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Dead Souls Volume One (Parts 1 to 13)

Dead Souls Volume One

(Parts 1 to 13)

by Amy Cross

Copyright Amy Cross, All Rights Reserved

Published by ACBT Books

Omnibus first published: October 2014

This edition first published: February 2016

Originally published in serial form

between August and October 2014

 

http://amycrossbooks.wordpress.com

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. If you enjoy it and wish to share it with others, please consider buying them their own copy. Feedback is always welcome. The author reserves all rights in respect of this work.

Dead Souls Volume One

(Parts 1 to 13)

Part One

Prologue

 

He felt it immediately, even as he lay in the dark. The slowing of the boat, the shift in pitch of the engine as the vessel began to turn. He knew it could only mean one thing.

Thaxos.

Sitting up in the pitch black room, he took a deep breath, but the only smell that came to him was damp wood and spices, remnants of the boat’s long history and of its earlier life as a trading vessel. Despite his tiredness, his senses were bursting back to life, anticipating the island’s unique taste, so he forced himself to get off the bed and wander across the room until he reached the door. His body, which for so long had ached to come back here, was getting what it wanted, and it was almost too much for his mind to control. A thin sliver of light was showing through a crack in the wall, and he paused for a moment, preparing himself for the onslaught of the midday Mediterranean sun.

Outside, voices were shouting to one another.

Finally he opened the door, and although the sunlight was strong, it wasn’t enough to make him uncomfortable. Not yet, anyway. Shielding his eyes a little, he stepped out onto the deck, and that’s when his the sights, sounds and smells of this part of the world began to flood his senses.

Bleached stone, slowly whitening in the sun.

Honey-blossom from the forest.

Lemon trees.

None of it had changed, not in all the time he’d been away.

He took a step forward, transfixed by the sensation of being back, and then eventually he turned and watched as the port town of Thaxos came closer and closer. A faint, unexpected smile crossed his face as he saw the little town hugging the shore, and the forest that rose up to cover the island’s central hill, and finally the house at that top of that hill, waiting for its masters to return.

Nearby, one of the deckhands shouted something in Italian, and a moment later a reply came from another part of the boat.

Humans, he thought to himself. Such a noisy species.

Walking across the deck, he stopped at the railing and studied the island as it came closer. With every second that passed, the boat moved closer to the island and he was able to see more detail. Although the sun had faded their paint, the brightly-colored houses of the shoreline still welcomed all visitors, and the march of time had clearly brought precious few signs of modernity to a place that had tended to eschew the trappings of progress. It was, to all intents and purposes, the same unspoiled Thaxos that he had last seen so long ago.

And yet there was a hint of anger in his soul, threatening to blossom and take over completely. He had languished for so long in a malaise, constantly feeling in his gut the sensation that the world was not in order, but now finally he was close to the moment of which he had dreamed for so many years, and yet had been cruelly denied to him for so long.

Home. He was finally home.

I

 

“We’ll be docking at the main port on Thaxos in five minutes,” the captain announced over the ferry’s tinny intercom. “As you disembark, please ensure you have all your luggage with you.”

Looking up from her book, Kate saw the rugged island ahead. It was exactly how she’d imagined, a rocky outcrop rising up from the Mediterranean, with a cluster of villas around the harbor and a strip of forest running up toward the steep hill that marked the interior. On top of that hill, there was a large building, perhaps a castle or a mansion. Overall, it was like a picture postcard that had somehow sprung to life.

As the ferry began to slow, Kate noticed that she could see people walking through the streets now, and she realized that soon she’d be among them, experiencing their world. In fact, for the next week she’d have nothing to do except relax and soak up some sun. She’d specifically left all her work at home, and she hadn’t even brought her laptop. Her phone would get no signal out here, and all her busy work at the gallery in London would just have to wait.

For a brief moment, as the ferry maneuvered into the harbor, she wondered if it was too late to abandon the holiday and just head home to work.

“You’ve caught the sun,” said a male voice nearby.

Turning, Kate was greeted by the smiling face of one of the deckhands, who seemed more interested in her than in the rope he was readying.

“The back of your neck,” he continued with a thick Greek accent. “Looks red, you know?”

“Oh.” Kate instinctively touched her neck, only to feel a flash of soreness. “Yeah. I suppose so. Sorry.”

She paused, silently criticizing herself for that unnecessary, involuntary apology. Still, old habits were hard to break.

“You English,” the deckhand continued, “you’re not so used to the heat. You’ll need to put something on your skin while you’re here, or you’re going to shrivel up like a prune.”

Kate smiled politely, but secretly she was already waiting for the small-talk to end. The deckhand was a good-looking guy with the kind of rugged physique that made an immediate impression, but Kate had never felt well-versed in the art of conversation, and his attention just made her feel awkward. She was good at being polite and pretending to smile, but anything deeper was a stretch. She was used to being uncomfortable in social situations.

“That’s a big boat,” she replied, pointing at a much larger, longer black vessel that was taking up most of the port. She immediately cringed inside at the sound of her own voice, and at the naivety of her comment.

“Looks like you’re not the only new arrival today,” the deckhand replied, looking over at the other boat before turning back to her. “I think you’ll be more popular than him, though.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

“Ah, just… People here aren’t so happy about the Le Compte family returning to Thaxos. They’ve been away for so long, most of the locals assumed they wouldn’t be coming back, but now the son has decided to return and reclaim the mansion. How do you English say? It has put a lot of noses out of joint.”

Kate watched for a moment as scores of men carried large boxes to shore from the incongruously large black boat. Seconds later, she was jolted as the much smaller ferry bumped against the harbor’s stone wall, and the deckhand jumped ashore with the rope, immediately turning and pulling on it to steady the vessel. For a few seconds, Kate couldn’t help but notice the way his biceps bulged as he brought the boat under control, but suddenly the guy turned and smiled at her and Kate felt intensely embarrassed.

Turning to look down at her luggage, she realized she was probably blushing. She fumbled with her book, forgetting to even mark her page as she shoved it into her backpack. The absolute last thing she wanted was to seem like a typical tourist, yet she’d allowed herself to be caught ogling the first man she saw.

“Here you go,” the deckhand said, grabbing the portable metal steps and putting them in place, before picking up her luggage and carrying it ashore for her. “You know, we’re staying overnight tonight before heading off tomorrow back to Athens. If you want to meet for a drink in one of the local cantinas, I could help you out with a little local knowledge, maybe give you some ideas about things to do while you’re here. I can even fill you in on the story of the Le Compte family, if you like,although that might be something of a mood-breaker.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Kate replied, stepping off the boat before reaching out for her backpack and suitcase.

“No no,” he said with a smile, “I’ll carry these to your boarding house for you. All service included in the price of your trip.”

“Honestly, I’m fine.”

“I insist!”

“Can I please just have my bags?” she asked, instantly aware that she sounded a little abrupt. “Sorry,” she added, although once again she wasn’t really sure why she was apologizing.

“Fernando,” the captain called from the boat, “give the lady her bags and get on with stripping the engine. We don’t have time to fool around!” He added something in Greek, and although Kate didn’t understand a word of it, she could tell that the captain wasn’t best pleased.

Sighing, the deckhand passed the bags to Kate.

“I have an engine to strip,” he explained with a smile. “Sorry, no time for you.”

“It’s okay. Thank you. But do you know where I can get a taxi?”

“You’re on Thaxos,” he replied, climbing back onto the boat. “There are no cars here. If you’re very lucky, though, someone might let you take a ride on a donkey.”

“A donkey?”

“You’re not in London anymore,” the deckhand replied with a broad smile. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to the change of pace eventually!”

“Right. Thanks.” With that, Kate turned to walk away.

“And if you run into Baron Le Compte,” the deckhand called after her, “give him my best!”

Kate glanced over her shoulder and saw that the deckhand was waving at her. She smiled politely before continuing on her way, walking across the cobbles until she reached a small, sunny square lined on three sides by dusty houses. Although she certainly didn’t feel like she needed to ‘get used to the change of pace’, as the deckhand had so condescendingly described it, she was a little taken aback to realize just how rustic the island seemed. Everything was so still and quiet.

“A week,” Kate muttered, already wondering how she was going to fill the time. “Damn it, I definitely should have brought my laptop.”

 

***

 

“For you, Madam, the best room in the house!”

Ephram was trying to make conversation as he led Kate up the narrow, winding staircase. He seemed like a friendly guy, far more natural and less forced than the deckhand’s unsubtle attempt to pick her up, but Kate was still struggling to make small-talk. She’d always been a more reserved person, and if she’d secretly hoped that her first holiday in years would bring about a change in her character, she was already realizing that such an improvement was unlikely. Still, she was determined to try her best.

“This is a lovely house,” she said, even as she noticed a large crack running all the way up the wall.

“It’s an old house,” Ephram replied as he got to the top of the stairs and stopped for a moment to catch his breath, before leading her to the door at the end of the corridor. “I try to do it up, keep with the times, but mostly I just focus on any essential structural repairs that need doing. As long as the place doesn’t collapse on all our heads and kill us, I think we can be happy and sleep well, eh?”

He stopped to slip a key into the door, before turning to her and smiling from behind his glasses.

“That was a joke,” he added. “It’s not going to fall down.”

“Of course,” Kate replied. “I realized.” Hearing a noise nearby, she turned and watched in shock as a chicken hurried out of one of the rooms and began to make its way downstairs.

“For the eggs,” Ephram explained. “But don’t worry, none of them go into the guest rooms. I have trained them very well!”

Opening the door, he led Kate into the small, rather bare room with blue-painted walls and a bed pushed into the corner. There was a dresser with a small mirror, and a rickety wooden chair next to a chipped sink, but for the most part the room seemed very basic. Still, after traveling for two days, the bed alone was a sight for sore eyes and Kate figured it was probably going to be a good thing that the room wasn’t too luxurious. After all, she knew she had a tendency to hide away and spend her days reading, and she was determined to get out and explore the island.

“Is okay?” Ephram asked, placing her bags on the floor.

“Is very okay,” Kate replied. “I mean, it’s very okay. It’s… lovely.”

“This key works for the front door as well as the room,” he continued, handing the key to her. “It actually works for all the doors in the house, but don’t tell anyone that, okay?”

Kate smiled awkwardly.

“My grandmother and I would like to invite you to join us for dinner,” he added. “No pressure, but we always like to bring new guests to our table on the first night, to extend a little local hospitality. I can promise you good food, a little wine, some boring stories from me, lots of boring stories from my mother…”

There was a conspicuous silence for a moment, as he waited for Kate to accept his offer.

“Maybe,” she said, swallowing hard. “Actually, I think I just need to take a nap, and I wouldn’t want to put you out. It’s a very kind offer, but maybe we could do it another day instead?”

“Of course,” Ephram replied, making his way to the door. “Bathroom is at the top of the stairs, and if you need anything else, I will be downstairs in the shop. I’m there all day every day, from dawn to dusk, so it won’t be difficult to find me if you want anything. Other than that, I hope for you to have a very pleasant stay on Thaxos, and again, please don’t hesitate to come and ask if there’s something you want. My mother and I, we are very friendly.”

Once Ephram had gone back downstairs, Kate stood for a moment in her room, not really knowing where to start. She hadn’t been on holiday for almost five years, and even in the old days she only used to go when her ex-fiance organized things. Since becoming single again, she’d thrown herself into her work and had come to think that she didn’t need holidays at all. It was only after her friend Annie ribbed her for being a workaholic that she booked this trip in order to prove that she could relax, but now she was starting to think that it had all been a big mistake.

“A week,” she muttered, looking down at a power socket and feeling another pang of regret that she hadn’t brought her laptop and a few work files with her.

After finding the cramped bathroom at the other end of the corridor, she stripped off and took a quick shower, although it was hard to relax since she could hear the house’s entire water system creaking and bumping as it strained to deliver a dribble of warm water through the rusty shower-head. She dried off, wrapped a towel around herself and hurried back to her room, narrowly avoiding a passing chicken along the way, and then finally she began to fix her hair. Wandering over to the window, she looked out at the sleepy little courtyard, and she realized that anyone else in her situation would be blissfully looking forward to a week of relaxation.

“You are going to relax, Kate Langley,” she muttered under her breath, “even if it’s the last thing you ever do.”

She took a deep breath.

“Relax,” she said again, almost as if it was some kind of mantra. “Relax.”

Sighing, she rolled her eyes at the sheer impossibility of ever getting her mind to switch off.

Just as she was about to head over to the bed, she happened to glance up at the top of the steep hill that rose up from the port toward the interior of the island. Her eyes fell upon the large house, jutting out in splendid isolation. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she was able to make out little more than the building’s silhouette, although it certainly looked like an imposing structure and she figured it must be the mansion that the deckhand referred to earlier. She could certainly understand why the locals might feel a little intimidated by the idea of someone living up there, able to survey the entire town from above like some kind of old-time feudal lord.

After a moment, she realized that there was something moving a little way along from the house. Narrowing her eyes a little, she saw that a lone figure was standing on the edge of an outcrop, staring down at the town. For a few seconds, Kate felt transfixed, as if she couldn’t tear her gaze away, and somehow she felt convinced that the figure wasn’t just looking at the town from all the way up there, but was looking directly at her. She told herself that this idea was impossible, that the figure was too far away, but the feeling lingered.

Finally, she stepped back and pulled the shutters closed.

II

 

“It’s no good!” a man shouted, his voice loud enough to rattle the windows. “Why come back here after all this time, eh? My mother, she’s against it too, and she’s one of the few people in town who remembers the last time the Le Compte family was here!”

“My grandmother remembers too!” Ephram shouted. “She knew the old baron, remember?”

“We all heard the rumors,” the first voice muttered. “I used to tell them to Alice when she was a child, to scare her!”

“My grandmother is a good woman!” Ephram replied. “At her age, she deserves a little respect!”

“And what does she think?” the first voice continued. “She can’t be happy about it! She knows more than anyone that the Le Compte family is bad for this island!”

Having been woken from her nap by the sound of an argument, Kate reached the bottom of the stairs and made her way into the convenience store’s main room, only to find that Ephram was having a very loud, very animated discussion with an even older man who was standing by the counter and leaning on a walking stick. A bag of groceries was sitting on the counter.

“It’s their house,” Ephram replied. “Just because it stood empty all these years, they don’t lose the right to come back and claim it.”

“They should lose that right!” the other man shouted. “It’s like the bad old times again, with the lord of the island coming back. If he expects to be anything more than just another resident on Thaxos, he’s going to get a shock, that’s all I’m saying. No-one’s going to bow down and kiss his feet as he walks past!”

“ Ah, but -” Suddenly spotting Kate, Ephram broke into a smile. “I'm so sorry, Madam. Did we wake you?”

“No,” Kate lied, making her way over to the counter. “I was just thinking that I should get out and take a look around the place before evening. I don’t want to waste my holiday by sleeping through it, do I?” She forced a smile, even though secretly she actually liked the idea of sleeping her way through the entire holiday. In fact, as a chicken hurried past her feet, she was still idly wondering whether it was too late to turn around, head back to London and admit that a relaxing holiday was simply beyond her. The thought of sinking back into work was perversely tempting.

“You English?” asked the other man.

“Kate Langley,” she replied, holding out a hand for him to shake.

“What do you think?” the man asked, ignoring the hand. “Is it right that a family should treat this whole island as their plaything? A rich family that could have anything they wanted.”

“ I really don't know enough about the situation to comment,” Kate replied tactfully, turning to Ephram. “I just -”

“It’s the law of the land,” Ephram told the other man. “Some things, they don’t change over time. No-one can have seriously believed that the Le Comptes were finished here. They were always going to come back, it was only ever a matter of time. Their blood is tied to this land.”

“You’re just looking forward to their business,” the man sniffed with derision. “Typical shopkeeper. You expect to supply goods to the rich man, but I’m warning you, he’ll just end up importing everything he wants from the mainland. Edgar Le Compte is not going to come trekking down to your little store to buy things. He can afford the finest food known to man. Caviar! Veal! Anything his heart desires! Why would he come and buy tinned beans and old fruit from you, eh?”

“You understand nothing,” Ephram replied, turning to Kate. “How can I help you, Madam? Please, ignore the rambling old fool standing next to you. That’s what the rest of us usually do. Otherwise, you will end up with a terrible headache if you try to wrap your head around the nonsense he comes out with.”

“I was just wondering if you had a map of the island,” Kate replied, feeling intensely embarrassed by being drawn into the argument. “I thought I’d packed one, but I can’t find it in my bags. I was hoping to go out to the north and look at the old stones I’ve been reading about.”

Reaching under the counter, Ephram quickly produced a crudely photocopied drawing of the island, complete with handwritten place-names and annotations.

“You don’t need his stinking map,” the other man grumbled. “It’s an island. How can you get lost on an island? If in doubt, just head downhill until you reach the shore and then pick a direction. Sooner or later, even an idiot can get back to the main town. No offense intended, obviously.”

“Quiet, you!” Ephram snapped, before grinning at Kate. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to ignore some of the older, more stuck-in-the-past people around this place. They think that just because some of the Le Compte family were a little difficult in the old days, that history has to repeat itself. I say, we should judge this new Le Compte on his own terms, rather than assuming that he’ll be just like his grandfather.”

“What was wrong with his grandfather?” Kate asked.

“ He was a -” the other man started to say.

“Quiet!” Ephram hissed, as creaking floorboards on the other side of the room signaled the arrival of an elderly woman, breathing heavily as she made her way over to the counter and then eased herself into a chair. Her presence in the room seemed to have had an immediate effect, changing the tone entirely.

The man next to Kate said something in Greek, and the elderly woman replied, sounding distinctly unimpressed.

“My grandmother,” Ephram said to Kate, his voice notably softer and calmer now, as if the old woman’s presence had brought about some kind of deep change in his character. “She is very pleased to have you staying in our home, and she wishes you an enjoyable visit to the island.”

The old woman said something else in Greek, and the other man glanced briefly at Kate as he let out a short laugh.

“She is not quite herself today,” Ephram continued, clearly straining to maintain his smile, “otherwise she would converse with you in English. My grandmother is an educated woman, but as she approaches her one hundred and first year, her moods can be a little like the weather.”

“One hundred and…” Shocked, Kate turned to the old lady, who seemed content to merely stare down at the floor and watch as a chicken pecked at the floorboards. “I’m sorry,” she added, turning back to Ephram. “I’ve just never…”

“The Mediterranean lifestyle,” Ephram replied with a smile. “It has its good points and its bad, but longevity is certainly common. When my grandmother was born, Europe was only just entering the Great War, computers had not been invented, and the Le Compte mansion was still occupied by the grandfather of the man who now returns to Thaxos. When she’s in the right mood, my grandmother can tell stories that will make you think you’ve been transported back to an earlier time. Sadly, with her arthritis and her bad hip, she’s not so much in a good mood these days.”

“I’m going to go and look around,” Kate told him, “but I was wondering if I could grab a few supplies first. Do you take credit cards?”

“Are you kidding?” Ephram continued with a grin. “It’s the twenty-first century, Madam. We take everything. You can even pay in bitcoin if you prefer.” He grabbed a hand-held credit card reader and placed it on the counter. “I like to keep up with the modern world. It’s like I keep saying. There’s no need to either be stuck in the past, or embrace everything about the future. A smart man, he picks the best of both and makes his own world out of them. After all, the present is molded out of memories and expectations.”

Kate smiled, but she was becoming increasingly aware that the other man was getting into a conversation with Ephram’s mother, and although everything they said was in Greek, they seemed to glance at her more often than she’d like.

“What are they saying about me?” she asked Ephram eventually.

“Them?” He paused, with a hint of discomfort in his expression. “They’re saying that it’s rare for such a beautiful English woman to visit Thaxos, and that they think you’ll have a wonderful time.”

As he spoke, his grandmother scowled at Kate with an expression that suggested Ephram wasn’t being entirely honest with his translation.

 

***

 

A couple of hours later, having trekked out to the west and then beyond the limits of the port town, Kate found herself in an unspoiled landscape, with a rough path hugging the land close to the cliffs. Although she hadn’t intended to go on such a long journey on her first day, she kept walking, and she felt that she was actually starting to appreciate the chance to explore a place that seemed so wild and free from the constraints of the modern world.

“This might actually turn out to be a real holiday,” she muttered, stopping for a moment and turning to look out across the vastness of the Mediterranean. Perfect blue water rippled lazily under a dazzling sun, and Kate couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this part of the world. She knew that most people would have run straight to the small sandy beach near the port town, and would even now be splashing through the water or roasting slowly on a sunbed, but those activities really didn’t appeal to Kate.

Turning to look the other way, she saw a dark smudge at the top of the hill, and she realized she was a little closer to the mansion that overlooked the port town.

After walking a little further along the path, she eventually spotted activity up ahead. A couple of men were erecting a fence, running down the side of the hill, and as Kate got closer she couldn’t help but notice that the fence seemed to be going straight across the path, cutting it off. Finally, she had no option but to stop and look down at Ephram’s crude map, which clearly showed a public footpath snaking much further.

One of the men glanced at Kate and muttered something in Greek. He had a dark, haunted look on his face, as if his eyes were sinking back into his skull.

“ I'm sorry,” Kate replied, “I don't speak the -”

“Path closed,” he said, before grabbing a hammer, ready to strike another post into the ground.

Kate looked down at the map again, checking to see if she’d made a mistake.

“Le Compte land,” the man continued. “You know? Private. New fences are going up to help make sure that people know where they can walk and where they can’t. Good job, too. If you’d come past an hour earlier, we might have accidentally fenced you in rather than out.”

“Okay,” Kate replied. “Sorry, the map must be wrong.”

“Baron Le Compte is reclaiming the land,” the man explained. “This path has been used like a public way, but no more. Is closed, you understand? Tell others. Closed, no more coming this way.”

Kate watched as the two men began to uncoil a length of barbed wire.

“Yeah,” she said after a moment. “Sure. I guess I’ll just turn back.” Noticing a small van nearby, she paused. “I thought cars weren’t allowed on Thaxos?” she added, turning back to the men.

“Baron Le Compte brought one from the mainland,” the nearest man replied. “He’s only going to use it on his estate, so what’s the problem?”

“I guess,” Kate replied, realizing that there was no point arguing.

Making her way back the way she’d come, Kate couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder a couple of times and watching as the men continued to work. It seemed that the return of the Le Compte family was already having an impact on the island, and even though she understood that private land had to be respected, she felt as if barbed wire fences were a rather blunt way of carving up the island and telling everyone else to keep back. Turning to look out at the sea again, she noticed the large black boat sailing away, and then she looked down at the map again.

The stones were on the north side of the island. She’d have to go and see them another day. Provided this Baron Le Compte guy hadn’t carved the place up completely, anyway.

III

 

“No-one round here likes change,” Fernando replied, raising his voice so he could be heard above the general hum of the cantina. “They just want everything to stay the same forever and ever and ever.”

It was getting late, and somehow Kate had managed to get herself cornered by the deckhand she’d met earlier on the boat. She wanted to tell herself that it had been an accident, that she’d just happened to accidentally wander into the one bar on the island where he was sitting alone with a quiet drink, but deep down she knew she wasn’t being strictly honest with herself: in truth, she’d spent the best part of an hour walking the darkening evening streets, passing the cantina several times and wondering if maybe she could just drop in for one drink. She always felt herself to be a loner, but tonight she’d been hoping to bump into this guy for a little company.

No, not for company. To grill him for information about Edgar Le Compte and the history of the island. Another half-truth, perhaps, but one she could live with.

“So the Le Compte family,” she said, pausing for a moment to take a sip from her drink. “I’m getting the impression that they used to pretty much rule the island.”

“It was their little personal playground,” Fernando replied, swigging back some more beer. “My grandmother, God rest her soul, used to tell me that Thaxos was considered off-limits by many of the people living on nearby islands. The Le Comptes had a certain reputation for being…” He paused, as if he wasn’t sure how much to tell her, and then an awkward smile spread across his face. “Well, you know. They had a reputation for being unlike other people. They were weird, and people talked about them, about the things they got up to in their mansion up there on the hill.”

“What kind of things?”

“Some people said they had wild, lavish parties. Really decadent, you know? Naked handmaidens with large palm leaves, lots of wine, music. Pleasures of the flesh, as my grandmother described it. She and a friend were offered a one night job there, just serving drinks, things like that. I mean, that’s what they were told about the job, anyway. My grandmother turned it down, because she was a very Christian woman, but her friend took the money and went.”

“And what happened to her?” Kate asked.

“Never came back,” he replied. “That’s what my grandmother said. No-one ever saw her again.”

“So then there must have been a police investigation,” Kate pointed out.

“This was almost a hundred years ago. I don’t know the details, but with the money the Le Comptes have, I’m sure they could pay off every judge from here to Athens. There’s a saying that the only law that really matters is the one you’re prepared to enforce yourself. That just about sums the Le Comptes up. There’s one law for the rich, and another for the rest of us.” He took another swig of beer. “And anyway, if you think that’s crazy, you haven’t heard anything. That’s one of the more normal stories about them.”

“Go on,” Kate replied, keen to learn more.

Fernando paused for a moment, as if he was studying her face, trying to work out how far to take his stories.

“I’m a historian,” Kate continued, forcing a smile. “This kind of thing fascinates me.”

“There were some people,” Fernando replied, leaning closer as if he didn’t want to be overheard, “back then, in the old days, who said the Le Comptes were into other things. Darker things.” He paused again. “Okay, don’t laugh, because I’m just repeating the stupid old stories from the past, but a lot of people thought that Edgar Le Compte’s grandfather was, you know…”

Kate waited for him to finish.

“You know…” Fernando continued, raising his eyebrows.

“Gay?”

“Jesus, no!” Fernando said with a sigh, before suddenly baring his front teeth. “Get it now?”

“A dentist?” Kate asked, genuinely confused.

“A vampire,” Fernando replied. “I know it’s crazy, but that’s what was said back then. People were dumber and more superstitious, but Edgar Le Compte’s grandfather was accused more than once of being a vampire. Eventually he stayed in the house and was rarely seen, which only added to the rumors, and then one day…” He paused again, his eyes alight with the excitement of the story. “One night, some of the locals down here said they heard this loud, agonized howl from the top of the hill, and the next day the baron was gone. No-one knew where to, or how, or exactly when, but the mansion was abandoned. It took six months for anyone to go up there and check for certain, but the place was just left to rot. And that was the last anyone around here heard or saw of the Le Compte family for more than eighty years.”

“Until today,” Kate replied.

“Well, until last week, when word came that the grandson of the old Le Compte vampire was on his way to reclaim the family home.”

“But no-one can seriously believe that vampires exist,” Kate pointed out. “I mean, not in the twenty-first century. Vampire myths were the product of superstitions that have since been explained. Sure, some people like joking about them and reading books, but I seriously doubt that any sane person genuinely believes they’re real.”

“ You'd be surprised how old-fashioned people are around here,” Fernando told her, finishing his beer. “Time moves more slowly on Thaxos. Maybe the heat slows it down, or maybe people just drag their heels a bit, but the old superstitions.” He glanced over his shoulder, as if to once again check that none of the other dozen patrons in the cantina was listening in, before turning back to Kate. “People are nervous. They don't like the Le Compte family being back. The worst part is, Edgar Le Compte has the same name as his grandfather. To people here, it's as if everything's picking up where it was left all those years ago. I'll get us another drink and then I'll tell you about the -”

“No,” Kate said, grabbing her empty glass before Fernando could take it, “I should really be getting to bed.”

“One more drink!”

She shook her head, mindful of the fact that the first drink had already loosened her up a little, which she simultaneously liked and disliked. She wasn’t a heavy drinker, and she didn’t fancy becoming one tonight, not even on holiday and especially not in this heat. Besides, Fernando’s stories had been interesting, but they were of limited interest to her now that they were veering off into silly supernatural tales and superstition. She was a historian, and while she saw the value of such tales in terms of illuminating aspects of a culture, she was more interested right now in the less lurid aspects of the island’s past.

“Come on, English lady,” Fernando said with a grin. “One drink. It’ll be fun. Anyway, my boat leaves in the morning and I won’t be back for a week. This might be our last chance to, you know, get to know each other better.”

“Well that’s going to have to be one of life’s regrets,” Kate told him. “It’s been great talking to you, but I need to get back to the hotel. I want to be up bright and early tomorrow so I can go and check out the stones on the north side of the island.”

“Early to bed and then up to see some rocks?” Fernando replied. “You call that a holiday?”

“I call that a holiday,” she said with a smile.

A few minutes later, as they left the cantina together, Kate was already starting to worry that Fernando might insist on walking her all the way to the door of Ephram’s house. The streets were dark now, but she felt completely safe, particularly since there were no cars on Thaxos. Kate was starting to understand why Thaxos was billed as one of the most relaxing places in the Mediterranean, and as she and Fernando started walking along the narrow, cobbled street, she actually felt as if she might be able to unwind during her holiday. Not too much, obviously, but at least a little.

“Hey,” Fernando said suddenly, grabbing her arm, “I want to say one thing.”

“What’s that?” Kate asked nervously.

“This,” he continued, leaning closer and trying to kiss her.

As soon as his open lips touched Kate’s mouth, she turned away. He tried again, but she pulled back and took a couple of steps over to the other side of the street. It was the first time anyone had tried to kiss her for a long time, and her skin crawled at the whole idea.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You don’t like kissing?”

“I don’t like…” Kate paused for a moment, before realizing that she didn’t owe this guy an explanation. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea,” she continued, “but I’m really not looking for anything like that.”

“Anything like what?” he asked, stepping closer and reaching out to touch her arm.

As soon as she felt his skin against hers, Kate instinctively recoiled.

“Are you scared of me?” Fernando asked.

“Please try to understand,” she replied, “that it’s not you, it’s me. I’m very happy… not having physical contact.”

Fernando stared at her, but from the look in his eyes it was clear that he now understood not to try again. Instead of persisting, he just seemed sad.

“I’m sorry,” Kate added. “Don’t worry, though. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other English women along during the summer. You’ll have lots of chances to try again.”

“Is that what you think I’m like?” he replied, glancing both ways along the street for a moment. “Well, okay, it was a good evening, but I have to be up early too. Maybe we say goodnight now.”

“Okay. Sure.” She paused, realizing that she probably could have handled the situation better. “Goodnight.”

“You know the way to your hotel?”

She nodded.

“My room is the other way,” he continued, conspicuously avoiding eye contact. “I’d walk you home, but you’re only going around the corner and on Thaxos, you’re completely safe. Goodnight, and have a very nice holiday. It was nice to meet you.” With that, he turned and hurried away, quickly making his way through the shadows and then disappearing from sight completely.

Sighing, Kate turned and wandered along the street, enjoying the slightly cooler evening breeze. She felt bad for turning down Fernando’s advances, and she worried that maybe she’d given him the wrong signal by having a drink with him, but at the same time she felt a little aggrieved that she couldn’t sit in a cantina with a guy without him getting the wrong idea. By the time she reached the door to the little courtyard outside Ephram’s house, she’d gone from feeling bad for Fernando to feeling annoyed by his advances, and she could still feel the touch of his skin against hers, as if it had burned her slightly.

After taking her key from her pocket, she found to her surprise that the little wooden door was already open. Slipping through into the darkened courtyard, she took a couple of paces toward the main door before realizing that someone was standing up ahead. It seemed to be a man, wearing an immaculate black suit, standing with his back to her as he stood near the only light in the courtyard and faced the door, and Kate stopped as she realized that whoever this figure was, it certainly wasn’t Ephram.

She waited, but the figure didn’t move.

Opening her mouth to say something, she held back for a moment, feeling almost as if she shouldn’t disturb him. Still, he was somewhat in the way, and there was no chance she could get inside without making her presence felt.

“Hi,” she said eventually, her mouth feeling dryer than usual. “I’m sorry, can I get past?”

Slowly, after a moment’s pause, the figure turned his head and looked at her. He was a young man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties, and he had soulful, unblinking eyes that seemed to almost peer into Kate rather than at her. For a moment, he seemed content to just stare straight at her, before finally he blinked a couple of times.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice deep but also soft, “the entrance was open and I thought perhaps the store was open.” He checked his watch. “I suppose it’s a little late, though. It’s almost midnight. What time do you open in the morning?”

“ Oh, I don't work here,” Kate replied, “I just -”

Before she could finish, she felt something brush against her shoulder. Turning, she expected to find someone standing nearby, but all she saw was the wooden door set into the far wall of the courtyard.

“Is something wrong?” the man asked.

“No,” Kate replied, turning back to him. “I just… I guess the store will be open in the morning. I’m sorry, I hope you didn’t come far.”

“I don’t mind the walk,” he said calmly. “The town is so peaceful at night, and I find the daytime heat can be a little oppressive.” He paused for a moment. “I hope you won’t think I’m prying, but do I detect an English accent?”

“ Yeah,” Kate replied, “I'm from -”

“Somewhere in the north of England,” he continued, interrupting her, “but your accent is mostly from London now. There’s just the faintest hint of a Lancashire dialect, is there not? You were raised in one part of the country, but now you live in another, and your accent has changed accordingly.”

