My brother, Edward, has been making music for almost as long as I can remember. As you may recall, dear reader, I have been a staunch supporter of his many adventures in music, and this latest venture is no different. G’Wan, give it a listen – I promise you will not regret it 🙂
“Life is in essence a series of decision points tied together with experiences; the trick is to make no decisions that radically diminish your sense of self-worth or compromise the core beliefs that you hold.”
C. Oliver Godby – 28th May 2015, Makati City, The Philippines
Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since I FINALLY got around to blogging about the experience of moving to the Philippines and so I figured it was time to add to the canon…
After five weeks in our AirBnB Condo on H.V. Dela Costa Street we spent Saturday-gone moving into our freshly found, permanent address, which is / was handily just across the street. I have always been intrigued by living in a high-rise and while I am not going to claim retroactively that this weekend’s transition has somehow fulfilled a lifelong goal or anything so grand, I have to admit that there is a certain wonder and excitement attached to our new environs that I was not expecting. For one thing, we can see the Ocean from our living room!
Work continues to be an exciting mixture of strategy and problem-solving with a large side-order of never-ending recruitment, and a smaller one of little bits of coding. Before you ask I most certainly am enjoying it. The rush of being involved in a growing and increasingly successful start-up is a drug I’ve been exposed to before, and it is no less potent this time around, but so far I am managing to make time to smell the roses as well, where I can.
I am starting to hatch a plan to take Lee-Anne and the kids to the beach in a couple of weeks time, preferably for a long weekend, and we are already talking in looser terms about exploring some of the more far-flung parts of the archipelago, with particular reference to Palawan and her white sand beaches and relative lack of people in general. I have heard people talking about Hundred Islands in the North and Mindanao in the South and it does appear that we might well be in a position to fill our free time quite admirably without ever repeating ourselves or actually leaving the country for some time to come, though the prospect of places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, not to mention the Thai beaches and even Japan being so much closer than they have ever been before is all very tempting as well. Once our Philippines visas are through – they are being processed at the moment, and that may take “some time”(tm) – I suspect we will gad about the South China Sea quite a bit, given half a chance…
For now I need to get back to the recruitment grindstone – finding software engineers locally is a bit of a relentless process, at least finding good ones is, even more so than back in London, and even reaching out to networks back home bears the difficulty of persuading anyone that moving to the other side of the World makes for solid decision making. From what I have seen so far I am not only certain I made the right decision in bringing our family out here and taking this job, but I am already much more excited about the future than I thought I could be. I just hope that I can get some other quality people enthused about the road ahead, as growth is happening and I am going to need to feed that growth with more output and better output, one way or another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain that we’ll find people given a bit of time and a bit of luck, but there is no doubt that it’s the biggest challenge I have on my plate for the next couple of months.
So, finally, after two and a half weeks of being here – a BLOG POST!
We arrived in the Philippines after a remarkably easy journey… Seriously both Lee-Anne and I were experiencing a considerable amount of anxiety over how the kids would fare with two eight hour flights back to back, but they were fantastic little troopers. There was one flash-point – what shall forever more be known as “The Abu Dhabi Incident” – but to focus on that would be to completely ignore how wonderfully behaved they were compared to our least terrifying nightmares.
Stepping off the plane, we could tell it was hot, but the corridor we walked into was air conditioned. It was leaving the Baggage Reclaim when we realised that it was in fact HOT. By the time I had turned some dollars into Philippines Pesos (forever more to be known as PHP, which will amuse a tiny fraction of this blog’s readership), walked twenty feet to the man running the official airport taxis and arranged our fare and I was praying that the taxi would have air conditioning.
It did, of course, everything is air conditioned here, even the lifts – or perhaps that should be especially the lifts? We found our AirBnB place – taxi drivers here do know their way around, but it’s not the same as “The Knowledge” in London, it’s more like a Private Hire cabbie in Basingstoke, you know? The place is small, but we expected that and had planned and packed accordingly. I can honestly say after two and a half weeks in the place that we love it; we’ve even toyed with staying in it longer, but I pointed out that as the kids get even a few months older we are going to need a little bit more space to enable us to escape, and to allow them to run about (more).
The first day I was hideously over-confident about the jet-lag. I was soon back in my place, having fallen asleep on the couch before 2100h (local), and thus began the horrific process of trying to recover from jet-lag while one’s own children are failing to recover from jet-lag. I tried to take the advice; swim (no really it helps), eat when you need to, stay up later than you think you should but not too late. I tried, I really did, but the day before my first day at work I woke up at 1400h; not “I stayed in bed until 1400h desperately trying to get some more sleep unable to get up”, I WOKE UP at 1400h.
During that re-adjustment period I did a little exploring, found the nearest thing to what I recognised as a supermarket, and as a family we went to farmers’ market on the park a block away from our condo. The rest of the time was spent sleeping, doing prep-work for my new job, playing Minecraft – I have dragged Lee-Anne over to the dark side and got her on my server, Mwahahahahaha – sleeping and watching BBC World News, oh yeah and swimming as much as possible.
