.’
He took another sip of tea, giving himself time to think of anything else.
‘Are there any security cameras near their address? Send someone to ask the local businesses if we can look at their recordings from last night, maybe we can find out which way he headed.’
‘Shall I start to organise a search yet?’
‘No, let’s wait until we find out more before we start an official search. Chances are he’s run away, got scared over night and will turn up soon. Let me go and get dressed then we’ll go down to the station.’
Sergeant Allen pushed his chair backwards, scraping the legs against the bare floorboards and let out a loud sigh as he climbed the stairs back to the room he shared with his son.
‘What have you got planned for the school break Joe?' asked PC Blundy, trying to make conversation while he waited.
‘Nothing yet,’ replied Joe. ‘Was that Peter Crisp’s mum you were talking about?’
‘Yes, do you know him?’
‘Peter’s in my class at school,’ answered Joe in between spoons of cereal. ‘What’s happened to him?’
‘He’s gone missing. What’s he like at school?’
‘Well, he doesn’t really have that many friends, if that’s what you mean, but he seems ok. Never got into any trouble,’ replied Joe.
‘I think we’ve got a picture of him somewhere,’ said Mrs Allen. She went through a doorway into the lounge where she kept Joe’s school photographs propped up on the mantelpiece and took a cardboard backed photograph from the top of the mantelpiece and brought it back into the kitchen. She placed it on the table in front of Joe and PC Blundy.
‘That’s him there isn’t it Joe?' she asked, pointing a bony finger at a boy standing at the back of the photograph alongside the other tall members of his class. He had an unwashed appearance to his face and thick, untidy brown hair that flopped over his glasses. Whilst all the other faces looked down the camera lens with a smile and youthful confidence, Peter appeared to stand slightly separate from the rest of the class, a distance in his eyes like he knew a secret that no one else could guess. Joe nodded as he scraped the spoon around the bottom of his cereal bowl scooping up what remained of the milk from his breakfast.
‘May I borrow this?' asked PC Blundy.
‘As long as we get it back,’ replied the elderly woman with a knowing smile on her lips.
As soon as he was allowed to leave the house, Joe grabbed his jacket, got on his bike and cycled over to his best friends’ house. He took the bike around the outside of the house and knocked on the back door.
Max’s mum, who could always be found in the utility room sorting out the clean and dirty clothes for Max and his four older sisters, opened the door almost i
‘Morning, Joe, you’re out and about early,’ she said.
‘Morning, Mrs Scott,’ replied Joe as he kicked his shoes off at the door and rushed past her. He always felt welcome at Max’s house and one more person in a house of seven didn’t really make much difference to Mrs Scott, who was always pleased to see him.
He leapt up the staircase two at a time towards his friend’s bedroom, knocked once and walked straight in. A blond haired boy was sat at a desk with a thick text book open in front of him, an even heavier book resting on the pages to keep it open at the right page.
‘Hi, Joe,’ greeted Max as he looked up from the text book, ‘I thought I’d make a start on the maths homework.’
‘Max, it’s the first day of the holiday, why have you started your homework already?’
‘I don’t think I’ve got these percentages right,’ he said ignoring Joe’s question.
Max’s room was always tidy and organised. His desk had everything neatly arranged in square piles. Pens were colour coded and arranged by height and were lined up perfectly straight at the side of the desk. His books were lined up in the same way on his shelf and his duvet had been neatly tucked in around his mattress.
Joe carefully closed the bedroom door behind him then sank into the beanbag next to the desk.
'Are you alright?' asked Max looking strangely at his friend, noticing the look of excitement on Joe’s face.
‘Peter Crisp has gone missing! His mum contacted my dad and he’s gone down to the police station to start to look for him,’ said Joe in an excited but quiet voice so that no one else could hear him.
Max shook his head.
‘No, he’s down at the church graveyard,’ said Max unimpressed. ‘I heard him talking to Jimmy Cox at school yesterday. Everyone knows how Peter wants to fit in so Jimmy dared him to stay there the night.’
‘Oh,’ Joe’s excitement ended pretty quickly. ‘Well, he's going to be in big trouble when his mum finds him.’
‘Maybe we should tell your dad.’
‘Why don’t we go over to the graveyard and see if he’s still there? We could at least warn him that his mum’s looking for him so he can think up some excuse.'
'I suppose so,' said Max unconvinced.
Joe stood up and closed Max’s text book for him, leaving his pencil in the central fold as a marker for later, then started heading out of the house through the utility room. Max had no option but to follow, shouting goodbye to his mum, who had now started on the ironing.
4. The Secret Meeting
There were three other people in the room apart from himself: Sir Adam, the tall scar faced man from the lift and another man, whose suit was so badly crumpled it looked like he had gone to sleep in it, although the dark bags under his eyes indicated that he rarely got enough sleep.
'Good morning, Mr Knight. Thank you for agreeing to meet with us,' said the crumpled man. Inwardly Steven laughed at the man’s comment; he hadn’t had much choice about going there, but he decided not to say anything. ‘My name is Seward,’ he continued. The name rang a bell inside Steven’s head, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on where he had heard it before. ‘What we are about to tell you is top secret and should be protected at all costs.' He paused, waiting to see if Steven understood the importance of what he had said whilst he turned a laptop round so everyone could see the presentation that he had started.
‘Meteorites,’ Seward said as a way of an introduction. ‘Unless they are very large, many meteorites land on the Earth’s surface unnoticed.’ Different slides of meteorites appeared on the screen of the laptop illustrating his story. ‘Stone meteorites are the most common type and can often be difficult to recognise from the rocky surface they land on. Stone meteorites are divided into Chondrites and Achondrites. It’s the Achondrites that interest us today, Mr Knight. You may not know that they are often pieces from mature planets or moons and travel the solar system for millions of years before landing on Earth.’ The slide show continued to show pictures of meteorites travelling through space.
‘Have you heard of the Antarctic Mars Meteorite, or ALH84001?' interrupted Sir Adam. Steven nodded. He remembered reading about a meteorite that had been found in Antarctica in 1984. It was memorable because of the fossils inside it.
‘ALH8401 was thought to be about 4 billion years old. There were reports that it contained fossilised Martian microbes, microscopic life forms that sparked excitement about the existence of extra terrestrial life.’