“Actually, yes,” Kate said, shocked that the stranger had been able to pinpoint her accent so easily. “I’m originally from Blackburn, but when I moved to London I made a real effort to drop the northern dialect. To fit in better, I guess, and…” She paused as she suddenly realized that she was starting to share far too much personal information with a man she’d never met before. “My name’s Kate Langley,” she added finally. “I’m just here on holiday. Actually, I’m renting a room here above the store for a week.”

“An interesting choice,” the man replied. “There’s still a small hotel next to the main square, is there not? I would have thought that any visitor would prefer to stay there, unless…” He paused again. “Perhaps you prefer to be keep away from such a place. There’s always the danger that you’d run into other English tourists, and then you’d have to be social. Again, I don’t mean to be too personal, but I feel as if you’re the kind of person who is happy with her own company.”

“I…” Kate started to say, before realizing that the guy had somehow managed to get right to the nub of her reasoning for staying above the store. “I just thought it would be a more authentic experience,” she added, not wanting to let him know that he’d got her so completely sussed out.

“You’re not here for the usual holiday pursuits,” he replied. “Sunbathing, swimming…”

“I’m interested in the history of the island,” she explained, again feeling as if it was very easy to open up to this guy. Almost too easy. “I’m a historian back home. Well, an archivist. Well, a little of both. I took my post-graduate degrees in Late European History and Mediterranean cultures, so…” She paused, suddenly feeling shy, as if she’d exposed too much of herself.

“It’s interesting,” the stranger said after a moment, “how we sometimes reveal more of ourselves than we intend. But if you’re interested in history, you’ve certainly come to the right place. My family has an archive covering more than three hundred years of Thaxos’s history, mainly through the lens of our own experiences but still… One of my ancestors was one of the first men in all of Europe to own a camera, and then one of the first to develop color images, and he kept meticulous notes and sketches concerning conditions in the town. I’ve been meaning to go through all of his work and re-familiarize myself with its contents, but I haven’t had time yet. I only arrived today.”

“ Huh,” Kate replied, feeling unable to break free from the conversation. “I guess -”

Suddenly she felt something nudge her back again, and yet as she turned, she found that just as before there was nothing and no-one to be seen.

“Perhaps I should be getting home,” the man said after a moment. “It’s late, and there’s so much to do tomorrow. I can return in the morning, or perhaps I’ll send someone down in my place. The house requires so much work in order to bring it up to a decent standard. All those years of standing empty haven’t been kind to the place, and I’m afraid there were several broken windows through which the elements were able to intrude.”

As the man made his way across the courtyard, heading back toward the wooden door, Kate felt drawn to watch him. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about him seemed almost to be attached to her, consuming her attention.

“You’re Edgar Le Compte,” she said suddenly.

The man pulled the wooden door open and then turned back to her.

“You are, aren’t you?” she continued. “You’re from the mansion up on the hill. I think I saw you earlier, standing up there and looking down at the town.”

“I am,” he replied, “and you did. It’s a beautiful view from up there. I hope you have a pleasant stay on Thaxos, Ms. Langley, and perhaps we shall have an opportunity to meet again some time. I would greatly value some advice as I approach the task of sorting through my family’s archive, so…” He paused for a moment. “Well, I know where to find you. I hope you won’t be too put out if I get in touch before you leave.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, surprising herself. “That would be fine.”

“Goodnight,” he added, before stepping out to the street and letting the wooden door swing shut.

Kate stood alone in the courtyard for a moment, listening to the sound of Edgar Le Compte’s footsteps echoing away along the narrow street outside. She felt as if his presence had brought a kind of haze to her mind, which was only now beginning to clear, and in some strange way it was almost as if he was still somewhere nearby. It took a moment, but finally she remembered that she was supposed to be going to bed, so she fumbled in her pocket for the key and turned to go inside.

Spotting movement in the corner of her eyes, she looked up at one of the upper windows in the house, and to her surprise she saw the face of Ephram’s grandmother staring down at her. After a moment, the old woman stepped back and disappeared from view, but Kate couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been watching the whole time during the conversation with Edgar.

Unlocking the door, Kate slipped into the building and started making her way through the darkened store. After such a crazy first day on the island, all she wanted now was a good night’s sleep. A moment later, however, she realized that she could hear a noise nearby, as if something was scrabbling about on the floor behind the store’s counter. Stopping for a moment, she figured it was just one of Ephram’s chickens, but something about the noise seemed different, as if something was wrong.

Grabbing a nearby mop, she began to make her way around the counter. Moonlight was streaming through a nearby window, and finally Kate was able to see a small dark shape twitching and convulsing on the floor, while the sound of sharp little scratches could now be heard.

Reaching over to the wall, Kate hit the light switch.

It took a moment for the light above the counter to flicker into life, but when it did, Kate stared in horror at the sight before her. One of the chickens was on the floor, but it had three large rats biting its body and chewing on its bones, tearing it apart even as the poor animal tried to struggle free.

IV

 

A storm had moved in suddenly as Kate lay in her bed, trying to get to sleep. Nearby, an electric fan whirred in the corner, bringing a little coolness to the otherwise sweltering room, and Kate changed position several times a minute as she struggled to get comfortable. Although she was occasionally able to drift into a light slumber for a few seconds at a time, she continually woke again, as if something was holding her awake. Determined to sleep, she tried to forget the horrific sight of the dying chicken as it was eaten by rats, and she focused instead on the sound of rumbling thunder in the distance.

As the night wore on, however, she began to feel that sleep was an impossibility. The sound of the poor bird’s death throes had stuck in her mind, as had the horror a minute later when she’d woken Ephram and he’d come down to kill the rats and then wring the chicken’s neck, finally putting it out of its misery. The whole situation had felt like some kind of nightmare, yet Kate knew that it had been horribly, terrifyingly real. Now the fingers of the memory were picking at the edge of her mind, constantly prompting her to relive the evening’s events over and over again.

For a moment, she tried to imagine what it would have been like if she’d taken Fernando upon his offer. She imagined herself locked in a hot, sweaty embrace. A one-night fling with a local would be the dream scenario for many women in her situation, and she wondered if she should have forced herself to step out of her comfort zone. Still, she felt that even if she was trying to relax and have a good time, she couldn’t change her personality entirely.

She dozed for a moment, almost managing to sleep before suddenly opening her eyes again, her mind filled with the memory of her brief encounter with Edgar Le Compte.

All her other thoughts left her mind, replaced by that still, dark figure standing in the courtyard. Sleep slowly crept back into her soul, wrapping its long black strands around her and pulling her down into a fevered remembering of her encounter with Edgar. In her memories, however, the man’s eyes burned with such passion, they were almost on fire, and his voice sounded even deeper and darker than it had in real life. In her mind, Edgar told her about herself, unpicking every lie and deception she’d ever used before laying her bare, as if he’d known her all her life. As the memory became a light dream, she felt her surroundings change until she ended up standing out on the hillside under a pale moon, with Edgar right behind her. He reached out and put a hand on her waist, and the pressure felt so real, as if it couldn’t possibly be a dream.

Waking with a start, Kate opened her eyes and stared up at the crack in the ceiling. She was back in her room above Ephram’s shop again, and she was sweating. Looking over at the fan, she saw that its blades were slowly spinning to a halt, as if the power had been cut off. As she took a deep breath, however, she felt something brush against her bare foot. She wanted to look down, but suddenly she felt as if she couldn’t move. No matter how hard she tried to turn her head or sit up, her body was locked in place as a hand ran smoothly past her left ankle and began to feel her leg. When she tried to open her mouth to speak or to call for help, she found that it too refused to move, almost as if her entire body was frozen.

As she struggled, she felt the hand moving past her knee and then onto her upper leg, finally brushing against the edge of her crotch. She’d discarded her underwear earlier that night, unable to keep it on due to the heat. Even though her body refused to move an inch, she could feel the hand’s fingertips against her flesh, almost as if the nerves of her body had slipped closer to the surface and were on the verge of catching fire. Slowly, the hand moved onto her waist, following the curve up to her rib-cage and then finally to the underside of her breast. Feeling a tingling sensation, Kate could do nothing other than wait as the hand moved onto the breast itself, brushing the edge of her nipple before moving onto her collarbone and then to her neck. Moments later, the hand slipped up to her chin and then to the side of her face.

She stared up at the ceiling, waiting for the intruder to come into her field of vision, but suddenly the hand seemed to flutter away, as if it had never been there in the first place.

She waited, still unable to move.

And then she realized that someone was breathing nearby, just a few inches from her face.

She tried to turn, and eventually she was able to force her head just a few inches. For a moment, she could see no-one nearby, and then suddenly a face came into view, somehow visible despite the darkness. It was Edgar Le Compte, staring straight down at her with an expression of dark intent. Kate tried to speak, to ask him what he wanted, but her lips like the rest of her body were still numb to her mind’s commands, and all she could do was stare into Edgar’s eyes as he moved closer and closer, inch by inch, gradually opening his mouth until -

Suddenly the whole world seemed to reset and Kate sat up in bed, and the darkness around her changed in a flash to become instead the welcoming warm light of morning, with the curtains fluttering harmlessly in the breeze as the fan whirred next to the bed. She was sweating and a little out of breath, and as she looked around the room, Kate felt convinced that Edgar Le Compte must still be nearby. Only after she checked under the bed was she finally able to accept that she was alone, and that his visit must have been part of some vivid dream. She ran her hands along her bare legs and flexed her toes, to prove to herself that the sleep paralysis was over. Still, she felt extremely uncomfortable, even as she heard passing voices below her window, proof that the world was turning as usual again.

Glancing at her phone, she saw that it was only 5:50am. Still, she knew that there was no way she could get back to sleep right now, even if she dared to close her eyes again. Grabbing a towel, she decided to cool down by taking a shower.

 

***

 

“Never, in all the years that I have lived here, have there been rats on Thaxos!”

Ephram was in a dark mood as he used a mop to clean blood from the floor. The chicken’s corpse had been tossed out in the night, but its blood had soaked into the cracks between the tiles.

“It is well known,” he continued, “that Thaxos has been free of rats for hundreds of years. Back in the seventeenth century, every rat was exterminated in an attempt to get rid of the Black Death, and since then every arriving ship has been checked and double-checked to ensure that there is no chance of a single rat getting loose. It is a point of pride that Thaxos is the only island in the area that has no rats!” He slammed the mop’s wet head against the floor in a final act of defiance. “And now they are here! This is all Edgar Le Compte’s fault.”

At the mention of Edgar’s name, Kate looked up from her cup of coffee, which she had been nursing while sitting on a stool over by the window.

“The man comes to Thaxos with his big boat,” Ephram continued, “unloading all his fancy furniture and God knows what else, and does anyone think to take precautions? No. So along with everything else, he brings rats to the island, and now we see the consequences. I tell you here and now, unless drastic action is taken immediately, those rats will breed, and then the next generation will breed, and so on until the entire island is overrun and the only thing left for the rest of us to do is to to jump into the sea!”

“You can’t be certain that it was Edgar Le Compte’s fault,” Kate pointed out, even though she knew she was on a hiding to nothing.

“Of course it is,” Ephram muttered as he stared down at the faint blood stain that was still visible between the tiles. “First rats, then what else? If we are not careful, he will be bringing cars to the island.”

“He’s got a car here,” Kate replied, before realizing that perhaps it would be unwise to fan the flames of Ephram’s anger.

“What car?” the old man snapped.

“Oh, just one…”

“One?!?”

“I went for a walk yesterday and I saw some men putting up a…” She paused. “Well, they were doing some work on his land, and they had an old van. I guess it must have been in one of the large crates that came off Edgar’s boat yesterday, but it looked pretty old and I don’t think he’s going to use it anyone apart from on his own land.”

“Unbelievable,” Ephram muttered, sounding deflated. “And totally unacceptable. There have never been cars on Thaxos. Why does he think he can come here and change everything?”

“You didn’t seem to mind yesterday,” Kate pointed out.

“That was before the rats!” Ephram replied, his eyes alive with indignation. “If there is one thing I have always been thankful for, it’s the fact that there are no rats on Thaxos. I was one of the few people around here who was willing to give Edgar Le Compte and his family a second chance, but in less than twenty-four hours he has brought vermin and cars to the island. What next, eh? What else will he bring here to interrupt our way of life?” He sighed. “If that man ever comes to my store, I will have no hesitation in telling him what I think!”

“Oh, he dropped by last night,” Kate replied, before instantly wincing as she realized that yet again she might have said too much.

Ephram stared at her.

“I came back late,” she continued, “and he was out there in the courtyard. I suppose he wanted to pick up a few things, but you were closed. He said he might come back this morning.”

“You talked to him?” Ephram asked.

“Briefly. Just a few words, really. He seemed…” She paused, searching for the right word. “Nice,” she added eventually, with a faint smile. “Honestly.”

“Nice?” Ephram replied, evidently unimpressed. “Well, that is a word I have never heard used about any member of the Le Compte family before. Even my mother, who was in love with Edgar Le Compte’s grandfather, never said he was nice.”

“They were in love?” Kate asked, her curiosity piqued.

“I didn’t say that. I said she was in love with him. He, no. I doubt he could have loved anyone, although he courted her for a while before marrying some woman from the mainland. Broke my grandmother’s heart, so I’m told. My grandfather, God rest his soul, told me on his deathbed that he believed she’d settled for him as second-best, and that her feelings for that Le Compte man had never completely gone away. Yet another reason we should all be glad that the family left.” Picking up the bucket of bloody water, Ephram carried it out the front door and poured it into a drain, as one of his remaining chickens wandered inside.

“I should go and explore,” Kate muttered, watching the chicken.

“What’s that?” Ephram asked as he came back inside.

“I should go and explore,” Kate said again, getting off the stool even though she was exhausted after her tortured night’s sleep. Checking her watch, she saw that it was almost 8am, which meant that she no longer had any excuses. “I was thinking of going to the north of the island to check out the old stones I read about back in university. I’ve always wanted to see them up close.”

“Most tourists just want to flop out on the beach,” Ephram replied, with a faint smile. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have unloaded on you, it’s just that I can’t say these things to my grandmother. The less she knows about the Le Comptes returning, the better. It would just upset her. I might not be able to stop that fool bringing rats and cars to the island, but the one thing I can do is give my grandmother some peace of mind.”

Kate opened her mouth to tell him that the old woman had been watching Edgar out the window last night, but at the last moment she thought better of it. She figured she’d dropped enough bombshells for one morning.

 

***

 

The trek over to the north side of the island took much longer than she’d expected, but Kate finally reached the ring of stones that stood on the highest cliff. It was almost the middle of the day by the time she arrived, and the unrelenting heat of a midday sun was blindingly intense. Even with sunglasses, Kate was shocked by how bright everything was, and as she reached the stones and put her hand on the nearest, she found that it was warm.

For the next few hours, she was in her element. Gone was the awkwardness and self-doubt that usually dogged her. Out here, with no other people around to cause distractions, she lost herself in her work. She’d read extensively about these stones back in university, and she’d refreshed her memory with a few academic articles before setting off on this journey. She had come for a holiday, but for Kate a holiday meant less time on the beach and more time simply pursuing her own interests. The stones, which had never been fully explained despite a number of in-depth studies, represented a mystery from the dawn of European culture, and such things were Kate’s bread and butter.

Each of the thirteen stones was around ten feet tall and at least two feet wide. They appeared to be made of an unusual type of granite that certainly didn’t come from the island itself, and there had been much debate in the academic world about how they had been transported here, and from where. There was also debate about who would bother, since there were no other signs of human habitation on the island during the period around four thousand years ago when they were erected. Arranged leaning slightly inwards in a rough circle, the stones clearly had some purpose, but some of the finest minds in the academic world had failed to come up with a convincing explanation. There had to have been a reason for the stones to be placed here, however, and Kate could feel the mystery tugging at her thoughts.

She muttered to herself as she examined each stone individually and made notes. It was a long, laborious process, but it consumed her attention entirely. She was in her element, and she was happy.

Lost in her work, she finally checked her watch and was startled to find that it was almost five in the evening, which meant that she had been examining the stones for almost six hours. Even for a work-obsessed woman such as Kate, this was something of an achievement, and as she took a step back she tried to work out exactly how the hours had managed to slip past so easily. Still, she’d been able to examine each of the rocks in great detail, and her notebook was filled with sketches and ideas. There were symbols carved into some of the stones, and of course no-one had ever been able to decipher them or to understand what they meant. Up close, Kate felt that some of the previous studies had represented the symbols inaccurately, and she was already excited about the prospect of doing some work here on the side.

Hearing a distant rumble, she turned and looked out across the sea. In the distance, dark clouds were headed toward the island, threatening a storm.

The walk back across the island didn’t seem to take as long, since her mind was filled with ideas and theories regarding the stones. Kate was never happier than when she had some juicy bone to chew on, and she had already decided that instead of forcing herself to go to the beach the next day, she’d head back to the stones. She knew it wasn’t particularly normal to spend her holiday working like this, but at the same time it made her happy, and she figured that was the point of getting away in the first place. She could always lie to Annie about what she did, or maybe even nip down to the beach for five minutes in order to bolster the lie and turn it into a sliver of truth. Either way, she was already making plans to sit in her room during the evening and go over her notebooks, and the prospect filled her with excitement.

As she walked, the storm continued to roll in behind her, and the first fringes of rain had just arrived as she reached the port town on the south of the island.

Still lost in thought, she barely even noticed that the store was empty as she made her way past the unmanned counter and headed up the stairs. When she reached her room, she laid out her notebook and went through to take a shower, before returning to the room and settling on the bed. For the next few hours, as rain fell gently but persistently outside, Kate was thoroughly absorbed with her work, and she soon began making detailed notes for her return to the stones on the following day. She didn’t pay any attention to the sound of footsteps running past her door, nor to the raised voices that could be heard from the store below. Even when there was eventually a knock on the door, she paused for a moment before looking up, and she waited until a second knock before accepting that she was to be disturbed.

“ Hang on,” she called out, quickly slipping back into some clothes before opening the door to find a rattled-looking Ephram outside. “What's -”

“It’s my grandmother,” he replied, interrupting her with panic in his eyes. “I’ve been looking for her for hours, but I can’t find her. It’s as if she’s disappeared from the island completely!”

V

 

“Someone saw her heading out of town!” Ephram said as he led Kate along the street, with rain continuing to fall as the low evening light began to settle. “I just spoke to Maximo Marco and he said he saw her walking along the street that leads past the orange groves. Why she would go there, I don’t know, but please, we must go and look for her!”

“Of course,” Kate replied, still feeling startled by the fact that she was being corralled into Ephram’s two-man search party. “It’s not a problem.”

“She’s not a strong woman,” Ephram continued. “I’m sorry to drag you into this, but she and I, we live alone and I didn’t know who else to ask. She can get about, sure, and it’s not unusual for her to maybe go to the cafe, but she’s been missing all day!”

“We’ll find her,” Kate replied, hoping to reassure him. “Don’t worry, she can’t have got far. I mean, how fast can a hundred-year-old get about, anyway?”

As they got to the end of the dirt road that ran to the north-east out of the town, they stopped for a moment. Ahead was the hill, beginning its slow, three-mile rise toward the Le Compte mansion at its summit, and as Kate looked up at the distant building she was suddenly filled with a sense of concern. If the old woman had indeed come this way, there was only one obvious place she could be trying to reach. Again, she wondered if she should tell Ephram that the old woman had been at the window the previous night, but she was worried about sending them off on a wild goose chase. After all, it seemed highly unlikely that a centenarian would try to climb such a steep hill.

“Ephram,” she said after a moment, “is there any chance that your mother might be going up to the mansion?”

Ephram turned to her, and then he looked up toward the top of the hill.

“Saints preserve us,” he said, with a sense of shock in his voice. “Why would she… She’s not that crazy, surely, but…” Finally, he turned back to Kate. “Why do you suggest such a thing?” he asked, with a hint of suspicion in his voice. “Is there something I should know?”

 

***

 

“What the hell is this?” Ephram shouted as they reached the new barbed wire fence that ran across their path. “Has he started carving up the land?”

“Isn’t it his property?” Kate asked.

“ Technically, but...” Clearly shocked, Ephram glanced both ways along the fence for a moment. “I don't care. We have to -”

“Over there!” Kate shouted suddenly, spotting something fluttering in the breeze. The storm was still gathering above them and the rain was intensifying as they hurried to the spot where a tattered piece of blue, patterned fabric was caught on the barbed wire.

“My grandmother’s shawl,” Ephram said, taking a moment to pull it free. “She did come this way. She must have somehow climbed over the fence!”

Before Kate could stop him, he started to slip between the rows of barbed wire. Once he was through, he began to hurry up the hill, and Kate realized she had no choice but to follow. As she tried to climb through, however, she lost her footing on the wet grass and slipped, gashing her left forearm against one of the metal spikes. She landed hard but immediately got up, and after checking to make sure that the cut was only superficial, she hurried after Ephram, even though the hill’s incline was becoming steeper as they got higher.

“Grandmother!” Ephram shouted. “Where are you, you old fool?”

All around them, the only sound was the constant patter of rain falling across the land, as a strong wind continued to build.

“If she’s out in this,” Ephram continued, turning to Kate, “she’s going to get pneumonia!”

“We’ll find her,” Kate told him, even though she was starting to lose hope. Out in the wilds above the town, it seemed as if the old woman had managed to disappear completely, and with the weather getting worse by the minute it was clear that time was of the essence if they were going to have any chance of finding her in good health. One thing was certain: there seemed no way that such an old woman could make it all the way to the top of the hill.

For the next half hour, they continued to make their way up the hill, with Ephram calling out his grandmother’s name as Kate constantly looked around for some sign that she might have come along this route. Above them, the mansion was slowly getting closer, and Kate was just starting to wonder if they dared go all the way when the heavens finally opened completely, sending down torrential rain that caused her to once again slip on the soaking wet grass. As Ephram helped her up, she had to wipe her hair from across her face.

“It’s hopeless!” Ephram shouted, barely able to be heard above the hiss of rain all around them. “She could be anywhere!”

Just as she was about to reply, Kate spotted movement up ahead. There was a figure further up the hill, or perhaps two figures.

“There!” she shouted.

As she and Ephram scrambled up the hillside, pushing through the rain and both slipping every few meters, the sky rumbled above with the threat of even worse weather. Their progress was slow, but finally Kate was able to see that there were indeed two figures ahead: one was without doubt Ephram’s grandmother, and she was being helped along by another, steadier figure that Kate recognized from the previous night in the courtyard.

“What are you doing?” Ephram shouted as they finally caught up. He grabbed his grandmother’s arm and pushed the figure away. “Leave her alone! Why are you out here with her?”

Looking a little surprised by the interruption, Edgar Le Compte stared at Ephram for a moment before turning to Kate. “I was in my dining room,” he shouted, “looking out at the storm, and suddenly I spotted this woman climbing toward the house. I had no choice but to come out and try to help her. I’m afraid my workers are away at the moment, so I had to come in person, and the weather has made our progress rather slow, but I think she’s unharmed!”

“Grandmother,” Ephram continued, looking into the old woman’s face. “Are you okay?”

“Quick,” Edgar said. “You must all come and take shelter in my home.”

“We are not coming anywhere near your home!” Ephram shouted at him, taking his grandmother by the arm and starting to lead her back down the hill. “You can go to -” Before he could finish, however, he lost his footing and slipped, and he and his grandmother both crashed to the ground.

“Maybe we should listen to him!” Kate shouted as she and Edgar helped the old woman back to her feet.

“We are not going to his home!” Ephram shouted.

“Are you serious?” Kate shouted back at him. “Look at the weather! Do you seriously think you can make it all the way back down to the town in this storm! I don’t even know if I can make it, let alone your grandmother!”

Ephram opened his mouth to argue, but at the last moment something seemed to stop him, as if he finally realized that she was right.

“Please,” Edgar shouted at them. “Whatever else you might think of me, will you at least let me help? Don’t be stubborn! Think of your grandmother!”

 

***

 

By the time the four of them got to the top of the hill and reached the driveway at the front of the mansion, the storm was even stronger. Ephram was limping after his most recent fall, so Kate and Edgar had taken it upon themselves to support the old woman as they headed toward the main building.

Kate couldn’t help but notice that the place was far more imposing up close than it had seemed from a distance. With its high, dark facade, the mansion had clearly been styled to make an impression on all who dared approach, and nothing about the place seemed particularly welcoming. Scores of dark windows overlooked the driveway, and Kate couldn’t help but wonder if they were being watched as they guided the old woman up the main steps toward the large double wooden door that led inside.

“May the saints protect us,” Ephram muttered, making the sign of the cross on his chest as Edgar let them through.

Kate wanted to tell him not to be so dramatic, but something about the place just seemed to set her on edge. In fact, as the four of them passed the threshold and headed into the dark interior, she could almost feel the atmosphere of the mansion pushing them back, trying to keep them out. Finally, as she helped the old woman into a nearby chair, Edgar hurried back to the door and swung it shut, keeping the elements out but also sealing them all inside. As Ephram attended to his grandmother, Kate took a step back and then turned to look across the vast hallway, and once her eyes had finally adjusted to the gloom, she could do nothing more than stare in shock at the sight before her.

“Welcome to my home,” Edgar said calmly, standing right behind her.

VI

 

Even as the storm raged outside, the interior of the mansion itself was so quiet, Kate felt that she’d be able to hear a pin drop in one of the adjoining rooms.

It had been several minutes now since they had arrived, and Edgar and Ephram had taken the old woman through to be dried off. Kate, meanwhile, had been left alone in the high-ceiling hallway, and even though she was soaking wet from head to toe she found herself fascinated by the dramatic, almost gothic architecture of the building. The detailing was incredible, with many of the wall’s wooden panels decorated with images of dancing figures, while large stained glass windows allowed only a fraction of the late evening light into the building. Kate felt almost as if she had somehow passed through a portal to Victorian England, since the mansion seemed so completely separate from anything else on the island, and the air felt so still.

Stopping by the foot of the large spiral staircase, she looked up at a huge oil painting and realized with surprise that it seemed to depict Edgar Le Compte himself. Only when she stepped closer did she see the plaque at the bottom of the frame, which made clear that the man in the picture was in fact Edgar’s grandfather, with whom he shared not only a name but clearly also a great likeness. As far as Kate could tell, the two men appeared to be absolutely identical.

Hearing footsteps nearby, she turned just in time to see Edgar coming through from one of the rooms. He, like her, was soaking wet, his dark shirt clinging to his form.

“I think she’ll be okay,” he said as he walked toward Kate. “She’s warm now and her grandson is tending to her. I’ve tried to call for a doctor, but the phone lines are down and mobile reception is out. Not surprising, perhaps, in such a primitive place, but I’m sure we’ll be able to summon someone soon. In the meantime, the storm shows no sign of stopping, so I must insist that the three of you remain here as my guests for the duration.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, a little taken aback by the fact that he was telling her, rather than asking her.

“You’ve noticed the family resemblance, then,” he continued, turning to look up at the painting. “All the men in my family share the same looks. It’s quite remarkable, really. None of us have ever seemed to take on anything at all from our mothers. I’ve sometimes wondered if we shed their influence before we have even left the womb.”

“Is it true that your grandfather went missing?” Kate asked.

“It’s true that there are lots of stories about him,” Edgar replied. “The man was known to be quite unusual and rather…” His voice trailed off for a moment, before he turned to her. “But where are my manners? You’re soaking wet, and I’m afraid that I am too. Please, allow me to assist you and make you a little more comfortable. This is a large house and much of it has been shut up for many years, but I’m quite certain we can find some fresh clothes for you to wear.”

Kate opened her mouth to tell him that she was fine, that there was no need to make a fuss, but at the last moment she realized that her soaking, cold clothes were clinging to her body and that a change would actually be very welcome. Glancing over at the window, she also realized that the storm showed no sign of abating, and that if anything it just seemed to be getting stronger and stronger.

“This way,” Edgar said, starting to make his way up the spiral staircase. He glanced back at her. “I’m sure we’ll find something for you.”

 

***

 

Holding the dress up, Kate couldn’t help but note that it seemed to be a couple of centuries out of fashion. Not that it was torn or tattered or that it showed any sign of age, but it definitely looked like something from the Victoria age or even earlier. She was loathe to put it on, feeling as if she’d look ridiculous, but Edgar had explained that it was the only thing he could locate at the moment, so she figured she had no choice.

Setting the dress down, she began to peel her soaking clothes off. The only light in the room came from a couple of candles flickering by the gloomy window, and Kate glanced at the door several times to make sure that no-one could see her as she stripped. It wasn’t as if Edgar Le Compte had given her any cause to doubt him or not to trust him; if anything, he had been nothing but kind and helpful. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched, and even though she told herself she was just being paranoid, she changed as quickly as possible, minimizing the time she was naked.

Once she was in the dress, she walked over to a full-length mirror in the corner of the room and grimaced as she saw her reflection. As she’d expected, she looked like she’d just wandered out of a Dickensian scene, although after a moment she realized that the ridiculousness of the situation was actually quite amusing. After patting the dress down to get rid of a few creases, she grabbed her wet clothes and arranged them on the hot water pipe that ran along one of the walls. With any luck, she told herself, she’d be able to put them back on again soon enough.

Outside, the storm was still raging, almost as if it was trying to pick the mansion apart and get to the people within.

 

***

 

“I’m afraid I sent my staff back to the mainland,” Edgar explained as he placed a plate of food in front of Kate. “I needed to have a few more items fetched, and I wasn’t anticipating visitors so I felt that I would be able to get along just fine by myself. They’ll be back tomorrow, but for now, you’re going to have to endure my cooking.”

“It looks great,” Kate replied, and she was telling the truth. Although Edgar had dismissed his skills in the kitchen, he had quickly and seemingly with little effort rustled up a steak and salad. Kate hadn’t even realized she was hungry until the smell of the food had hit her a moment ago, but now her stomach was rumbling.

“I offered something to Ephram and Anna,” Edgar continued, bringing his own plate of food to the table, “but it seems that my hospitality is tolerated only so far as it is deemed necessary. Evidently, the wrongs of my ancestors are going to be held against me.”

“He’s probably just worried about his grandmother,” Kate pointed out as she began to cut a slice from her steak. “Have you had any luck with the phones yet?”

“Unfortunately not,” came the reply, “but I think everything will be okay. She just needs to rest, and then in the morning my staff will return and someone will drive you all back to town, where a doctor can be summoned.”

“I’m afraid news of your van wasn’t warmly received,” Kate told him. “Apparently some of the locals aren’t happy about the idea of cars on the island.”

A faint smile crossed Edgar’s face.

“You enjoy upsetting people?” Kate asked.

“Sometimes. Just a little.” He paused. “But the truth is, my estate is large and a motorized vehicle is absolutely necessary. It’s not as if I intend to go racing through the streets of the old town in a sports car.”

Now it was Kate’s turn to smile.

“So tell me about yourself,” Edgar said after a moment. “You’re here for a visit, as I understand the situation, but I truly get the impression that you’re not the type of woman who wants to spend her time baking on a beach. You were out by the stones on the north of the island, I believe. A passing interest, or something deeper?”

“You saw me?” Kate asked, a little disturbed by the idea that she had been observed earlier.

“One of my men reported that he spotted you heading that way,” he replied, “and I could only assume that the stones were your destination. Actually, I share your interest in them. It’s so rare in the modern world for anything to remain a mystery, and yet those stones seem to have defied all attempts to come up with an explanation. I’ve read extensively on their history, and it seems that no consensus has been reached, and they have never been conclusively linked with any known civilization or group.”

“Someone must have put them there,” Kate pointed out, “and they must have had a reason.”

“Perhaps they shall remain a mystery forever,” Edgar suggested.

“If I thought that,” Kate replied with a faint smile, “I wouldn’t find them so interesting.”

“It’s the possibility of resolving the mystery that interests you?”

“No mystery is unsolvable,” Kate told him. “The clues are there. We just need to study them, get to understand them, look at the context, and eventually the answers will become apparent. They have to.”

“And is that how you hope to make your name?”

Kate opened her mouth to reply, but the words stuck. It certainly had occurred to her over the past twenty-four hours that she might bolster her reputation in the academic world if she could reveal the truth about the stones of Thaxos, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to admit to these ambitions. Not yet, anyway.

“The most convincing study I read,” Edgar continued, “postulated that the stones were put in place by a forgotten civilization that once inhabited the island. There are certainly a few other indications of a religious or at least faith-based purpose, perhaps even human sacrifice. So perhaps there was a civilization here that has so far, for various reasons, completely eluded the history books.”

“Sounds a bit melodramatic,” Kate told him. “Do you really believe that could be true?”

“I prefer to keep an open mind. It’s certainly possible that there was a forgotten civilization here once, and then it’s not much more of a leap to suggest that they practiced human sacrifice.”

“One day we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Kate continued. “Nothing remains a mystery forever. It’s just a matter of working hard until the answer becomes apparent.”

“I admire your optimism,” Edgar replied. “Many intelligent and educated scholars have tried to explain the meaning and purpose of those stones, but perhaps you will succeed where they have all failed. I must say, I admire anyone who believes in herself enough to keep pushing.”

“It’s just a side project,” Kate continued. “I’m not an expert, by any means. My regular work is as an archivist. I’ve been working on a project in London relating to the Second World War. When that’s over in about a month, I’ll be looking for a new contract, maybe in a different area.”