Yeah, I know, “cry me a river” – there is a pool outside your patio, dude! Even so, I was very worried that my first day at work would be a season in Hell. So, I tried to go to bed at a reasonable hour – around 2300h – and I got up with plenty of time to have a swim (cold but genuinely worth the effort), and found my way to the office on the first try. Of course I was the first Westerner there, but that’s ok. I’m not suggesting that my Western colleagues are tardy, they most certainly are not, but they arrive at around 0900h and on my first day I was there by 0820h. A lot of the Filipino members of the team arrive at the office between 0630h and 0730h in order to beat the morning traffic in and to leave early to beat the afternoon traffic on their way home, whereas most of the Westerners are living so close to the office that none of us are driving here, so traffic is not an issue (more on driving in Makati and wider Metro Manila in another post).
Day one was a series of meetings and chats with various people and was over before I knew it. I wandered home, happy and tired, via the “supermarket” and then proceeded to collapse into a heap on the sofa – Lee-Anne was not best pleased. Of course, that was not the whole story, I perked up at around 2300h and then could not get back to sleep…
I am mostly back on a sane sleep / wake schedule now, and the kids are almost there too, but that first week was HARD and the pool + coffee, and the support and encouragement of my awesome wife are the only things that got me through it.
Work is, as I expected, a lot of plate-spinning, a lot of cans of worms to be opened and dealt with, decisions made etc. and I am loving it. It feels as though I am exactly where I need to be professionally, and the people I am working with are all pulling in the same direction, which is something I came to take for granted at the BBC, but am now quite sure that I would be unable to handle the absence of such shared purpose in this new environment.
The next couple of weeks are going to be very busy and very stressful – I don’t imagine that I am going to be able to blog about them because of time constraints – but in a month or so I think that I will be fully in control of the technical side of things, and I hope to be able to get us into a good groove in terms of adopting some good practices and improving on our approach to Agile working. There is a great foundation to work with, but we definitely need some fine-tuning and so that’s what I am going to be doing.
So, in the meantime, please be assured that there is more to come and I leave you with this thought;
"There is no greater stroke of genius, nor is there any greater enterprise of evil than to make it possible to have Burger King delivered to your door up until 2100h at night, that is until you realise that McDonalds deliver 24 hours a day here. Stay Classy, Makati!"
I hope that you are all surviving the extreme weather about which BBC World News has been almost gleeful in the telling, and that this despatch from the Orient finds you all in good health and good spirits. We do miss Blighty from time to time, and many of you far more and more often than the place herself, but it would be dishonest to say that we are doing anything but enjoying the new experiences and the new way of life that this adventure has brought thus far.
More to follow.
Richard looked around the room at the men on front of him. He knew all of them by name and reputation, but he had never before laid eyes upon any of them apart from his commanding officer, Colonel Chambers, the man who had been speaking and was now staring at him intently, clearly awaiting some kind of response.
“Colonel, I am in absolutely no doubt that I made at least two fatal strikes on the subject and that my third strike was also a grievous wound at the very least. The first was a clean penetration of the throat, bisecting the entire vascular bundle, trachea, oesophagus, carotid artery and jugular vein. That wound alone should have killed the subject in forty to ninety seconds at the absolute outside. The second wound was, at least as far as I could tell, an on-target strike to the heart and the blade easily penetrated that organ based on the power and angle of attack. The third strike was to the abdomen, a deep, downward thrust designed to perforate the small intestine. I would have been striking for the liver, but the target made a sudden move despite his injuries that left me no clear angle. The entire attack lasted a little over two seconds and the subject fell immediately to the ground. I observed his inability to speak, due to the severed trachea, and an amount of bleeding in the following ten seconds that led me to be convinced that the subject would shortly be dead. I was about to deal with the witness when I was surprised by other civilians on the street and so I elected to flee, reasonably convinced that I could not be identified, but that I was unlikely to be able to make my escape if I did not move before the bystanders reached me. My last look at the subject confirmed my previous conclusions, the subject was unconscious and lying in a pool of blood consistent with the loss of two to three pints of blood in what amounted to around twenty seconds. As far as I was concerned he was a corpse.”
The various other men at the table were nodding and making notes; there was a low hum of comments made to one another at a volume designed to ensure that Richard could not hear what they were saying. The Colonel spoke once more;
“Major Redus, your account is compelling and consistent, to the point that it feels like the truth rather than a crafted account. I think that we can assume that there is more than meets the eye with Mr. Foster and while this may mean that we cancel or perhaps merely postpone the action that you were tasked with it does not mean that you are finished with it. I realise that your main area of operations is in wet work, but I assume that you are up to date on surveillance, legend and data gathering as well?”
“Yes Colonel, in fact my previous assignment was all dry work.”
“Very well, in that case I want you to pick up the trail wherever you can and start unravelling Mr. Caine Foster until we know who and what we are dealing with. I am afraid that central surveillance has been unable to keep up with the subject because he rented a car, presumably assuming that we would have lo-jacked his personal vehicle, and unfortunately he has used a rental firm that we have not, as yet, compromised. As such he might be anywhere. We do know where the girl, Andrea Richardson, has gone. She has been using public transport and her credit card, so either she and Foster have assumed that she is not a target or she is bait. I suggest that you report to Lieutenant Colonel Braythorne in Surveillance for a full briefing on our current level of coverage on Richardson and Foster and then see if you can’t get into her life. We know that she has a return flight to the US in seven days from now, so you don’t have long. Still if you can earn her trust you may be able to gain access to her phone and thereby email etc. and with any luck get some clues from Foster about his location, assuming that they are still in contact. Of course if she’s bait, well…”
The Colonel tailed off and cracked a rather wicked smile that Richard mirrored back to him, after all the unspoken thought was clear and while he was clear on his duty he was also clear that it needed to appear that he took pleasure in it. He did not take pleasure in killing, but despite the fact that the Praetorians were supposed to be the sin eaters of all the Soldiers of Christ, and as such should revel in their bloody ways, so as to draw all of the sin onto themselves he found it hard to glory in something that he simply saw as necessary.