‘You may recall the spectacular meteor shower we had over the skies of the UK several months ago. The meteors were from Tuttle’s Comet. Most meteorites are as small as grains of sand and disintegrate in the Earth's atmosphere. But this shower was different. The British Government has recently acquired a small rock no bigger than a large pebble that landed in a town called Parsley Bottom in Yorkshire. On its impact to Earth the outer layer fractured open and split into two parts.’ Seward took a charcoal black hemisphere rock out of his pocket and placed it on the table in front of them all. ‘This is one half of that rock.'
Steven picked it up. He could feel the smoothness of its surface with his fingertips, punctured by small holes like popped bubbles. On the flat edge was an uneven crystal surface with a honeycomb appearance at the centre; its colours radiated out in an ever darkening way to the charred surface.
'Meteorites land on our planet every month,' Sir Adam took over once again, 'but this one has caused great interest. The core of the meteorite contained traces of a substance that we are unable to identify.'
‘You mean it contained something we’ve never seen on this planet before?' asked Steven.
‘But, I thought that Meteorites became so hot as they entered the atmosphere that nothing could survive?' interrupted Steven.
‘You’re correct,' Seward began again. 'A meteor is subjected to intense heat as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere and many harmlessly burn up. These high temperatures are enough to destroy any substance on the surface of the meteor. In fact the rock actually begins to melt at its surface.’ He lifted up the half of meteorite that was on the table, ‘during its long journey through cold space the inside of the meteorite would have become frozen. Although the crust would have become hot and melted in our atmosphere, the temperature of the core remains relatively low.'
'So what was inside the meteorite?' Steven bravely asked.
‘Whatever it is, it hasn’t been seen on Earth, until now,' the scar faced man spoke with a deep American accent.
'This is Coldred,' Sir Adam indicated to the scar faced man. 'His speciality is Biochemical Engineering.'
'What did the analysis report say?' Steven asked.
'The meteorite crust is mainly made of rock with traces of iron and various minerals. More importantly, there was something inside the core. My research and development team have been working on the core of the other half. Inside, was what appeared to be a basic form of bacteria, but one that was different to any we've seen before. We found the bacteria deep inside the core away from the split. The original samples were lost as the bacteria seemed to dry and shrink when exposed to daylight, so we now only handle it in a strict environment: total darkness, 80% humidity with Night Vision goggles for our technicians. In a dark environment the bacteria changes at an alarming rate. Upon first being discovered it was given the code McRae01, named after the man who found it, but the bacteria has been changing, almost evolving, so much so that we have had to rename it several times, the differences are so great. The version we had growing in the laboratory when I left it this morning was coded McRae32-4.' There was silence in the room, as the relevance of Coldred’s last statement sank into Steven’s brain; the bacteria was changing rapidly.
'Why is it changing?'
'It’s adapting and feeding. I’ve never seen a bacteria change at such a rate. It almost appears to be evolving before our eyes every time the cells of th
'A recent sample of the local river water also showed traces of a similar bacteria,' interrupted Seward.
'But how could it have got there? Have any other meteorites been discovered in the area?' Steven noticed how none of the men had any notes; obviously they wanted their meeting kept on a strictly unofficial basis.
'None yet. But it seems logical that there could be more,’ answered Seward. 'There have also been reports of small animals, rats and water voles, appearing dead along the banks of Parsley Bottom River. We can assume that they had been drinking the water from the river, which unknown to themselves slowly poisoned them, their bodies unable to cope with this new bacteria.'
Coldred added another shocking piece of information. 'In the last week we have also received another more worrying report. A local farmer sent some of his cows to the abattoir to be slaughtered for the meat market, but the butcher at the abattoir noticed that the meat inside one of the animals was an unusual colour, almost like it was decaying from the inside. I took some blood samples and the test results showed the same bacteria, but it had changed even more rapidly than the one in our laboratory. These samples also showed some similarities to another bacteria that we already have on Earth called Streptococcus Pyogenes. You may have seen it in the newspapers before; the tabloids call it the "flesh-eating bacteria.".'
5. The Statue of Saint Vitus
Parsley Bottom Church was not far from Max's house so it didn’t take them long to reach the hanging gate that led into the graveyard. They lay their bikes on the sloped grass verge off the road and looked over the small stone wall.
'Doesn’t look like anyone’s here,' said Max.
'No,’ replied Joe. ‘It’s very quiet isn’t it? Why is it that graveyards always seem to be so quiet? I can’t even hear any birds.'
A cold stale smell mixed with the earthy scent of damp decaying leaves drifted across the graveyard towards Joe and Max, heavy like a sheet of fog floating across the sea. Joe leant on his hands as he tried to peer further over the wall. The evening frost had melted in the morning sun leaving the soft moss cold and wet against his skin. He quickly removed his hands from the wall and wiped them on his jeans.
'Peter!!!' shouted Joe, his voice echoed off the side of the church, 'It’s Joe Allen. Where are you?'
A rustling sound from the grass verge on the opposite side of the lane made Joe and Max turn around suddenly, thinking that Peter was behind them, but they couldn’t see anyone.
'Come on,' said Joe as he started to push the gate open. The bottom edge of the gate bit into the overgrown ground leaving a deep scar in the mossy earth. Joe entered first, followed more slowly and nervously by Max.
'Peter!' Joe shouted again. 'Are you sure he was coming here?' he asked Max as he constantly looked around him, expecting Peter to jump out.
'Definitely. Look over there.' Max pointed to the corner of a blanket poking out from behind a gravestone. They walked round only to find an untidy bundle of fabric made up of what looked like a blanket and sleeping bag. 'If Peter’s not been here then someone else certainly was.'
'If that is Peter’s sleeping bag, what’s it covered in? Look at that!' Joe prodded a silvery covering of slime with the end of a stick. It seemed to be all over the lower part of the sleeping bag as well as around the bottom of some of the gravestones. 'It looks like the frothy spit from a dog’s mouth.'
'Maybe he brought his dog with him?'
'I don’t think he has one,' replied Joe.
They followed the slimy trail towards the side of the church nearest to the river. The ground around here appeared to have been dug recently and there were scratch marks in the mud as if a dog had been digging in the wet soil. Some of the ground had been moved away from the lower stones in the church wall and around the edges of this an opening had been created. The slime appeared to be thicker in the entrance to the opening.