“The past interests you?”

“The past excites me,” she explained. “Anyway, the past and the present, and the future… Sometimes I think they’re not as separate as we imagine.” She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, I must sound incredibly pretentious. This is a great steak. Most people nuke them or leave them too chewy, but it’s perfect.” She paused for a moment as she realized that he hadn’t even asked her how she wanted her food prepared; he seemed to have simply guessed.

“Perhaps I was just lucky,” he replied.

“Sure,” Kate said with a smile, before suddenly realizing that she was actually managing to relax in Edgar’s company. This realization snapped her back into line and wiped the smile from her face, as she found herself feeling a little shy. She’d never been very good at socializing with strangers, preferring to get to know people slowly and maybe then open up, but something about Edgar made her feel as if she was moving much faster. As much as she liked having a good conversation, she was a little worried about the apparent change in her own character.

“You seem uneasy,” Edgar said after a moment.

“No,” she replied, “it’s just… I guess it’s this dress, maybe. I’ve never worn anything like it, and it seems kind of expensive. I’m just worried about damaging it.”

“You can’t damage it,” he replied. “Please, don’t concern yourself with such things.”

Outside, there was another rumble of thunder, although at least there had been no lightning so far.

“I’ll make up a room for you after we’ve eaten,” Edgar continued. “I would be honored, though, if you would join me in the conservatory for a drink before you retire to bed. It’s not every day that one gets to enjoy a panoramic view of this island being battered by a storm, and I hope you won’t think me macabre if I say that I’m rather looking forward to the experience. I’d also like to pick your brains regarding the stones and their possible origins. I always believe that when one meets someone with similar interests, one should seek to discuss those interests and perhaps explore new ideas. After all, two heads are better than one.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, although once again she felt uneasy as she realized how quickly she was falling into a normal social situation. “Although I’m very tired, so I don’t know if I’d be very good company. Maybe I should just go to bed.”

“ But if -”

“I hope you don’t think I’m being rude,” she continued. “It’s just that I’ve had such a long day, and I get the feeling that tomorrow’s going to be pretty intense too.”

“ But -”

“Thank you for understanding,” she added, hoping to make her decision final.

“Of course,” Edgar replied, clearly a little disappointed. “Sometimes I forget how easily people tire. You must forgive me for being a little too enthusiastic.” He paused for a moment. “However, if you are to retire so early, I must ask a small favor. I’m having a small party on Saturday night. There’ll be food, music, people… Just my way of opening the place up again and bringing some life back. If you’re still on the island, I’d be honored if you would consider attending.”

Kate paused, feeling as if she was being put on the spot.

“Please,” Edgar continued, fixing her with a determined, unblinking gaze. “I must insist that you attend.”

 

***

 

“Idiot!” Kate hissed at herself as she paced the room, trying to decide whether to get into bed or go back down and take Edgar up on his offer of a drink. “Stupid, goddamn idiot!”

The truth was, although she had been startled by how comfortable she felt talking to Edgar, she now realized that she maybe she should have talked to him some more instead of retreating to bed like some startled wallflower. Having spent so long thinking of herself as some kind of anti-social weirdo, she’d been thoroughly freaked out by the ease with which she’d opened up to Edgar, and she’d retreated into her shell. Now that she was alone in the the room that had been prepared for her, however, she felt that she’d made a mistake by letting herself get so scared.

Still, there was always the party on Saturday night. She never thought of herself as a party kind of person, but it would be her last night on Thaxos and she figured she could perhaps find something to wear at short notice.

Then again, a party would hardly be the ideal place to talk about the mysterious stones.

Then again, it would be good to talk to Edgar about them, since he seemed to share her interests.

Then again, she could be talking to him right now.

Then again…

“Idiot,” she hissed again, frustrated by this uncharacteristic indecisiveness.

Making her way to the window, she looked out at the driving rain. After a moment, she headed back across the room and opened the door, leaning out into the corridor and listening to the sound of footsteps in the distance. Her head told her that it was too late to go and take Edgar up on his offer of a drink and a conversation, but somehow she found herself walking along the corridor until she reached the top of the stairs. Taking a deep breath, and reminding herself that she was doing this purely because of their shared interest in the stones, she figured that one drink couldn’t hurt.

As soon as she’d crept down the stairs, she followed the sound of movement and made her way first through one room and then another, until she saw the shadow of someone moving in the kitchen.

When she reached the door, however, she saw to her disappointment that it was Ephram, getting a glass of water. Her first instinct was to turn and hurry away before she was spotted, but finally she realized that such a course of action would probably be rude.

“How’s your grandmother?” she asked.

Ephram turned to her.

“She’s been better,” he said after a moment. “Being here doesn’t help. It reminds her of her youth, when she used to come up here and…” His voice trailed off. “It’ll be good to get her back down to the town at first light. She needs to be in her own bed, and then I’m certain she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”

“ Edgar has offered to let us use his van to -”

“No,” Ephram said stubbornly. “I don’t approve of the way he brought that damn thing to the island, and I will not use it. I’d rather carry my grandmother than accept any more of his help.”

Realizing that there was little point arguing with him, Kate excused herself and headed back up the stairs. She figured that Edgar must have gone to bed by now, which was probably just as well. The last thing she wanted was to seem desperate, and she told herself that it would be wiser to just go to bed. As she was making her way to her room, however, she heard movement nearby. Instinctively, she walked over to a half-open door, and from the other side she could hear Edgar’s voice, speaking a language that she assumed was probably Greek. Peering through the crack in the door, she saw to her surprise that Edgar was sitting on the bed, with the old woman’s head in his lap, and he was gently stroking her hair.

Kate paused for a moment, trying to hear his voice properly.

“Sono io,” he seemed to say. “Sono io.”

Suddenly he looked toward the door, and Kate pulled back just in time to avoid being seen. She held her breath for a moment, and to her relief she soon heard Edgar starting to talk to the old woman again.

Realizing that she’d probably intruded too much already, Kate made her way as quietly as possible back to her room.

VII

 

“Are you sure this is wise?” Ephram asked as he pulled down the shutters to cover his shop windows. “Wouldn’t you prefer to spend your last night on Thaxos with a nice meal and a relaxing glass of wine?”

“It’s just a small party,” Kate replied, standing by the counter in the black dress she’d bought especially for the occasion, from a small boutique down by the quayside. “I figure it’s a chance to experience a different side of life here on Thaxos. To the manor born, and so on.”

“What goes on up at that mansion,” Ephram continued, clearly not happy about the idea, “has nothing to do with life here on Thaxos. That man might as well live in the clouds for all anyone else here cares.” He made his way behind the counter, almost stepping on one of his chickens in the process; the bird squawked and skittered out of the way. “Still, it’s none of my business. There were stories about the parties that Edgar Le Compte’s grandfather used to throw, but I’m sure you know better than to listen to my warnings. I’m just a foolish old man.”

“This is the twenty-first century,” Kate replied. “It’s just a party. It can’t even be a very big one, either. I mean, how many people would even go if they were invited?”

“From the island?” Ephram replied. “None, I guarantee it. And I haven’t seen hoards of people arriving over the past few days, either. Sounds like it’s going to be a very fun evening.” He paused for a moment, with a look of genuine concern in his eyes. “Is there nothing I can say to make you change your mind?”

“It’s just a party,” Kate replied for the hundredth time, repeating the mantra she’d been using in her head to justify her decision to accept Edgar’s offer. “I’m not even going to drink. The last thing I want is to have to travel tomorrow with a hangover.”

“Then I wish you the best of luck,” Ephram said, evidently accepting that the argument was lost. “Take care up there, though.”

“You could always come with me,” she pointed out. “I’m sure Edgar wouldn’t mind.”

Ephram shook his head. “Even if I could stomach the idea, I can’t leave my mother alone. She’s much better than she was the other day, but she’s still a little frail. Even though her body mends, her mind seems trouble by something.”

After telling Ephram that she’d be late back, Kate made her way to the door, before a stray thought caught in her mind and she turned back to him.

“Can I ask you something?” she said after a moment. “I don’t really speak any Greek, and I was just wondering about something. I heard a few people say this phrase while I was here, and I wondered what it meant. It sounded like… sono mio? Or maybe sono mia?”

“Sono io?” Ephram suggested.

“That’s it,” Kate replied. “What does it mean?”

“Literally? It means ‘It’s me’, that’s all. Nothing very interesting. Why?”

Kate paused for a moment, thinking back to the moment when she overheard Edgar talking to Ephram’s mother during the storm. There had been such passion and tenderness in his voice as he’d said those two words over and over.

“No reason,” she said finally, smiling faintly before stepping out into the warm evening air and starting the walk up to the mansion.

 

***

 

“Where the hell did all these people come from?” Kate asked out loud as she stepped through the double doors and saw a huge crowd of more than a hundred party-goers, all dressed in immaculate evening wear as a band played classical music at the far end of the room. Candles blazed in chandeliers and all the people around her were holding beautiful masks up to cover their faces. It was like something from a film, and Kate was convinced that if she blinked the whole scene would disappear.

She had expected a small dinner tonight, with perhaps a dozen guests. Instead, she was almost in another world.

“Champagne, Madam?” asked an impeccably-dressed waiter as he arrived at her side, carrying a tray of drinks.

Barely able to process everything she was seeing, Kate took a thin-stemmed glass and the waiter immediately set off to deliver drinks to the other guests.

“Mr. Le Compte asked me to tell you that he will be with you shortly,” said the doorman, who had identified himself as Jacob just a few moments ago when he let her into the party. “He is, as you can imagine, rather taken up with the constant stream of arrivals, but he told me to assure you that he will be with you shortly.”

“Where did they come from?” Kate asked, turning to him. “Seriously, these people aren’t from the town, are they?”

“Mr. Le Compte has friends from far and wide,” Jacob replied with a cautious, reserved smile, “in all directions. His parties are held in high esteem in every land.”

Even though her question hadn’t quite been answered, Kate turned away and looked across the sea of people. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and as she made her way across the room she couldn’t help but become aware of the plethora of different accents all around her. Spotting a woman in a beautiful, gold and silver satin dress, she suddenly felt terribly out of place. Her new black dress had seemed almost too much when she bought it earlier at a shop in town, but now she was convinced that she was sticking out like a sore thumb. It didn’t help, either, that she was the only one without a mask.

Stopping for a moment, she had to fight the urge to turn and run.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the bandleader suddenly, as the music came to a halt, “now that the majority of the guests have arrived, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you all the man who is responsible for tonight’s festivities. Please give a warm welcome to Baron Edgar Le Compte.”

As the crowd erupted in applause, Edgar took to the stage. Kate was so shocked at this latest development that she forgot to clap for a moment, finally joining in just as the moment was passing, which meant that her claps lingered a fraction of a second longer than everyone else’s.

“ Thank you,” Edgar said with a smile, momentarily glancing directly at Kate before looking out across the rest of the crowd. “You're all too kind, and as I've already said to a number of you this evening, your presence here is the only form of thanks that I require. I know that many of you have undergone tremendous inconvenience to reach Thaxos tonight, and for that I am most grateful. However, I shall not for one moment delude myself into believing that you have come solely for the pleasure of hearing me speak -”

At that, the crowd erupted with laughter, which took a few moments to die down.

“As you will all understand,” Edgar continued, “it has been a long time since the Le Compte family held a proper presence here on Thaxos. Too long.” He paused, and it seemed to Kate that the moment of jollity had passed and was now replaced by a more serious tone, as if Edgar was speaking from the heart. “This island is my family’s home,” he continued. “For better or for worse, the Le Compte name has been synonymous with Thaxos for many years. I’m fully aware that this history has not always been peaceful, and that mistakes have been made on both sides. What I hope, now that I have returned to claim the house anew, is that a new era of peace and amity can be brought about. It will not be easy, but then again, what worthwhile endeavor does not require hard work? So with that in mind, I ask you all to raise your glasses and join me in a toast to the island and its continued prosperity.”

“To Thaxos!” the crowd roared, accompanied by the clinking of champagne flutes.

Smiling awkwardly, Kate found herself experiencing that familiar sensation of separateness that she always felt when she was in a crowd. She knew full well that she was not the kind of person who could fit in with such a gathering, but then again she hadn’t come for the social value of the evening but, rather, because she wished to speak again to Edgar, and that aim in itself was already enough of a departure from her usual behavior.

As Edgar stepped down off the stage and the band-members resumed their positions, Kate made her way through the crowd. She was hoping to get Edgar’s attention, but somehow she lost him in the sea of people and the more she looked, the more she felt as if she was starting to become lost. Turning and looking back across the room, she realized that she was in her worst nightmare: a high-end, glittering social evening surrounded by people she didn’t know and with whom she was certain she had nothing in common.

With a faint smile, she downed her champagne, at which point a waiter immediately came up from behind, took her empty glass and gave her a new one.

“Thanks,” she muttered, not entirely genuinely. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t drink all evening, but she figured one glass wouldn’t be too bad, and the second would be a useful prop. At least until she could speak to Edgar. All she had to do, she figured, was wait and he would find her shortly.

 

***

 

The sounds of the party drifted along the dark corridor as Kate made her way through the gloom, admiring the scores of huge oil paintings that lined the corridor wall. It was almost midnight and she still had her second glass of champagne in her hand, with only a few sips having been taken. The party sounded simultaneously close and yet distant, which suited Kate just fine. She felt it reflected badly on her, but in truth she’d had enough for one night of being in the middle of a crowd of strangers. Having tried and failed to join a handful of conversations, she had slipped away to a quieter part of the house.

Besides, the paintings were more interesting than a load of overheard snippets of conversation.

“I thought I might find you here,” said a familiar voice suddenly.

Turning, Kate’s first thought was surprise that she hadn’t heard Edgar approaching. Her own footsteps had echoed, but Edgar seemed to move so quietly.

“Far from the madding crowd, I see,” he continued, smiling as he stopped next to her and turned to look up at the nearest portrait. “My great-great-grandfather,” he added after a moment. “A fearsome man. I remember him vividly, even though he died when I was very young. I’m afraid to say that he was the one who began the slow and painful process of making my family so unpopular on this island. He…”

Kate waited for him to finish.

“Let’s just say that he was a man with dark tastes,” he continued, clearly preferring to take the tactful approach. “I’m sure some of the stories have been exaggerated, but he was most certainly a man who enjoyed cruelty. His mind had been damaged after he saw action in several wars. Crimea, I believe, and Gothos too. Whatever he saw on those battlefields, it drove him out of his mind, and sadly he had both the time and the money to indulge his darkest desires. Sometimes I think that my family will forever be marked by his actions. I know, for example, that his shadow hung over my grandfather.”

“Do you take a keen interest in the history of your family?” Kate asked.

“It’s hard not to,” he replied. “There’s a huge archive here in the mansion. Thousands of crates, probably millions of documents and photographs all told. All of it in chaos, of course. I keep meaning to go through it, or perhaps to pay someone else to do it, but so far the job remains un-started. If nothing else, though, I should very much like to trace certain lines through the generations, to see how the Le Compte family reached its current state. What about you? Do you come from a large family?”

“Not really,” Kate replied, before realizing that her usual stock answer suddenly seemed unnecessary. “My parents died when I was very young,” she added. “I was raised by my aunt.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was so long ago,” she continued. “I don’t claim any special privileges just because I happened to be orphaned. I was always looked after, always fed and clothed, and my aunt gave me a strong foundation for the rest of my life. There are people out there who had much worse childhoods, even if both their parents lived to a long age.”

“My own parents are gone now,” Edgar replied. “The ravages of time catch up with us all eventually, even if we fool ourselves into believing that we can outrun them.” He paused again. “Come. Please, let me show you something.”

“Shouldn’t you get back to your party?”

“I doubt they’ll even notice my absence.”

“There are so many people here tonight,” Kate said as they walked along the dimly-lit corridor. “Where did they all come from?”

“It’s one of the advantages of my position,” Edgar replied, with a wistful tone to his voice. “I can summon all I need for a party without even breaking a sweat. Accordingly, I can also make them disappear with just the click of my fingers.” He smiled. “Well, you know what I mean. Besides, I had no choice. No-one from the town would have come, and I didn’t much fancy holding a party without any guests.”

As they reached a narrow, arched door, he paused to take the keys from his pocket. Once he had opened the door, he held it open and allowed Kate to go first. She immediately found herself in a large hall that was filled almost from floor to ceiling with crates, boxes and various other containers, some of which had tipped over and spilled documents and photos all over the place. It reminded Kate of the times she’d been into the back rooms of some of London’s largest museums, except that the chaos here was so much more overwhelming.

“The Le Compte family archive,” Edgar explained, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged room. “Say what you like about my family, but they have always been meticulous about keeping records. Every action, every purchase, every moment… Every act of mercy or cruelty. It’s all recorded somewhere here. Some of them kept receipts, some kept diaries, but all of them shared a desire to leave behind a meticulous account of their existence. I’m sure you can understand now why I feel compelled to one day organize everything. The longer I wait, the bigger the job will become, and frankly, one wonders where to begin.”

“I’m sure it’ll be a fascinating project,” Kate replied, wandering over to a pile of spilled documents and picking up one of the pieces of paper, only to find that it was a receipt for the purchase of some goats, dated all the way back to the year 1820. Given the reputation of Edgar’s family, the receipt seemed touchingly mundane.

“It’s hard to know where to begin, really,” Edgar continued, strolling between the boxes with his hands in his pockets. “Besides, I keep getting distracted. The stones on the north side of the island, for example. I’ve long thought about funding a proper project to investigate them. For one thing, the ground beneath them has never been properly imaged using the latest radar systems. No-one can even be sure how deep the stones go. There is so much we could still learn about them.”

“You like to keep busy,” Kate said with a faint smile.

“How can any man not?” he asked. “The stones fascinate me, but the family archive… I worry about spending too much time gazing at my own navel. I’m more interested in the outer world than the inner, at least when it comes to history. That’s why I hope to engage an outside party for the task of sorting through my family history.”

“Still,” Kate replied, “someone should definitely try to wrangle all this information into order.”

“Someone should,” Edgar replied. A brief pause followed, after which he made his way over to Kate and looked down at the piece of paper in her hand.

“Another receipt,” she said nervously, suddenly very much aware that her black dress was showing more cleavage than she would have preferred if viewed from Edgar’s current position next to her shoulder. She wanted to turn away, but at the same time she felt a tight, tingling sensation in her chest, and so she stayed still. This was definitely unfamiliar territory, but she was determined not to retreat again.

“You find these things interesting?” Edgar asked.

“It’s history.”

“It’s a receipt for some goats.”

“It’s still history,” she replied, starting to wonder where the conversation was headed. “I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of thing. Sometimes the fate of the world isn’t just shaped by huge wars. It’s also affected by little things, such as the price a man pays for a goat.” She held the piece of paper up for him to see. “Which in this case,” she added with a faint smile, “was two guineas and six-pence. Quite expensive for the time, I’d imagine.”

Edgar smiled as he took the piece of paper. He examined it for a moment, before setting it down and turning back to Kate. He was a little closer to her than might usually be considered polite.

“ I was thinking,” he said after a moment. “Please, hear me out before you answer. Is there any possibility that you might -”

“There you are!” a voice suddenly shrieked. “I’ve been looking everywhere!”

Kate and Edgar both turned in time to see a young, blonde woman come tottering into the room. She was wearing a painfully short skirt that looked more like a belt, while her large, pneumatic breasts were almost spilling out of her far-too-tight and far-too-pink top.

As she watched the woman come hurrying across the room, Kate couldn’t help but feel that the new arrival had come from some other place entirely, and that she didn’t fit with the tone of the evening at all.

“It smells funny in here,” the woman said as she reached Edgar and put her arms around him. “What is all this stuff, anyway? Why are you hiding away in a dusty old room?”

“I was just showing Miss Langley my family’s archive,” Edgar replied tensely.

“Huh,” the woman said, eying Kate suspiciously. “And who exactly is Miss Langley, anyway?”

“Where are my manners?” Edgar replied, almost through gritted teeth. His displeasure was plain to see. “Didi, I’d like you to meet Kate Langley. Kate’s a historian who came to the island for a sort of bus-man’s holiday. She’s interested in the stones on the north side of the island.”

“Those old things?” the girl said, reaching out a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Kate,” Edgar continued, “I’d like you to meet Didi Pierce.”

“Hi,” Kate said as the two women shook hands. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Huh,” Didi replied, with a slight frown. “Yeah. Sure.”

Edgar smiled awkwardly. “Didi's -”

“Edgar’s fiance!” Didi added, before he could finish. She held out her other hand to reveal a huge engagement ring. “What do you think? Is that one hot rock, or what? Tell her how much it cost, Eddie!”

“I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” Edgar said quietly.

“A million pounds,” the girl continued. “One. Million. Pounds. Can you believe that? I’m, like, reading all about Kim Kardashian and thinking, you know, I could teach that girl a thing or two.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kate replied, feeling a little flustered. “I’ve never seen one so big and… shiny.”

She turned to look back at the door, and suddenly she felt both flustered and humiliated: flustered because the last thing she’d expected was to learn that Edgar was engaged, and humiliated because she felt that she had perhaps allowed her imagination to wander a little while she was talking to him. After all, why should it matter to her if this guy had a fiance? It wasn’t that she’d begun to fantasize about some great romantic relationship, but she’d certainly begun to think that perhaps they could be friends, which suddenly seemed very unlikely. It was as if the whole evening had occurred in a bubble that had now suddenly been burst.

She also found it hard to believe that a man like Edgar would choose a woman like this Didi character.

“ Perhaps you'd like to go back to the main room,” Edgar told Didi, “and -”

“Not without you,” Didi replied, pulling on his arm. “Come on, baby.”

“Not now,” Edgar said with obvious annoyance.

“I should go,” Kate told him, not wanting to cause an argument.

“ No,” he replied, “I want to talk to you about something and -”

“There’s plenty of time for talking another day,” Didi continued, almost dragging Edgar to the door. “We’re supposed to be having a party, in case you hadn’t noticed! It’s not like we have many of those either, so for once let’s have some fun! You promised me that we’d still have a social life even after we moved to this frigging rock in”

“Please go back to the main room,” Edgar said, trying to get free of her grip. “I’ll be along shortly.”

“ No way,” Didi continued. “I want you to -”

“Leave!” Edgar shouted, finally pulling loose and sending Didi crashing to the floor.

“Are you okay?” Kate asked, rushing over to her.

“Leave her alone,” Edgar said, holding out a hand to stop her. “She’s fine. I’m not going to be told what to do in my own home, and especially not by some empty-headed little cretin who doesn’t have the good sense to back off when she’s told!”

“My wrist hurts!” Didi whined as she got to her feet. “You hurt me!”

“You fell,” Edgar replied.

“Only ‘cause you let go of me. You’re mean sometimes.”

“Then leave!” Edgar said firmly. “Don’t make me tell you again!”

“Don’t make you?” Didi asked, with pure anger in her eyes. “Oh, that’s rich!” She turned to walk away, before suddenly turning back and slapping Edgar with such venom that Kate almost rush over to stop her. “What kind of guy throws a party,” Didi continued, “and then holes up in a dark room with some woman in a crappy dress? Huh? Jesus Christ, Eddie, you’re going to embarrass us!”

“I think you should go back through,” Edgar said firmly, visibly straining to contain his anger, “before this fight gets any more out of hand. We’ll discuss things later.”

“When it suits you?” Didi asked sarcastically.

“When it suits me,” Edgar replied, taking a step toward her.

Almost as if she was suddenly scared, Didi stepped back, and all the confidence and pique drained from her face. She muttered something that Kate couldn’t quite make out, before turning and hurrying back out of the room, leaving nothing but silence in her wake.

Kate waited for Edgar to say something, but he remained completely still, with his back to her as he watched the door.

“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” he said eventually. “It was ugly and unnecessary.”

“I didn’t know you were engaged,” Kate replied, swallowing hard as she wondered how to extract herself from the situation without seeming rude. “She seems… feisty.”

He turned to her, and there was a hint of torment in his eyes. Music could still be heard drifting through from the main hall, but in the dimly-lit archive room it seemed as if the band’s work was somehow inappropriate, accentuating rather than replacing the silence.

“ I should probably get going,” Kate said finally, realizing that for once her sense of awkwardness had some context. “I have to be up early to take the boat -”

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay another week?” Edgar asked, interrupting her. “You seem to have barely scratched the surface with your work on the stones.”

“The stones are just a side-project,” she replied. “Believe it or not, I was actually supposed to relax while I was here. You know, beach and stuff like that.”

“And doesn’t your work relax you?”

Kate couldn’t help but smile as she realized that, for once, she’d actually met someone who understood.

“I’ll have one of my men walk with you as far as the edge of the town,” Edgar continued. “I’d do it myself, but I’m afraid Didi’s right about one thing, I do have a party to host. I hope that one day you’ll return to Thaxos, though. It would be a terrible shame if the mystery of the stones went unanswered forever, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps you’re the woman to get to the bottom of the whole thing. Call it a hunch.”

“I’m sure someone’ll come up with an answer eventually,” Kate replied, feeling genuinely disappointed that her week in Thaxos was now coming to a close. “All mysteries get solved. That’s just the way the world works. I’m just an archivist, really. I work better in dark rooms surrounded by pieces of paper.”

“Come,” Edgar said, heading to the door. “I’ll show you out.”

 

***

 

An hour later, having delicately sidestepped a few more of Edgar’s attempts to get her to stay, Kate found herself walking along the narrow dirt path that led down from the mansion to the town. She was accompanied by one of Edgar’s men, although her companion had said nothing so far and even his face was mostly hidden in shadow, as if he was there to do his job and nothing more. Most people would have found the situation awkward, but Kate was actually glad that there was no pressure to make small-talk.

“It’s okay,” she said finally, stopping and turning to the man as they reached the first house on the outskirts of the town. “I can take it alone from here. Thanks, though. It was very nice of you to come with me this far.”

The man nodded, and then immediately turned and started the walk back to the mansion. Kate looked up at the building up on the hill, which for once was lit with the lights of a grand party. The faintest hint of music was drifting across the entire island, and Kate couldn’t help but smile as she realized that in less than a week, Edgar Le Compte had most definitely made his mark on Thaxos. After a moment, however, the smile faded as she thought of him living up there with that Didi girl, who he seemed to dislike.

And then suddenly, as if with the snap of someone’s fingers, the music stopped and the lights dimmed. Kate waited for a moment to see what would happen next, but gradually the rest of the lights began to go dark.

Taking off her shoes, Kate walked barefoot back to Ephram’s house.

VIII

 

The dream was the same as the one before, and the one before that, and all the ones that had come over the past month, except for one crucial difference.

This time, she was scared.

Kate stepped back into the shadows, listening to the sound of footsteps echoing through the mansion’s dark, empty corridors. She was lost, unable to find the main door so she could escape; or rather, she’d found the place where the main door had previously been, but now it was gone, replaced by a blank wall. She felt certain that the layout of the mansion was changing around her, shifting its walls and doors in an attempt to trick her, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that in this manner she was slowly being delivered to some pre-determined, desired location.

She held her breath as the footsteps came even closer.

Someone was in the room with her.

“Kate?” Edgar called out. “I only want to talk to you.”

Still holding her breath, she waited for him to leave, but all she heard was the faint buzz of absolute silence.

“Kate?”

She waited, holding her breath long past the point at which it was comfortable. She was convinced that if she made even the faintest noise, she’d be heard, so she waited and waited until finally she heard footsteps heading away across the marble floor. She waited even longer, before finally allowing herself to breathe again. She had no idea where to run next, but she -

Suddenly she felt a man’s breath on her neck, and a hand touched her waist, resting on the fabric of her dress. She wanted to run, but just like in all the other dreams, Edgar’s touch seemed to paralyze her. She waited as his other hand reached around, gently stroking her hip before moving up toward her chest and clutching her breast through the fabric of her dress. As she braced herself for the moment when she’d inevitably wake up, she realized that this dream was lasting longer than usual. Edgar’s hand moved up to her shoulder, and Kate began to hold her breath again as she felt the strap of her dress being slipped down.

She waited. She’d always woken up by this point in the past, but now something very different was happening.

Edgar’s hand slipped the dress down, pulling the fabric over her right breast and exposing first the nipple, then the underside, and then the upper part of her belly. Slowly he did the same to the other side of the dress until she was topless, and yet still she couldn’t move as his hands slipped the dress down further, over her hips and then further still.

She tried to tell him to stop, but she couldn’t.

 

***

 

She sat up suddenly, finding that her bedroom was bright and that the white linen curtains were fluttering in a breeze that came through the open window. Outside, the sounds of London – voices, a passing bus, planes overhead – took a moment longer than usual to pull her back to reality, and she realized she was a little out of breath.

Reaching down, she ran a hand over her bare waist. She could still feel the touch that had come to her in the dream. Every night since she got back from Thaxos, the same dream had visited her in her sleep, and every night it seemed even more real and vivid than before. She was a rational person, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Edgar Le Compte was somehow reaching out to her across the vast distance that separated them, slowly inching his way deeper into her mind…

“Bugger!” she exclaimed suddenly as she saw the clock by her bed and realized that it was almost 8am.

Scrambling out of bed, she grabbed some clothes and hurried to the bathroom. She was in danger of being late to work for the third time in five days, and although it was her last day, she was determined to make a good impression. After all, she was still looking for her next freelance job, so she was relying heavily on a good recommendation from her current employer, who had useful links throughout the industry. Almost falling over as she slipped into some clean underwear, Kate tried to put thoughts of Edgar Le Compte from her mind, although he never left entirely. In fact, Kate wasn’t sure whether it felt like he was reaching out to her, or that she simply had never really left the island in her mind.

 

***

 

“London’s getting faster,” Annie said as the waiter brought their food to the table. “I swear to God, the city’s speeding up almost like it’s outta control. Isn’t that brilliant?”

Kate smiled, but as they sat at the open-air restaurant on the South Bank, she still didn’t feel settled. London, her home for so many years, seemed to have had a layer peeled away, becoming somehow different. Things that had been comforting before were now disquieting, and she felt that she hadn’t relaxed once since she got back from Thaxos. She kept telling herself that it was the uncertainty of her work situation, and the fact that she only had six months’ worth of pay saved up to keep herself going until she could snag another freelance position, but she also knew that these constant dreams about Edgar weren’t helping.

Then again, the dreams felt more real than anything that happened during her days at the moment.

“So you don’t have any leads?” Annie asked. “Not even a sniff of a job?”

“Tough times,” Kate said with a faint smile, as a plane passed above and a nearby bus honked its horn. Had London always been so noisy, she wondered, or was Annie right when she said that the entire city out of control?

“I don’t know how you freelancers manage it,” Annie continued, nibbling at a diet-compliant carrot. “Especially with the way the economy’s going. I mean, sure, it says in the papers that things are getting better, but are you feeling any of that trickle-down wealth?” She raised her glass of white wine in a toast. “If I didn’t have a rich husband, I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Scott ain’t letting none of his wealth trickle down to anyone!”

Kate clinked her glass with Annie’s, but she took only a sip before setting it back down. She really didn’t feel like drinking.

“Do you want to get hammered?” Annie asked, checking her watch. “It’s your last day, right? Skip it, and we’ll go out on Scott’s credit card and get absolutely wasted.”

Kate shook her head.

“Come on,” Annie half-whined. “Be fun.”

“I only got back from holiday a month ago,” Kate pointed out.

“No you didn’t,” Annie replied. “You’re still there. I can see it in your eyes. Are you sure you didn’t have a fling with some hot, Mediterranean-skinned sailor?”

Kate couldn’t help but smile at the memory of Fernando’s clumsy attempt to come onto her. She hadn’t mentioned any of that to Annie, because she knew she’d take a verbal battering if she admitted that she’d turned the poor guy down. She also hadn’t mentioned anything about Edgar, or the mysterious stones, or anything that had happened out on Thaxos. As far as Annie was aware, Kate had simply sat on the beach and sunned herself.

“Maybe I should go to this Thaxos place some time,” Annie said as she examined a stick of celery. “See what this place is like for myself.”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Kate replied, suddenly feeling a little defensive, as if Thaxos was hers and hers alone. “There’s not much to do.”

“Any night-life?”

“None.”

“Hot men?”

“Nope.”

“What’s the beach like?”

“Pebbly.”

“Huh,” Annie replied with a sigh. “Fine, I guess I’ll just drag Scott to Ibiza again instead. We went a few months ago, but I want to go back for the main season. You wanna tag along? Scott’ll pay!”

“Thanks,” Kate replied, “but I think one island’s enough for me this year.”

“Suit yourself,” Annie said with a smile. “You’re gonna have to have fun some day, though. You can’t spend your whole life daydreaming about being some big academic superstar. Live a little, babe.”

Kate smiled as her sense of panic began to subside. She was shocked by her own reaction to the idea of Annie going to Thaxos; the island felt like her own private world, and she wanted to keep it that way, even if she knew deep down that these feelings were irrational. In truth, she yearned to go back, but she knew she had to keep her feet rooted firmly to the ground. As she stared down at her plate of pasta, however, she found herself daydreaming about the seeming inevitability of another dream about Edgar that night. She’d come to enjoy his strange nocturnal visits, even though she knew that they weren’t really very healthy.