“Anyway, if there is nothing further, you should be on your way Major, much to do!”
Richard was almost out of his chair when one of the other men around the table spoke;
“Major, may I offer you one word of warning?”
The voice was coming from Brigadier General Lawrence Cummings, perhaps the most famous Praetorian of all time, and something of a hero to Richard. He snapped to attention and replied,
“Yes, Sir, I would be honoured.”
The grizzled old man leaned into the light and fixed Richard with a stern look, cleared his throat and then prodding the table with his index finger in the cadence of his delivery;
“Next time you are bothered about being caught, try to remember that you can always kill yourself in custody, so finish the job at hand and embrace the fate that God has in store for you.”
As the words slammed into him, making him experience them as the verbal beating that he had no doubt they were intended to be, he felt a chill advancing down his spine, as if an icy, dead hand were lightly brushing down his back and it took every ounce of self-control to keep his eyes on the General and not turn and flee. He managed to stammer out,
“Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir.”
before the General burst into fits of laughter and waved him away. Colonel Chambers put his hand discretely on Richard’s forearm and said quietly;
“Off you go, I will see you before you leave, come to my office after Braythorne has brought you up to speed and you’ve drawn your kit for the op.”
Richard nodded, saluted the committee and left the room.
“Bloody Hell St. John, did you really need to do that to the poor boy?”
The voice was coming from the corner of the room, from a high-backed chair that was facing away from the table and as such the occupant had been hidden from Major Richard Redus. The chair moved slightly and a tall, thin man of indeterminate middle-age stepped out of the shadows and walked towards the committee table.
“I’m sorry, Hugh, I did not realise that we were molly coddling the Praetorians these days? Besides, I think that he took it rather well!”
At this they all fell into laughter once more, an easy, genuine laughter between comrades and equals that went on for quite some time. Eventually Hugh, General Hugh Petherbridge, head of the military wing of The Soldiers of Christ outside the United States, brought them all to order and sat down at the table;
“The real question here, gentlemen, is what are we dealing with in the shape of Caine Foster?”
The air was cold on Nicholas’s face when he stepped down out of the van. He loved to be out in the countryside at night; he particularly liked being out at the fishing lake. His father had bought the plot when he was a boy, and all of his good memories of his father were being there with him, building the cabin, learning how to fish, taking his first drink. His mother had not wanted Nicholas to go out there with him, but once the divorce had become final and his father was granted weekend custody there was little that she could do to stop it. All he had needed to do was report back that they had stayed in and watched videos at his father’s flat and she was none the wiser. The moon was high, and as he looked out over the water his eyes adjusted to the moonlight. A big full moon like that one was almost as good as daylight once his eyes had adjusted. He could see clear across the water to the other cabins, none of them had any lights on, but then even if there had been anyone else around they were not likely to be awake at three in the morning. The quiet was loud to him, not in an oppressive way, not in a way that was uncomfortable to him. Far from it he welcomed it, he felt as though it was wrapped around him like a blanket, protecting him from harm. Out there by the lake, in the cold and dark before the dawn he was closer to God than he was at any other time. He could feel his presence, like a steadying hand upon his shoulder, calming his soul and reassuring him that he was there by Nicholas’s side. The boat was in good shape. Even though he had not been up for a few weeks the cover had kept the rain off, so there was no need to bale out before loading Mrs Foster’s body in. It was easy to get her out of the van and into the boat, but that was mostly because there was no one here to worry about, he did not need to hide the fact the he was moving a body, but then that was why he brought them here, that and the feeling that he was bringing them to be with God.
It only took a few minutes to row out to the spot where he had given each of them to the lake for safe keeping. The sense of peace and wellbeing he felt only increased the closer he got to the place where his angels were waiting for him beneath the water. It was deep out in the middle, deep enough that no one could see them, but he knew that they were there, standing in the depths waiting for him to come and see them. When he got to the place, he could tell by the sight lines he had on one of the cabins and two distinctive trees, he eased the weighted end of the bag over the side of the boat, slipping her plastic encased body into the water feet first. He watched her disappear into the inky depths and then he sat down in the middle of the boat and prayed that God would take her soul, that he had made shiny and new and spirit her up to Heaven to be with his other angels.
“I don’t expect you to to take it all in right away. I have to be honest, the only reason that I am telling you is that you saw me survive an attack that I should in no way have survived and I felt that I was left with no options other than tell you or disappear. If I trusted you any less I would have put my plans for leaving Caine Foster behind into motion ahead of schedule and disappeared, but I do trust you, not that I can explain precisely why, so here I am doing something that I almost never do, telling someone my truth.”
“Well, I appreciate the trust, Caine, I just hope that I can live up to it. So what’s the plan, I mean you must have some idea who attacked you and why. Does it have anything to do with your, er, status?”
“I’ve been thinking about it, and I did rather expect you to ask that. There are other people like me, I know because I have met some of them, and they in turn told me of others, but there is no great contest going on where we secretly fight one another with swords and try to decapitate each other. That really is just the movies, well and TV too, but frankly they never should have done that TV series. I digress. My point is that I don’t think my ‘status’, as you put it, has anything to do with the attack. In fact I think that it may have been as mundane and pathetic as my having upset a group of religious nutcases with my last book. I don’t know if you read it, but the main character was a vocal and rather disrespectful atheist?”