Joe leant down and tried to peer into the hole but the smell that came from inside was harsh and felt like it was burning the back of his nose. He quickly pulled his head away and held the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose to prevent himself from breathing in any more.
'Could you see anything?' asked Max from a safe distance behind.
'No,' said Joe, 'but it smells really bad in there and it’s too small for anyone to climb into. Maybe a fox has got trapped and died,' he added unconvinced. They both turned away and started to walk back towards the bundle of clothes they had found behind the gravestone, not realising that they were being watched.
‘Look over there,’ said Max to Joe, ‘what’s that?’ He pointed towards a brown shape with a red stripe near to the thick wooden door of the church. They both moved towards it, bypassing the jumble of blankets near the gravestone. Max was beginning to feel uncomfortable and guilty about being there. He looked all around the graveyard hoping that no one had noticed them; the last thing he wanted was to get into trouble.
‘Shouldn’t we go back and tell your dad?' Max said hopefully.
As they approached the brown shape, it began to look more recognisable as a teddy bear. Joe picked it up.
‘Dudley,’ he read the name on the label that stuck out from behind the red scarf on its neck. ‘Mrs Crisp said that there was bedding and his teddy bear missing from his room at home.’
‘Well, Peter was definitely here then. Can we go now Joe? Graveyards give me the creeps,’ Joe asked, trying not to think about all of the dead bodies under the ground.
‘Wait, the church doors are open. He may have changed his mind and gone to sleep inside instead of staying out here all night.’ The grain on the old wooden doors was worn deep and cut into the wood like claw marks on a tree. It was studded with black iron rivets, some of which had gone rusty and leaked a dark stain in the wood beneath them. There was a small plastic sign screwed onto the door above the handle telling them that the church was closed and that visitors should go to Manor Cottage to obtain the key. But today the door appeared to be already open.
Joe pushed against the heavy door which, despite its weight, swung smoothly inwards. There was a metallic grinding from the hinge and the metal knocker made a loud clang as it swung back and hit against the door, echoing inside the empty church.
Joe took a step inside the stone porch of the church where the air seemed cold and slightly damp. ‘Come on. Let’s check in here. If there’s no sign of him we’ll go,’ he said to Max who was still standing outside.
‘Are you sure we’re allowed in there, the sign says it’s closed? It’s not a Sunday or anything, so maybe we shouldn’t go in. What if someone finds us. They may think we’re vandalising it or something. My dad would kill me!’
‘But the door’s unlocked. Don’t worry so much. We’re only trying to find Peter,’ Joe reassured Max as he pushed the door shut behind them before opening the inner door to the church.
Max took small steps behind Joe who now stood behind rows and rows of wooden benches. On the table in front of Max were piles of hymn books stacked neatly, as well as an empty metal collection plate and some printed pieces of paper with information about the Church. The air inside the tall space smelt stale and dusty.
‘Peter,’ shouted Joe once again, but slightly quieter than he had outside.
‘Careful where you’re standing,’ Max warned Joe as he looked down at the floor. Beneath Joe’s trainers was a similar clear slime on the floor to that which they had seen around the hole and sleeping bag outside.
‘It goes down here,’ said Joe as he pointed to a trail of slime that led down between the benches. ‘Come on.’
Max lifted up the bottom of his shoes to make sure he hadn’t walked in anything then followed, being much more cautious about where he stood than Joe, and gingerly stepped around the trail of slime towards the far end of the church.
The giant empty cavern of the inside of the church made each sound echo all around them. Occasionally they would hear the odd creak or crack from th
The slime looked like it had been dragged along the smooth stone floor towards a separate part of the building to the right of the main length of the church which is where Joe now stood in front of a large stone statue. A lot more slime had collected around the grey stone base and above was a statue of a young boy towering over Joe. Around the boy’s head soft faced angels flew weightlessly, frozen in stone. Looking down from the angels Joe noticed that the boy seemed to have the lower part of his body inside a round pot with solid stone flames licking up from around the bottom.
‘Saint Vitus,’ said Max reading from the brass plaque at the base of the statue. ‘Who’s he? And why is he in a cooking pot?’
Joe looked down at the slime around the base of the statue, ignoring Max’s questions.
‘Anyway, it looks like Peter’s not here either,’ said Max.
‘Why would there be a lot more of that slime around this statue and not the others?’ thought Joe aloud as he crouched down to take a closer look.
‘I don’t know. Maybe some dogs came into the church and dribbled on the floor?’ Max was getting nervous again and wanted to go as soon as possible, so he just said the first thing that entered his head. ‘Maybe they all sleep in here or were waiting for something.’
‘It all seems a bit strange to me. It smells like the slime from around that hole outside. And anyway, how would a dog open the front door?’
‘Well, someone must have let the dogs in and maybe they followed the person to here? What are you doing now?’
Joe had started to climb onto the stone base, but his trainers were slippery from standing on the slime so he kicked them off. The loud slapping sound they made as they hit the floor rebounded off the church walls making Max jump and nervously look around. Joe managed to get his left foot onto the thick lip of the cooking pot and by pushing his back up against the church wall he levered his right leg up and around the statue. He was now standing behind the statue with his feet on the edge of the pot and his arms around the neck and shoulders of the stone boy. First he looked down towards Max, who was now telling him that standing on statues was a really bad idea and God would probably punish them both for it, but then he looked around the statue itself. There was a mark on the wall just above his head. It looked like a badly drawn circle with several lines sticking out from the edge. He traced his finger in the shallow scratch then noticed that there were also two scratched letters inside the circle. Although there was a slight shadow cast underneath the wall, Joe was sure that the letters were P and C.
Where Joe’s own feet were balanced on the statue he could see some muddy marks and down at the base of the cooking pot behind the statue, was what looked like a metallic chocolate bar wrapper catching a little of the light that came through one of the small leaded windows above.
‘Peter’s definitely been here, his initials are scratched on the wall and there’s a chocolate wrapper down here.’
‘The wrapper could have been there for ages,’ replied Max.
‘But there are muddy foot marks here too, and the mud’s still soft.’ Joe almost slipped off the statue as he heard the clang of the metal door knocker bang against the outer door.