In a strange and twisted way, she was looking forward to the next dream, and curious about whether it would last even longer than before.

“Another toast,” Annie said, raising her glass. “To English people going to Mediterranean islands and having a damn good time.”

“Cheers,” Kate replied, taking another sip of wine. She checked her watch and saw that it was almost 2pm. Half an hour until she had to be back at work. More importantly, only seven or eight hours before she could justifiably go back to bed and wait for another of those dreams. Although she hated to admit it, they were intoxicating, and she felt they were becoming unhealthily important in her life. It was almost as if she was becoming obsessed.

 

***

 

“You’re right,” she said as she and Annie hurried across the busy road, heading to the Tube station. “London is getting faster. And noisier. And dirtier.”

“Yep,” Annie said with a grin. “Admit it, you love it.”

Kate smiled, but the truth was, she felt as if her life in the city was becoming disconnected. Everything on Thaxos had flowed with such graceful ease, whereas the edges of her life in London suddenly felt fragmented and sharp. The island had changed her.

 

***

 

“See you at the weekend,” she called back to Annie as she got onto the Tube train.

Annie shouted something back at her, but Kate didn’t quite hear what she said as a station announcer yelled something tinny and indecipherable. As she turned back to look, Kate watched the doors closing, and for a moment she thought she saw a hint of sadness in Annie’s eyes, before her friend’s usual smile returned.

With a loud squealing sound, the train began to pull away.

 

A cyclist almost rode straight into her as Kate crossed the street in front of the gallery. Just managing to stop in time, Kate felt the cyclist’s arm brush against her, and she heard the woman shout an obscenity before continuing on her way.

 

***

 

“A telegram came for you while you were at lunch,” said Justin Cartwright, the owner of the gallery and – for the next few hours at least – still Kate’s employer.

“A what?” Kate asked as she looked up from the century-old piece of cloth she was preparing to hang in preparation for the opening of the exhibition.

“I know,” Justin replied, holding out an envelope. “Who knew that telegrams even existed these days? But yeah, a guy on a bike turned up and said he had a telegram for a Miss Katherine Langley. I signed for it, and now here you go. Do you really know someone who still sends these things?”

Kate took the envelope, and her heart immediately skipped a beat as she saw that the sender’s location was listed as the Thaxos Post Office. She turned the envelope over, but somehow she felt nervous, as if she was afraid of what the telegram might contain. The week on Thaxos had only been a month ago, but it felt more like an entirely different lifetime. Still, the envelope felt like a lifeline, and even though she knew she’d probably be disappointed, she wanted to prolong the sense of hope for a little longer.

“Not going to open it?” Justin asked.

“Later,” Kate replied. “I’m kind of busy right now.”

“The display’s going to be ready by five, isn’t it?” Justin added. “Please tell me it’s going to be ready, Kate. I’ve got some very important early investors coming tonight and I really need to show them that the exhibition’s ready to open on Monday morning.”

“Of course,” Kate replied, stuffing the unopened telegram into her pocket. “I told you I’d get it done on time, and I always deliver on my promises.”

“And that’s why I hired you,” he said, heading to the door before turning back to her. “By the way, I hope you don’t mind but I passed your details onto a friend of mine who runs an exhibition space in Hammersmith. He’s looking for someone to manage a major show about pre-Celtic religions, and I told him you’re the best historical curator I’ve ever worked with. He should be getting in touch in the next few days. I hope that’s okay…”

“It’s great,” Kate replied. “Thank you so much.”

“The job’s pretty much in the bag,” he continued. “I only recommend people when I know they’ll reflect well on me, so… Good work, Kate. Really good work.”

Once Justin had left the room, Kate forced herself to focus on the task at hand. Although she wasn’t able to entirely forget about the telegram, she told herself that she had to dedicate herself completely to getting the finishing touches of this exhibition sorted out. There’d be time for reading telegrams later, so she worked her ass off all afternoon until finally, with just fifteen minutes to spare, she found herself standing in the middle of the room and admiring the displays that she’d spent the past six months preparing and arranging. In her hand, she was holding the exhibition catalog, complete with the essay she’d written to introduce the collection.

It was done.

Over.

Nearby, someone started clapping. She turned and saw that Justin had returned, and they spent a little while going over the exhibits before finally it was time for her to leave. Having worked with Justin for so long, Kate actually felt a little saddened by the prospect of ending this freelance contract, but she also knew that she’d done a good job. She and Justin exchanged pleasantries and made plans to meet up again soon, and then finally Kate grabbed her coat and bag and stepped out into the gray drizzle of a dull London evening. Still, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she’d done her job well, and she couldn’t help but smile as she made her way to the Tube station.

For the rest of the evening, she conspicuously and very deliberately avoided opening the telegram from Thaxos. It was almost as if she was scared of what it might contain.

Instead, she busied herself with a few little jobs at her apartment, and she cooked herself a meal with a bottle of red wine. She answered an email from Justin’s friend, setting up an informal interview about the new job, and she generally tried to disconnect from the craziness and speed of the world outside her window. Finally, long after darkness had fallen, she sat in the alcove by the window and looked out at the lights of the city. There was a small park opposite her apartment, and sometimes she enjoyed just sitting and watching people making their way between the streetlamps’ pools of light. She figured this was a little odd, but she didn’t really care what other people thought.

And then, finally, she realized that it was time to open the telegram. Her hands were trembling a little as she tore open the envelope, and as she slid the piece of paper out she kept telling herself that it was probably just from Ephram. Finally, she read the note:

 

Dear Kate,

 

I trust that this message finds you in good health. I shall keep things brief.

 

I have spent quite some time considering the state of my family archive here on Thaxos, and having made a few attempts to begin the work myself, I have come to the realization that I would be better served by employing a professional. I am therefore contacting you in order to ascertain whether or not you might be interested in taking up the position.

 

I have no idea how long the task of sorting the archive would take, although I believe it would be at least six months. I am very much aware that the history of a single family on a small island might lack the importance and glamor of your other work, but I would like to add that this history is closely intertwined with the history of Thaxos itself, and also that some of my ancestors left behind copious notes concerning their own work. There is also the possibility of conducting additional work regarding the stones on the north side of the island, which I would be happy to sponsor.

 

I offer room and board in my home, generous pay, and negotiable time off. You would be left alone to work in your own way, and your efforts would be greatly appreciated. Writing this now, I can see that the prospect of coming to work on Thaxos might not be so enticing, but I hope nevertheless that you will consider the idea. My family’s archive is hugely important to me, and I can think of no-one I would rather trust with the task.

 

In anticipation of your response,

 

Baron Edgar Le Compte,

Thaxos

 

Kate immediately re-read the message a couple of times, barely able to believe the offer. She kept telling herself that she must have misunderstood, that there was no way Edgar Le Compte would be reaching out to her and offering her a job back on Thaxos. Once she was certain that this was, indeed, what he was doing, she began to think of all the reasons why she couldn’t possibly accept, until finally she caught herself daydreaming about the idea of going back to that place, of making her way up the hill toward the mansion again, of throwing herself into a project that offered a genuine challenge. Most of all, she was excited about exploring those stones again, and perhaps working with Edgar to explore the history not only of his family but also of the island itself.

In the back of her mind, there was also the prospect of maybe writing the definitive book about the island’s history, and really making a name for herself.

She spent the rest of the evening lost in thought, finishing off the bottle of wine as she tried to make a decision. Deep down, however, she was aware that she already wanted to go back, even though she was trying to come up with a reason why she could never do something so crazy. Thaxos had been a holiday, a break from her normal life; she couldn’t uproot herself and head out there permanently, or even semi-permanently. Sure, she had nothing to really tie her to London, and that realization in itself made her feel a little melancholy. Staying put would be safe and sensible, but going to Thaxos would be an adventure, and as midnight rolled around she found herself sitting at her laptop, looking at photos of the stones and researching the history of the Le Compte family.

Besides, she’d never really gone on an adventure before…

Finally, she made her decision. Looking down at the telegram, she felt a great sense of anticipation, and she realized that for once in her life she was going to seize an opportunity without over-thinking it first and potentially losing the chance, and she was going to reply that very instant.

First, though, she had one problem to surmount.

“How the hell do I send a telegram?”

IX

 

She felt it immediately, without even looking up from her book. The slowing of the boat, the shift in pitch of the engine as the vessel began to turn. She knew it could only mean one thing.

Thaxos.

Closing the book and tucking it into her backpack, Kate turned and watched as the harbor’s stone wall came closer and closer. It was as if the place hadn’t changed at all. Her chest was tightening with anticipation as she thought of being back, and after a moment she looked up at the mansion, perched up on the hill overlooking the town. She couldn’t help but wonder if Edgar was up there, watching the small passenger boat as it docked, or whether he might actually be down by the waterside to meet her. Since accepting his job offer, she’d received just one further telegram, to which she’d replied letting him know when she’d arrive.

And now, after all the anticipation, the day had finally arrived. All told, it had now been three months since she’d last been to Thaxos, and those three months had felt like both the longest and the shortest period in her life.

As the boat finally docked, Kate grabbed her backpack and suitcase and headed over to the steps. Fernando was making final preparations, and as Kate watched him work, she couldn’t help but wonder whether or not she should try to talk to him. During the journey, he’d conspicuously avoided making eye contact with her, and she’d been disappointed to realize that he clearly was uncomfortable around her following their evening out in Thaxos a few months ago. She felt that a good-looking guy like Fernando probably got every woman he went after, but at the same time she didn’t much feel like trying to soothe the damaged ego of some Mediterranean Lothario.

If he wanted to be like this, it was no skin off her nose.

“Thaxos,” he muttered, as if he felt the need to make some kind of announcement.

“Thanks,” Kate replied as she carried her bags off the boat and onto the dock. She turned to find that Fernando was already removing the metal steps. “Not staying this time?” she asked.

“No chance,” he replied, barely glancing at her.

“Well, have a nice…” Kate paused, feeling as if she wanted to clear up any bad blood between them. “It was good to see you again,” she told him.

He smiled uneasily.

“ I'm sorry if -”

“Are you sure you want to come back here?” he asked suddenly. “We can take you back to the mainland, no problem. No fare, even. Come on, free passage. This place… You shouldn’t stay.”

“I’ve been here before, remember?” she replied. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“It’s not the same,” Fernando said darkly, before looking up at something over Kate’s shoulder.

Turning, she realized he was staring at the mansion. After a moment, she realized that now she was closer, something did seem different. Thaxos’s port town had never exactly been a bustling hive of activity, but there always used to be a few people out and about during the day. Right now, however, there was no-one, and most of the nearby buildings had their shutters closed.

“Your choice,” Fernando said, as the ship’s captain eased the vessel away. “Just be careful. And remember, if you want to leave, we stop by again on Wednesday at midday.”

“I’m here for a little longer than that,” Kate told him.

He didn’t reply, but from the look in his eyes it was clear that he wasn’t happy about the situation. As the boat began to head back out to sea, Fernando stood and watched Kate, before finally turning and getting on with his work.

Shrugging off the strangeness of Fernando’s mood, Kate grabbed her suitcase and began to make her way across the little cobbled square that ran off from the quayside. Everything seemed so quiet, and by the time she reached the end of the first street, she was starting to worry about the fact that she’d not seen or heard anyone. Moments later, she heard a scratching sound nearby, and when she looked back she was startled to see a large, fat rat scurrying under a nearby wooden gate. Moments later, another rat appeared a little further along the street, and this one made no attempt to hide, as if it had no fear of being seen.

Although Kate had intended to make her way straight to the mansion, something about the strange atmosphere caused her to take a slightly different route through the town, and finally she stopped outside Ephram’s building. After the strange atmosphere by the quayside, she’d almost expected to find the place boarded up, but to her relief she saw that not only was it open for business as usual, but a customer was just leaving, carrying a paper bag full of groceries.

As the elderly man made his way across the courtyard, he glanced briefly at Kate, but there was a kind of darkness to his eyes, as if he was scared to acknowledge her.

Moments later, Kate heard footsteps nearby, and she turned to see Ephram coming out of the shop with a bucket, the contents of which he began to pour down the drain. It wasn’t until he was almost done that he glanced across the courtyard and saw Kate.

“Hey,” she said with a smile. “I bet you never expected to see me back here, did you?”

Ephram stared at her for a moment, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Are you…” He paused. “What are you doing here?”

“Long story,” she replied, trying to lighten the atmosphere a little. “I’m going to be here for a while, though. I’ve got a job on the island.”

“A job?” Ephram didn’t seem pleased at the prospect. He glanced briefly up toward the horizon, as if he was checking on the mansion, before turning back to her. “You shouldn’t…” The words seemed to catch in his throat for a moment, and then he hurried to the door, holding it open and gesturing for Kate to follow him. “This way,” he said, as if worried that they might be seen. “Come inside. Hurry!”

Setting her suitcase and backpack down, Kate stepped into store, which seemed dingier and more rundown than she remembered.

“Has something happened?” she asked. “What’s going on around here?”

“Everything has changed,” Ephram said, locking the door before turning to her with a look of genuine fear in his eyes. “You can’t stay here. You must turn around and leave the island immediately!”

Part Two

I

 

“Kill it!” he screamed, swinging the wrong end of a mop past her head and smashing several cups off the table, as the rat scurried to safety behind a fridge in the corner of the room.

“ Ephram -” Kate started to say.

“Get around the back!” he yelled, grabbing her arm and yanking her over to the other side of the fridge, before running back to get into position and raising the mop. “Okay. Flush it out! Flush it!”

“What?”

“The rat! Flush it out and I’ll finish it off!”

Kate stared down at the gap between the fridge and the wall. Although she had no doubt that the rat was hiding behind there, she had absolutely no idea how she was supposed to ‘flush it out’. Seconds later, she spotted movement, and the rat peered up at her. Before she could tell Ephram what she was seeing, however, she spotted more movement, and several tiny baby rats came crawling into view. Although Kate had said that she’d help with the rat-catching, she was suddenly struck by a moment of doubt as she saw the faces of the little rat babies. Then again, she figured that maybe she should be less sentimental; after all, if that was one thing every historian knew, it was that rats spread disease.

“You see it, don’t you!” Ephram suddenly shouted, running around to her side and swinging the mop handle down hard, missing the rats by inches.

Before he could try again, the rodents bolted out from the other side and disappeared into a hole in the wall.

“Damn them to hell!” he shouted, whacking the end of the mop helplessly against the wall before turning to Kate with an exhausted look in his eyes. “I really thought I had them this time,” he added breathlessly. “Then again, it doesn’t really matter. Kill one, and ten more turn up the next day. This island is becoming overrun. Soon it will be an island of only rats!”

“It can’t have happened so quickly,” Kate replied, somewhat stunned by the scene she’d just witnessed. “Can it?”

Ephram glared at her, which was enough for her to realize that she’d perhaps asked a dumb question.

“You will notice the lack of chickens,” he continued. “They were all eaten by the rats. Now I have to keep my new chickens in a coop in the back yard. It’s no fun for them, and I miss having them under my feet, but there is nothing I can do. At first, it took five or six rats to kill one chicken. By last week, I was seeing one rat kill one chicken. The rats are getting bigger and tougher. They’re not even scared of me anymore!”

“Have you considered getting an exterminator?” Kate asked.

“They’re everywhere,” he replied. “The only option would be to tip everything into the sea and start again. No-one wants to start throwing poison around, so we try to do the best we can, but there’s not a person on Thaxos who isn’t bedeviled by the damn things.” He paused again, with a hint of irritation in his expression. “Well, maybe one person. His Lordship, the man who brought them here in the first place, sits so high up in his mansion, I doubt the rats have reached him yet. They’re probably too busy down here. For the moment, they go after our livestock and our pets, but mark my words. Soon, it will be a child, and then no-one will be safe!”

Kate watched as Ephram dejectedly put the mop back in the corner. The change in his character was both extreme and shocking, and she was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that this was the same man she’d first met just three months ago. It was as if, while she was away, everything had turned sour. Even the shop seemed darker and more chaotic than usual, and Ephram himself seemed to have aged a decade in just a short space of time.

“Why are you here?” he asked, slumping down onto the stool behind the counter. “This is no place for a holiday, not these days.”

“I already told you,” she replied. “I got a job.”

“ A job? What kind of job could you possibly get on Thaxos?” He stared at her for a moment, and then finally he realized. “Oh. No, Kate. Please, don't tell me -”

“He needs an archivist,” she replied defensively. “The terms he offered are better than anything I’d get in London right now, and he’s even allowing me to live up at the mansion. It’s a six month deal at first, but…”

As she spoke, Ephram started shaking his head disconsolately.

“It’s a perfect job for me,” she continued, hoping to make him see things from her point of view. “I get to study the history of the Le Compte family, which is fascinating enough on its own, but I also get to study those stones on the north of the island. I really feel as if this could be the turning point for my career. If I knuckle down and work hard, I could end up with a publishable paper. Maybe even a book!”

“So you want to be famous?”

“I want to work, and I want it to be something interesting that could lead somewhere.”

“But that place,” he replied. “Kate, please, just turn around and leave Thaxos. Forget that this place ever existed.”

“It can’t be that bad,” she told him.

“Can’t be that bad? We are overrun with rats, half the island has been fenced off, there is a motor vehicle rampaging through the streets at all hours, and the people living up at that mansion…” He paused again, with a hint of fear in his eyes. “It’s not right. Not natural. He never comes down here to the town, but he sends his people from time to time. I’ve never seen such lost, empty souls in my life. Working for Baron Edgar Compte seems to drain them of their humanity. If they had any to begin with. And meanwhile that big black boat keeps coming back every couple of weeks, and God alone knows what is being unloaded each time. Probably something even worse than rats.”

“Are you sure you’re not exaggerating just a little?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“ Edgar Le Compte isn't a -”

“And my grandmother is dying,” he said suddenly.

Kate stared at him, unable to quite take in the news.

“She never really recovered from that night,” he continued, with a teary, lost look in his eyes. “I looked after her as best I could, I even took out a loan and paid for a specialist to come from the mainland, but it was as if she’d lost the will to keep fighting. Every day, she faded away just a little more, until I realized there was no way back for her. I would have done anything, even sell the store and my home, if I’d thought there was any treatment that could help, but her heart just can’t be repaired. She never leaves her bed, and the doctor says she has maybe a few weeks left at most.” He made the sign of the cross on his chest. “At least she’ll soon be in peace. She doesn’t have to see the full extent of the misery that has spread here.”

“I’m so sorry,” Kate said after a moment, feeling genuinely shocked. “I don’t know her very well, but I know how much she means to you.”

Ephram looked down at his hands, as if for once he was speechless.

“Has Edgar Le Compte been to visit?” Kate asked.

Ephram turned to her, with a look of horror in his eyes.

“ I mean,” she stammered, “he -”

“Why would that so-called man come to see my grandmother?” Ephram asked, with the indignation having returned to his voice. “And if he did show his face, why would I let him through my door? Just because my grandmother and his grandfather were briefly courting once, there’s no reason for our families to have anything to do with one another.” He paused for a moment, glancing across the shop. “Family,” he muttered finally. “What family? Look at me, I have nothing now. Even my chickens are locked away.”

“I just thought that Edgar knew your grandmother from before,” Kate said, thinking back to the tender moment she’d witnessed at the mansion.

Ephram shook his head.

“ Are you sure?” Kate asked. “Maybe he -”

“Edgar Le Compte – the current Edgar Le Compte, at least – was born far away from Thaxos and only came here for the first time three months ago. There would have been absolutely no reason for him to give her a second thought. It was his grandfather who knew and courted my grandmother.”

“Of course,” Kate replied, even though she was still trying to work out exactly why Edgar had seemed so concerned about the old woman, and so familiar as he spoke to her.

“Is there anything,” Ephram continued, “that I can say that might persuade you not to go up to that godforsaken house on the hill?” He stared at her with desperate, pleading eyes. “Please, Kate. You have no idea what you’re facing if you go back there! No matter how you think things will go, I can assure you that they will be a thousand times worse. God has forsaken this island and Edgar Le Compte is the cancer that will kill us all.”

 

***

 

As soon as she reached the top of the hill and began to walk across the driveway, Kate could tell that something was most definitely wrong. Edgar’s mansion seemed so still and lifeless, almost as if the house itself had died and begun to fade away. If she didn’t know better, she could easily have believed that it had been abandoned, yet she was quite certain that Edgar must be somewhere within the building.

When she got to the foot of the steps that led up to the main door, she turned to look back for a moment. It was a hot day with not a cloud in the sky, and the climb up the hill had left her breathless and a little sweaty. She felt uncomfortable and barely presentable, but worse than that was the fact that she was convinced she was being watched. As she turned to look up at the mansion’s windows, she was unable to spot anyone; still, the sensation persisted, and for the first time she began to wonder whether she should perhaps have listened to Ephram’s warnings.

Then again, she reminded herself, Ephram might be a good man, but he was also extremely superstitious. He believed in things that simply didn’t, and couldn’t, exist. Plus, he was clearly prejudiced against Edgar, which was surely clouding his thinking.

Reaching the door, she was about to knock when she saw that it was already hanging slightly ajar. She pushed it open and peered into the gloom, finding to her dismay that the interior of the house seemed just as abandoned and desolate as the exterior. Setting her bags down, she stepped into the hallway, waving away a cloud of dust that hung in the air, and she immediately realized that no-one seemed to have been in this place for quite some time. She felt quite certain that Edgar would not have just upped and left, yet she couldn’t help but wonder why no-one had come to meet her. Having traveled so far, she was starting to worry that the whole job offer had been a mistake or, even worse, some kind of a hoax.

Her footsteps echoed as she made her way across the room. She listened out for any hint of a noise, but the place was silent.

“Miss Langley,” a voice said suddenly. “Welcome back.”

Turning, she saw a hunched figure shuffling through the shadows, and after a moment she realized that it was the doorman, Jacob. His presence was, at least, a sign that the mansion hadn’t been completely abandoned, although he seemed older and more decrepit than before. Just like the mansion itself, it was as if he’d aged far more than just three months.

“Hi,” Kate said cautiously. “I’m… I sent a message ahead saying that I’d be arriving today. I don’t know if you were expecting me, though…”

“Of course,” Jacob said, his old, weathered face breaking into a courteous smile. “His Lordship informed me that you would be coming, and he instructed me to show you to your room.”

“His Lordship?” Kate replied, slightly taken aback by the grandeur of the title. “Is… Do you mean Edgar?”

“Yes. His Lordship, Baron Edgar Le Compte of Thaxos.”

“Right,” Kate replied, unable to stifle a faint smile, “and is… His Lordship here?”

“I believe he is in the East Wing,” Jacob explained. “I’m afraid he cannot be disturbed at the moment, but he wanted me to inform you that he is very much looking forward to seeing you over dinner tonight at eight o’clock in the state room. Until then, I am instructed to show you to your quarters and offer any assistance that might be required as you settle in. His Lordship felt that you would probably not want to get to work straight away, so please, take time to relax and get to know your surroundings.”

“ Sure,” Kate said, looking back at her bags for a moment before turning to Jacob again. “Is it not possible to just briefly see Edgar and -”

“I am afraid that His Lordship cannot be disturbed,” Jacob said firmly, interrupting her. “On that matter, he was most insistent, and it is best to respect his wishes. I can assure you, however, that he is very much looking forward to meeting you over dinner tonight.”

“Huh,” Kate replied, unable to shake the feeling that her return wasn’t been treated as any kind of big deal. It wasn’t as if she’d expected ribbons and a fanfare, but she’d still figured that Edgar would at least greet her in person.

“I shall have a man bring your luggage up,” Jacob added. “Please, won’t you come with me?”

As the old man made his way to the staircase, Kate paused for a moment. She was starting to realize that perhaps she had misjudged the situation. Her previous visit to Thaxos might have been a holiday, but this time she was here to work, and Edgar Le Compte was her employee rather than her friend. She’d anticipated that dividing line, of course, but she hadn’t expected it to be so clearly marked out on the first day. Figuring that she should simply adjust her expectations accordingly and be thankful for the job, she hurried after Jacob, as a sunken-eyed porter emerged from a nearby door and, with almost mechanical efficiency, went to fetch her bags.

“So have there been many parties over the past few months?” Kate asked Jacob, trying to make conversation as she followed him up the stairs.

“There have been no gatherings,” the old man replied. “Nor, as far as I am aware, are there any social events on the calendar. Everything has been run as His Lordship demands.”

“It’s just that things seem a little different,” Kate continued, hoping to tease out some answers. Instead, she was met with silence, and she figured it was best not to ask any more questions as Jacob led her slowly along the corridor toward her room. Although she had never been much of a believer in the idea of instincts, she was starting to feel that something must be horribly wrong at the mansion.

“The life of the house continues as His Lordship prefers,” was the only reply she received. Curt, brief and to the point, it was also noticeably evasive.

Once she had been shown to her room and her bags had arrived, Kate realized that she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. Jacob offered only some limited information about the mansion, and gave no real clue as to whether she was free to explore freely. In fact, the old man seemed barely interested in her at all, and answered her questions with as few words as possible.

“Dinner will be at eight,” he said finally as he stepped out of the room. “His Lordship requests that you should not be late.”

“Sure,” Kate replied as she listened to Jacob’s footsteps heading away along the corridor. Finally she was left alone in her room. “I wouldn’t dream of keeping His Lordship waiting.”

II

 

“I tried everything,” Ephram explained as he set a tray of food in front of his mother. “She wouldn’t listen. To her, I’m just an old fool. She doesn’t understand the truth about that man. No offense, but she is a typical woman and a typical westerner. Not a good combination at all.”

He sat on the side of the bed as his grandmother slowly picked up her knife and fork. Every night, the pair of them went through the same routine: he’d bring her a meal and then sit with her while she ate, and usually he’d end up helping her since the old woman no longer had the necessary strength to feed herself properly. Tonight, her aged, veiny hands seemed to be having particular trouble with the cutlery, and Ephram watched her struggle until he had no choice but to intervene.

“Here,” he said, taking the knife and fork so that he could cut her food up for her. “Let me.”

Although she tried to take the cutlery back, the old woman finally gave in and accepted that this was how things would have to be. She opened her mouth obediently and allowed her grandson to gently slip a forkful of meat between her lips, and then she swallowed without even bothering to chew the gelatinous mess.

“She’ll learn soon enough,” Ephram continued, forcing a smile as he cut off another piece of meat. “Of course, by then it might be too late, but I’m sure she can look after herself. If not…”

He paused, as suddenly the impact of those words hit him. He respected Kate and he felt that she could take care of herself, but at the same time he had no doubt that Edgar Le Compte was a dangerous man.

“Well,” he added, slipping another forkful of food into his grandmother’s mouth, “she seems smart. Hopefully she’ll get out while she still has a chance. After all, you managed it with Le Compte’s grandfather, didn’t you? So many foolish girls threw themselves at his feet, but you had the sense to back away all those years ago. What was it that warned you?”

As he lifted the fork to his grandmother’s mouth to give her some more food, she reached out and gently pushed his arm away. He tried again, but the same thing happened.

“You must eat,” he said, worried that she was going to eat even less tonight. “If you don’t eat, you won’t get better. You want to get better, don’t you?”

There was no reply. She simply stared at him with pleading eyes.

“Don’t you?” he asked again. “Grandmother?”

Slowly, the old woman turned and looked over at the window, as if she expected to see something on the other side. There was something in her gaze, a kind of alertness, that Ephram had not seen for a very long time, and it gave him a small amount of hope.

“Do you want me to leave the window open tonight?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Of course,” he replied, getting to his feet and making his way across the room. As he opened the window, he couldn’t help but feel relieved that his grandmother had at least acknowledged his presence. Too often of late, she had simply sat and let him spoon food into her, without even indicating that she was aware of his presence. Tonight, something was definitely different, and he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was just the slightest hint of hope after all. The thought of her leaving this world, and of him finally being all alone, was too much to contemplate.

Turning back to his grandmother she saw that she was still staring at the window, almost as if she was expecting a visitor. Before he could say anything, however, he heard the bell ringing downstairs.

“A customer,” he said, hurrying to the door. “Try to eat, and I’ll be back up soon.”

Once he’d left the room, the old woman remained in the same position, staring at the window. Outside, there was nothing but darkness, but she knew it was only a matter of time before her visitor arrived.

 

***

 

“I was sorry to hear about your grandmother,” Alice said with impressive earnestness. “I was shocked when I heard, and I wanted to come and perhaps visit her, but father said I should wait. Still, Anna always seemed so healthy and happy. I always joked that she was going to outlive us all.”

“It was very sudden,” Ephram explained as he made his way to the counter. “One day she was up and about, her usual self, and then the next she got it into her head to go scrambling up that hill toward the Le Compte mansion, all in the rain. God alone knows what made her do such a thing, but now she is bedridden.” He paused for a moment; he’d always liked Alice Marco and he was proud to be her godfather, but now that she was twenty-one years old, she reminded him of the child he’d never had himself. “She’ll be in peace soon, though. She has had a tough life, and at least she will never have to see the state of the island today.”

“And where are the chickens?” Alice asked.

“In the yard. In a cage. Poor things.”

“ But -”

“Otherwise the rats will eat them,” he added. “I can’t protect them, you see. No matter what I do, the rodents find a way past me and… I got so tired of finding the bloodied bodies, I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Oh.” Alice paused. “Could… Could I go and pet them?”

“There’s no point. They’re not happy out there, you can see it in their beady little eyes. Sometimes I try singing to them at night, to make them feel better, but I don’t think it works. They are angry at me for putting them in a cage, and they don’t understand that if I let them out, they’ll be eaten by rats.” He paused again. “Anyway, what brings you here? It can’t just be to talk to an old man.”

“My mother sent me to fetch some baking powder,” Alice replied. “I know it’s late, and I was worried you might have closed early.”

“You and your mother are in luck,” Ephram told her, wincing as he sat on his stool. This late at night, his tired old bones were aching more than ever. “Right behind you, top shelf. You might have to dig around a bit, I think it’s been pushed to the back.”

Alice turned and dutifully began to look through the items on the top shelf. Not immediately finding what she was after, she pushed some old cans aside and finally spotted a lonely tub of baking powder pushed toward the very back. Reaching to get it, she barely even noticed that something was moving in the shadows until it was too late to pull back. She let out a cry of pain as she felt a small pair of teeth sink into her flesh, and when she pulled her hand out a large rat came with it, quickly detaching and tumbling to the floor.

“Mother of God!” Ephram shouted, leaping from his stool and grabbing his mop, before running around the counter and slamming the handle down against the dazed rodent, shattering its skull and sending a small spray of blood across the floor.

“Got you!” he hissed, giving it another couple of whacks just to make sure.

Turning to Alice, he saw that she was hurt. He dropped the mop and hurried over to take a look at her wrist, which had been partly torn open by the creature’s bite. Blood was flowing freely from the wound, and even as Ephram tied a cloth over the injury, the fabric was quickly stained red.

“It doesn’t hurt that much,” Alice said, even though she was clearly in pain. “Really, there’s no need to fuss.”

“I’m so sorry,” he muttered, pressing the cloth down hard.

“It’s not your fault. I’m fine, honestly.”

“Rats spread disease,” Ephram replied, holding her arm up as he led her to the door. “I’m taking you to see the doctor, whether you like it or not. Any rat that came ashore from Edgar Le Compte’s boat is bound to be particularly nasty. We must just hope that the damn thing wasn’t carrying anything dangerous!”

“ But your grandmother -”

“She’ll be okay by herself for a short time,” Ephram told her as he hurried her out into the courtyard. “I don’t think she can be in much danger just sitting alone in bed.”

As he led Alice out of the courtyard, there was a faint banging sound above. The window to his mother’s room was still open, and a gentle breeze was shaking it on its hinges.

III

 

“It’s a really good steak,” Kate said with a forced smile that she hoped might help to break the ice. “Did you make it yourself?”

Sitting at the head of the table, barely even visible in the candlelit gloom of the state room, Edgar turned to her for a moment. He had a blank expression, almost as if he wasn’t quite sure what he’d just heard.

“Make it myself?” he asked after a moment.

“You cooked a steak for me when I was here before,” Kate continued, already wishing that she hadn’t said anything at all. “It was the night when Ephram Kazakos’s mother was out in the rain, and you found her and brought her to your home. You made us each a steak.”

He stared at her for a moment.

“Of course,” he said finally, “but that was when my house was un-staffed. Now I have a full kitchen, so there is no need for me to cook my own food. There are several chefs and they…”

His voice faded for a moment, as if some other thought had intruded upon his mind.

“If there is anything you want,” he added finally, “anything at all, you must simply go to the kitchen and tell them. Any time, day or night, they’ll be only too happy to oblige. I have the finest ingredients shipped in once a week from all around the world. This steak, for example, is from wild Argentinian buffalo. Within an hour of being slaughtered, it’s on a plane to Naples, and then it’s transported to the harbor and brought here on my private boat. Of all life’s pleasures, I consider food to be the most important. We must be careful when it comes to putting things in our bodies, there’s…”

Again, his voice trailed off, and this time the silence persisted.