“Of course I read it, everyone did after all the attention that Transom got. The first genre novel ever to make it onto the Booker shortlist and then It didn’t win! Everyone wanted to see what you would do next. Of course now I know that you didn’t do it next, but at the time we were all eager to read the next Caine Foster novel. I remember the character, Guy Forrester, right? He was a bit of a prick about the religion thing, but I don’t remember him being particularly extreme.”
“Well, I didn’t think that he was either, but about a week after “Ride the Moon” came out I started getting death threats, through my agent not directly at first anyway. They were all from a group calling themselves The Soldiers of Christ, and basically they were repeated admonishments over my Godless ways and notifications of my imminent demise at the hands of their faithful warriors. We told the Police, but none of us took any of it very seriously. For one thing no one had heard of the group and even if they had, there were strong indications from the threats that they were in the US and seeing as I was not it became even less likely that I was going to worry about these people. Of course when Bradshaw was caught and the Police got that confession out of him it did cross my mind that maybe he had targeted Fran as a punishment for “Ride the Moon”, after all his spouting about God and cleansing the souls of his victims and all of that was enough to make me wonder. It turned out he had the reading age of a nine year old and the Police found no indication that he had ever read one of my books, so I stopped worrying about that connection as well. Anyway, the threats stopped coming after about six months and I thought no more of it until last night in the hospital. The person that attacked us, and I am assuming that they were male but I can’t be sure, was not a petty criminal, they knew how to use that knife and they were not interested in robbing us. The only thing that person was trying to do was kill me, and perhaps you too Andrea, and so I started to wonder about the threats again. I began to wonder if they had simply been biding their time, or worse still if they were not very clever and it had taken them this long to find me, but either way it seems that someone is serious enough about doing me harm that they are prepared to get someone capable involved.”
“What do you mean capable?”
“Whoever that was, they knew how to fight, properly. That was an assassin, plain and simple. What I don’t know yet is whether or not they were simply a hired gun, so to speak, or if they were actually invested in the attempt beyond a paycheque. If they were, then I expect that I am still in danger, and my concern is that I am unlikely to get the local Police to take it all that seriously and then there is the issue that if you are around me then you are probably either a target as well by this point, or at least at risk of being considered an acceptable collateral loss. I think that we might as well assume that getting out of town and lying low somewhere might be a good idea. If the assassin is motivated to try again I would rather make it hard for them to find me, find us.”
“Where do you want to go? More to the point if it’s going to be safer maybe we should go to different places and meet up in a few days or weeks? I’ve found you now and we’ve definitely gotten past the hard part of the whole ‘hi I’m your dead wife’s half-sister that you never met’ conversation, so perhaps we should be as cautious as we can be. I have a flight back to the States in eight days time anyway…”
It occurred to me for the first time that Andrea probably had a job to go back to, a life, her own future. Sure she had traveled to the UK to find out about her sister, but she had not been planning on staying; she had probably not been planning on meeting an immortal and having her entire understanding of the world stood on its head. I had formulated this entire thought about her and I hitting the road together to lay low, when in reality she was going to have to leave me and my world and go back to her own. It certainly changed my outlook on the whole idea of laying low, and now I was starting to think about other alternatives, choices which I could not make with Andrea in tow.
“Well, Andrea, I’ve been thinking about taking a trip to the States for a while, and there are a few people I might try to see here before I do, so I guess it would make sense for us to take separate roads for a while and then meet up again in a couple of weeks. I had not really considered that you would need to go home at some point, Hell I haven’t even asked you where home is.”
She chuckled, not at my oversight, but more at the absurdity of the situation, I believe.
“Caine, it never occurred to me, but there’s a lot of things that by now a normal friendship would have covered long ago. I live in Maine, I work at a small municipal airport in a place called Greenville, as an administrator. I’m planning to go back there, in fact I’ll fly all the way home thanks to the discounts and so forth that I can get as an insider. If you want to come and find me there in a few days, even a couple of weeks then that would be great, but I don’t want you to think that I expect you to come. I mean it’s in the middle of nowhere, in the heart of rural Maine, so if it was not on your list of places to visit then I would understand.”
“Andrea, I would love to see where you live. I guess that I will be in touch before I get too close, see if you can’t help me out with flying in as well. I mean, I like to drive, but the idea of flying in is oddly exciting.”
We swapped cellphone numbers and email addresses and made plans to leave the next morning, then Andrea turned in for the night. I sat up for a while, nursing a large dram of single malt and trying to decide whether I would head to Scotland or Berlin the next morning after I’d dropped Andrea at the train. I wondered if the reason I could not sleep was that I was starting to fear that the assassin would be back, but I knew in my heart that it was nothing to do with that. If he came I would be as ready as I could be and that would either save me or end me. No the real issue was that I had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this was the beginning of something that was going to end up being bigger than me, bigger than I imagined, and I was not looking forward to that.
“You were not successful, you do realise that don’t you?”
“We have confirmation that Caine Foster is still alive, despite your claim that you had dealt him a series of fatal wounds. The question that we need to answer is whether or not you were mistaken, because if you were not then something much more interesting is going on here.”
Apologies for not posting until today (day 9), but we had guests over yesterday and then I just forgot… I didn’t manage the daily target, but seeing as I am ahead… Today I hope to make up the deficit regardless.