Someone was entering the church.
‘Come on,’ said Max in a quiet shout as Joe leapt off the statue to land next to his friend. He quickly grabbed his trainers from the floor then they both crept to peep past the side wall and look down the length of the church towards the entrance. Joe could almost feel the pulse in his neck pumping so hard that it made his head shake. They couldn’t see anyone but they could hear that someone was now inside the church by the loud wheezing breaths they took and the knocking sound of a wooden stick against the stone floor.
‘What are we going to do? I told you we weren’t allowed in here.’
Joe continued to look down the church. A figure of an old man slowly walked into view; he was dressed in a neat brown suit and had a white goatee beard that rested in a point on his chest.
‘Who’s he?' whispered Max into Joe’s ear.
‘I don’t know, but Mrs Crisp said that she had seen a white bearded man watching them. Do you think that could be him?’
A faint whisper echoed near to where Joe and Max were.
Joe looked at Max with a confused look on his face and silently mouthed the words, ‘what was that?’ Max shrugged his shoulders. He had heard it too.
‘Hey!’ The whisper was slightly louder and Joe realised where it was coming from. On the opposite side to their hiding-place was a small wooden door where a red-haired girl was signalling for them to come over to her.
‘Who’s she?’ asked Max.
‘Whoever she is, I think I’d rather go with her. That must be another way out.’
To get to the door would mean crossing the centre of the length of the church, where no benches would hide them. Joe had an idea. He crouched down until he could see all the way to the other end of the church by looking underneath all of the benches. If he could see the feet of the person who had just come in, he would know where he was and which direction he was facing so that they could cross to the red-headed girl.
He could see the feet at the table with the hymn books on but then they shuffled and disappeared behind a thick stone pillar. A few seconds later they reappeared at the hymn book bench again but a sheet of paper fluttered down to land on the floor next to the feet. Joe froze. If the person bent down low enough, they would be able to look back at Joe and their hiding-place would be discovered. He held his breath not daring to move. With an obvious effort, the person slowly knelt down and rested their body weight on a long bony hand whilst the other scratched at the corner of the piece of paper to make it easier to lift.
This was their chance. Quietly Joe and Max crawled quickly along the length of the bench across the open central area and back behind the benches on the other side of the church. On their knees they then crawled towards the red-haired girl who opened the door a little wider to let them through.
Back at the hymn book table the man suddenly stopped wheezing and lifted his head above the bench to look intently towards the small door that Joe and Max had just passed through. The face was old and wrinkled with small blue eyes staring out from underneath the thick white eyebrows and, despite the appearance of the aged body, there was an inner strength that seemed to radiate from it. He took a long sniff of the air before standing upright and following the trail of slime down the centre of the church towards the statue.
Joe and Max ran down a narrow dark passageway, towards a light that came from another small door that led outside. No one dared say anything until they were out in the fresh air, then Max let out a long gasp of nervous breath.
‘Thanks,’ said Joe, who was still holding his trainers, to the red-headed girl.
‘You're welcome,’ she said smiling. ‘I’m Scarlet. I saw you looking around the graveyard from up in that tree. That’s my dad’s land over there,’ she pointed to the wooded area across the river. ‘You looked like you had lost something, so I thought I’d come over to see if I can help. What’s wrong with your trainers?’
Joe looked down at them. The rubber soles under the trainers seemed to be melting. Carefully he scraped them against the side of a gravestone leaving a trail of soft black rubber on the edge.
‘It looks like they’ve melted,’ Scarlet said.
Joe lifted them up to sniff them then pulled his face away from the acidic smell.
‘It must be the slime you stood in,’ Max said to Joe, who had now begun wiping them on some wet grass. All that was left of the sole was a thin layer of rubber where, in patches, it was bare to the white lining on the inside.
‘This is getting stranger all
6. Newton Rise Abattoir
Three miles away from Parsley Bottom on the road to Harrogate was the slightly larger town of Newton Rise, a farm town which regularly held a cattle market in the main square every Wednesday. The farmers markets had become a regular tourist attraction in the summer where anything could be bought from local honey and fresh breads to prize-winning cattle and waxed jackets. Pedestrians walked along the pavements past the sandstone-clad shops while motorists respectfully drove slowly along the narrow roads simply to admire the buildings and be part of the uniqueness of a country town.
Away from the town the old abattoir was a boring grey concrete building protected by a high boundary wall with black iron gates barring the entrance. At the front of the building were two large shutters big enough to admit lorries, whilst on the right side a covered walkway led from a field at the back into the main building. By contrast the interior of the building shone white and gleamed with the steel machinery.
In the staff canteen a man sat hunched over his cup of steaming tea at the first table nearest the doors. There weren’t many people in the canteen at this time of the afternoon and he was happy to have some time away from his work colleagues and rest his weary body on the plastic chair. He had already tried to eat a packet of biscuits but today he couldn’t keep anything inside his stomach, it seemed to be permanently tight like someone had reached inside him and wouldn’t stop squeezing.
He pulled out a tissue from his trouser pocket and wiped his nose. Before returning it to his pocket he checked the tissue for more signs of blood.
Gilbert Rackham had been working at the abattoir since he was just 17 years old after being encouraged to follow in his father's footsteps. He didn’t particularly enjoy the work he did but at least it paid his bills and kept food on the family table. He would probably keep working there until the day he retired. But, the work had changed over the last few years and instead of being an important part of the market town, the abattoir was becoming a symbol for animal cruelty and on occasions Gilbert’s children had been bullied by their school friends who didn’t agree with their father’s job.
As he sat at the table playing with the salt and pepper shakers, he thought back to the strange events of the last few weeks after he had noticed something unusual about a cow that had come from Parsley Bottom. So much had happened since then. After four hours the cow had been removed from the building and he had been interviewed twice by official looking men, as well as having all of his clothes removed and swabs taken from his skin and fingernails. He had asked why so much precaution was necessary, but no one would give him an answer. He was just forced to do as he was told.
Gilbert tried to think about the meat he had seen and what it was that made it so different to a normal cow, except for the strange dark colouring of the flesh inside. There had been no reports from any of his colleagues about the cow acting unusual, and all of the other cows from the same herd had seemed normal. So why was this cow so different?