Kate smiled again, but she was starting to feel as if every word was a strain for Edgar. It had been twenty minutes or so since he’d arrived in the state room, and the change in his mood was startling. Gone was the confident charm that he had exuded three months ago; instead, this version of Edgar Le Compte was dour and brooding, and his face seemed tired and weathered, with dark rings under his eyes. Kate found it hard to believe that someone could change so much in just a few months, but it was clear that life on Thaxos was not suiting him at all.

“ I'm going to start work first thing in the morning,” she said eventually, still hoping to get a proper conversation started. “It'll probably take a week just to organize everything before I can properly begin, but I was thinking that maybe -”

“That sounds fine,” Edgar muttered, cutting a slice off the side of his steak.

“I was thinking of digitizing everything as I work,” Kate continued. “It’ll all be labeled, and eventually you’ll have a completely indexed collection that can be accessed on a computer, while the original documents will be archived in case they’re required for closer inspection. I don’t know how far you really want to go with this project, but it would certainly be possible to put everything online so that the world can see the history of your family.”

“I have no desire to let the world see anything,” Edgar replied. “I am happy to have the collection digitized, however. The most important thing is that everything is put in order, and that items of particular interest are set aside so that they can be studied. They are…”

Kate waited for him to finish, but once again the effort of making conversation seemed to be too much for him. It was rare for Kate to feel like the most social person in a room, but right now she was starting to wonder whether it might be better to just eat her food in silence and then make an excuse so she could retire for the night.

Suddenly, from the other end of the table, there was a bone-juddering scratching sound, as the prongs of a silver fork were slowly scratched across a plate.

Kate turned to see Didi sitting in the shadows with a look of pure anger in her eyes. If the past few months had brought about a change to Edgar’s appearance, the same was doubly true of Didi: she still had a slim, youthful frame, but her eyes seemed loaded down with worry, and there was a kind of darkness to her expression that seemed to be fixed solely on Edgar. It was as if she was carrying some great burden in her soul, and as she continued to scratch her fork against the plate, she stared at Edgar with malice. She clearly wanted his attention.

“Do you wish to say something, my dear?” Edgar asked eventually, his voice filled with tension.

“Like what?” Didi asked, her voice filled with venom as she kept her gaze fixed firmly on him.

“I have no idea. Why don’t you share your thoughts with the rest of the table?”

“How long is she going to be here?” Didi asked.

“Miss Langley is here to work on the archive,” Edgar replied.

“I know that. I’m not an idiot, I heard you talking, but how long is it going to take?”

“As long as necessary,” Edgar said dourly.

“And how long is that going to be?”

“I have no idea.”

“But you must know. It can’t be an open-ended project. How long?”

“ Actually,” Kate started to say, “it's -”

“It will take as long as it takes,” Edgar snapped suddenly, slamming his cutlery against the table. “I’m sorry if the project is inconvenient, but I must have my family’s history put in order, and I would kindly ask you not to interfere. There is to be no debate on this matter. What does it matter to you, anyway? You spend all day sunning yourself by the pool, so it’s of little consequence if work is being undertaken elsewhere in the house.”

Sighing, Didi kept her gaze fixed on him, and it was clear that she didn’t take kindly to the tone in Edgar’s voice.

Kate waited, sensing that the argument was not yet over; in fact, it seemed to be just beginning, and as she finished her steak, she figured it would be best to excuse herself. Then again, it would be painfully obvious if she left immediately, so she tried to work out how long, exactly, she should stay before it would be polite to leave.

“ So,” she started to say, “I was -”

“What about my family archive?” Didi asked, cutting her off while keeping her eyes fixed on Edgar. “Huh? Is anyone gonna come and work on a bunch of boxes about my family?”

Edgar let out a faint laugh.

“Is something funny?” Didi continued.

“You have no family archive,” Edgar replied, evidently finding the idea to be rather amusing. “You don’t even have a family. The only things in your archive would be a couple of computer print-outs and a hospital bracelet. You’re an orphan, Didi, and that’s just the way I like it. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to you in the first place, remember? I’m eternally grateful for the fact that you came unencumbered with any petty family baggage.”

“Bastard,” she muttered under her breath.

“Excuse me?”

She shrugged.

“ So I was thinking I might go to my room,” Kate said cautiously. “I'm tired and -”

“I would very much like you to stay,” Edgar replied, keeping his eyes fixed on Didi.

“That’s nice of you,” Kate continued, “but I’ve had a long day and I really want to get a good night’s sleep so I can start bright and early tomorrow.”

“I understand,” Edgar said, finally turning to her, “but I must insist that you join us for a drink in the conservatory first. You are going to be with us for a long time, and it would seem to be only natural for us to get to know one another a little better. I’m sure that everyone can become friendly if they just get to know one another a little.”

Didi let out a derisory snort, as if the whole idea sickened her.

“Please ignore my fiance’s behavior,” Edgar continued, keeping his eyes fixed on Kate. “I’m afraid that she can’t always be relied upon to act in an appropriate manner. However, I’m sure that the three of us will be able to get along just fine, and that is why I would like us to spend a little time together tonight.” He waited for her to reply. “Please, Kate. It’s very important to me that this project starts on the right foot.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, even though the idea made her cringe inside. “That sounds great.”

 

***

 

The conservatory turned out to be a long room with huge glass windows, offering a stunning view across the south side of the island. Fern trees were growing in pots set all over the floor and the overall feeling was one of wealth and luxury, but as Kate stood looking down at the lights of the port town below, she couldn’t help but wonder whether perhaps she should have stayed at Ephram’s instead of accepting Edgar’s offer of a room at the mansion. At that particular moment, she was worried that she was being swallowed up entirely by such a dark and angry atmosphere.

“Here,” Edgar said.

Turning, Kate realized that he had once again arrived next to her without making a sound.

She took the drink that he offered and, after a sip, was surprised to find that it tasted good.

“I’m not much of a mixologist,” Edgar continued, keeping his voice low, almost as if he didn’t want to be overheard by Didi as the younger girl sat sulking in a chair at the other end of the conservatory. “However, I like to keep my hand in, and I believe that a man should prepare at least some of his guests’ refreshments himself. Obviously you must feel free to ask one of the kitchen staff to make you any drink you desire. I want you to feel at home here, Kate. If there’s anything you want, anything at all, you must simply ask.”

Kate smiled politely, but even though Edgar seemed now to be a little calmer and more relaxed, she still couldn’t ignore the tension that seemed to pervade the house.

“I’m glad you were able to accept my offer,” he continued. “I must admit that I made a cursory attempt to begin work on the archive myself, but I quickly realized that passion alone is not enough to get the job done. It requires a professional approach, and that’s when I decided to get in touch with you.”

“You can rely on me,” Kate told him. “I’ve done this kind of work before.”

“I’m aware. I did some research, and it seems that you have quite a reputation in the London art and history worlds. I feel honored that you were willing to leave all of that behind and come back to Thaxos.” He paused for a moment. “If you don’t mind the question, might I inquire as to what part of the project appealed to you?”

“You’re not the only one who did some research,” she replied. “I took some more time to look into the history of your family, and of the island in general.”

“And?”

“And there was very little information about the island,” she continued, “and absolutely none about your family.”

“We have tended to remain in the shadows.”

“That’s quite a skill in the twenty-first century.”

“A number of historians have come to Thaxos over the years,” Edgar explained. “As you already know, some cursory studies of the stones on the northern side have been undertaken, as well as some geological studies and some explorations of the flora and fauna. Some of them turned up quite a few very interesting discoveries.”

“I read all of those,” Kate told him, “but it seems to me that every study of the island is missing one crucial element.” She paused, watched his face for clues as to his feelings. “None of them mentioned your family at all,” she added finally, “and that struck me as kind of odd. I can’t help thinking that any study of Thaxos has to include the Le Compte family at its heart. In fact, I find it strange that this hasn’t happened before. What did you do, pay them all off?”

“Nothing so mundane,” Edgar replied calmly.

“I can’t deny that the stones also interest me,” she continued, feeling as if she was finally seeing the old Edgar she remembered from her previous visit. “On my days off, I want to go out there and conduct the first truly in-depth study. Don’t worry, it won’t distract from my work in your archive at all, but I think I have a shot at explaining the history of the stones and their original purpose. They might even be the key to uncovering something even more important about early European cultures.”

“You’re ambitious.”

“I want to make a name for myself.”

Edgar paused, as if he was on the verge of saying something that he felt he should perhaps hold back. He looked over his shoulder for a moment, checking that Didi was still out of earshot, before turning back to Kate.

“I…” he said eventually, clearly a little hesitant. “I wanted to ask you about Anna Kazakos. I believe you’re acquainted with her grandson, and I have heard a few rumors that after the night she spent here at my home, Anna has taken to her bed. Obviously it’s difficult for me to get much information up here, but my understanding is that the local doctor has seen her and that he is not confident of her making a full recovery.”

Kate nodded, realizing that the matter seemed to concern Edgar a great deal.

“Is she…” He paused again. “Is she in pain?”

“I don’t know.”

“But she’d dying, is she not?”

“I spoke to Ephram today,” Kate replied. “His grandmother has taken to her bed, and I don’t think she’s expected to recover.”

“How long does she have?”

“I think it’s just a few weeks.” She paused. “Do you mind if I ask why you’re so interested?”

“I…” Now it was Edgar’s turn to pause, the words remaining on his lips as he seemed genuinely troubled.”It’s just, she… I…”

“What are you two talking about?” Didi called out, with clear irritation in her shrill voice. “You look very cosy over there. By the way, my glass is empty!”

“Then fill it!” Edgar called back to her, making no effort to try to hide his short temper. “Do I look like a goddamn waiter?”

“What are you two talking about?” she asked again.

“Nothing that you could possibly understand,” he replied, before wincing as he and Kate both heard Didi getting up from her chair and heading toward them, her stiletto high-heels clattering and scraping with every step.

“You’re being rude, Eddie,” Didi continued as she thrust her glass into Edgar’s hand. “How do you expect me to get to know the new arrival if you take up all her time, huh? Go make me a drink, sweetie, and give us girls some time to talk. You know how it is. Two women can’t get to know each other if there’s a guy standing right next to them.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Look at you. You don’t understand women at all, do you?”

Although he seemed reluctant, Edgar nevertheless turned and made his way over to the bar, where various bottles were already laid out.

“ So how are you doing?” Kate asked, figuring that she should try to make some small-talk. “Are you -”

“I’m good,” Didi replied firmly, with a note of irritation in her voice. “I just thought I should get in early and make sure that you understand the situation.” She paused, fixing Kate with a stare that seemed to be designed to show that she meant business. “Edgar’s my fiance,” she added eventually, “so you need to make sure that you keep your mind on your work. Got it?”

“Excuse me?” Kate asked, taken aback by the implication.

“He’s a hot guy,” Didi continued, “and I wouldn’t blame you for getting your panties in a twist over him. You wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. But you might as well tie a knot in ‘em, understand? Just make sure you remember why you’re here. He’s hired you to sort through his stinking pile of old papers, and that’s all you’re gonna do. No social stuff, no fun and games, no hanging out like you’re a friend. Edgar and I are your employers, and you’re not here for a holiday. Sure, tonight’s fun and all, but tomorrow you get to work and you don’t come up for air until you’re done. Got it? ‘Cause trust me, if I want you gone, you’ll be gone.”

Before Kate could even begin to work out how to reply, Edgar returned with fresh drinks for them all.

“Is anything wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Didi said with a bright, theatrical smile. “I was just welcoming Kate to the island and telling her how I’m sure we’re all gonna get along just fine. As long as we each remember why we’re here, anyway.” She put her arm around Edgar, conspicuously making a show of getting close to him. “I also wanted to make sure that she understands how the employer-employee situation works around here. I know that kinda thing can be tricky. Sometimes an employee can feel left out and ignored, or maybe it works the other way and they feel like they’re closer than they really are to the people who are paying their wages.”

“Perhaps you should go to bed,” Edgar said tersely, easing himself away from her.

“Totally,” she replied, grabbing his hand while keeping her eyes fixed on Kate. “Let’s go to bed, sweetie.”

“I’ll be up shortly,” he replied, pulling his hand free.

“Well then I’ll just wait right here for you.”

“I would like you to retire for the night,” he continued. “I wish to speak to Miss Langley about a few other matters.”

“Then let’s all talk,” Didi continued, forcing a grin. “Come on, I can join in with whatever you’re chatting about. I’m not some dumb little whore!”

“This way,” Edgar replied, grabbing her by the wrist and leading her over to the door. “I’ll be up shortly. Please retire to bed and wait for me.”

“I want to stay up!” Didi shouted, trying to pull free.

“The matter is not up for discussion.”

Kate watched as they headed out into the hallway. Although she felt extremely uncomfortable, she was worried that if she insisted on going to bed right now, she’d only make the situation even more awkward. Besides, she liked talking to Edgar, particularly about his family history and the history of the island, so she hoped that he would win the argument and that Didi would leave them for the evening. She could hear them still arguing out in the hallway, so she turned to look out the window again. The lights of the port town were so enticing, and she found herself longing for the days when she stayed at Ephram’s, even if it meant dodging chickens during the night. Lost in thought for a moment, she was almost able to drown out the sound of Edgar and Didi’s raised voices, and -

Suddenly she heard a loud slap, and the voices fell quiet.

She turned to look back at the door, waiting for someone to say something, but all she heard was silence and then, finally, the sound of Didi running up the stairs in her heels. It wasn’t clear who had slapped who, but either way, the argument seemed to have come to an abrupt halt.

Moments later, Edgar came back into the room, with a troubled look in his eyes.

“ I hope everything's okay,” Kate said. “If you -”

“It’s fine,” Edgar said as he reached her. He took his glass and sipped from the cocktail, and for a moment his mind seemed to be elsewhere. “I’m sorry that your first evening here had to be tainted in such a way,” he continued. “I’m afraid that Didi is a very passionate young woman, and she tends to speak her mind without filtering anything out. This can be endearing at times, but it can also come across as being rather abrasive and rude. I’m sure she’ll calm down by the morning and the two of you will be able to get along just fine.”

Kate smiled politely, even though she felt that there was no way she and Didi could ever be friends. There just seemed to be a gulf between them, and besides, Didi had apparently got it into her head that Kate was some kind of threat to her relationship with Edgar. The idea was ridiculous, Kate told herself, but there was no doubt that jealousy had taken root in Didi’s heart.

“When you go out to the stones,” Edgar said after a moment, “I would be very interested in coming with you. So long as I wouldn’t get in the way, that is.”

“Of course,” Kate replied, even though she worried about the repercussions with Didi. “That’d be fine. I should warn you, though, that it might be pretty boring. Lots of note-taking and staring at a bunch of rocks. It’s not exactly Indiana Jones.”

“That sounds like fun to me,” Edgar said with a faint smile. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I should retire for the evening. I know it’s still early, and I hope you won’t think me rude, but today has been long and I think it would be better to sacrifice a few hours tonight in order to feel more refreshed in the morning.” He paused for a moment. “I truly am sorry if you felt uncomfortable this evening. Perhaps you will join us for dinner again tomorrow night, and we can put things back on track? Start again, so to speak.”

“Sure,” Kate said, even though the idea didn’t appeal to her at all. “Sounds great.”

“And I shall endeavor to drop into the archive tomorrow and see how you’re doing,” he added. “I don’t wish to disturb you, but I’m keen to keep up-to-date with whatever you discover.”

As Edgar left the room, Kate remained by the window. She figured that she might as well finish her drink, and the nighttime view across the island brought her some peace. The day might not have gone quite according to plan, but she was still glad to be back on Thaxos, and she figured that she’d just arrived at an inopportune moment. There was no way that Edgar and Didi could argue like this all the time, she told herself, and Edgar wouldn’t be with someone who had no redeeming features whatsoever. Taking another sip of her drink, she forced herself to retain some hope that her second visit to Thaxos would be enjoyable. For now, she figured, she just had to focus on the archive.

 

***

 

Creeping up the stairs, Kate felt like an intruder. She’d finished her drink a while ago, but she’d stayed by the window until finally realizing that it was close to midnight. Now she was making her way through the quiet mansion, heading to her room but stopping every now and again to admire the huge oil paintings that adorned almost every wall. These were members of the Le Compte family, staring down at those who now inhabited their home, and Kate wasn’t quite sure whether she found them creepy or fascinating. A little of both, she figured.

When she reached the landing, she turned left and made her way toward the door at the far end. It was only when she was about to turn the handle, however, that she realized she’d made a wrong turn. She looked back over her shoulder and realized that she should have turned right at the top of the stairs. The mansion was large and it would be easy to get lost in its labyrinthine corridors, so she headed back the way she’d come, hoping that she’d be able to find her room and that she wouldn’t have to look like an idiot by searching for Jacob and asking for his help.

Hearing a noise nearby, she stopped suddenly. After a moment, she realized that soft moans were coming from the other side of one of the doors, and a second later it became apparent that she was hearing Edgar and Didi making love. She paused, listening to the sound of Didi groaning slowly with pleasure, and it was clear that despite the argument earlier, the pair of them had now made up. Their relationship was clearly passionate.

Although she wanted to turn and go to her room, Kate felt rooted to the spot, as if she couldn’t move at all. She listened as Didi’s moans became faster and even more intense, and it was clear that she was being brought to orgasm. Again, Kate tried to turn and walk away, but her body remained frozen, barely able to move at all. It was almost like the time in the dream, when Edgar’s touch had seemed to paralyze her, yet this time she knew for certain that she was wide awake.

And then, somehow, Didi’s moans changed, filling with anguish as if she was in pain. At first, Kate told herself that she was imagining it, but after a few more seconds she realized that it definitely sounded as if the girl was in agony. Whatever was happening in that room, Didi was now gasping, and her howls occasionally came to close to vocalized attempts to beg Edgar for mercy. It was almost shocking to hear what was happening, and again Kate made a futile attempt to turn and walk away.

“Please,” she whispered, her voice weak and fragile, as if it might shatter. “Please, Edgar…”

Finally, after a few minutes, Didi let out a sustained cry that seemed to be part pleasure and part pain, and after that the mansion returned to silence again for a few seconds before Didi’s sobs became loud enough to be heard.

Realizing that she had already heard far too much, Kate was finally able to turn and hurry back to her room.

IV

 

“It’s a deep bite,” Doctor Burns said as he examined the wound on Alice’s wrist. “Looks to have gone all the way through to the bone.”

“It really doesn’t hurt that much,” Alice said with a flustered smile, as she looked first at the doctor and then at Ephram. “Please, I must get home. Mother’s going to be wondering why it’s taken me so long just to get some baking powder.”

“I need to clean it first,” the doctor replied. “Rats can harbor all sorts of diseases, and I don’t want to take any risks here. Just hold tight for a moment while I fetch some antiseptic.”

“ But -”

“Can it,” he added with a smile. “This is my surgery, so I’m in charge.”

As Doctor Burns made his way to the other side of his office, Ephram stared down at the gash on Alice’s arm, through which it was just about possible to make out a sliver of bone. Shuddering at the thought that those damn rats were now brave enough to attack humans, Ephram couldn’t help thinking back to the sight of that large black boat that had docked several times over the past few months; he was absolutely certain that the rats, and any diseases they brought with them, had used Edgar Le Compte’s boat in order to get to the island. After all, there was no other way it could have happened.

“It was just a silly accident,” Alice said after a moment, her voice soft as she tried to reassure him. “It’s not your fault, you know.”

“I’ve tried keeping them out of the shop,” he replied. “Nothing works. They killed most of my chickens, and now it seems they’re turning on the customers.”

“They’re in our yard as well,” Alice continued. “Father has been trying to poison them, but it’s not working. Everyone is struggling to cope with them. I saw Theo Merrago pouring a bucket of rats into the harbor yesterday morning, and apparently there are scores of them down in the cellar at the cantina.”

“Something needs to be done,” Ephram muttered, lost in thought for a moment. “Edgar Le Compte should be made to pay for a full clean-up. He’s got enough money to scrub this island clean, but instead he brings those rodents here and then sits up there in his mansion laughing at the rest of us. He won’t be laughing forever, though. One day, when the rats have finished us all off and picked our bones clean, they’ll start climbing that hill and then they’ll flood through his door. Perhaps then, finally, he’ll come to understand the horror he has brought to Thaxos. He’ll probably just laugh, though. Men like Le Compte, they’re twisted in the head.”

“Here,” Doctor Burns said as he sat next to Alice and unscrewed the lid of a tube. “It’ll sting, but the wound has to be cleaned.” He squeezed some clear gel into the cut, and Alice immediately winced. “Brave girl,” the doctor added. “Trust me, this is better than leaving it untreated and risking an infection.”

A few minutes later, while Alice sat patiently and waited for the gel to do its work, Ephram joined Doctor Cole in the yard at the back of the surgery. As the doctor lit a cigarette, Ephram couldn’t help but glance at the mansion high up on the hill, and he felt his blood curdle at the thought of Edgar Le Compte living such a grand life while the rest of the island suffered. While he was convinced that the rats would eventually go up the hill, he was in no mood to wait for nature to take its course, and he was starting to think that some other approach would be required in order to rid the island of this new curse.

“This is the third rat bite I’ve treated in a week,” Doctor Burns said eventually, between puffs on his cigarette. “I’ve had to send for more supplies. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get sick.”

“The whole situation is only going to get worse,” Ephram muttered darkly, keeping his eyes on the mansion.

“Some of the men in the cantina want to get together and use poison to get rid of the damn things,” Doctor Burns continued, “but I told them that under no circumstances are they to go down that path. The last thing we need is a bunch of idiots spreading poison all over the island. I guarantee you, we’d end up with more dead townsfolk than dead rats.”

“But something must be done,” Ephram continued. “People are starting to panic.”

“Rats are rats,” the doctor replied. “We’ve been blessed up until now to be free of them, but perhaps we must just accept that the blessing is over. If we mend our ways and take more care of our homes, the rats won’t thrive and eventually they’ll die down to more manageable levels.”

“So that’s your answer? Just accept what has happened?”

“I know a Sysiphean task when I see one, Ephram. There are probably already more rats than humans on Thaxos, just in these three months alone. We’ll never get rid of them, no matter what we try.”

Instead of replying, Ephram merely continued to stare up at the mansion. He knew that the doctor was right, and this only increased his desire to see Edgar Le Compte pay for what he had done. Still, he knew enough of the world to understand that the rich never had to face the consequences of their actions, while he and the other townsfolk would just be left to deal with the rats as best they could. He hated to see the island in such a state, but there seemed to be no alternatives.

“I don’t like that look in your eyes,” Doctor Burns said eventually. “Do I need to worry?”

“No,” Ephram replied, trying to stay calm. “Of course not. Edgar Le Compte is going to treat this island as if it’s his own private plaything, and there’s nothing we can do to stop him. He’s going to repeat all the horrors of his grandfather.”

 

***

 

An hour later, having walked Alice home and explained everything to her parents, Ephram returned to his store and checked on his grandmother, finding her sleeping in bed. The window was still open, and the old woman had turned onto her side, as if she’d been staring out at the darkness when she fell asleep. Taking care not to make too much noise, Ephram pulled the window shut and slid the bolt across before taking the tray and heading downstairs.

He spent a few minutes cleaning up the dead rat, marveling at the size of the damn thing as he held its corpse up. Once he’d disposed of the creature, he finished locking the store and then he poured himself a glass of whiskey and went out into the yard. His chickens were where he left them, sitting around in the coop, and he felt that he could almost sense their frustration. He knew that having the chickens out and letting them wander through the store was crazy, but it had been something that kept him happy, and besides their little claws had provided a constant noise that had helped him forget how empty his home had become.

As he stepped closer to the coop, he saw that a plump rat was gnawing on the metal fastener that kept the door shut.

“Get out of here!” he shouted, slamming his hand down and just missing the rat by an inch or two as it scurried away.

Turning to chase after it, he felt his tired bones start to pull him back, and finally he realized that he was far too tired to go running around the yard with a broom handle.

“To you,” he muttered, raising his glass of whiskey to the chickens before sitting on the little stool he kept outside. He took a sip of his drink, and then he did the same thing he did every night: he sang songs from his childhood, hoping to calm his anxious chickens.

V

 

The Le Compte family had, it seemed, been on Thaxos forever. At least that was how things seemed from the documents that Kate had unearthed so far, which suggested a lineage extending far back into the mists of time. In fact, it was even starting to look as though the island had been completely uninhabited until the Le Compte family arrived almost a thousand years ago.

And all of it had escaped the conventional history books. Until now, at least.

It was early and Kate had already been at work for several hours. She’d barely slept the night before, her mind filled with thoughts about Edgar and Didi’s destructive relationship, and finally she had dozed for a short period before getting up at 7am, ready to face her first full day of work at the archive. In truth, Kate always loved the start of a new project, and this was no exception; she could already sense that the Le Compte family had a fascinating history, and it was clear that this history had for the most part gone untold for centuries. She had always dreamed of uncovering a major narrative that had previously eluded the world’s history books, but the idea had seemed fragile and foolish; now, sitting cross-legged on the floor of Edgar’s vast archive room, she finally felt that she was onto something.

Of most interest was the story of Edgar’s grandfather, also named Edgar but more commonly known by the locals by his nickname: the Impaler. The previous Edgar had been an absolute tyrant, and it was clear that he had treated the whole island as his personal property. The townsfolk had by all accounts lived in fear of his actions, and with good reason: in his diary, the old man had recorded graphic details of his every activity, including the torture he’d meted out to any girl who dared cross the threshold and enter the mansion. Kate shuddered at the thought of such pain and suffering occurring in the same building where she was now working, and she was thankful that her nature was logical rather than superstitious.

Even the most rational mind, she told herself, would be tempted to imagine ghosts in such a place.

The history of the family was deeply intertwined with the history of the island itself, and Kate was quickly becoming aware that the study of one would necessitate the study of the other. This didn’t bother her one bit, since it merely meant that there was more of a connection that she had previously realized between the work she was doing for Edgar and her plans to study the island and its mysterious stones. She knew there was a danger that she might be getting ahead of herself, but every so often she caught herself daydreaming about the possibility that she might be on the verge of a career-changing discovery. A whole family, a whole history, was waiting to be uncovered.

Lost in thought, she worked all morning and then completely forgot about lunch.

 

***

 

“I think your family might have been the very first people to settle Thaxos,” Kate said as she sat, still cross-legged on the floor, explaining the results of her first day’s work to Edgar as he sat on a nearby packing crate. “Obviously it’s very early to say anything definitive since I’ve only been doing this for a day so far, but I’ve found multiple references to the place being barren and deserted when the Le Compte family first arrived.”

“Fascinating,” Edgar replied. “I must admit, I had long suspected that this might be the case, but the idea seemed too preposterous to believe.”

“It looks like, barring the past eighty or so years, there has always been a Le Compte living on Thaxos, always with a home up here on the hill. I’ve found some plans relating to the construction of the mansion, and also some details of the older house that stood here previously. Before that, there appears to have been some kind of wooden structure.”

“I’m surprised my forebears didn’t name the island after themselves,” Edgar added. “It would seem somehow appropriate.”

Kate couldn’t help but smile. After the dramas of the previous night, this first full day of work had been much more how she’d expected, and Edgar himself seemed to be calmer and more like the man she’d first met three months ago. It seemed as if he was much more relaxed whenever Didi wasn’t around, and Kate was starting to wonder what the hell he saw in that girl. Edgar was so calm and intelligent, yet he apparently intended to marry someone who was his polar opposite in almost every regard.

“If I’m right,” she continued, “then it would stand to reason that the port was built by your family, most likely in order to facilitate the importation of whatever items they required, and that the port town maybe evolved over the centuries as a place for support staff to live.”

“You think that my family built a whole town as a home for its staff?”

“The idea isn’t that crazy,” Kate pointed out. “Over time, the town continued to support the family’s needs, but eventually the link between them became blurred and the town took on a life of its own.” She paused for a moment as she imagined how Ephram would react to such an idea. “I’m not sure the people down there would necessarily like the idea,” she added, “but it’s hard to see how the alternative could be true. Your family must have chosen to allow the town to develop, so it stands to reason that it benefited them in some way. After all, would they really have wanted to have the entire island to themselves?”

“So Thaxos was defined by the Le Compte family’s needs,” Edgar replied. “I knew we’d had a major impact here, but it’s still rather startling to realize the full extent of that influence.”

“Which means that everything here was created by your family,” Kate continued, carefully edging closer to the big realization that she wanted to deliver. “Everything, Edgar. The port, the town, the mansion…” She paused for a moment. “Everything. Even the stones.”

“The stones?”

“I guess. I mean, it stands to reason that your ancestors must have erected them.”

“Why couldn’t they have been the work of some previous civilization that had died out before the Le Comptes arrived?” he asked.

“Because there’s absolutely no evidence that any civilization was here before,” she continued. “Even if they were primitive, they’d have been something left behind. Anyway, those stones don’t come from around here, so whoever brought them such a great distance must have had resources and expertise. I’m keeping an open mind, but at this stage I’m starting to think that perhaps your family’s involvement with Thaxos goes back even further, and if I had to put money on it, I’d say that they were definitely responsible for the stones.”

“Amazing,” Edgar replied. “You’ve only been on the case for one day, and you’ve already made so much progress. I can’t even imagine what you’ll discover as you continue to search through the documents.”

“I was lucky to start on this particular box,” she explained.

“I doubt that luck had much to do with it.”

Kate looked down at the papers again, keen to make sure that Edgar couldn’t see her blushing.

“I also found some information about your grandfather,” she continued, trying to change the subject. “I hope you won’t take offense when I say this, but the records he kept… The man clearly had one hell of a dark side.”

“Really?” Edgar asked. “How so?”

“How honest do you want me to be?”

“Please.”

“He more or less tortured people,” Kate continued. “He kept a meticulous diary, and I’ve only leafed through it a little so far, but it seems like he lost someone who was very important to him, and after that he just became this tyrant, endlessly seducing and then hurting women. It seems he fitted out part of the basement as some kind of chamber, and I’m hesitant to say that he tortured people but… I mean, he left behind some very graphic descriptions of what happened down there.”

“Such as?”

“Hair-raising stuff.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“I…” Kate paused, reluctant to give voice to such things. “I mean, I can provide you with a copy to read for yourself. Let’s just say that he was endlessly inventive when it came to finding ways to hurt people. You might almost say that he had a real talent for it.”

A faint smile crossed Edgar’s lips.

“There’s so much inner turmoil and conflict in his writing,” she continued, “that I can kind of understand why your family became so unpopular on Thaxos.”

“You can?” Edgar asked.

“Did no-one ever find out what happened to him? It’s said that he disappeared, but how can a man disappear from an island? There’s at least have to be a body. Didn’t your parents ever try to find out where he ended up?”

“As far as I’m aware, his disappearance was simply noted in the family archive. And then we all moved on.”

“Maybe they were relieved her was gone,” Kate pointed out. “If he was even a tenth as cruel and violent as these diaries suggest…”

“Perhaps it is better to leave such a man in the past,” Edgar replied. “He doesn’t sound like someone whose presence would be a good thing. Such anger and cruelty must be hopelessly destructive. One can only hope that the man found some peace before he disappeared.”

“Plus he’d have to be almost two one-hundred-and-fifty years old right now,” Kate pointed out. “Whatever happened to him, I think we can assume that he’s dead. I just wonder what happened to his body.”

“Perhaps you will find it stashed in one of the crates,” Edgar replied.

Kate turned to him.

“ That was an attempt at humor,” Edgar continued. “I'm sorry if it was a little unfortunate. If there was a body here on the grounds of my estate, I'm quite certain that we would have found it by now. But enough of such a macabre subject. Perhaps we can continue our discussion about the history of the island over dinner tonight. The kitchen -”

“Actually, I’m going into town,” Kate said suddenly, surprising herself. It hadn’t been her intention to leave the mansion at all that day, but the thought of spending another cringe-inducing evening with Edgar and Didi was horrifying and she figured that a gentle walk into town would offer a chance for her to clear her head, not to mention touching base with Ephram and reminding herself that there was more to Thaxos than just the mansion and its inhabitants.

“ I see,” Edgar replied. “I hope this isn't due to any discomfort on your part. Last night -”

“It’s just to see some people,” she continued, trying desperately to sound convincing. “I’ve spent so many hours in here tonight, I feel like maybe I’m on the verge of going stir crazy. You know how it can be good to just get out every so often, right?”

“I…” Edgar paused, and it was clear that this wasn’t something that had occurred to him before. “It’s entirely up to you,” he added finally. “I can certainly imagine that it might be beneficial to socialize with some of the locals.”

“You could always come with me,” Kate added before she could stop herself. The idea of someone as starched as Edgar popping into town for a few drinks was somehow both hilarious and wrong.

“Me?”

“Just a thought,” she replied cautiously.

“Another time, perhaps,” Edgar continued. “I’m not sure that I would be…” Another pause. “Well, another time,” he said again, getting to his feet. “I’m afraid that Didi and I don’t go down to the town very often, if at all. The Le Compte family is still somewhat unpopular among the local residents, and I feel that it will take quite some time before the situation changes. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy your evening, and I trust that perhaps tomorrow night you might join Didi and myself for dinner once again. I can assure you that it will be a much more pleasant evening that last night.”