In my long life I have only revealed my secret to a handful of people, and generally this stage of the proceedings comes with a great deal of disbelief followed by a progression of fear, then anger and then finally a mixture of wonder and sadness, but I had never been in this position before, of having to clarify what someone had actually witnessed. If it sounds a little far fetched that I had never had to take someone aside and explain after they saw something I would rather they had not, then I would have to agree with you, but a mixture of extreme caution, an amount of cunning and a lot of luck had brought me this far nonetheless. If you are wondering why I trusted Andrea with my secret so easily, so soon after meeting her, well at the time I did not believe that I had any other choice. Based on what she had seen I did not believe I was going to be able to explain things away, and anyway she was family. Fran had known my truth, why not share it with her sister?
“I had a normal childhood and early life, normal at least for an affluent child of Roman citizens. I learned to read and write, to perform what we now call mathematics, I learned about the law, the political structures of the Republic and the Empire, our history and beyond all of that I learned to be a soldier. At the age of seventeen I became what we would now see as a junior officer in the Roman army, and I started to live the life of a career soldier. I was a reasonable leader and tactician and I became better, learning in the service of great men. Eventually, by the time I was nearly forty years old and with many campaigns behind me I had risen to the level of being a general, a leader of several legions of Roman soldiers. I was a powerful man and while that definitely had its positives, it also brought with it the politics and the enemies that all people who wield power must deal with. It was on the eve of my fortieth birthday that the assassin broke into my family villa and slew my two sisters, their husbands and all of their children and attempted to kill me. He was a skilled warrior and he caught me unprepared, unprotected and armed only with a wooden club that I had taken from a Germanic tribesman, that was mounted on the wall over my bed. I hurt him, it is fair to say, before he plunged the gladius he brought with him into my stomach. I do not know which of us was the more surprised when I simply grabbed his hand, the one on the hilt, and pulled him closer, pushing the sword deeper into my gut and out through my back, so that I could head butt him. His eyes filled with tears, his nose streamed with blood, and as he reflexively stumbled backwards, releasing the sword that was now lodged firmly in my body, I caved in his skull with the club and then fell to my knees. I was sure that my life was at an end, and that the end would come in the form of hours of pain and suffering as with most grave gut wounds before the invention of surgery and antibiotics. I supposed that if I could bring myself to pull out the blade my wound would bleed freely and at least I would be released from that mortal coil as painlessly as possible. I gritted my teeth, grasped the blade just in front of the hilt with both hands and pulled. If you have not been stabbed it is hard to describe the feeling, the strange mixture of sliding and dragging as the blade is pulled back out through the wound, but hard as it may be to describe it is neither pleasant nor easy to forget, and even now my memory of that moment sends a chill through me. I dropped the gladius on the floor and sank down next to it, welcoming death as an inescapable final journey. You may imagine that I was very surprised to be awoken by one of my retainers at around dawn. He had risen early, as was his habit, and begun to make preparations for breakfast, putting the kitchen slaves to work and rousing the cook from his slumber. He was walking across the portico when he discovered the body of my elder sister Aurelia. Her body was posed in a rather sordid manner, a spear protruding from her chest, facing the main doors of the villa. Presumably the assassin, whose identity I never learned, had been given specific instructions on how to engineer as much shock as possible with his handiwork. After laying her body down and covering her with his own toga my, I suppose the current term would be butler, ran to my chamber to check on me and found me asleep next to the body of our assailant, a strange man that he had never seen before. As I said, I was surprised to be alive, even more surprised to find that there was no evidence of my being hurt, my wound having completely healed, and on reflection I was lucky that he was shaken enough to believe that I had caught myself with the kosh, after dealing with the assassin, knocking myself out.”
Andrea laughed quietly at this and I was relieved that despite the seriousness of what I was telling her she was able to see the funny side of anything at all.
“Anyway, from that day I have not aged one single day nor have I been laid low even for a moment by any illness, and despite suffering many potentially fatal hurts over the years I have always recovered and healed in the way that you saw the night before last. Clearly I have had to learn how to hide my condition from others, if only to be able to do anything remotely normal with this immense tract of time I have available to me.”
“You know Caine, that’s an amazing story, but I can see why you wouldn’t want everyone to know, as they would be on you all the time to reveal how you became like this. I mean it’s the ultimate dream of humanity, right? Death is the great leveller, it comes to us all. Just imagine what people would pay for your blood.”
I threw her a look;
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to be bleeding you while you sleep or anything, I was just thinking out loud. I mean there is a part of me that has to believe you because I’ve seen you not die when you should have done, but I’ll be honest I am still reeling.”
Once we were both certain that enough time had elapsed for the two Police officers to actually be gone, we turned to each other, Andrea poised to speak as I gave her a look that while warm and kind, I hoped, conveyed in no uncertain terms that this was not the time and place for her questions. Thankfully she read my face correctly and we fell into easy conversation about how we never got that drink and where I would take her for dinner once I was liberated from my incarceration. A few hours later a different nurse came bustling through and amongst other things reminded Andrea politely but firmly that she would not be able to stay past the end of visiting hours. I gave her my house keys and some cash – after some investigation we had found my wallet, keys and phone in the bedside cabinet, as if they had been transferred there by some unseen valet – and encouraged her to head back to Cromer and make herself at home in my loft. We said our goodbyes and I was left alone to wonder if there was anything remotely predictable about my having been attacked, and if so who had I angered that much, or if indeed I had been the victim of a genuinely random act of violence.