His mind wandered back to the canteen that he was sat in. He didn’t know what was happening to him recently. He seemed to have no energy despite wanting to eat more than usual and he had a constant ache in his legs and arms. Every morning it was getting worse, but he didn’t want to mention it to his wife; it was probably just his age or maybe he was coming down with the flu. He had even noticed that the skin on his hands was getting thinner and showed the bones beneath more clearly.
As he sat there, he noticed that his breathing was becoming quite hard and all he could manage were short shallow breaths. He screwed his eyes up tight trying to clear the fog from his vision but it never changed. His hearing was also becoming muffled and distant. He tried to focus on the large white-faced clock on the wall at the end of the canteen but it seemed to swim in mid-air before him. He could just about make out the black hands telling him that he only had 5 minutes of his break to go before he would have to get back on the work floor. Gilbert decided to freshen up as much as possible so that he could see his day through to the end and not lose any of his pay.
He struggled to get to his feet. By holding on to the wall he slowly made his way through the double doors into the locker-room looking like a crooked old man. He found his locker amongst the sea of other identical metallic grey boxes and fumbled with the key as he tried to get it into the small lock. He felt his forehead with the back of his hand; it was cold and wet. He took a box of pain killers out of his bag and pushed two tablets out of their silver pockets and into his hand.
An overwhelming feeling like a wave of shivering heat washed across the surface of his body and his legs collapsed from beneath him. By the time his body hit the floor, Gilbert was already dead. His still open eyes turned a milky colour, his heart stopped, his lungs could no longer suck air into his body and his muscles had wasted away, eaten by an unknown bacteria that fed on his flesh to grow and consume his body.
Unknown to Gilbert, the bacteria had transferred from the cow’s meat under his fingernails and into his mouth. The rest of the staff at the Abattoir had also picked up the bacteria off the work surfaces, handrails and doorknobs that Gilbert had touched, as well as through the air he had sneezed and coughed into and they would slowly go the same way as Gilbert, his wife and their two daughters.
Unless something could be done about it, this unknown bacteria would continue to spread in the same way from staff to their families and very quickly it would consume humans to develop into a species all of its own.
7. London to York
Steven left the MI6 building and walked across Vauxhall Bridge Road towards the nearest underground station. A sharp breeze blew off the Thames, stinging his cheeks, but he welcomed the fresh air after spending an hour inside the windowless box of a room with the other men.
During that one meeting his belief in alien life forms had been renewed. Even though the bacteria from inside the meteorite was only the most basic of life forms, it was still alien to this planet.
He entered Pimlico underground station and jumped on the first train towards Kings Cross. Whilst the tube train rattled along the track in bouts of acceleration and deceleration, Steven pulled out the train ticket to Parsley Bottom he had been issued with before leaving the meeting. After a few minutes he arrived at Kings Cross Station and began picking his way through the crowd of people whilst looking at the departures board for his train, making a mental note of the platform number. Once inside the train he found a seat with a table and looked out of the window at his fellow passengers dragging luggage trolleys or children quickly up the platform, to avoid missing the train’s departure.
Other passengers entered the carriage. Some sat down whilst others moved through into the next carriage. Steven was grateful that no one came and sat at the table; he preferred a bit of privacy. As the whistle blew and the train started to pull its way out of the station, Steven looked around the carriage. Every one else was settled in their seats ready for the 2 hour journey to York. He had been instructed that he would be met at York station ready for the drive towards Harrogate and Parsley Bottom. He sat back in his seat and relaxed, but his mind kept wandering back to the meeting inside the MI6 building.
The fact that the bacteria was changing so rapidly was incredible, but what was even scarier was its ability to eat flesh.
‘What would bacteria usually eat?' Steven had asked Seward when he was in the enclosed room.
‘Bacteria are decomposers; they eat things like algae and fungi as well as dead skin cells and hair. Instead of using a mouth they produce enzymes that break down the food into smaller parts, just like the acid inside your stomach would. Some bacteria will only eat one type of food, whilst others are able to eat several different types.’
The deep voice of Coldred interrupted his colleague. ‘But they can adapt to their environment. Bacteria that can’t break down one type of food will live next to other bacteria that can.’
‘So why was this alien
‘Most bacteria would, but don’t forget this is new to this planet. It acts in different ways to Earth bacteria,’ replied Seward. ‘There are several possibilities as to how it could have got into the cow. It could have drunk from the river, consuming the bacteria, then it started to eat the flesh after the cow had died. The second possibility is the cleanliness at the abattoir could be below standard and the bacteria may have been introduced on the blade of the knife, then started to multiply and divide on the flesh.’
‘But how could the bacteria be on the blade in the first place? You're avoiding the most likely explanation,' said Coldred who didn’t appear to be convinced and seemed to be frustrated by Seward's explanations. He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing with his own opinion. ‘The other possibility is that it was already eating the cow from the inside before it died.’ They all turned towards Coldred. Except for his deep voice echoing in their heads, the room was silent.
Seward and Sir Adam looked uncomfortably at each other; Steven thought that maybe Coldred had said too much.
'Are you saying that the bacteria was eating it alive?' Steven asked in amazement.
‘We don’t know that for sure,’ Seward quickly spoke, preventing Coldred answering. ‘This bacteria just acts differently to ones we have on this planet,’ he continued, providing this as an explanation for Steven.
There was tension in the room. Steven wanted to move the subject on and pretend that he hadn’t noticed the importance of what Coldred had said. Sometimes he found that it was better to act stupid to avoid any complications that understanding could cause. However, inside his mind he was thinking that if the bacteria had got in the cow and was eating it, it would probably mean that the bacteria had killed the cow by attacking it from the inside. It didn’t just eat dead cells and fungus, but could attack an animal and silently pick the living flesh from the bones from the inside without the animal knowing. This was a complicated and much more deadly bacteria to any that had been found on Earth.
‘What happened to the cow?' Steven asked casually, trying to act normal.
Coldred looked at Seward, almost waiting to receive the go ahead to answer the question. He was obviously aware of his disapproval over his last outburst. Seward nodded to Coldred who then answered. ‘I have it at my laboratory. Some of my staff are observing the process of the bacteria eating the flesh as we speak.’ Coldred then turned to Seward, ‘a full report should be ready shortly,’ he said as if he was trying to gain back some approval from Seward.