“Absolutely,” Kate replied, still sitting cross-legged on the floor. “That sounds great.”

“And…”

Kate waited, but something else was clearly on Edgar’s mind.

“While you’re in town,” he continued eventually, “could I trouble you to do me one small favor? Perhaps I’m being needlessly concerned, but I would very much like to know how Anna Kazakos is faring. If you could drop by to see her grandson at his store and inquire as to her health, I would be very grateful.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, “but if you don’t mind the question… Why don’t you just go and ask him yourself?”

“I hardly think that I would be welcome,” he replied. “As I have already admitted, I’m all too aware of my family’s unpopularity on this island, and I should think that my presence in town would be unwelcome. I have only been down there once since I arrived, and that was very much under cover of night.”

“Then isn’t that another reason to go down there yourself? It would be a gesture to show that you care, and it might even make people realize that you’re not completely separated from the life of the island. If you just stay up here all the time, you might end up reinforcing some negative perceptions.”

Edgar paused for a moment, and there was clear anguish in his eyes, as if he genuinely wasn’t sure what to do.

“Perhaps,” he said eventually. “We shall see. Some time… But for now, if you could ask after her, I would be eternally in your debt.”

“Of course I’ll ask,” Kate replied, finding Edgar’s reticence to be a little amusing but also puzzling, “but I really think you should consider going down yourself some time in the next few days. I mean, you can’t just sit up here in your home forever, can you?”

Edgar opened his mouth to reply, but he seemed momentarily lost for words.

“Go on,” Kate continued with a faint smile. “Trust me. I think it’d be good for you.”

 

***

 

“Hey,” said a voice nearby.

Turning, Kate was shocked to see Didi wandering into the kitchen wearing nothing but a thong, with her large, artificial-looking breasts on full display as she made her way over to the fridge. Her body was still glistening with water, suggesting that she’d been in the pool, and she had a kind of defiant, challenging look in her eyes that made it clear that she hadn’t forgotten the events of the previous night. This display of youth and vigor seemed to Kate to be part of a calculated attempt to regain some high ground.

“Cool day with all those fusty old bits of paper?” she asked, affecting a carefree tone.

“Yeah,” Kate replied, looking back down at the cup of tea she was making. “It was very interesting.”

“How do you manage to, like, stay awake? Isn’t it mega-boring? I’d totally fall asleep and get nothing done. I’m more of a fun kinda person.”

“Actually I find it fascinating,” Kate replied. “There’s still so much to discover in there. Aren’t you interested in the history of your fiance’s family and the island?”

“Not really,” she replied, scrunching her nose up for a moment. “I mean, I’m totally glad that history, like, exists, but I don’t feel like it’s something I need to get into. Anyway, it’s not like you can change stuff that’s happened before. It’s all, like, happened already, so that’s that, right? It’s done. I’m more interested in now and in the future, ‘cause those are things I can actually change. Know what I mean?”

“That’s one way of looking at things,” Kate replied.

“You should come out to the pool some time,” Didi continued. “It’s pretty big. You can even swim proper lengths if you get bored just floating about. Edgar’s gonna get a bar built in the middle so we can have proper cocktail parties. Hopefully he’ll get it fixed at the same time. I swear to God, that thing leaks a little more every day. He has to get it topped up way more than he should.” She took a jug of mojito out of the fridge and poured some into a glass. “God knows why the damn staff can’t fetch this for me,” she muttered. “Edgar’s got them working on some other project. I swear to God, he only does it to piss me off, he knows I’ve got a bad ankle and I don’t like walking too much. I know it might sound like I’m complaining, but seriously, my ankle hurts. Like, properly.”

Kate couldn’t help but smile at the younger girl’s whines.

“What’s so funny?” Didi asked.

“Nothing,” Kate replied, realizing that she needed to be more diplomatic. “Swimming sounds great, though. I’ll definitely give it a try some time.”

“You’ve got a bikini, right?” Didi continued. “It’s, like, okay for me to go topless, but you need a swimsuit. Just saying.”

“I’ve got a bikini,” Kate replied, forcing herself not to laugh at the younger girl’s blunt and unsubtle attempt to mark her territory.

“Maybe you’re alright,” Didi added, as if she found the idea surprising. “Just so long as you remember your place here, we might get along. I’m, like, super-friendly most of the time. I just figure that with a guy like Edgar, I need to set some boundaries, if you know what I’m saying. He’s rich, he’s handsome, and he’s got that kinda brooding thing going on that drives a lot of women crazy. Seriously, we were in Monaco last year and I almost had to fend the other bitches off with a goddamn hockey stick.”

“That’s quite a mental image,” Kate replied.

“Whatever,” Didi continued. “Maybe I came on a bit strong with you just now, but you’ve gotta understand that it’s hard for me. Especially in a dump like this, where there’s nothing to do except rattle around in the old house all day. God knows why Edgar insisted on coming back here, but it’s not like I’ve got any choice. The one with the fat wallet always gets to call the shots, and I can’t exactly bitch about it too much or he’ll get angry.”

“What happens when he gets angry?” Kate asked.

“Oh, you know…” Didi paused, and for the first time there was a flicker of doubt in her eyes. “I give as good as I get, if you know what I mean. I might look small and dainty, but that just means I’m tightly packaged. And Edgar’s a good guy deep down, even if it comes out wrong sometimes. He’s just got a bit of a temper, but then so do I. I guess that’s just another reason why we’re so well-suited.”

She paused again.

“Well,” she added with a sudden, bright grin, “look at the two of us, sharing a heart-to-heart! See? We might actually like each other after all! First impressions are always wrong, aren’t they? You might realize that I’m not just an air-headed bimbo with a great body, and I might realize that you’re not just a… well, a librarian!”

“Historian,” Kate replied.

“Whatever,” Didi continued, turning and heading back to the door, with her thong-clad ass swinging wildly behind her. “Remember what I said about the pool, though. Come on out some time. I don’t bite. Well, not outside the bedroom, and Edgar’s the only person who has to worry about that. Know what I mean?”

Left alone again, Kate looked down at her cup of tea. She still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Didi, and the thought of spending six months living in the mansion filled her with apprehension. Still, she figured that the best thing would just be to keep out of their business and focus on her work. After all, that was why she’d returned to Thaxos, and she’d never exactly been a social animal anyway. Perhaps the ease of talking to Edgar had tricked her into thinking that she might come out of her shell a little more, but that idea had clearly been a mistake. It would just have to be business as usual.

“Cheers,” she muttered to herself, raising her cup of tea in a mock toast before taking a sip and finding that it had already gone cold.

 

***

 

As she made her way down the stairs a few hours later, Kate could already hear Edgar and Didi arguing in another part of the mansion. Their voices carried along the corridors, especially Didi’s shrill tones, and Kate winced as she realized that the argument seemed to be about dinner the previous night. She’d hoped that the awkwardness had been a one-off episode, but now she was starting to worry that the atmosphere at the mansion was never going to get much better.

Stepping out through the front door, she stopped for a moment and admired the beautiful view, with the descending sun lending stunning pink tones to the early evening sky. With her back to the mansion, Kate surveyed the scene and realized that she was truly in a kind of paradise, even if certain aspects of her new life on Thaxos weren’t quite perfect. She could still just about hear Edgar and Didi, and she couldn’t help but feel that their pair of them were allowing themselves to be bottled up together in a confined space. If they were like this every night, she figured she was going to be spending an awful lot of evenings out.

As she began to walk along the dirt path that led down to the harbor, the little town’s lights seemed to be welcoming her.

VI

 

“You worry too much,” Alice said as she set a cup of tea down on the table in her parents’ kitchen. “I’m fine, Ephram. It was little more than a scratch.”

“It was a bite,” Ephram pointed out, unable to take his eyes off the bandage on the girl’s arm, and unable to let go of the guilt in his heart. “You must be in so much pain.”

“Barely any at all.”

“And you have no fever?”

“None at all.”

“ And have you checked the -”

“You really must stop fussing,” she added with a smile. “Can’t you see that there’s nothing wrong with me? Doctor Burns gave me all the treatment that was required, and now I just have to wear a bandage for a week.”

Ephram paused for a moment. Although he had to concede that Alice looked healthy, and that she had her usual countenance of happy modesty, he still couldn’t shake the feeling that things could easily have been so much worse. A rat bite could lead to infection, which could lead to a serious illness, perhaps even death. The fact that Alice seemed to have escaped with just some blood loss and a tear in her skin was of some comfort, but he couldn’t help thinking about what else might easily have happened.

“You make more of a fuss about me,” Alice continued after a moment, “than my own parents.”

“It just angers me,” he replied, “that a man like Edgar Le Compte can come to this island and cause so much damage, and it ends with innocent people getting hurt. This isn’t even the worst of it. How will things be when he has been here for six months? Nine? A whole year?”

“I’m sure Baron Le Compte didn’t intend for any of this to happen,” she pointed out, “and he’d probably be terribly upset if he knew. Has anyone actually tried to contact him and tell him about the rats?”

“What good would that do?”

“But has anyone actually gone up there and spoken to him? Perhaps he will do the right thing and aid us in getting rid of the rats?”

“No member of the Le Compte family has done the right thing for centuries,” Ephram replied bitterly. “There is no reason to believe that the latest member will be any different. He sits up there in his house and probably laughs at the thought of us peasants down here in the town. To him, we’re just ants scurrying around, busying ourselves with our meaningless lives.”

“Still,”Alice continued, “unless someone actually speaks to the man, how can any of us be sure how he will react? He might be a better man than his ancestors. He certainly couldn’t be worse, and it is our God-given duty to at least give him a chance. Why don’t you go up to his home and tell him what is happening? Ask him to intervene and give him the opportunity to prove himself.”

“He would never listen to me,” Ephram replied, taking a sip of tea. “Still, you might be right about one thing. After three months, something has to change, and maybe there’s one person who can make him listen. After all, the man might have riches and power, but this is the twenty-first century and even Baron Edgar Le Compte is not above the law.”

 

***

 

“What do you want me to do, Ephram?” Inspector Cavaleri asked as she leaned back in her chair. “Arrest a man for the illegal importation of vermin?”

“That would be a start,” Ephram replied standing on the other side of the desk.

Cavaleri rolled her eyes.

“Why not?” Ephram continued. “A man needs papers to bring a dog or a cat or a horse to Thaxos, so why not rats?”

“And how would I prove that these rats came on Baron Le Compte’s boat?” she continued. “Did you personally spot one of the furry little devils scurrying down the gangplank? Was Le Compte playing a little pipe as he led them ashore? Face it, Ephram, there are other boats that come to Thaxos and the rats could have come with any of them.” She paused for a moment. “That’s what his defense would be, anyway. You and I know the truth, but without evidence, my hands are tied. I can’t invent laws specifically to trip up one man.”

“So people are going to continue to get bitten by these damn things,” Ephram replied. “Is that it?”

“Two people.”

“Three. Alice Marco was bitten last night in my store.”

“In your store?” She sighed. “There are health and safety codes to follow, Ephram. It sounds like, if anyone should be in trouble around here, it’s you for allowing vermin to run loose in your shop. Let’s just pretend that I didn’t hear what you just told me, okay?”

“ If you -” Ephram started to say, before realizing that he should perhaps hold his tongue in the presence of the island's one and only police officer, whose cooperation was usually required in any local dispute. “There are rats everywhere,” he continued after a moment. “Yes, in my store, but also in the cantina and in the doctor's surgery and in the hotel and probably even here in the police station. This is exactly what I am trying to make you understand, Isobel. There is no escape from these damn things, no matter what you do or where you go. Only Le Compte himself is safe, sitting up there in his mansion in unbridled luxury!”

Sighing, Cavaleri reached into her desk and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“Something has to be done!” Ephram added, raising his voice.

“You don’t think I know?” Cavaleri snapped back at him. “In the past week alone, I’ve had complaints about the rats, I’ve had complaints about that damn motor vehicle, I’ve had complaints that Le Compte’s boat is damaging the harbor wall and scaring away the fish… Everyone on the island is up in arms, Ephram, but there’s nothing happening that I can actually act on. I need to see clear evidence of a criminal act, and so far all Le Compte has done is annoy people. That’s not enough! Being an ass is not a crime!”

“Rubbish!” Ephram hissed. “He’s more than that, and you know it!”

“ Listen,” she replied, “if you want me to take action against him, you need to help me. I don't like this any more than you do, but my hands are tied and I don't see a solution right now. Show me something I can use against him! Show me -”

Before she could finish, there was a shout from outside, followed by a low, rumbling sound. Cavaleri jumped to her feet and ran to the door, followed by Ephram. A van shot past at high speed, its tires screeching as it reached the end of the cobbled street and took a sharp left, and in the distance there were more angry voices.

“That madman almost hit me!” shouted a woman at the other end of the street, dusting herself off as she got to her feet. “Did you see him? He didn’t give a damn! He wasn’t even looking where he was going!”

“Was it him?” asked a man as he hurried over to help her.

“One of his thugs,” the woman replied. “Dead-eyed freaks.”

“A motor vehicle on Thaxos,” Ephram said, seeing the look of frustration on Cavaleri’s face. “Speeding through the streets in the late evening, with no care for the lives of people in this town. You won’t do anything about the rats, but what about the fact that Le Compte has brought a motor vehicle here, and his men are roaring about in it with no consideration for other people? If you don’t talk to him soon, someone’s going to get hurt or worse! There’ll be a death, and then another, and Le Compte won’t give a damn!”

Cavaleri turned to him, and it was clear from the look in her eyes that she had finally been won around to his point of view.

“He’s making you look foolish,” Ephram added. “You’re the official representative of law and order on Thaxos, but everyone can see where the real power lies. Every time that man flaunts his lack of concern, another feather is plucked from your plumage. You need to assert your authority over this man before it’s too late! Right now, he seems to have picked up where his grandfather left off. He acts as if Thaxos is his island.”

“It’s still not enough” Cavaleri replied. “There’s no specific law against motor vehicles, it’s just a tradition that everyone here has respected. As long as the vehicle is properly taxed and roadworthy, he’s technically allowed to have it here.”

“And he’s allowed to have it driven through the streets at such speed?”

“I’ll find out who was driving and talk to them,” she continued. “Le Compte wasn’t behind the wheel, was he? It was one of his men, so if an offense has been committed, it’s the driver who has to be dealt with.”

“Fine,” Ephram muttered, “then I suppose we’ll have to wait until someone is killed. Then, maybe, you’ll finally take action! Tell me, though, how many deaths will it require? Will one be enough, or do we need several? Five? Ten? How many?”

“ Ephram -”

“No, seriously, I would like to know! I can keep a record, and that way I’ll know when to come back and see if you’re finally doing your job!”

“You’re being a little dramatic,” she sighed. “There have been no deaths so far.”

“Someone will die,” Ephram said firmly. “I can feel it in my bones. The madness of the Le Compte family will not let go of this island. I have heard the tales from my grandmother and her friends, and I know how things will develop, and I promise you that this is just the start. Sometimes I think I am the only one who sees that the current Baron Le Compte is no better than his grandfather, the great Impaler of Thaxos. In fact, if I did not know better…”

Cavaleri waited for him to continue.

“If you didn’t know better what?” she asked eventually.

“If I don’t know better,” Ephram replied, with a chill in his voice, “I would say that he is the exact same man.”

VII

 

“It’s gonna take a couple of days to fix,” Fernando explained as he and Kate strolled along the dark, under-lit cobbled street that led away from the cantina. “Apparently the engine needs a complete overhaul, and for some reason the boss keeps all his equipment here on Thaxos, so here we are. It’s sure as hell not my choice.”

“I was shocked to see you tonight,” Kate told him. “After everything you said yesterday, it seemed like you hated the idea of coming back.”

“I do, but it’s not like I’ve got much choice. Anyway, my family’s from Thaxos, so it’s not like I can stay away for long.” They walked in silence for a moment, and it was clear that Fernando was troubled by something. “I hate what’s happened to the place over the past few months,” he continued eventually, “but it’s my home, you know? No matter how much I want to stay away, sooner or later I feel the urge to come back. It’s in my blood. That’s why it hurts so much to see how much damage has been caused.”

“You should talk to Ephram,” Kate replied. “It seems a lot of people are against Edgar’s presence.”

They walked on in silence for a moment more, as Kate tried to work out what to say. So far, the evening had been mostly filled with small-talk, but for once she actually appreciated the opportunity to talk about things that weren’t weighted down with importance. After just two days at the mansion on the hill, she felt as if she’d been living inside a pressure cooker, and she was very much aware that in order to survive her time on Thaxos she was going to need to make a few friends in the town. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to have only one thing on their minds: Edgar Le Compte.

“So what’s it like up there?” Fernando continued eventually. “How’s life at the mansion? Everyone’s gossiping about the place and wondering what’s going on.”

“Has no-one been up?”

“Are you kidding? There might as well be a wall around the place. No-one from down here has any desire to go and knock on the door, and even if they did, do you really think they’d be allowed inside? At the same time, they’re all whispering to each other and trying to imagine what life is like for Baron Le Compte. Sometimes his men are seen in town, and a girl too, but that’s about all that anyone knows.”

“And his men,” Kate pointed out.

“Don’t they live up at the mansion?”

“I assumed they had rooms in town.”

Fernando shook his head.

“Well, I guess…” Kate paused. “They must be staying somewhere.” She couldn’t help but wonder where, though. If they weren’t staying in the town and they weren’t at the mansion, there seemed no-one else for them to go when they weren’t working.

“So come on,” Fernando continued, “what’s it like living up there with that monster?”

“He’s not a monster,” Kate pointed out. “And it’s… interesting. Strange. Surprising.”

“I bet he’s living like a hog, huh?”

“Not exactly.”

“Come on, a guy like that can have anything he wants. The girl who was seen a few times, she’s like his bimbo, isn’t she? They never come into town, though. I guess they both know how much the Le Comptes are hated around here. Meanwhile that hulking great black boat comes and goes, bringing whatever he fancies to the island.”

“He’s really not that bad,” Kate replied.

“Says the woman who’s known him for a few days.”

“I know him pretty well,” Kate continued, trying not to sound too keen to prove her point. “I mean, not that well, but he sure as hell is no monster. He’s…” She paused for a moment, trying to come up with the right word to sum up a man as complex and difficult as Edgar Le Compte. “He’s unusual,” she said eventually. “Trust me, if you’d spent time with him, if you’d really talked to him, you’d understand. He’s not just this rich asshole who doesn’t care about Thaxos. In fact, that’s why I’m here. He wants me to document the history of his family and of the island. Does that sound like someone who’s only interested in himself?”

“You can’t expect to just march in here and understand how things work,” Fernando replied, as they reached the town square and made their way toward the water’s edge. “Local feelings about the Le Compte family go back centuries. It’s ingrained in the DNA around here. Anyway, haven’t you seen how the place has gone downhill over the past few months? The hand of Edgar Le Compte has passed over Thaxos and now everything’s turning to crap. The worst part is, it’s only just begun. Everyone’s worried that things are just going to get worse and worse.”

They stopped on the quayside and Fernando turned to look up at the mansion on the hill.

“He’s up there now,” he added, “counting his money and living the high life. It won’t last, though. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but the tide’s going to turn and he’ll end up paying for everything he’s done.”

“He hasn’t done anything,” Kate pointed out, feeling a little defensive. Everyone seemed to be out to demonize Edgar Le Compte, and she felt that the situation was unfair. He wasn’t being given a chance.

“ He's -” Fernando paused for a moment, before a faint smile crossed his lips. “He's monopolized this conversation,” he said eventually, “when we should have been talking about other things. That alone is pretty rude of him.”

Kate smiled, even though she was wondering where the evening was headed. She knew she should be careful to make sure that she didn’t mislead Fernando, but she liked talking to him and it was useful to get another view of the situation on Thaxos. As a cool sea breeze blew in, she smiled, and the silence between them seemed to grow, becoming something more significant. She knew she should say something to break the tension, but at the same time there was a part of her that wanted some kind of a distraction from her other problems.

“You know,” Fernando continued after a moment, “I’ve always believed that if you try something and it doesn’t work, you should give up, but…” He paused, and then slowly he leaned toward Kate.

Although she knew she should pull back, she stayed right where she was until their lips met, and for a few seconds she allowed herself to experience a slow, tentative kiss. It was the first kiss she’d had for almost a decade, and she was enjoying it purely because of the novelty value. Hell, there had been times recently when she’d begun to wonder if she even remembered how to do it. Finally, however, she felt a shiver pass through her body and she took a step back, shocked by how easily she’d acquiesced.

“So is this going to be like last time?” Fernando asked.

“I’m sorry,” she replied, “but I can’t do this. This isn’t me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just… It’s not your fault, okay? It’s mine.”

“ I know that.” He paused for a moment, clearly at a loss. “I can see it in your eyes. Something else is bothering you, something deep down. If you talk about it, maybe -”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m fine. I shouldn’t have let that happen, though, so I hope you can just put it out of your head. Mark it up as a moment of weakness, okay? Please, I want to be friends, but nothing more.”

“ But -”

“I’m just not a relationship kind of person.”

“ What the hell does that even -”

“I should go,” she added, turning and hurrying across the town square. She was worried that Fernando would run after her, but he seemed willing to let her go, and she quickly made her way through the dark streets until she reached the edge of town. Checking her watch, she saw that it was a little after midnight, but although she knew she should head back to the mansion, she felt wide awake and she figured there was no way she could sleep.

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw with relief that she wasn’t being followed. She felt bad, not only because she’d led him on, but also because she’d gone against one of her own life rules. Relationships, love, kisses… Those were all things that she’d written off long ago. They worked for other people, but she’d experienced enough disasters in her life – and one particularly huge disaster a decade ago – to know for certain that she was better off out of it.

“Stupid,” she muttered, castigating herself for that moment of weakness. “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

Deciding to talk the long route home, she made her way past the orange groves and took to a dusty, meandering path that wound its way slowly around and up the hill. In the moonlight it was difficult for her to see the way, but she didn’t mind getting lost a little. After all, it wouldn’t be possible to stray too far, not with the mansion visible from all over the island as it sat perched at the top of the hill, with just one solitary light burning in a window near the front.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Edgar standing at that window, surveying the island from above. There was a lot she didn’t understand about Edgar, but his apparent desire for isolation made a lot of sense.

As she walked through the darkness, she couldn’t help thinking about the different course that the night might have taken. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself naked in bed with Fernando, locked together with him in the throes of passion. She couldn’t help but smile as the impossibility of such a union, and she knew deep down that there was no way she would ever have let things go that far. After everything that had happened in her life, she had come to the realization that she just wasn’t made for love or romance. The kiss with Fernando had stirred old feelings that had taken a long time to settle, but she was determined to avoid any more pain.

No more mistakes. Life was easier without mistakes.

Eventually she reached the barbed wire fence that encircled Edgar’s property. She carefully climbed through, taking care not to get caught, before continuing her journey up the hill. Although she had been keen to get away from the mansion earlier, now she felt the opposite; she wanted to get back, go to sleep and then start working early in the morning. It was only when she was working that she was truly able to forget all about her other worries, and the prospect at that moment of throwing herself into the archive and losing herself in piles of paper was enough to -

Suddenly she stopped and turned, her senses burning.

She’d heard something nearby. It had sounded like a heavy thud caused by something landing on the ground, but there was nothing to see. She waited, alert for any sign of a presence, but nothing moved in the darkness.

Still she waited, holding her breath.

She hadn’t imagined it.

All around her, the only sound was the occasional rustle of grass as a late night Mediterranean breeze drifted in from the sea. Clouds briefly edged against the moon, bringing darkness for a few seconds before slipping away again, and once more the scene was bathed in the night’s cool, calm haze of moonlight.

And nothing moved.

Finally, cautiously, Kate turned and continued her journey, even though she kept glancing over her shoulder just in case anything appeared. After a few minutes, she began to accept that maybe she’d been wrong after all.

Up ahead, the light of the mansion was like a beacon, guiding her home through the darkness.

And then she heard it again, except this time it seemed more like something rumbling along the ground. She turned, and this time she saw that a patch of high grass about fifty feet away was moving in the moonlight, as if something was hiding.

A moment later, the movement suddenly stopped.

Having never worried before about her safety while she was on Thaxos, she was now very aware that she was out alone, surrounded by darkness in a land that was still somewhat unfamiliar. She listened to the sound of a gentle breeze passing across the grass, but now there seemed to be nothing untoward in the area, and finally she felt confident enough to double-check that there was no-one nearby.

“Hello?” she called out, trying not to sound scared.

She waited.

Nothing.

“Fernando?” she added, figuring that it was just possible that he might have followed her. After all, she didn’t know him very well, and she was aware that even the kindest face could hide something darker. Reaching into her pockets, she found that the only weapon she had was a bunch of keys, which wouldn’t exactly be much use. Still, if it was Fernando, she figured he was probably just playing a trick on her.

Silence.

“This isn’t funny!” she called out.

Silence.

Figuring that it was all just a trick of her sleep-deprived mind, she turned and continued her journey. As she passed one of the maintenance huts, she began to feel a little less worried about the idea of being out alone. In fact, she was starting to feel annoyed with herself for being so nervous. It would only take another ten minutes or so to get to the main building, and in that time -

Suddenly there was another thud nearby, and as she spun around she realized that it had come much closer.

Taking a step back, she stared into the darkness, telling herself that there was nothing to worry about, but seconds later she heard it again, as if something was out there and gaining ground on her. Trying not to panic, she took another step back, but moments later she heard a creaking sound over her shoulder, and she turned just in time to hear a faint, rumbling sound, almost like a growl.

She took yet another step back.

She listened.

The sound was persistent this time, like a kind of slow, boney creaking, and there was no way she could write it off as something she’d imagined. Now that it was between her and the mansion, she began to back away a little further. Looking over her shoulder, she could just about make out the maintenance hut nearby, and she figured that she could always take shelter if necessary. Then again, she also felt that the hut might be a bad choice. She was suddenly starting to think about all the men who worked for Edgar, and who seemed to appear when needed and then disappear completely, almost as if they only existed when they were required. She’d seen at least half a dozen of these men around, but she had no idea where they lived or slept.

“Hello?” she called out.

The low growl continued, but this time it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. It was more like a constant warning, like a dog telling someone to keep off its territory. Still, whatever it was, it sounded larger than a dog.

Reaching into her pocket, Kate searched for her mobile phone, but after a moment she realized that she must have left it in her room before she left the mansion earlier in the evening.

Dumb, she realized. Really dumb.

Suddenly there was another thud, closer than ever this time, and she instinctively backed away. Her heart was racing now, and she was convinced that there was something nearby. It didn’t sound human, either, and she was starting to worry that rats might not have been the only thing that Edgar had introduced to the island. The rational side of her mind told her to stop panicking, but there was a deeper, more basic part of her that was already imagining something horrific staring at her through the darkness.

Finally, she could stay calm no longer.

Turning, she hurried over to the hut and found to her relief that the door had been left unlocked. Slipping inside, she pulled the it shut and with trembling fingers she checked for any sign of a latch. Realizing that there was no way to lock the door from the inside, she nevertheless took a step back, figuring that if there was a wolf or some other kind of creature outside, it wouldn’t be able to get to her.

She waited.

Silence.

The only noise was her own heart, pounding in her chest.

This is crazy, she told herself. There’s nothing out there. You’re just a city girl getting freaked out by nature. You’re just a cliché.

Making her way over to the window, she peered out. There was nothing to see but darkness, but she still couldn’t quite persuade herself that the whole thing had been a figment of her imagination. A few little noises could have been explained away, but that growl had seemed very real. She waited, but as the minutes passed she began to cut herself a little slack. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with explanations for what had happened, although she kept coming back to the realization that she’d definitely heard something moving through the darkness. Perhaps, she figured, she’d simply overreacted to the sound of an owl, or some other totally benign form of wildlife.

Some kind of creature.

Checking her watch, she saw that it was almost two in the morning. The idea of staying out all night in a maintenance shed wasn’t exactly very appealing, but at the same time she didn’t like the idea of venturing back outside either. Her mind racing, she tried to think of a way out, and it was only after a few more seconds that she realized there was a noise nearby. Turning to look back at the door, she realized that the handle was rattling slightly, and that there was a scratching sound, as if something was trying to claw at the wood.

Something that wanted to get inside, even if it didn’t understand how to open a door.

She froze, and now she was aware of a kind of sniffing sound, as if something was trying to root her out of the hut. Whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t human, and it sounded increasingly desperate. After a moment, she realized she could hear it clawing against the wood.

And then suddenly it stopped.

She waited.

The door was still, and there was no sound from outside.

Waiting by the window, Kate held her breath, terrified that if she made even the slightest noise she might attract attention to herself. Reaching into her pockets, she desperately searched again for her mobile phone, hoping against hope that maybe she had it with her after all. Eventually she took a quiet, shallow breath, and she began to think that whatever had been out there, it had maybe lost interest in her.

And then she heard a noise at the window.

Turning, she stared out at the darkness and saw that there was something else out there, another kind of darkness twisting and turning.

And coming closer.

Fast.

Racing straight toward her.

Before she could react, the entire window shattered and the wooden frame came crashing down. She turned away as pieces of glass came slashing into her like a shower of stars, but as she fell she felt something sharp slice into her arm, sending a searing jolt of pain through her body. She half-landed against a bench with such force that she felt another piece of glass dig deep into her side, but she ignore the pain and immediately turned before crawling to the other side of the hut, not even daring to look back.

Seconds later, she heard something on the other side of the wall, and suddenly there was a loud thump as the creature, whatever it was, smashed itself against the wood, causing the entire hut to shake.

Backing into the far corner, Kate reached up and felt warm blood run down her arm as she heard the creature making its way back around to the gaping hole where the window used to be. As she turned stared in horror, Kate she tried to scream, but her body was frozen with fear as she finally saw the creature’s face.

Part Three

I

 

“You know I love you, right?” Didi said as she lay next to Edgar in their king-size, four-poster bed, with silk sheets wrapped around their still-sweaty, still-breathless naked bodies. “That’s the reason I sometimes get angry. It’s ‘cause I love you sooooo much.”

As if to prove her point, she used the nail of her left forefinger to draw a swirl in the black hairs on Edgar’s chest, tracing a path across his muscles and then down onto his rigid, bare abdomen. She let her hand rest on his warm flesh for a moment, feeling the faint pulse of his heart and the gentle rise-and-fall of his slow breaths. For a moment, all she could think about was getting him back inside her, but she quickly forced herself to focus on the more important task at hand. After all, she still had a job to do.

“Tell me you understand,” she continued, waiting for him to say something. “It’s important to me.”

Before Edgar could reply, the lights above the bed flickered for a moment.

“Damn it,” Edgar muttered, staring up at the ceiling. “I swear, the infrastructure on this island seems to be stuck in the dark ages. I thought it would have improved by now. There must be something wrong with the mansion’s exchange system.”

“Answer me,” Didi continued, with a hint of desperation having crept into her voice.

“You love me,” he replied dismissively. “I know.” He paused for a moment, before turning to her. “And I love you too, of course,” he added, with all the sincerity of a man who already realized that he’d waited a fraction too long.

“Huh,” she said with a smile, her eyes searching his face as she tried to understand what he was really thinking. “So given that we love each other, and that we’re gonna get married next year and all, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“I don’t like being asked questions,” he replied.

“I know, silly, but…” She paused, having finally reached the part of the conversation that she’d been building to since they’d finished making love a few minutes ago. She knew she needed to be delicate and precise in order to ensure that she didn’t set off any alarm bells. “You’ve gotta promise not to get mad, Eddie, but this has been gnawing at me for a while, and I figure there’s no reason why I can’t ask. I mean, I’m more or less almost your wife already, and you know everything about me, so…”

Another pause.

“Eddie, can you tell me… Did you really kill James Nixon?”

Edgar stared at her impassively, as if the question didn’t trouble him at all and as if, on the contrary, he was mildly amused that she had even asked.

“I won’t judge you,” she continued. “You know I won’t. I just wanna know, is all.”

“Whether I killed James Nixon?”

She nodded.

“Would it matter if I had?”

She opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out.

Would it?”

“No,” she stammered, “but… I mean, it’d have an impact on my thinking for sure, and it’s the kinda thing a girl ought to know about her intended, isn’t it? I won’t think badly of you, I swear, and I won’t ever talk to anyone about it, but can’t you just tell me? A lot of people think you did.”

“Do they?”

“Is that why you made us leave all those other cities and eventually moved us here to Thaxos? Were you getting tired of all the rumors and gossip?”

“That wasn’t the reason,” he replied. “But yes, the constant rumors were somewhat aggravating.”

“So why didn’t you address them head on?”

“And issue a public denial, swearing blind that I had nothing to do with James Nixon’s disappearance?”

“I think it would’ve helped,” she continued. “Sure, it wouldn’t have stopped the most aggressive people, but for the rest it would’ve been enough. It’s just that you kinda made people wonder, what with the way you refused to even release a statement saying you were worried when he went missing. I mean, James Nixon was your business partner and it was well known that the two of you were arguing a lot. There were stories in the papers about you two vying for control of the company, and everyone expected it to come to a head. And then he just vanished and…”

She waited, hoping that he might finally tell her the truth.

“So you think I had a motive?” he asked instead, remaining evasive.