It was cold in the dark, she could feel what she assumed was a metal floor under her legs where they protruded from under her skirt. It took a few more moments, but fear was the next thing that she experienced. As her awareness grew she realised that she was gagged and restrained, her hands tied behind her back and her ankles tied together, and she also knew that she was not where she was supposed to be. She reached back for her last memory; she was walking down the street, on the well-lit side, away from her mother’s house and towards Hampstead Tube, and then, nothing. She tried to calm herself, to control the urge to scream and thrash around; something in the back of her mind was telling her that it would do no good and that she would need her strength.
She closed her eyes, not that it made much difference as it was already completely dark, and started to use her senses more precisely in order to try and understand her situation. The metal floor was a good place to start, what sort of places had a metal floor? Was she in a shipping container, or on a boat of some kind, or in a tractor trailer? She was mulling over the options one by one when this first question was answered for her. She heard the sound of a car door being pulled open and then a couple of moments later the same door being slammed shut. Finally after a few more seconds she heard the van being started and then the engine idling and the metal floor that she was resting on began vibrating gently. She was in the back of a van. Suddenly light streamed into her field of view as what looked like an inspection hatch opened and she saw the outline of a face. Her sense of smell was suddenly assaulted by the pungent odour of a takeaway kebab and she was suddenly experiencing pangs of hunger. She waited, expecting the outline of a face to either become easier to see, or for whoever it was to speak to her, but as quickly and unexpectedly as the hatch had been opened, it snapped shut again. She felt the van pull away and they were on the road.
She tried to count, to have some idea of how long they had driven for, but it was too difficult to focus on the counting with all of the questions and fears roiling in her mind. She tried to listen out for any kind of audible cues that would give her some sense of where she was or where she was being taken, but again she found it hard to concentrate and equally hard to hear anything at all beyond the dull hum of the engine and the sound of the road under the tyres. By the time the van came to a complete stop and the engine was turned off she had lost all track of time and had given up all hope of knowing where she was.
She had expected to be removed from the back of the van pretty much immediately, but even after she was certain that the vehicle was parked somewhere time dragged on as she was left lying there alone. Her mind wandered. She wondered what time it was, whether or not Caine had realised that she was not going to be at home on time, or even that anything was wrong. She started to wonder what this person, who had clearly abducted her, wanted, but she backed away from that line of speculation pretty quickly and tried to focus on what she would do when she finally got home. She was thirsty and tired and increasingly she was aware that if much more time passed she was going to need to use the bathroom; she had not “been” before she left her mother’s place. Her mother! Caine would definitely have realised that she was not home and his first course of action would have been to call her mother to confirm that she had left as usual. Her mother was going to be descending into the madness of worry that can only be experienced by a parent. She felt guilty that her husband and mother would be suffering with the concern and worry of her absence, but that guilt was quickly replaced with anger against her abducter and sadness of her own that she was not with Caine.
It was at this point that the fear crept back in. She started to be unable to prevent her mind from wandering down terrifying avenues of possibility as she started to imagine the horror that might await her. Every woman has their own personal, private fear about being at the mercy of a man who wishes to hurt them and take advantage of them and now all of the horrifying scenarios that she had banished to the darker recesses of her mind were rushing to the surface and spilling over into her thoughts, like a saucepan boiling over. As she wrestled with her own mind, trying to put certain things from her mind and recover control, she realised that she had involuntarily adopted a foetal position despite the discomfort of having her hands tied behind her. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes and trickling down her face completely unbidden and uncontrollable and as the weight of all that fear and anticipation broke her she started to convulse with muffled sobs, which had the gag been removed would have been loud and plaintive, like the keening of the bereaved.
She did not know how long she had been crying there, in the dark when the side door of the van was opened and once more light streamed into the van and over her face.
“Hello Mrs. Foster. I see you are under no illusions about what is happening to you. That’s good, it is far harder to deal with women who have not accepted that I am in control and that I control their destiny.”
His voice was like treacle, soft and rich and dark, but there was an unmistakeable edge of menace that set her off into another fit of sobs and her body shook, inflicting new and terrible pain on her wrists as the cable-tie cuffs started to bite and actually cut into her flesh as her body was contorted by the hand of fear. She could feel the blood dripping down over her fingers and she started to feel sick.
He reached into the van and towards her body; every fibre of her being was screaming inside her head to resist, to kick or head butt him as soon as he came close, but already the fight was gone out of her. Her body went limp, quite against her will and he easily dragged her towards him and then lifted her onto his shoulder. Her vision swam and she passed out.
When she came to she was no longer gagged, but she was duct-taped to a bentwood chair, wearing only her underwear in a cold and dimly lit space that looked like a workshop. There was small table about five feet directly in front of her with a computer monitor standing on it, the picture was a freeze frame of another woman taped to the very same chair in nothing but her underwear. Off to her right there was a tripod atop which, staring at her with its unblinking cyclopean eye, was a camcorder. She could hear the man moving around behind her, but she could not crane her neck far enough around to see what he was doing.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Foster, you will see what I am doing soon enough, please don’t put yourself to any further discomfort by trying to turn around in the chair. I promise you that I have made certain that you are quite secure. Why don’t you watch a film I made a couple of weeks ago while you wait.”