After talking briefly about the importance of secrecy, he had been instructed by Sir Adam to go to Parsley Bottom and look for evidence of any other meteorites that may have fallen, as well as talk to Mr McRae, the man that had found the original meteorite. Although they had provided some enlightening information, Steven felt that there was a lot more that he wasn’t being told. He remembered what Sir Adam had said on the walk to the meeting, 'do not trust everything and everyone you are about to meet. What you are about to see is only half the story. There are things they won’t tell you.' Steven definitely hadn’t liked Coldred, there was something strange about him, his eyes seemed to stare icily into your head, reading what your brain was thinking.
'But why me?' Steven had asked.
'We don’t want panic,' answered Sir Adam, 'just a polite and innocent investigation. Out of all the members of the UFA team you are the one I choose. You are the one I can trust. We don’t want the army ploughing in causing chaos and panic. For now we need to determine how far the bacteria has spread. Find as many meteorite samples as you can and try to establish an area that may have become effected by the bacteria.'
'Because the bacteria doesn’t seem to react well to sunlight, we don’t think it will be able to survive for long in the open. Look for dead or sick animals, talk to the farmers and take water samples. Overall, this is an unofficial investigation and that’s the way I want it to remain,' Seward had instructed him.
The train continued on its journey to York. The rocking motion of the carriage together with the constant hum of the metal wheels against the track, made Steven want to close his eyes. Despite trying to resist it, the heavy eyelids slid over his eyes and his body leant back against the seat and he relaxed into sleep. Steven wasn’t the only person in the carriage who had dropped off; a university student used her overly large back-pack as a pillow against the cold window pane, whilst two children played on handheld computers, their parents completing a crossword together. At the back of the carriage, a grey-haired man in a suit was reading today’s newspaper; the open pages were large enough to shield his face from everyone else, but occasionally he would drop the paper slightly so that his eyes could see over the top. He would then scan the rest of the occupants in the carriage, but his eyes always seemed to linger on Steven for longer than anyone else. After all, that was what he was being paid to do.
‘The next station is York,’ announced the recorded voice from inside the carriage.
Steven looked at his watch; he had been asleep for nearly two hours. As he blinked himself awake, he stood slowly, arched his stiff back and reached up into the air. The rest of the carriage was now nearly empty except for several people that had collected by the door and were waiting for it to open at the station.
The train slowed and Steven stepped out onto the concrete platform. There was a cold breeze blowing along the tracks towards him and he thought he could feel the odd spit of rain against his cheeks. Pulling the collar of his jacket up around his neck, he found a vending machine and selected a chocolate bar to eat as he hadn’t had much since breakfast.
‘Mr Knight?’ came a soft voice from beside him. There was a slight Spanish lisp in the voice which betrayed its origins.
Steven turned to see a slim and beautiful lady in a chocolate brown suit offering a slender hand for him to shake. Her skin had an olive colour to it, even in the grey northern climate. Her full lips gave a cautious smile as she hoped that she had approached the right man.
‘Yes,’ he blustered, ‘I’m Steven Knight.’ He took her warm hand gently in his and shook it. He noticed that she was slightly taller than himself, but that could have something to do with height of the shoes she wore.
‘My name’s Georgia Brown, I’m an MI6 operative assistant. I’m here to take you to Parsley Bottom. A case of clothes has already been arranged for you and is waiting at your accommodation. If you would follow me?’
Before Steven could reply, Georgia had already started walking towards the car park, expecting him to follow. Her golden brown hair bounced gently against her shoulders as she walked gracefully towards a black car. But Steven wasn’t the only person watching Georgia. At the other end of the car park the grey-haired man from the train already had the engine of his car running, waiting to discreetly follow Steven.
8. A Birds Eye View
Max and Joe decided to get away from the church and its visitor for a while so they followed Scarlet over some large stepping-stones across the river to the woodland on the other side. Once they had scrambled up the soft bank, they found themselves surrounded by the thick harsh trunks of conifer, oak and ash trees. The light from the sky shone through the soft green leaves above them and made the whole place take on a magical green glow. The smell inside the woodland made Max think of Christmas and the pine-tree his grandparents always put up in the entrance hall to their home. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the heat from the fireplace and the excitement in his stomach.
Joe had tried to put his trainers back on but the sole now seemed to be coming away from the rest of the shoe and he almost immediately tripped over, so he decided it would be easier to take them off altogether. Despite the thick layer of brown leaves that covered the ground making it soft and bouncy Joe winced painfully as he felt every stone or bump against his feet.
As they took a few steps forward, the woodland
‘Come and climb my tree,’ said Scarlet excitedly as she rushed off ahead.
‘Who is she?' Joe asked Max.
‘I don’t know but at least we’re not in that creepy church,’ Max replied as he followed Scarlet. ‘Don’t worry about Peter. I bet he’s already gone home. He’s certainly not in the graveyard anymore,’ he shouted as he ran amongst the trees after Scarlet.
‘No, I suppose he’s not,’ said Joe to himself, although he wasn’t as easily convinced as Max. It certainly looked like Peter had been in the graveyard at some point then moved into the church. But what was all that slime? Wherever Peter had been, the slime had been too, almost like it had been following him. And the white-bearded man? Was he the same one that Mrs Crisp had mentioned to PC Blundy? Then there was that symbol on the wall, the circle with the lines coming out from it; what could that mean? Max seemed happy to think everything was ok, but Joe had a very uneasy feeling in his stomach.
He started to run in the direction the other two had gone, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of Max’s blue jacket between the trees. Up ahead he heard the voice of Scarlet calling Max on, but then there was nothing and the only thing he could hear was the rustling sound of leaves being crushed beneath his socks.
Joe looked around him. Everywhere looked the same; he couldn’t even tell which way he had just come; all that he could see were grey-green tree trunks with light green leaves. He strained to try to hear something, a voice or a movement, but there was nothing except for the faint whispering of the wind blowing through the tree tops like the woodland was sucking in deep breaths then breathing out heavily.
Suddenly there was darkness.