“I think other people think you had a motive.”

Above the bed, the light flickered again.

“But do you think I killed him?” Edgar asked. “Let me rephrase that. Do you think I’m capable of kidnapping and killing anyone?”

“ Of course not,” she replied, “I love you, but -”

“Then there is no need for this conversation,” he said, pulling away and getting of bed. Stark naked, he wandered to the window and stopped for a moment, staring out at the pastel blues and reds of the morning sun.

Sitting up in bed, Didi stared at his nude form from the back. He was in so many ways a perfect specimen of manhood, with firm muscles defining the shades and contours of his impressive physique, and not an ounce of unnecessary fat anywhere on his body. After a moment, however, Didi’s eyes were drawn to the thick, jagged scar running around his upper arm, just below the shoulder. On his otherwise immaculate body, that scar always stood out, and she’d never been given a satisfactory answer concerning its origin. Still, she figured that true perfection would be kinda boring, and the scar was a perfect reminder that this was a man who had clearly been living a full and at times dangerous life.

The only question was: how dangerous?

“If you didn’t do it,” she continued after a moment, “then why not just say so? Why not deny it?”

“Because I don’t give a damn what people think,” he replied, keeping his back to her. “There isn’t a single person out there in the entire world whose opinion matters to me at all. Not one person. They can all think what they want, say what they want, do what they want… It makes absolutely no difference to me.”

“ But by staying silent, you make it seem -”

“I shall be busy today,” he continued, interrupting her. “I hope you can amuse yourself around the house, because I won’t be here. I must go into town.”

“You?” she asked, unable to hide her surprise. “Seriously? You’re going into town? Like… this town? The town on Thaxos?”

He turned to her, making no effort to hide his naked body from her view.

“Why should I not?” he asked. “I live here now, and I can’t spend the rest of my life in the house. From your tone of voice, it’s almost as if I announced I was planning a trip to the moon.”

“It’s just that you’ve never been down to the town before,” she continued. “Apart from the first night, but… Eddie, why would you go to a place where everybody hates you?”

“I was thinking that I should pay a visit to a few people,” he replied, “and that perhaps, by doing so, I might be able to show them that I care about the day to day life of the island. I admit that the idea seems a little strange, but I was talking to…”

Didi waited for him to finish.

“Talking to who?” she asked plaintively, even though she immediately realized that Kate must be responsible for this change in her fiance’s countenance. She’d known from the moment she met her that Kate Langley was going to be disruptive, and it hadn’t taken long for the proof to arrive. Edgar never usually listened to anyone, not even to Didi herself, yet suddenly he seemed to be taking advice from Kate. “Who were you talking to?” she asked again, hoping to get him to admit the truth. “Eddie? Who was it?”

“No-one,” he replied, walking over to the door that led through to their en-suite bathroom. “I just think that it would be good to show some interest. If they still hate me after I’ve been down there, then they still hate me, but it behooves me to at least make an effort rather than sulking up here the way I…” He paused again. “The way my grandfather used to. I should learn from his mistakes.”

“But I thought you said just now that you don’t care what anyone else thinks about you?” Didi replied firmly, trying to hide her growing anger at this turn of events. She’d always felt as if she more or less had a handle on Edgar’s emotions, but now she was seeing a few cracks. It was almost as if this most stubborn of men was actually capable of changing his mind, and if that was the case, she wanted to know the root cause.

“I don’t care,” he said simply.

“Then why are you trying to make them like you?”

“That’s not the sole purpose of my journey today.”

“Then who are you trying to impress?” she asked, trying not to let her exasperation become too obvious.

Ignoring her, he stepped into the bathroom. This was always his way of ending an argument: he simply walked away and assumed that there was nothing more to say. She’d grown used to it, but sometimes it made her blood boil and this was one of those occasions.

“Eddie!” she called out. “Eddie, get back here, we haven’t finished talking!”

Sitting in the bed, Didi tried to work out what, exactly, was happening. This was new and very uncharacteristic behavior from Edgar, and she felt certain that he wasn’t being entirely truthful about his reason for going into town. She knew him well enough, however, to be sure that he wasn’t trying merely to improve relations with the people of Thaxos, so she figured that there must be some other, hidden motive. Although it pained her to consider the possibility, she felt that maybe, just maybe, he was trying to impress Kate Langley.

“Well I’m going into town too!” she called through to him, determined to do more than simply sit around all day waiting for him to return. “Maybe I’ll bump into you! I probably won’t, though, ‘cause I’m gonna be real busy myself! I’ve got stuff to do and people to see! Are you listening to me?”

She waited for a response.

None came, and a moment later she heard the shower running.

“Damn it!” she shouted, although she knew she wasn’t going to get anywhere.

Sighing, she realized that this was another example of Edgar’s stubbornness. Reaching under the bed, she fumbled for a moment until she found the small tape recorder she’d carefully hidden there the night before, and she hit the button to switch it off. As Edgar showered, Didi sat in bed and watched the sunrise, while trying to work out how she was ever going to get him to admit the truth about the death of James Nixon. A cold shiver passed through her body as she realized that, at this rate, she might actually have to go through with the wedding.

And it had all seemed like such a simple job at the beginning…

II

 

“I tried everything,” Ephram explained as he set the tray of food down. Grabbing a fork, he stirred the food mix for a moment, fluffing it up to make it look a little more appetizing. “She wouldn’t listen. To her, I’m just a fool yabbering on without consequence. It’s as if she just wants to sit in bed and stare at the window all day, like… I don’t know what she’s waiting for. Tell me, what would you do? If you were in my situation, what course of action would you take? I would really like to hear your opinion.”

On the other side of the metal mesh, the chicken stared at him.

“Would you keep wasting your breath?” Ephram continued. “Or would you just let her get on with things and hope for the best?”

Reaching down to the floor of the coop, the chicken pecked at some straw.

“That,” Ephram muttered with a sigh, “is your answer for everything.”

Lifting a forkful of mix from the bowl, he turned and unlatched the door to the chicken coop, and then he slipped the fork inside and watched as his sole remaining chicken began to eat. It was still early and the store had only been open for a couple of hours, but of course there had been no customers. People tended to venture out less frequently these days, feeling safer in the middle of the day when the rats hid from the sun, but Ephram couldn’t afford to change his opening hours. In the past, before Edgar Le Compte’s return, there would always be a few customers through the door this early, but now he rarely saw anyone until noon. Still, he stubbornly opened every morning at 7am, just like the old days. It was the rhythm of his life, and he had no intention of changing.

Increasingly, though, mornings were for his chicken.

“No, no,” he said, gently pushing the chicken back and closing the door to the coop. “I can’t let you out, Gertrude. I’m sorry.”

As if to prove his point, a rat scurried along the far wall of the yard, making its way to the trash. A few weeks ago, Ephram would still have bothered to grab his mop and then he would have tried to kill the vermin, but now he just sighed. All that chasing had begun to wear him out, and it wasn’t as if he had a hope of getting rid of them all.

“I will find a solution,” he continued, turning back to look at his chicken. “This is only temporary, you understand? I will find a way to get rid of the rats, and then you can roam free again. You won’t have to spend your whole life caged like this, I promise. Don’t you remember the good old days when you walked freely around my shop?”

He dipped the fork into the bowl again, but suddenly he heard the bell ringing in his store. He turned and looked at the back door for a moment, perplexed that someone had actually showed up, but finally he bolted the door on the chicken coop and got to his feet, pausing only to wince at the pain in his hip.

“Wonder of wonders,” he muttered, patting the top of the coop. “Wait here. By the Lord’s mercy, I think we actually have a customer.”

 

***

 

At first, Ephram couldn’t see anyone, and as he walked to the counter he began to wonder if he’d misheard, or if a potential customer had merely looked through the door and believed the store to be closed. It wouldn’t be a big loss, since Thaxos was a small island and there were no other stores with such a wide range of products, but Ephram still prided himself on his level of customer service, and a lost – or even just delayed – customer was unfortunate. Besides, a customer would be a welcome chance to break up the monotony.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone in here?”

He paused for a moment, and suddenly he became aware of movement nearby. Turning, he saw a very still, immaculately-suited figure standing in the darker part of the store, hidden a little in the shadows. It took a moment before he finally realized who he was facing, and a moment longer before he was able to accept that his eyes were not deceiving him. It felt like a dream.

“You?” he said finally, genuinely shocked.

“Good morning,” Edgar replied calmly, removing his gloves and slipping them into his pocket. “It’s…” He paused, clearly feeling uncomfortable. “It’s a nice day, I believe.”

Ephram simply stared at him, blinking a couple of times as if he expected the man before him to be an illusion.

“It is a nice day, isn’t it?” Edgar asked, with a hint of doubt in his voice as he stepped out of the shadows. “It’s hot and the sun is bright, so I thought… Those are generally the conditions that are deemed to constitute a nice day, are they not? It can be so hard to keep up, though, so maybe I… I don’t know, perhaps I’ve lost touch a little with the way the world works. Personally, I find the heat can be a little oppressive sometimes, but then I suppose I shall just have to get used to the local climate. It’s… nice.” He spoke that last word as if it was completely alien to his tongue.

They stood in silence for a moment.

“I’m being polite and friendly,” Edgar pointed out eventually.

“What do you want?” Ephram asked.

“You sound suspicious.”

“What do you want?”

“Such a loaded question.”

“What,” Edgar shouted, unable to hide his anger any longer, “the hell do you want here?”

“I thought perhaps it was time for me to come and take some interest in the life of the town,” Edgar replied starchily, speaking as if he had rehearsed this moment over and over in his head during the walk down from his house. He glanced around for a moment, taking stock of the store’s somewhat dark offerings, and a hint of disdain crossed his face. “After all, I have been on Thaxos for three months now, and I feel that perhaps in that time I have neglected to offer a hand of friendship to my fellow citizens. If I leave it any longer, I might be seen as a little standoffish.”

Picking up a tin of condensed soup, he stared at it for a moment as if he had never seen such a thing before.

“Maybe I should buy this,” he said after a moment. “What is it?”

Ephram stared at him, clearly lost for words.

“Is it nice?”

Still, Ephram was too stunned to reply.

“In my defense,” Edgar added, setting the tin back down, “I have been extremely busy working on my home and getting things in order, although that is not really an excuse. I feel that perhaps I should have handled the situation better, and for that I can only apologize. We are all of us flawed, is that not so? To be fair, I did come down once before, on my first night here, but you were already closed. That was when I met Ms. Langley out in the courtyard. A most productive encounter, but not one that really improved my standing on the island. I think…”

His voice trailed off for a moment.

“Well,” he continued with a smile, “I just feel that a divide was starting to form. Perhaps people saw me as being rather too remote, when in fact I would like to become more involved in the activities of the entire town. I realize, however, that this is not something that is going to happen overnight, and that it requires some effort on my part. A show of goodwill, perhaps. To that end, I was thinking that I might hold some kind of an event to foster a little community spirit. A garden party, maybe, at my home.”

“A… garden party?” Ephram asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

“At your home?”

Edgar nodded.

“And you expect people to come up there and accept your hospitality?”

“I do.” Edgar paused, as if he didn’t understand the problem. “Would that not be appropriate?”

Still staring at Edgar, Ephram found it hard to believe that this encounter was really happening, and the strangeness of the whole situation felt truly shocking. Slowly, however, he was starting to feel his anger starting to boil up once again, and he found himself increasingly annoyed by the fact that Edgar had dared to show his face in the town at all.

“A garden party,” he said after a moment, as if the words had a bitter taste. “You think you can fix everything that has happened with a garden party?”

“Everything that has happened? Such as what?”

“My God,” Ephram continued, “you don’t have a clue, do you?”

“I’m sure you’ll enlighten me.”

“How is Kate Langley?” Ephram asked. “Is she enjoying her new life up at your mansion?”

“ I believe so,” Edgar replied. “I haven't seen her this morning, but I know that she made some good progress in the archive yesterday. Actually, we're going to widen her remit a little. She was originally engaged to explore the history of my family, but we're going to broaden the project and try to develop a comprehensive history of the entire island. She had already made some fascinating discoveries after just one day's work, so the next step -”

“Do you really want the history of your family opened up for all to see?” Ephram asked, interrupting him. “Are you that blind? Do you even know the misery that your grandfather caused?”

“ Of course, but -”

“And that you are now causing?”

Edgar paused.

“The rats,” Ephram continued, unable to hide his anger any longer, “are everywhere! Perhaps you don’t realize, perched up there high above the rest of us, but your boat has brought rats to Thaxos and we’re drowning down here! They’re breeding faster than we can kill them, and they’ve even begun to attack people! It’s a wonder that no-one has fallen sick yet!”

“I had no idea,” Edgar replied. “Something should be done.”

“Meanwhile,” Ephram continued, getting into the swing of his anger, “your men drive around in that goddamn motor vehicle at whatever speed they feel like, almost knocking people over in the street! There are not even supposed to be motor vehicles on Thaxos!”

“Are they breaking a law?”

“It’s tradition!”

“ Then I shall speak to them,” Edgar replied. “I had no idea that they were causing problems or -”

“A girl was bitten here in my store barely twenty-four hours ago,” Ephram continued. “My god-daughter. A rat took a chunk out of her flesh, cutting her to the bone, and she had to go to the doctor. She was in pain and she lost blood, and she won’t be the last! This island now has more rats than humans, and yet you think you can make everyone like you if you hold some kind of garden party? Are you completely insane?”

“It was merely intended as a gesture…”

“Nobody wants you here!” Ephram shouted, getting up and hurrying across the store, until finally he held the door open. “Not on this island, and not in my shop! You have already done more than enough damage, and the only way you can put all of this right is to take every last stinking rat, put them all on your boat, and then sail off with them forever!”

“ If -”

“The Le Comptes are not welcome on Thaxos!”

Edgar paused, clearly taken aback by the violence of Ephram’s outburst.

“Get out!” Ephram shouted. “Out of my shop! Now! Out!”

“ I'm sorry that things seem to have become so bad,” Edgar replied, making his way to the door. “I shall have to see what can be done about the rats, though. It cannot be beyond the abilities of modern man to eradicate such a pest from the island, and I can assure you that no expense shall be spared. You have my word, Mr. Kazakos, that every last rat will be removed from Thaxos in the near future, and I -”

“We have long memories around here,” Ephram said darkly, interrupting him. “There are people who remember the actions of your grandfather, you know. His cruelty, the way he acted as if he was above the law… We might not have much of our history written down, but it has been passed on from generation to generation and the truth about the Le Compte family is known by every single person on this island. Stories of your grandfather are used to frighten the children!”

“Is that so?” Edgar asked, with a faint smile.

“I don’t know if you thought that enough time had passed,” Ephram continued, “and that no-one would remember the Impaler and his murders, but if that’s the case then you have greatly underestimated us. And now that you’re here… Well, you know the old saying… An apple never falls far from the tree!”

Edgar smiled uncomfortably.

“Now leave,” Ephram added firmly.

“There was one other reason for my visit today,” Edgar replied. “It’s a more personal matter. I was hoping that you might grant me a brief audience with your grandmother.”

“What the hell do you want with her?” Ephram snapped back at him.

“ I merely wish to speak to her and see if she has recovered from her ordeal in the storm a few months ago. I was thinking that perhaps -”

“She is fine,” Ephram replied, “but there is no chance that you will ever see her. For one thing, she knows enough of our island’s history that even the sight of a Le Compte fills her blood with terror. For another, you look just like your grandfather, and I will not allow her bad memories to be stirred up. Like everyone else on Thaxos, she is better off without seeing you!”

There was a brief pause, as the expression in Edgar’s eyes hardened and his mask of civility seemed to slip a little further. There was malice in his eyes now, and he seemed to no longer care that his disgust was showing.

“You’re right,” he said eventually, with a faint smile, “I do look like my grandfather, don’t I? What was it they called him, again? The Impaler?”

“You might as well be the same man!”

“An interesting observation,” Edgar continued, slipping his hands back into his black gloves. Although he had initially seemed shocked by Ephram’s reaction to his visit, his usual sense of calm amusement had now been restored. “You are very observant, Mr. Kazakos, perhaps more so than you realize. Still, it is clear that my attempts to establish good relations here are going to fall on deaf ears, so I won’t waste any more of my time or yours. Please, do be sure to at least pass on my respect to your grandmother, and tell her that perhaps I will find some other opportunity to speak to her in person.”

“Not a chance!” Ephram replied firmly.

Stepping outside, Edgar turned and looked up at the open window above the shop’s main door. For a moment, a hint of compassion, maybe even love, crossed his face.

“Do not come back here,” Ephram continued. “You are not welcome in my store, and I can assure you that you are not welcome anywhere else in this town either. If you really must be on Thaxos, have the decency to stay up there and rot in your own home, and leave the rest of us alone. The last thing this island needs is to live once more under the rule of the Le Compte family, so we would rather just try to forget that you even exist.”

“Fine,” Edgar replied, unable to stifle a faint smile, “but at least I tried. I’m afraid that I am on Thaxos, old man, and nothing you can do will drive me away. This place is my home, just as much as it is yours, and I’m not going anywhere. The Le Compte family has been away for long enough, and I will not allow the stupidity of a minority to damage my heritage. Rest assured that I shall send note of my garden party in the next few days, and although I do not expect to see you there, I’m quite certain that there will be others who see things differently. And with that, I bid you good day. I have other business to attend to this morning.”

“You are banned from my store!” Ephram shouted as Edgar walked away. “You are not to set foot on my property again, or so help me God I will have you arrested for trespassing! Do you hear me?”

He waited for a reply, but Edgar merely slipped out through the courtyard’s wooden door, and although he wasn’t certain, Ephram thought for a moment that he could hear a hint of laughter.

Filled with anger, Ephram slammed the door shut before making his way across the store. When he reached the counter, unable to find any other outlet for his rage, he grabbed a nearby jar and smashed it against the floor, before finally realizing that he needed to be a little calmer. Taking a deep breath, he looked back at the door, and he felt as if he could still feel Edgar Le Compte’s presence in the room.

Hearing a banging sound from upstairs, he realized that his grandmother was trying to get his attention. After taking a moment to let the last of his anger fade, he made his way up, only to find that the old woman had managed to climb out of bed and was now crawling through her open doorway, as if she was determined to get downstairs at any cost.

“What are you doing?” Ephram asked, crouching next to her and taking her hand. “You must go back to bed immediately!”

Ignoring him, she continued to crawl toward the top of the stairs, but finally she stopped and slumped down against the floorboards, as if her aged body had broken down. She muttered something inaudible, her voice filled with desperation and fear.

“I’m sorry if you heard that conversation just now,” Ephram muttered as he began the long, difficult job of hauling his grandmother back to her bed. “Trust me, though, it was the last time. That man will never again trouble us! I made sure that he realized just how the people of Thaxos feel about him. With any luck, he’ll go straight back up to his mansion and spend the rest of his life rotting alone!”

As he struggled to get the old woman back into her room, he had no time to notice the tears running down her face, or to hear that she was quietly sobbing.

III

 

“Hey!” Didi shouted as she walked into the huge archive room. “Anyone in here? Hello?”

Stopping in the middle of the room, she looked around at the scores of crates and packing cases, some of which had already begun to spill their contents out across the floor. Sniffing at the dust that drifted through the air, she waited for some sign of life, but finally she realized that there was no-one else in the room. Frowning, she turned and looked over at the desk in the far corner, and then at a pile of papers arranged nearby.

“Kate?”

Silence.

“Academic bitch?” she added.

No reply.

“Huh,” she muttered, surprised to find that Edgar’s new archivist seemed to be slacking off on only her second day. Checking her watch and seeing that it was almost 11am, she wandered over to the nearest crate and picked up the first documents she happened to find, which turned out to be something to do with the purchase of some pigs back in the 1950s. She flicked through them for a moment, but as hard as she tried, she didn’t find them even remotely interesting, and she felt nothing but pity for Kate.

Once she’d put the papers down, she found that a layer of thick, greasy dust was smeared on her fingertips.

“Gross,” she muttered, wiping as much of the dust as possible onto the edge of a crate.

Making her way across the room, she found it hard to believe that anyone could handle the idea of spending time in such a place. To Didi, the archive was just a big pile of junk, and she figured the best approach would just be to haul everything out and burn it on the lawn. After all, she couldn’t understand why anyone would care a jot about some pigs that were bought by some long-since dead guy more than half a century ago, and she felt that Edgar’s money could be better spent on other projects, like building a bar in the swimming pool or adding a little extra cash to the wedding fund. She also felt that Kate was something of a threat, although that impression was diminishing now that she realized that the other woman was nowhere to be seen.

“Nice,” she muttered, standing in the middle of the room. “Lazy-assed slacker bitch.”

 

***

 

“You know I love you, right?” she said a few hours later, running a finger across Fernando’s bare chest. “That’s the reason I sometimes get a bit angry and jealous. It’s because I love you sooooo goddamn much. You’re my hunky sailor.”

She waited for a reply, but Fernando was staring up at the ceiling, apparently lost in thought.

It was a little after lunch, and Didi’s trip into town had so far consisted of little more than dropping by Fernando’s boat and making a quick booty call. As usual, they’d ended up having sex on the foldout bed in the corner of the engine room, which Didi found simultaneously horrible and hot: horrible because it was rather dirty, but hot because it was such a huge contrast to the glamor and luxury of Edgar’s mansion. She supposed that Fernando was most definitely beneath her, but at the same time he definitely helped to spice up those days when boredom threatened to become a problem.

In fact, she felt that her clandestine affair with Fernando was just about the only thing keeping her sane.

Running her hand across his chest, she couldn’t help but marvel at his impressive physique. He was just as impressive as Edgar, albeit in a more toned manner, and whereas Edgar’s muscles hinted at hard work in the gym, Fernando’s were the result of back-breaking work in the ferry’s engine room. The difference was subtle, but also one that Didi appreciated. She didn’t have a clue which type of body she preferred, so she was just glad that she didn’t have to choose. Not yet, anyway.

“So what’s the deal?” she asked eventually, reaching up and grabbing Fernando’s chin before tilting his head toward her. “Pay a girl some attention, yeah? You’re not thinking about someone else, are you?”

“No,” he replied unconvincingly. “I just…”

His voice trailed off.

“You just what?”

“I just…” He paused for a moment. “I think maybe we shouldn’t do this for a while.”

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“I want to take a break,” he continued. “It’s been fun, but I can’t do this right now. There’s…”

Didi waited for him to continue.

“There’s what?” she asked eventually. “You haven’t found someone else, have you?”

“Of course not.”

“Good,” she replied, forcing a smile, “because I need our little sessions so I can blow off some steam. Do you have any idea what it’s like being cooped up there in Edgar’s goddamn mansion? The whole place is so airless, and I don’t know what’s wrong but he’s been in a foul mood lately. Do you know what he’s doing today? He’s actually coming into town, can you believe that? Edgar Le Compte looked out the window this morning and decided he wanted to come down and mix with the little people! Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Seriously?” Fernando asked. “Why would he do that?”

“Dunno. Some kind of meet and greet, I think. It’s like he wants to get to know people and become more popular around the island, or some other kind of crap. I mean, what the hell is wrong with him?”

“He’s got balls,” Fernando replied, “I’ll give him that.”

“All men have got balls,” Didi laughed, reaching under the cover and grabbing Fernando’s, before giving them just enough of a twist to get his full attention. “That’s what I love about you all,” she continued. “If a woman needs to know how to really get a man on her side, she can just go straight to the most important part. It’s really not as complicated as it seems.”

“Do you mind letting go?” he asked uncomfortably.

She gave him a little extra twist, to punish him for the request.

“Do you know Kate Langley?” she asked, and she could see immediately from the look in his eyes that her suspicions were correct. “She mentioned you at dinner the other night, just in passing. Now, I know you’re a smart guy, Fernando, so there’s no way you’d ever start thinking that she’s worth taking a shot at. I mean, I guess some people like the bookish, frumpy kinda girl, but you’re just a dumb grease monkey with a hot body. Play to your strengths. We shallow, gorgeous people have to stick together.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re not gonna stop seeing me,” she replied, yanking his balls a little harder as her frustration at Kate’s presence began to boil over. “Do you know how I know that?”

“How?” he asked.

“Simple. It’s ‘cause I always get what I want.” She leaned closer and kissed his bare shoulder, letting her soft wet lips linger for a moment against his tanned flesh. “Every. God. Damn. Time. And sooner or later, even Edgar Le Compte is gonna learn that.”

IV

 

“I called you because I knew you’d hear about it soon anyway,” Doctor Burns said as he led Ephram into the surgery’s back room. “I’ve tried everything but there’s nothing I can do to help her…”

As soon as he spotted Maximo and Catherine Marco sitting by the bed in the corner of the surgery, Ephram’s heart missed a beat and he realized what must have happened. Hurrying across the room, he made his way around the bed until he saw his goddaughter’s pale face, with her eyes closed as sweat poured down her brow. Her parents were holding her hand, with tears running down their cheeks as they sat in silent prayer, desperately willing their daughter to get better. A drip line was running into the girl’s arm, but she already looked so fragile and thin. It was as if Death had already started his work.

“Alice,” Ephram whispered.

“It came on so fast,” Doctor Burns explained as he made his way over to the bed. “She was fine first thing this morning, but a couple of hours later I got the call to say that she’d developed a fever. It’s too early to say for certain what’s wrong, but I suspect a blood-borne virus. She must have been incredibly unlucky and happened to get bitten by a rat that was a carrier.”

“She came down to breakfast with a terrible headache,” Catherine explained, her voice trembling with tears. “She didn’t want to make a fuss, as usual, but we could see that something was wrong. Then she began to vomit, and her pupils were different sizes. We got her onto the sofa and called for help at once, but by that point she’d begun to shiver and her skin felt hot and cold at the same time. When I asked her what was wrong, she spoke in words that barely made any sense, as if her mind was damaged, as if…” She paused, with fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. “It was as if she wasn’t even herself anymore.”

Ephram reached down to touch Alice’s arm, only to find that her skin was hot and clammy.

“You must do something,” Maximo said, his voice filled with grief as he put an arm around his sobbing wife and looked up at the doctor. “The fever is getting worse! You are a doctor, aren’t you? For the love of God, do something!”

“ I'm waiting for a call from the mainland,” Doctor Burns replied, with obvious concern in his eyes. “Given the situation, it's not going to be possible to get her to a hospital in time, so I have to do what I can here while we wait for a medical boat to reach us. It's going to be at least four hours and -”

“She’ll be dead in four hours!” Maximo shouted, before kissing the top of his wife’s head as if to try to comfort her. “She’ll be dead,” he whispered again, “and all you can do is tell us to wait for a boat?”

His wife was muttering to herself, saying the same prayer over and over again as she squeezed Alice’s hand tighter and tighter.

“The drip will help to counter dehydration,” Doctor Burns continued, “and I’ve already given her two different antibiotic doses that should help her to fight the infection. The problem is, out here on Thaxos we’ve never needed to keep certain types of medicine. Even on the mainland it would be difficult to treat this, but here…” He paused for a moment. “I’m doing my best. We must remain hopeful and trust that God has mercy.”

“Perhaps,” Maximo snapped, “God will send us a better doctor instead!”

As they continued to talk, Ephram made his way to the other end of the bed and looked down at the girl’s face. Apart from the fact that she was so pale and her skin glistened with sweat, she looked for all the world as if she was merely sleeping, and he briefly thought back to the days when he used to look down into her crib. After a moment, however, he realized that her breathing was hoarse and shallow, and it became abundantly clear that Death was busy drawing her deeper into his shadow.

“You must listen to me,” Ephram said, leaning closer to the bed. “Do not allow this to happen! You must fight it, Alice! You’re young and strong, not like the rest of us. God would never allow something like this to happen to one so innocent and kind!” He pressed a hand against the side of her face. “Take some of my strength. I’m old, I don’t need it. Take my strength, all of it if you can, and fight!”

“God has turned his back on Thaxos,” Marco replied. “This is his way of warning us. He knows that we have allowed Satan into our midst, and now our beautiful daughter is paying the price.”

“I can assure you,” Doctor Burns continued after a moment, “that Alice is not in any pain or discomfort. I’ve given her something to knock her out, so at the moment she’s just dreaming. Keeping her sedated is not a problem.”

“But you can’t save her, can you?” Maximo replied.

“I’m doing everything I can.”

“This is not right,” Ephram whispered, his heart breaking to see his goddaughter in such a terrible state. He couldn’t help thinking back to the moment, just twelve hours earlier, when the girl had been smiling at him in his store, and yet now she was on the verge of death and he felt as if there was nothing he could do to help her. He couldn’t say the words out loud, of course, but in his heart of hearts he could see that the girl was dying. It was only a matter of time before Death’s work would be complete.

“How long does she have?” Catherine Marco asked.

“ It's hard to say,” Doctor Burns replied. “Maybe -”

“How long?” she asked again, this time with anger in her voice.

“She could still pull through,” came the reply. “However, in the worst case scenario, it could be over very quickly. Her body is under attack from the inside.”

Unable to stand the sight of the girl’s suffering any longer, Ephram turned and made his way out of the surgery. As soon as he was outside, he sat on a nearby wall and put his head in his hands, as tears finally flowed from his eyes. It was the helplessness, more than anything, that was driving his fury, as well as the knowledge that no matter what he did, nothing would ever make Edgar Le Compte understand the misery that he had brought to the island. For months now, Ephram had been warning everyone that the rats would bring disease, and now his worst fears had come to pass. It was an added cruelty that the first victim was to be the girl he had long thought of almost as his own child.

“ You mustn't blame yourself,” Doctor Burns said as he wandered out to join Ephram. Lighting another cigarette, he paused for a moment. “If anyone is to blame, perhaps it should be the doctor who didn't order the right anti-virals a few months ago when the rats first appeared. I tried my best to anticipate the problems that would occur, but this particular virus just seemed to come out of nowhere. If God has chosen to take the poor girl -”

“This is not God’s work,” Ephram spat back at him. “God did not bring vermin to Thaxos, and God did not allow that poor girl to get bitten.”

“This is not the time to lose your faith,” Doctor Burns replied. “If God sees that we still believe in him, he might give us this glimmer of hope.”

Ephram shook his head, unable to accept the other man’s words.

“And you think that anger will help?” Doctor Burns continued.

“I think that someone has to recognize that in just three short months, Baron Edgar Le Compte has caused more damage to the people of this island than anyone could possibly have imagined.” Ephram paused for a moment, feeling as if he had to somehow find a way to make a stand. “Face it, that girl is going to die, and then what will we do? Wait for it to happen again and again? The children are our future, and we have to protect them.”

“There’s still a chance that she might pull through.”

“Sure there is,” Ephram replied, getting to his feet and setting off on the walk back to his store, before stopping and turning back to the doctor for a moment. He was shaking with rage, and he felt that he had to find some way to express his anger. “We both know that Death himself is in that room, working on Alice’s body and folding her into his world. You have my number. Let me know when the poor girl has breathed her last.”

“She might recover.”

“Let me know,” Ephram said firmly, “when she is dead!”

Doctor Burns stared at him for a moment, and then he did the only honest thing. He nodded.

V

 

“Eddie!” she called out. “Eddie, babe! Are you here?”

Silence.

Standing in the hallway, Didi listened to the silence all around her. Having lived at the mansion on Thaxos for three months now, she was well used to this particular type of silence, but she still felt a little creeped out every time it happened. It was almost as if, whenever Edgar wasn’t with her, the entire house seemed to die a little, almost as if he was the only one who kept the place alive. Now, as she walked across the hallway and stopped by the door that led into the main study, she couldn’t shake the sensation that this was a house that had long ago been abandoned, even though she knew this was not the case. The whole building seemed to be holding its breath.

“Eddie?”

Again, she waited. She had to be sure that he was still out.

“Jacob?”

Nothing.

She smiled. It was pretty typical of Edgar’s manservant to not bother coming when she called. The doddering old man never showed up unless his master was around, almost as if he only existed when Edgar specifically needed him, but on this occasion Didi didn’t mind at all. In fact, she was glad to be alone.

“Kate?” she called out.

Again, silence.

Figuring that she was definitely alone, she hurried back across the hallway and then down the steps that led into another, shorter corridor. Edgar had told her time and again not to bother exploring the lower eastern wing of the mansion, but she’d been biding her time and now she was going to find out what the hell he was hiding. All she knew was that at the far end of the corridor, there was a small door that led down into the basement. She’d heard Edgar mention the basement a few times, and he’d indicated that there were some things down there left over from his grandfather’s era, but he’d conspicuously never offered to show her, and the door had remained locked. At first she’d been only mildly curious, but now she was starting to wonder if the basement might help her understand Edgar’s plans a little better.

Fortunately, this time she’d manage to get hold of the key.

Once she’d opened the door, she paused one more time and looked back along the corridor, just to be absolutely certain that there was no sign of anyone nearby. Fortunately, the house still seemed to be holding its breath. After a moment, she slipped through the door and found herself at the top of a dark, barely-lit staircase that seemed to wind down deep into the bowels of the house. It was by far the most unwelcoming sight imaginable for someone who hated spiders and felt nervous in the dark, but as she pushed the door gently shut, she realized that this was her only opportunity to find out for certain what was down there. She wasn’t expecting to find anything directly linked to James Nixon’s disappearance, but she still figured that she could use some extra dirt on Edgar. After all, that was one of the things she was being paid for.