With that the screen in front of her burst into life, the image breaking from its frozen state and the film ran. A frightened looking woman in her mid to late thirties with a healthy figure and long wavy red hair was tied to chair. She was looking around in dismay and Fran could hear the sounds of someone moving around out of shot. The woman was frantically trying to move her arms which her secured like her own with duct-tape, and trying to crane her neck around to see the person making the noises off camera.
Fran was surprised by the sound; for some reason she had not expected dialogue.
“Please! Please, just let me go? I won’t tell, I promise, just please let me go?”
The woman was breathless and, like Fran, had obviously been crying.
“PLEASE! Look, please don’t hurt me. I have kids, you know? Two little boys and they are going to be so scared, they won’t know where their mummy is… PLEASE!”
Fran wanted to turn away, wanted to close her eyes but she could not. She was watching her own fate unfold and despite the tide of fear that was riding once more within her she could not look away.
A man entered the frame from the shadows, behind the woman on the chair. In what looked to be a deliberate choice his head was cropped out of the frame, but the rest of his body was visible in all its naked horror. Flabby and pale, and sporting a hard but unimpressive erection he sidled up behind the woman and placed his left hand on her right shoulder. Then the voice that Fran had heard before, soft and almost sweet yet dark and intangibly unpleasant;
I awoke the next morning, tucked up in a very comfortable hospital bed, Andrea collapsed asleep in the large, high-backed chair next to my bed. I felt far better than I ought to, not that this gave me any real comfort as I knew I was going to have to either construct a sugar-spun creation of half-truth and deception or tell Andrea the truth and neither option filled me with glee. I was able to guess that I was in NNUH, for one thing the private room that I had been given was far nicer than anything at the Cromer hospital, but more than that it did seem as though I had experienced some emergency care for my stomach wound and Cromer hospital’s minor injury unit would not likely have been the ambulance crew’s first instinct when presented with the victim of an abdominal stabbing.
I pushed myself up in bed, enjoying the fact that I could feel my injury healing, while at the same time not being laid as low by it as a normal person would be. Overall it was a relief that the talisman I had been wearing for nearly sixty years actually worked as planned; it had allowed my body to heal the wounds which I would not be able to explain surviving and allowed the one that remained to be explanation of my unconsciousness and generally give a believable story to tell.
A few moments later a nurse bustled into the room sporting a gigantic smile and a disposable apron and latex gloves.
“Mr. Foster, you’re awake.”
I nodded gently, reflecting back her smile and trying very hard to have a mostly neutral demeanour with a dash of good humour.
“Let me get this out of the way, I’m not a fan. Too much sex and violence in your books for me, to be honest, but it’s nice to have someone a bit famous on the ward nonetheless. Anyway, lets have a look at yer dressin’ an’ that wound. I see yer friend is dead to the World.”
I looked over at Andrea and then back at the nurse
“I imagine that the whole experience has taken its toll on her. She’s the half-sister of my late wife and we had only just met for the first time.”
The nurse raised an eyebrow, but resisted the urge to say whatever it was that was knocking on the back of her teeth. Wound care was uncomplicated, the nurse clucking about how it would probably not even leave a scar and how lucky that Doctor Frederickson had been on duty in A&E, the best of all of the doctors when it came to suturing, apparently. She flicked me another smile as she tucked the sheets back in around me and then she was gone from the room as quickly as she had come. Andrea slept on.
It was the simultaneous arrival of the lunch cart, a pair of Police officers and the Registrar that finally roused her. I had been daydreaming, looking out of the window and watching the wind play with the branches of the trees that were set back a few metres from the building, and so the commotion as these three competing emissaries arrived at my door was a jolt back to the there and then. Initially there was an amount of jockeying for position, but it was clear that the lunch cart was actually going to win, and then that the Police would have to wait until after I had been seen by the Doctor. The chap running the lunch cart did not ask me what I wanted beyond the terse question of “Vegetarian?”, which I politely declined, and so a little order was restored once my tray was on the side table and the Doctor had been able to close the door and actually start talking. Roughly speaking in his early thirties, tired and stressed looking but very much alert nonetheless, he was every inch an NHS registrar, even down to the visible outline of a cigarette packet in the left-hand pocket of his trousers.
“Good morning, Mr. Foster, I am Doctor Reese, I’ll be looking after you until you are discharged. How are you feeling?”
He made very deliberate eye contact as he finished his question and seeing no need to evade his gaze I returned the focus before answering;
“Well, to be honest Doctor I don’t have much of a field of reference for comparison, but considering I was stabbed I feel pretty good.”
He chuckled at that, and picked up the chart at the end of the bed, quickly glancing at portions of if before looking back at me.
“Well I am glad that you’ve not lost your sense of humour, Mr. Foster, and there’s really nothing to be concerned about on here, but you should know that it was nearly a very different story. A couple of inches to the left and a lower angle of attack and you’d have been looking at a ruptured bowel at least, which is not pleasant let me tell you. Still, there’s no need to dwell on might-have-beens. We’ll want to keep you in for the rest of today and overnight, just to be sure that there is no infection and that your wound is healing properly, but with any luck we’ll have you out of here before lunchtime tomorrow. Do you have any questions for me?”
I shook my head, thanked him, and he headed out of the door, effectively tagging the Police officers to come on in. Andrea stirred with the opening and closing of the door and was straightening herself in the chair and brushing her hair out of her face when one of the two Police officers poked his head around the door to ask if he could come in. I waved him in and he disappeared for a split second and then was back with his partner in tow.