Something had been put over his head. Joe couldn’t see anything. He grabbed at the cover with his hands, desperately trying to get it off but panicked and fell to the ground. As he continued to struggle, he finally managed to pull the cover from his head and throw it to the floor. What lay in front of him was Max’s coat and above him he could hear giggling coming from the tree above.
‘Max!’ Joe shouted as he brushed some leaves from his jeans, ‘Don’t do that!’
‘Sorry,’ replied Max still laughing. ‘Come up here! You can see all over town. I think I can even see your house in the distance.’
Joe grabbed hold of the lowest branch and lifted himself up onto a thicker limb. From there he could see climbing holds drilled into the tree trunk at random positions around the thick trunk, like the shaped grips he had once seen on a climbing wall. It meant that he could scale up the trunk relatively fast to reach the canopy of the tree. There had been some modifications made there too as Max and Scarlet were perched on top of a solid platform made out of a series of wooden planks. He pulled himself onto the platform and punched Max playfully on the shoulder.
‘This is great,’ he said as he looked over the top of the tree tops down onto the town below.
‘My dad made it for me. He got the foot and hand holds at a car boot sale and put them on the tree for me. I often come here and watch the animals. Mainly it's just birds you can see but sometimes there’s other stuff too. I have a tame grey squirrel that comes up here sometimes and I’m sure I saw a kingfisher the other day on the river down there.’ Scarlet pointed down to a spot on the river just south of the graveyard. She unhooked a waterproof bag from a branch next to the platform and took out a sheet of paper. ‘Look. I keep a chart of all the animals I’ve seen,’ she said showing Joe and Max who tried not to look too bored.
‘How did you know we were in the church?' asked Joe.
‘I saw you with these,’ Scarlet took a small pair of binoculars out of the bag and showed them to Joe. ‘I also saw that man go in shortly after you. Did you know that he had been watching you from the other side of the road since you first arrived? I thought he may be going in to tell you off. You’re not supposed to go into the church without going to Mrs Merchant first at Manor Cottage; she has the key. Anyway, I thought I would come and rescue you.’
‘Can I have a look?' asked Joe picking up the binoculars from the wooden platform.
‘If you look towards the river in the bank beneath the church, there’s a large hole that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. I think there may be otters nesting there or something. Sometimes, when the sun’s facing in the right direction, I can see the dark outlines of animals moving inside it. If it is otters, they must have some pups as well as it seems rather full inside there.’
‘There are dogs in there?' Max asked.
‘No, silly. Pups are baby otters,’ replied Scarlet disappointed that Max didn’t know as much about otters as she did.
‘Why do you come up here?' asked Max.
‘This is my father’s land; he’s Richard Baxley the farmer.’
‘I’ve never noticed you before at school.’
‘I go to a Saint Winifred’s, the private school over at Otley.’
‘Oh,’ said Max, feeling slightly inferior.
Joe focused the binoculars on the hole in the river-bank which coincidently seemed to be directly below the smaller hole under the church wall that he had looked at earlier. The river-bank hole was dug deep into the ground and it appeared to be inky black inside but occasionally his eyes picked out darker shapes moving around from within, as the daylight reflected off the surface of the water and into the hole.
After picking out the landmarks of the town which looked very different from above, the sun got too low in the sky and began to shine in their eyes making it difficult for them to see anything else. Max, Joe and Scarlet made their way back down the tree towards the river crossing then went their separate ways. Max and Joe carefully jumped over the large flat stepping stones back across the river and into the graveyard to collect their bikes. The graveyard was still quiet and as they mounted their bikes Joe took a last uncomfortable look over his shoulder to where the hole underneath the church wall was.
They both cycled along the quiet lane until they got to a junction in the road where they would go off in different directions.
‘See you tomorrow,’ said Joe.
‘Night,’ Max shouted from along the road as he cycled home.
Joe arrived home just as his gran was starting to put the cutlery on the dining-table for their evening dinner. There were only two place settings, so Joe knew that they would be eating without his father. Whenever this happened, Joe would lie awake in his bed and wait to hear a knife and fork clattering against a pottery plate while his father ate his dinner later in the night. He found that he could never go to sleep until he knew that his father was home.
‘Dad not back yet?' he asked as his gran took the plates out of the cupboard.
‘No, it’s just the two of us again. What did you and Max get up to today?’
‘Not much,’ Joe replied nervously, thinking that he was going to be in trouble for going inside the church. ‘We went for a bike ride and met a girl called Scarlet on the other side of the river.’
‘That’s Richard Baxley’s land. Scarlet must be his daughter. What happened to your trainers?’ she asked Joe as she took a sausage casserole out of the oven.
‘The sole came away so it was easier to walk without them on.’
‘Well, that’s what you get for buying cheap trainers, but I’m afraid that’s all we can afford at the moment. You’ll have to get your old ones out. I know they’re a bit small, but they will have to do until we can get you some others.’
‘Do you know if dad found Peter Crisp?’
‘I haven’t heard I’m afraid.’
Joe wanted to talk to his father. He had been wrestling with the decision of whether to tell his dad about what they had seen at the graveyard or not. But, most of all he wanted to ask him if Peter had been found, but it would have to wait until the morning.
It took Joe a long time to get to sleep that night. He had lain awake in his bed moving into the most comfortable posit
Eventually his brain couldn’t think any more and he had finally given in and gone to sleep, but as he lay in his warm soft bed half asleep he suddenly had an idea what the symbol could mean.
9. The Night Watchman
Bob King was doing his usual hourly checks at the old Parsley Bottom Paper Factory for the night. It was cold and he was looking forward to a warm cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, before settling down for a short nap. Bob had been a night security guard at the factory for just over four years and in that time there had only once been an intruder, if that’s what you could call a homeless person looking for somewhere warm to sleep.
The long outside wall of the factory that joined onto the car park was lit by lamps attached from above, and as Bob walked slowly beneath them he moved in and out of the beams like an actor moving across a stage. The only sound that could be heard was the faint metallic chinking sound of the keys loosely hanging around his waist. Bob whistled a nameless tune to accompany his keys and break the silence.
As he came to a door, he tried the handle to make sure that it was locked, before proceeding towards the back of the building. He lifted his wrist and checked the time on his watch, tapping it to make sure that the hands had not got stuck. Ten past two in the morning. He made a note of the time on the chart that was clamped to his clip-board.
At the end of the wall, he turned round and took one final look towards the car park, just to reassure himself that all was secure before moving to the back wall. There were no doors to check on this side of the building and further ahead was the small hut where Bob kept his kettle, biscuits, deck-chair and heater. The river ran alongside the back of the factory; moonlight reflected off the surface of the water as it trickled over the stones like last years faulty Christmas tree lights flickering in the night.
Knowing that he had 50 minutes to himself before the next security check at 3am, Bob started to walk a bit quicker, drawn to his hut and the thought of a warm cup of tea.
Suddenly a loud sploshing sound came from the river. He turned and walked slowly and cautiously to the edge of the river-bank, keeping the light from his torch on the ground in front of him so that he could safely see where the drop of the bank started. At the edge he swung the beam of light along the muddy bank then turned it up stream, as well as down.
There are many things that could have made a sploshing sound in the river, such as a small fish jumping out of the water, or an acorn falling from an overhanging oak tree, and Bob’s brain automatically came to these conclusions as the most likely reason.
As he turned away from the river to go towards his hut, something caught on the leg of his trousers almost making him lurch forward. Bob’s torch fell out of his hand and rolled onto the concrete path. He turned his head to look down at his trouser leg, but something else pulled it from underneath him. He landed heavily on his chest, the breath forced violently out of his lungs. Gasping quick shallow breaths, he tried to look down towards his feet once again, but all he could make out were dark shapes clawing their way up the river-bank and clamping themselves tightly around his legs. He tried kicking at them but more were coming out of the water and advancing up his legs. There was a strange, sticky bubbling sound coming from the shapes, getting louder and louder as more of them arrived.
Bob made an attempt to call for help, but he knew that it was useless; after all, he had just checked the grounds around the factory himself and he knew that there was no one else here.
He knew he was on his own.
This feeling of isolation seemed to give Bob an extra boost of energy and his instinctive need to survive kicked in. He tried to grab at whatever was attacking him as it slid towards his chest, but there was nothing solid to get hold of. It was like trying to grab onto a slug. His hands kept slipping off the soft, sticky cold surface that continued to slip through his fingers. He tried instead to pull himself free, gripping the ground above his head with his fingers, feeling the grit and mud gathering under his nails as he clawed desperately at the ground, but it was becoming useless; he was getting nowhere.
By now there was another strange feeling in his legs, but this wasn’t on the outside, this felt like it was coming from within his legs, moving like a cold sharp knife through his veins. He tried again to kick the things off, but now found that his legs wouldn’t move at all, his brain had stopped controlling them, they were paralysed. In a desperate panic, Bob tried even harder to claw his way out, his fingernails snapping and chipping away on the stones in the mud.
Then began a new feeling; a feeling of intense pain. It felt like someone had poured acid onto the skin of his legs; they were burning and itching so much, all he wanted to do was scratch them. His hands then started to become numb, followed by his tongue which seemed to become as heavy as a lead weight, stopping his cries for help. After all of the chaos and torture, his body became still and calm, he could still hear and see, but he couldn’t move any part of his body, not even to blink. Bob could only look at the ground he was lying on whilst the things continued to swamp his body.
They then began to drag Bob into the water. He knew that as soon as his body went into the river and his lungs filled with water he would drown, but even that seemed a good alternative to the agonising burning feeling that now crawled over the flesh of his entire body. As Bob slid down the river-bank and into the water, his body rolled so that he was facing upwards. The last thing he saw was the starry sky and the depths of space beyond. The icy water lapped into his mouth and gurgled down into his lungs, before Bob lost consciousness.
The creatures moved quickly over his body, taking what they needed in a wild frenzy, like a lion picking the flesh from a zebra, until there was little left except his wrist-watch which floated heavily to rest on the gravel of the river-bed.
10. The Faerie Ring
Unfortunately for Joe, when he woke the following morning, his dad had already left for work again. As soon as he had eaten his breakfast, he wheeled his bike out of the hall, through the front door then cycled along the road in the direction of the church, but this time continued past it. Here the road became a lot narrower and Joe had to ride his bike more carefully to avoid falling into the pot-holes that were scattered across the road. It wound its way around farmland edged with high stone walls on both sides. The grey square stones made the walls look fragile as if they could fall down with one small push, especially those that climbed the hill out of town. At the top of the hill he got off his bike and stood for a minute to catch his breath whilst looking out over the patchwork of fields that continued far into the distance away from Parsley Bottom.
Whilst he was trying to get to sleep last night, he thought about the symbol he had seen next to the statue and thought that it could indicate the ancient stone circle that stood on the hill overlooking Parsley Bottom. He had decided to go and have a look, but he didn’t really know what he was looking for. Any indication that Peter had been there would give Joe more information to pass to his dad.
Joe stopped by the side of a
With the bike at his side he walked along the well worn path up the gentle slope towards the stone circle. There was no one else in sight and all Joe could hear was the odd call of a bird carried on the gentle breeze blowing up the hill.
After a while, the heather gave way to a small clearing. The ground here was yellow caused by the dryness of the shallow covering of grass on top of the underlying sandstone. What made this place different to most were the twelve large upright stones that were standing equally spaced and arranged in a circle around two central stones.
This was what Joe thought could have been the shape scratched in the church wall; The Faerie Ring, Parsley Bottom’s smaller version of Stonehenge. But why would Peter draw this? Did he leave the church and come here? If so he didn’t appear to be here anymore.
Joe put his bike on the ground and walked up to the first of the stones, all of which were about twice the height of him. The surface of the stones was made up of a mixture of greys and browns and had been worn smooth over the years by the constant wind and rain that blew across the Yorkshire countryside. Tufts of moss poked out from the cracks in the stone where rain-water had collected. The stones seemed to stick out of the ground at awkward angles and all of them appeared to have something carved on their outer pointing face.
Joe stepped up to the stone nearest the footpath and looked at the unusual writing that was scratched on the surface.
It didn’t mean anything to him so he walked across the centre of the circle towards another stone on the other side. This one looked a lot redder in colour and had a narrower base compared to the width at the top. Again he looked up at the writing.
The Moon Stealers and the Quest for the Silver Bough (Book 1) by Tim Flanagan / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction have rating 2.2 out of 5 / Based on35 votes