The younger, presumably more junior, officer was a little starry eyed as he followed his counterpart into the room, but I could not tell whether he was simply very green or if he knew who I was. The more senior officer cleared his throat and began to speak;
“Mr. Foster, thank you for agreeing to speak with us so soon after your ordeal. I am Constable Trent and this is my associate Constable Regus.”
He flashed a look at Andrea, who was now almost completely awake and composed;
“Good morning, madam”, looking back at me “Are you comfortable for us to ask you some questions with Ms. Richardson present, or would you prefer that my colleague escort her outside while you and I speak?”
Richardson? It dawned on me that Andrea had not told me her surname, but that Constable Trent was referring to her.
“Oh that’s fine Constable, I would rather Ms. Richardson stay unless she wishes to leave, to be honest with you.”
I nodded at Andrea and she nodded right back.
“Very well then, Sir. I need to ask you a few questions about the events of last night, is that ok?”
“You and Ms. Richardson had met for the first time at the Goblin Coffee House in Cromer, yesterday afternoon, is that right?”
“Well, yes, except that it’s The Goblin King’s Coffee Company, but yes we met there yesterday afternoon for the first time.”
“Goblin King’s Coffee Company”, Constable Trent repeated it out loud as he corrected his notes, ”And having made one another’s acquaintance and Ms. Richardson revealing her relationship to your late wife, you went on to offer her hospitality and you both returned to your home on Firkin Street to talk and share a takeaway meal of the Chinese persuasion?”
“Yes, that’s quite correct, Constable.”
“Excellent, so after dining and an extended period of conversation you decided between the two of you to pop out to the Red Lion for a drink before closing time, I have from Ms. Richardson that this was her suggestion but that you were not in need of convincing?”
“Yes, that’s quite right. We had been discussing the events surrounding my wife’s death and the idea of being around people and noise and merriment and so forth was appealing as a contrast. I thought that it was an excellent idea.”
Constable Trent nodded, making more notes. I noticed that Constable Regus was eye-balling Andrea quite intently throughout and wondered if he had been briefed by Trent to try and ascertain if there was any reaction from her at any point that might suggest any kind of disparity between her version of events, which they had presumably received last night while I was still out, and mine.
“So you were walking to the Red Lion, down Wheeler Street at approximately twenty-two hundred hours when an unknown assailant appeared from Spinner’s Yard and immediately attacked you, with a knife?”
“Is that the name of the alley, I had no idea.”
“Er, yes, Sir. The alley about ninety feet from the Red Lion on Wheeler Street is indeed called Spinner’s Yard.”
“Right, well yes, in that case you have described events precisely to my recollection.”
Constable Trent nodded and scribbled in his notebook.
“I apologise, Sir, this may be a difficult question, but do you recall how many times you were stabbed?”
I made a conscious effort not to look at Andrea before I answered, there was definitely an agenda in this line of questioning and I needed to start confounding that, or this was very quickly going to become much more complicated than I wanted it to.
“I have to be honest, Constable, I don’t really remember anything to do with the attack with any real clarity, but I can only assume that I was stabbed once as I appear to have only one stab wound.”
Trent flashed a look at Regus and at Andrea, then turned his attention back to me and his notebook and made a note.
“I completely understand, Sir, and do you have any other recollection at all before you came to here?”
I paused, hoping to give the impression of consideration and an attempt to recall events;
“I have a dim recollection of falling to the ground, and of reaching out towards Ms. Richardson, but they are flashes, nothing more. I am sorry, Constable.”
He nodded once again.
“Just one more thing, Mr. Foster, did you manage to see anything of your attacker’s face or did anything specific catch your eye at all? Really almost any detail might be crucial in assisting us in identifying the assailant.”
Bradshaw’s green van popped up in my mind’s eye, that tiny little detail that had been the key to finding him, and I wanted to smile with the satisfaction of the memory, but I realised that a smile would not work well in the current situation, so I pushed it back down and tried to focus on the genuinely blurry memories that I did have of my attacker. I let my mind go back to the moment the knife first plunged into my chest, but all I could remember was the pain and a hooded head, face wrapped in shadow. The sickening, loosening feeling as the blade was pulled out and back away from me and my eyes were drawn to it rather than the person wielding it, and I watched as it flew back down towards me and then the pain once more as it punctured my neck and slid through my windpipe until the tip was actually poking out into the air on the other side. I pushed my mind to tighten the focus, to try and remember something as the knife was pulled back again before the final strike at my stomach; did I see the face? I reached for the memory, pushing through the noise of pain and fear and the metallic smell of blood but I could not quite rest on the moment. I let the recollection continue, the knife in my belly and out and the weakness that followed and my uncontrollable fall to the floor. I could see the fear on Andrea’s face. I could feel the attacker’s presence over me and I could feel their intent, that they were going to do to her what they had done to me, and then nothing, just darkness. I had wanted to be able to give Trent something, but there was nothing there to give.
“I’m sorry, Constable, but I am afraid it’s all just a blur.”
Trent nodded and put away his notebook.
“Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Foster, we will be in touch and I hope with news that we have a suspect, but I must be honest it’s not a given. Can we reach you at your Cromer address for the foreseeable future?”
I nodded, then added;
“And Ms. Richardson will be staying with me there for a few days at least as well.”
“Very good, Sir and thank you again.”
He flicked his head to Regus and they were on their way.