Making her way down the steps, she couldn’t help but notice how each one creaked under the weight of her footfall. In fact, with every step she almost felt as if she was going a little further back in time, and she was grateful for the row of small electric lights that ran along the ceiling and provided at least enough light for her to be able to see where she was going.

The steps curved around to the right, but just when she was beginning to wonder how much further down they could go, she saw that they came to an end and opened out into a small, dank-smelling stone room. Having slipped her heels off before starting the exploration, she now found that her bare feet were uncomfortably cold and wet on the stone floor, but she figured that was no reason to turn back.

She stood for a moment at the bottom of the stairs, staring at the empty room in front of her. There was an open doorway at the far end, and she was starting to realize that the basement must be at least the same size as the rest of the house and that, far from being one large space, it seemed to be divided up into a multitude of smaller sections. Taking a step forward, she looked up nervously at the single electric light in the middle of the room, and it seemed to buzz a little louder as she passed directly beneath its casing. Everything about this room screamed at her to turn around and get the hell out, but she made her way to the doorway and looked through into the next, pitch black room. Blinking a couple of times, she waited for her eyes to get used to the darkness, but then she noticed a faint white wire running down the wall just a few feet away. Reaching out, her fingers quickly found a light-switch, and once she’d flicked the button she waited as another electric light flickered into life.

She stared ahead, barely able to believe what she was seeing.

This second room was larger than the first, and arranged on either side were a series of bizarre metal contraptions the likes of which Didi had never seen before in her life. She took a step forward, but something about the room urged her to hold back. For a moment, she felt that maybe the equipment was part of some kind of old-fashioned home gym, and she clung to that hope until she edged closer to the nearest machine and realized that it was nothing of the sort. Constructed using a combination of black metal and wood, it looked for all the world like some kind of medieval torture device, and she couldn’t help noticing the thick manacles that sat perched on a pair of armrests, or the chains that hung down and pooled on the floor. Looking up at the top of the device, she saw what appeared to be a makeshift metal crown with thick spikes jutting down toward the inside, and above that there was some kind of long, vertical spike connected to a series of pulleys and levers.

All told, it looked like something from a previous age.

Making her way to the next device, she looked down at what appeared to be a tin bath, albeit one with manacles on either side and a set of spikes jutting up from the bottom. A thick metal chain was attached to one end of the tub, along with some kind of iron mask and a thick metal collar. Reaching down, Didi touched the side of the bath, her fingertips brushing against the cold metal as she tried to imagine what kind of torture an individual would endure after being strapped into such a device. She felt as if her blood was running cold, and as she turned to look across the room at all the other torture devices she -

Suddenly she heard a noise nearby.

Turning, she looked back at the doorway, but there was no sign of anyone. She stayed completely still, convinced that there was someone close, but after a few seconds she began to replay the sound in her mind and she realized that it might just have been the house settling. Forcing herself to be brave, she made her way back across the room and leaned through the doorway, only to find that there was no sign of anyone. The noise had been just a brief clicking sound, like something tapping against a stone wall, but when she looked over at the steps she realized that she would definitely have heard the wood creaking if anyone had come down to join her in the basement.

Taking a deep breath, she turned and made her way back over to the torture devices, and then she took out her mobile phone and started to take a few photos. She knew the devices were probably just left over from Edgar’s grandfather, but still, she wanted to catalog as much of the house as possible, just in case it turned out to be useful. After all, her employers were keen to get their hands on as much information about Edgar as possible.

“Find anything interesting?”

“Jesus!” she shouted, spinning around with such force that she dropped the phone, which flew several feet through the air, then crashed to the floor and slid over to the doorway, where it came to rest next to Edgar’s feet.

“I’m surprised to find you down here,” he said, staring at her calmly. “I was under the impression that the door was locked.”

“It was,” Didi stammered, swallowing hard as she tried to work out how the hell he’d managed to sneak up on her. “I mean, yeah…” She paused. “Yeah, I found the key, and…”

Her voice tailed off.

“I thought…” she continued. “I mean, I didn’t think you’d… It seemed…”

Edgar continued to stare at her for a moment, before reaching down and picking up her phone.

“The screen appears to be cracked,” he said after a moment, “but other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any real damage. I think you’ll be able to make calls.” He pressed a few buttons, bringing up some of the pictures that Didi had managed to snap. “Fascinating,” he muttered. “Seeing them like this, they look so much older, like something in a museum. One would almost not believe that they’re all still in perfect working order.”

Didi waited, not daring to say anything. Her heart was racing and she still wasn’t quite sure how to explain the fact that she’d snuck down to the basement in the first place. She was also frustrated by the fact that she hadn’t heard him sneaking up on her. It seemed impossible that he could have made his way down the stairs without the steps creaking, but the only other explanation was that he had already been in the basement. Neither possibility was particularly comforting.

“Have you seen Ms. Langley?” Edgar asked eventually. “She’s not in the archive room, and I haven’t laid eyes upon her since last night.”

“I guess she must be around somewhere,” Didi replied. “I’m sure your newest little pet wouldn’t stray too far,” she added bitterly, under her breath.

“It’s not like her to stop working. I must admit, I’m starting to worry a little. Then again, I suppose she must be okay, wherever she is.” As he spoke, the light flickered above them. “I really must do something about that,” he added. “I’ve asked my men to fix the electrical system, but I fear that the task seems to be beyond their capabilities. Perhaps I should just roll up my sleeves and do the job myself. After all, I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty.”

Didi stared at him, still trying to work out what to say.

“I went to Ms. Langley’s room just now,” Edgar continued, “and I might be wrong, but I think that perhaps she didn’t sleep up here at the house last night, which can only mean that she must have stayed in the town. I suppose I have no particular right to assume that she would sleep in the bed I have provided, and I’m her employer, not her guardian. Nevertheless, we had made plans to discuss her work some more.” He walked over to the nearest torture device, running a hand across its cold metal frame. “I must speak to her when she gets back. I’m more than happy for her to enjoy Thaxos on her own time, but I really must impress upon her the urgency of her work.”

Didi smiled uneasily, glancing over at the doorway.

“So you went into town?” she asked, trying to get a normal conversation going.

Edgar nodded.

“And how did it go?”

“Not particularly well. I tried my best to be friendly and humble, but I’m afraid it was all thrown back in my face in a very rude and ungrateful manner. I should have known better, perhaps, but I had to at least try.”

“Told you it was a bad idea.”

“Yes,” he replied with a faint, sad smile. “Yes, you were right about that. It seems that the locals are still hung up on the actions of my grandfather all those years ago. There was some mention of rats and other matters, but essentially I feel that my grandfather is still the main problem. People around here seem to think of him as some kind of beast.” He ran his hand onto one of the machine’s large metal spikes. “He was known locally as the Impaler.”

“Yeah,” Didi replied cautiously. “I heard.”

“These are actually some of his old devices,” he continued, making his way to the next machine, which looks like a kind of sarcophagus complete with a hinged door and spikes on the inside. “I’ve been trying to work out what I should do with them, although I don’t suppose they’re causing any bother by just being here. Does it shock you to see them?”

“A bit.”

He smiled again. “As I said, this isn’t a museum. These were all working machines back in my grandfather’s day. Every single one of these devices was at some point used on some poor soul who was unfortunate enough to end up down here in the basement. The victims, and there were many of them, were almost exclusively women. He had, as you might gather, certain issues, as well as a great deal of anger. I’m sorry to say that his hatred was mostly directed toward women, although there also happened to be a few men who earned his ire. In fact, I believe he even fought a man once and sustained a nasty injury to his arm before emerging victorious.”

Didi watched as he made his way across the room.

“How did he get away with it all?” she asked eventually.

“With torturing and murdering people?” He stopped by a set of chains that hung down from the ceiling, and for a moment he ran his hands over the metal, almost as if he found the touch to be pleasing. “My grandfather was able, for a time, to do any damn thing that he pleased. He saw Thaxos as his personal domain, and he didn’t even consider the possibility that anyone would or could stop him. In some ways, it’s hard not to admire such forthright stubbornness. The man most certainly had a very powerful ego, and to be fair, he turned out to be absolutely correct. He continued with his efforts for many years, even though there was a police officer stationed down in the town. Even an officer of the law understood that it would be unwise to cross my grandfather.”

“And then he disappeared?”

“So the story goes,” Edgar replied, turning to her.

“And no-one ever found out where he went?”

“I believe that a few people searched for him, but they never found a trace. It was never even established whether or not he’d left the island.”

“So there might be, like, a body somewhere?”

“I suppose there might.”

“Huh,” she replied, forcing a smile. “He must’ve been one crazy dude. I mean, look at this stuff. What kind of person actually has a real-life torture dungeon? He must have been, like… out of his mind.”

“Yes,” Edgar said softly, with a faint smile. “I suppose he must have been.”

“Sorry,” she continued. “I know he was your granddad and all, and I know I shouldn’t be mean, but anyone who has stuff like this in their basement, and actually uses it on people…” A cold shiver passed through her body as she imagined the screams that must once have filled the room. “What did he do with the bodies?” she asked after a moment. “No, wait. I don’t think I want to know.”

“He was a very inventive man,” Edgar replied, walking over to a large metal chair with various spikes and screws attached to it. “He liked to keep his victims alive for as long as possible while he was torturing them. The record, I believe, was something in the order of eighteen days. Imagine that. Eighteen days with someone strapped into various machines, with my grandfather constantly pushing them to the brink of death but always making sure not to kill them. I’m sure he was disappointed when it all ended on the eighteenth day, but I suppose the human heart can only stand so much suffering. He himself was almost driven mad by the whole process.”

He smiled again.

“Almost,” he muttered, “but not quite.”

“Was that in your archive?” Didi asked.

Edgar seemed lost in thought for a moment, before turning to her.

“That information about the guy who was tortured for eighteen days,” she continued nervously. “Did… Did you read about that in the archive?”

“Oh.” He paused. “Yes. Of course. But…” Another pause, and then a faint smile. “It wasn’t a ‘guy’, as you phrase it. It was a woman.”

Again, a shiver passed through Didi’s body.

“My grandfather kept a comprehensive and very detailed diary,” he continued. “He noted down facts and thoughts about all his victims. He even sketched the early ones, before he was able to get hold of a camera. I believe that somewhere in the archive, there might even be some old photographs that show the full extent of the horrors he committed. I suppose I should probably warn Ms. Langley in case she stumbles across them some time. I imagine that they might be rather upsetting.”

“Sounds like she’s gonna have a lot of fun going through those old papers,” Didi muttered.

“Allow me to show you something,” Edgar continued, suddenly grabbing a metal bar and swinging it away from the chair. The hinge creaked and the metal let out a loud clanging sound as it hit its natural rest point, and Edgar gestured toward the contraption’s leather seat. “Please.”

“What`” Didi asked nervously.

“Take a seat.”

“You’re kidding, right?” She stared at him incredulously. “Eddie? Sweetheart? You want me to sit in that thing?”

“I just want to show you something,” he continued. “What’s wrong? Are you worried I might strap you down and torture you for eighteen days?”

She swallowed hard.

He smiled.

“Please,” he added. “You’re the first person who has been down here with me in the whole three months since we arrived. I must admit, in spare moments I’ve come down alone and spent time examining the equipment, trying to understand the compulsions that drove my grandfather. I was thinking that perhaps I should show you the place, but I was worried about what you’d think. I suppose I didn’t want to scare you. Now that you’ve somehow managed to find your way down of your own accord, however, I’d like to share some of the things that I’ve learned.”

Didi stared at him.

“Please,” he continued with a faint smile. “Just take a seat for a moment. This place has almost become a kind of hobby. Allow me to share it with you.”

“Eddie,” she replied, “why don’t we save this for another day, huh? Why don’t we go upstairs and pop back into bed?”

“After I’ve shown you something down here.”

“I don’t really wanna, Eddie.”

“Humor me.”

She took a deep breath, but it was clear that he was determined to get her into the chair. Although she knew that she could refuse and go back up to the main part of the house, she wanted to make sure that she stayed on his good side, and besides, she knew that despite his many faults, he wasn’t anything like his grandfather. She was also starting to feel that perhaps she was getting deeper into his psyche, which might be another way to finally get him to open up about James Nixon and the past.

He’s not a monster, she told herself.

“Sure, Eddie,” she said with a smile, making her way over to the machine. “For you, anything. Just promise not to scare me, okay? Don’t play any stupid jokes.”

“I promise,” he replied.

Taking a seat in the heart of the machine, Didi looked up at the metal crown that was raised above her head, and at the large spike even further above.

“Here,” Edgar said, reaching down and taking her hands, placing them on the armrests. “Of course, my grandfather would strip his victims naked before beginning the process, but I think perhaps that would be a step too far for us right now.”

“Wouldn’t that be part of the fun?” she asked. “Don’t you find it kinda kinky?”

“That’s not quite how it works.”

Didi smiled uneasily.

“He would drug them,” he continued, “and when they woke up, they’d be already secured in whichever of the devices my grandfather had decided to use first. As I have said before, he was endlessly inventive when it came to such things, and his sadism knew no bounds.” He paused for a moment. “It’s said that no-one who woke up in one of these devices ever escaped. If you were unlucky enough to end up down here, you had nothing to look forward to other than a slow and painful death. His reputation preceded him, so I imagine that all his victims understood their fate from the moment they first opened their eyes and saw where they were.”

“Huh,” Didi said, forcing a smile.

She tried to get up, but Edgar gently pushed her back down into her seat, and before she could stop him he closed one of the iron manacles around her left wrist.

“Eddie!”

“Humor me,” he replied calmly. “I’m just trying to help you understand what it must have been like to wake up down here.”

“Yeah,” she muttered, trying in vain to get her wrist free, “I get it, it must’ve sucked big time, but you don’t need to screw me down to show me. Can you cut me loose, Eddie? Please? I told you not to mess around!”

“In a moment,” he replied, reaching down and pulling a lever. A metal brace immediately swung shut, trapping Didi’s legs in place. “I just want to show you a couple more things.”

“Eddie, stop it!” she shouted. “You promised not to pull stunts like this! You’re being an ass!”

“Don’t be scared,” he replied. “You can trust me, Didi. You know that, don’t you? You can trust me, and I can trust you, isn’t that right?”

“Yeah, Eddie,” she continued, with fear in her voice. “Why do you even have to ask?”

“I don’t,” he replied. “It was just a turn of phrase.”

Walking around the back of the machine, he examined the various wheels and levers. Didi waited, already regretting the fact that she had decided to indulge him.

“It’s so hard to remember which of these is which,” he said after a moment. “There aren’t exactly any user manuals.” He pulled another level, and the top of the machine juddered briefly.

“Eddie!” Didi shouted.

“Calm down,” he replied, turning a small wheel that caused the metal crown to grind down a few inches closer to the top of her head, with its metal spikes jutting inward.

“Eddie…”

“Of course,” he muttered to himself. “Now I remember. This one’s the… And that one…”

“Eddie, I don’t like this!”

“You have absolutely nothing to worry about,” he replied. “I just want you to imagine what it must have been like to have been down here in the old days, when my grandfather was at his worst. You need to understand the history of my family. Do you know, it’s even said that at one time he had several victims down here simultaneously, and that he forced them to watch one another being tortured? It wasn’t enough for him to merely make them endure such horrific things, he had to ensure that they were fully aware of what was happening. It’s as if his insanity and cruelty just continued to get worse and worse the whole time, like a mad dog.”

“ He sounds like a swell guy,” Didi replied, her whole body tense. “Now can you please -”

“Imagine,” Edgar continued, pointing at the tin bath on the opposite side of the room, “having to watch a woman in that thing. He used to pour bucket after bucket of boiling water over them until their skin began to fall off. Imagine having to watch that happen, having to listen to the screams, and knowing that you’d be next. I’m quite certain that some of his victims had been driven completely insane by the time they died. There are even stories that their screams could sometimes be heard all the way down in the town. Many people fled Thaxos altogether, but some stayed because they believed that the agony would soon end, or that they would somehow escape the worst of my grandfather’s rage.”

“Eddie, I don’t like this!”

“And he made notes, about how far he could push each victim until their minds gave up entirely. He wanted them to remain aware of what was happening to them.”

“Eddie!”

“Anyway,” he continued, looking up at the metal crown that was now only five or six inches above her head, “the device you’re currently sitting inside was known as a Holy Throne, which as I’m sure you can imagine was a somewhat ironic name. The idea was that the gears would force the crown down with such power that the spikes would dig into the sides of the victim’s head and eventually penetrate the skull, cracking it at strategic points that caused huge amounts of pain without immediately killing the poor unfortunate soul. The idea was to weaken the skull but not break it, for reasons that I shall explain shortly.” He reached out and brushed his fingers against the side of her head. “I imagine the cranial fluid began to leak out, but death would certainly not have been instant.”

“Eddie,” she replied, “I’m begging you, just let me out of this thing. I don’t like it!”

“Then there were these screws,” he continued, tapping a set of metal rods that protruded from the manacle around her wrist. He turned another gear, and the rods began to rotate and slowly move through the manacles, stopping just before they reached Didi’s flesh. “The idea here was that these would be driven straight through the victim’s hands, breaking the bones. Highly painful, I imagine. There are similar devices for the feet as well, although I believe that those were added later by my grandfather. He bought the machines from abroad, mostly from the old Italian families that had finally become respectable, but he made his own alterations. In fact, I believe that one of the other machines down here uses flat iron plates to literally crush the bones of living victims and then, through the skin, grind them into powder. Can you even begin to imagine such agony?”

“ Great, but -”

“ And so,” Edgar continued, not letting her finish, “this whole device was designed to keep the victim alive for days on end, hovering on the verge of death and madness but constantly being pulled back to this world due to sheer pain. And then the final act, when my grandfather tired of them or when he sensed that death was inevitable, was the spike at the top. But this was no ordinary spike, because it had been hollowed out as part of his own invention. He was particularly proud of this part.” He reached around and grabbed a small gear; when he turned it, the spike began to squeak and clatter as it started to descend toward the top of Didi's head. “The idea was that it would be driven down into the top of the victim's skull until the tip reached the limbic system, the past of the brain responsible for emotion, and then the other end of the spike was attached to a gas injection system, and -”

“Eddie, I don’t want to know!” Didi shouted, tugging at the manacle around her wrist. “Just get me out of this thing!”

“And when the pressure was high enough,” Edgar continued, with a smile on his face, “a rapid burst of air would be shot down through the spike, and don’t forget that the crown would have already weakened the skull earlier, and so the living victim’s skull would literally be blown apart from the inside, leaving just the exposed brain and eyeballs. Now, no matter how fast someone would die when something like that happened, there would still have to be a moment of realization. Don’t you think that it must be the most horrifically painful way to expire?”

“Eddie… the things he did…”

“At least he had respect,” Edgar hissed, his eyes burning with anger. “If he went into town, no-one would turn him away or tell him he wasn’t wanted. They’d have bowed down before him and given him anything he demanded. Anything! Fear was his method of gaining control, and it certainly worked, didn’t it? Surely you have to see that power can be intoxicating, like a drug.”

With tears in her eyes, Didi stared back at him.

Suddenly, he leaned closer and kissed the side of her face.

“The people of Thaxos fear me,” he whispered, “and their fear is entirely justified. They know the history of my family, and they know how the past, the present and the future tend to link together. But that fear is merely an echo of the fear that once gripped this island when my grandfather was here. His shadow is dark and all-encompassing.”

“But you’re not him,” Didi replied, her voice filled with fear and tension. “You’re my Eddie, not the guy who did those things.”

There was a pause as Edgar stared deep into her eyes.

“You trust me,” he said finally, almost as if he was surprised by the realization. “You really trust me, don’t you?”

She nodded.

“And I…”Another pause. “And I trust you.”

She forced a smile.

“I feel,” Edgar said after a moment, “that perhaps I have gone a little too far with this demonstration. Nevertheless, I also believe that it was vitally important for me to show you, rather than just tell you, how just one of my grandfather’s devices worked. I know you tend to dismiss the study of history, Didi, but I hope that you can see now why it is so fascinating. And it is from history that we can learn from our previous mistakes, and from the mistakes of others, so that we might make better decisions going forward. And that’s something that we all need to learn afresh every so often, don’t you think?”

Reaching down, he grabbed one of the gears. His hand stayed where it was for a few seconds, before moving to a second gear. After a moment, he gave the gear a twist, and the metal crown rose up again, away from Didi’s head. He loosened the manacle around her wrist, and then he unhooked the plate from across her ankles and swung it open, finally freeing her completely.

She sat completely still, as if she was too scared to move.

“So what do you think about my grandfather?” he asked after a moment.

Slowly, she turned to him.

“He was a monster, clearly,” he added. “The man was hated by everyone on the island, and rightly so. Looking at it now, I can’t even begin to imagine the torment of all those families who must have watched their loved ones coming up to this mansion and then never seeing them again. He was a tyrant and a man of unbelievable cruelty, and there is a danger of such men being seen almost as cartoon villains, as figures of fun. So if I went a little too far just now, my darling, it was for one other reason. I wanted you to understand just what a terrible person he was. Do you understand that now?”

She nodded, as a single tear rolled down her cheeks.

“And so to the question that troubles me more than any other,” he continued. “I needed you to understand the full extent of his cruelty, so that you would be able to give me a proper answer. Do you think that such a man could ever be redeemed? If my grandfather, for example, went away and forced himself to become less cruel and less violent, if he spent all his energy trying to suppress that side of his character and becoming a better person… Could such a man change? Could he truly suppress the cruelty in his soul, and could he become a different kind of man? Do you think that would even be possible, and if it was, do you think that he could ever be said to have made up for his past sins? Could he be forgiven?”

“Why…” She paused for a moment. “Why are you asking?”

“Just idle curiosity,” he replied. “After all, my grandfather vanished, and I’ve always wondered what became of him. I’d like to hear your answer to my question.”

“I don’t…” She paused again, her voice trembling with emotion. “I don’t know if true evil can ever be made up for,” she said eventually. “If someone is that kind of person, I don’t think they can ever change. Not really. Some people… Some people are just born cruel, aren’t they? It’s in their hearts and there’s probably nothing that can be done to save them. I mean, someone who’d use the things down here… How could someone like that ever be anything less than a monster? You can’t just flick a switch and change someone’s heart.”

Edgar stared back at her, seemingly lost in thought, until the light above them flickered again.

“That damn thing,” he said, turning and heading to the doorway. “I’ve waited long enough for my groundsmen to fix the system around here. I don’t care what it involves, I’m going to do the job myself.” Stopping for a moment, he turned back to Didi. “I hope I didn’t go too far just now, my darling, but if I did, I promise I’ll make it up to you later. We’ll have a sumptuous dinner tonight and a relaxing evening together.” He smiled. “I think you’re wrong, by the way. I think that a man can change. Maybe he can’t get rid of certain parts of his personality, but he can master them and control them, and he can become a better person. I don’t believe that it’s anyone’s unchangeable fate to be cruel.”

“I hope you’re right,” she replied.

“Me too. Lock up when you leave, won’t you?”

As Edgar headed back up to the main part of the house, Didi remained in the seat, as if fear had frozen her in place. She looked down at the manacles, which now hung loose once again by the side of the device, and for a moment she saw in her mind’s eye the image of Edgar smiling as he drove the spike straight into the top of her skull. Finally, she jumped out of the chair and almost tripped over the dangling chains in her haste to get away from the contraption, before turning back to look at the device. Her heart was pounding, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that Edgar’s interest in these old torture machines was more than a little intense. In fact, for the first time since she’d met him the previous year, he’d genuinely scared her.

Her ears ringing with the imagined screams of all the women who must have died in the basement, Didi ran to the door and then up the steps, while promising herself that this was the first and last time she’d ever be down in this part of the house.

VI

 

It wasn’t much, but at that particular moment the bottle of whiskey was the only thing that made Ephram feel even slightly better. He poured a glass and drank it quickly, then he did the same again, and again and again until the bottle was half empty and he could feel its effects spreading through his body. He had always prided himself on being a godly man, on being the kind of man who took his responsibilities seriously, but on this one night he wanted nothing more than to make the pain go away.

First, though, he was ready to try one final prayer.

“I have asked you this before,” he said softly, staring into space as he sat in his yard, “but I shall do it again. Why, Lord, did you allow the Le Compte man to come back to Thaxos? Surely you can see that he brings nothing but pain and suffering in his wake? Did we do something to displease you? Did we sin? I cannot imagine anything that would merit such punishment, but if there is something we can do to change things, you must give us a sign.”

He waited.

Looking up, he stared at the blanket of stars in the night sky.

Silence.

“Anything,” he whispered, with tears in his eyes. “Whatever you want, we’ll do it. Just promise that you’ll spare the life of Alice Marco. She is a sweet, innocent young woman who never hurt anyone. There is no way that a just god could let this happen to her, so tell me what to do!”

Again, he waited.

Again, there was silence.

He poured another whiskey and downed it in one go, before pouring another and staring at it for a moment. It simultaneously sickened and heartened him, and he knew that drinking wasn’t the answer, but at the same time it was the only thing that helped to quieten the sorrow in his heart. Every time his anger faded for a moment, he found his mind drifting back to the sight of Alice Marco as she lay dying.

“Amen,” he added finally, before taking a drink, dropping his glass and then slowly, painfully getting to his feet. He wobbled for a moment, as the whiskey made it harder than usual for him to find his balance.

Once he reached the chicken coop, he fumbled for a moment with the door before finally pulling it open and standing back. His last chicken immediately emerged, jumping down onto the ground and hurrying across the yard, as if it was enjoying the return of its freedom. It was a heartening sight, even if Ephram knew that it would be brief.

“Have fun while you can,” he muttered darkly, watching the bird as it pecked at the floor. “I give up. There’s no point fighting any longer. The rats will get you soon, and no-one, not even I, can do a damn thing. Everyone on this island is doomed thanks to Edgar Le Compte, and the lucky ones are those who get out early. So take this as my gift to you, that you might die in the next few hours, before the worst hits the rest of us.”

Just as he was about to pick up the broken pieces of his glass, he spotted movement over by the door. There was a figure in the store, staring out at him. For a fraction of a second, convinced that Edgar Le Compte had returned, Ephram stumbled forward, filled with rage; in his hand, he turned one of the broken pieces of glass around, as if he was preparing to use it as a weapon. As he reached the door, however, his heart suddenly sank as he recognized the face staring back at him. It wasn’t Edgar; it was Doctor Burns, and from the look in his eyes it was clear that he had come to deliver bad news.

“Already?” Ephram asked, his eyes filling with tears.

“Already.”

 

***

 

Ephram and the doctor stood somberly as the undertakers carried a coffin out from the surgery. Maximo and Catherine Marco followed, their faces etched with stunned grief, as if they had not yet been able to come to terms with what had happened to their daughter. Nearby, a few people from nearby houses had come to watch the beginning of Alice’s final journey. Death was still a rare occurrence on Thaxos, especially the death of one so young.

Doctor Burns took a drag on his latest cigarette, but he said nothing.

Ephram watched as the coffin was taken along the street, beginning the short journey to the Marco house so that it could be laid out and the lid removed. The funeral would take place in the morning, just a few hours later, and everyone in the town would surely attend. After all, Alice Marco had been a popular girl, well-liked by everyone, and news of her death was already spreading like wild-fire. Soon the whole town would be in mourning, and Ephram realized that this was his only chance to make people understand the fact that Edgar Le Compte was the one who had caused so much havoc on the island.

“I delivered that girl twenty-one years ago,” Doctor Burns said as the coffin was carried around the corner and finally disappeared from view. “Now I have to perform an autopsy, and then I have to sign her death certificate. That’s now the way the world is supposed to work, is it? The old should not be burying the young.”

Ephram merely stared at the empty street corner, imagining Alice’s body in the coffin.

“Hey,” Doctor Burns said after a moment, nudging Ephram’s arm. “Say something. With that look in your eyes, you’re starting to scare me.”

“Men like Edgar Le Compte are not of this world,” Ephram muttered darkly, feeling the whiskey still burning his stomach. “They walk upon it and they look like us, and they speak with words that they have borrowed from our mouths, but really they have no place amongst normal, god-fearing men. They are serpents, masters of disguise, and they make their way through our lives, probing for our weaknesses and using them against us.”

“You make him sound like a monster.”

“You know the stories.”

“I know the stories about his grandfather,” Doctor Burns replied. “I know about the torture that took place up there, although I’m afraid that I draw the line when it comes to the more superstitious nonsense that gets peddled from time to time. Plus, might I remind you that Edgar Le Compte is his own man. No matter what he has done, it’s unfair to act as if he should be blamed for the crimes of a man who disappeared so many years ago.”

“ And yet here we are,” Ephram continued, “already burying victims. You know what they use to say about the old Le Compte, don't you? They said he was a -”

“ Please,” Doctor Burns replied, “let's not -”

“They said he was a vampire,” Ephram said firmly. “They said he drank the blood of his victims, and that he never aged. They say that he came from a long line of vampires, and that they carried out rituals on the north side of the island!”

“You’re drunk.”

“Have you see him?” Ephram asked. “I have. I’ve also seen pictures of his grandfather, and I can assure you that the resemblance is more than just a little uncanny. It’s almost as if… I don’t know, maybe those old stories were true after all. Maybe things are only going to get worse. Maybe we should accept that what is happening here on Thaxos is more than simply the return of a family. Maybe… it’s the return of one particular man.”

“You need to go home and get some rest,” Doctor Burns replied. “Ephram, think about poor Alice. This isn’t the time to be babbling about all this wild nonsense. Do you think Alice would be happy to see you in this state?”

Ephram paused for a moment as he realized that there was no way he could deal with the problem alone. There was still a part of him that felt Edgar was merely a man, but the whiskeys had loosened his mind and he was more willing to contemplate some of the wilder accusations that had, over the years, been leveled against the Le Compte family.

“Drinking isn’t the answer,” the doctor continued. “Come on, Ephram, I know you’re better than this. You already stink of alcohol, and you’re no use to anyone if you disappear into a bottle. Have you tried talking to Isobel Cavaleri? Maybe a visit from the police would give Le Compte a good scare.”

“All she cares about is following the rules.”

“She’s a good woman. She’s probably just scared about a lynch mob mentality developing in the town, and I don’t blame her.”

“Her hands are tied.” Ephram paused for a moment. “I need to go,” he said finally, turning and making his way along the street. His steps were tentative and awkward, befitting a man who at that moment had half a bottle of whiskey sloshing about in his gut.

“What are you going to do?” Doctor Burns called after him.

With tears in his eyes, Ephram didn’t answer. He was sick and tired of men like Doctor Burns, men who believed that the danger posed by Edgar Le Compte was merely a figment of a fevered imagination. For months now, Ephram had been warning that the situation on Thaxos would only get worse, and that eventually lives would be lost. Now, finally, the first life had indeed been taken, and it had been a life that was particularly dear to Ephram’s heart. By the time he reached the next street, he realized that the grief in his soul was starting to overwhelm him.

Looking up at the night sky, he saw the lights of the mansion. He knew he was drunk, but he also knew that his suspicions were well-founded. Deep in his heart, he was starting to wonder if some of the wilder stories about the Le Compte family might be true after all.

 

***

 

An hour later, sitting at an otherwise empty table in the corner of the cantina, Ephram stared into his latest glass of whiskey. Over the past three months he had watched as Thaxos, his home, slipped deeper and deeper into disrepair, and he felt that the rats and the speeding motor vehicle were only the beginning. His grandmother had told him enough stories of the old days to convince him that the return of the Le Compte family would devastate the island, and now that an innocent life had been lost, he knew that his worst fears were coming true.

So he sat and waited at the empty table.

And he waited.

And waited.

And still everything seemed hopeless.

Finally, just as he was thinking that perhaps he should head home and check on his grandmother, he spotted a familiar figure coming through the door. With a concerned look on his face, Doctor Burns made his way to the bar and ordered a drink, before heading to the table, setting his hat down, and taking a seat.

“I figured it might be wise,” he said slowly, taking a sip from his beer, “to come and see if you’re okay.”

“Okay?” Ephram replied, as if the word itself angered him. “How can anyone be okay on a day such as this?”

“I know you were very fond of Alice,” Doctor Burns continued. “As her godfather, you must have been very closely connected to her all through her life. The important thing is that you don’t let her death ruin you.”

“The important thing,” Ephram replied, “is that no-one else dies as a result of Edgar Le Compte’s presence on the island!”

“Just promise me that you don’t believe some of those things you were saying earlier.”

“Such as?”

“You know what I mean.”

Ephram grunted, clearly unimpressed by his old friend’s words.

“I’ve already been in touch with some public health officials on the mainland,” the doctor told him. “There are certain measures that we can take to minimize the danger and perhaps even to eradicate the rat population altogether. I’ll keep talking to them while we come up with a plan.”

“There’s no point. Even if you succeed, Le Compte will just come up with some new way to torment us. He’s the same as his grandfather.”

“That’s a little harsh. As bad as he might be, I highly doubt that he possesses the same cruel streak as the Impaler, and besides, times are different now. That kind of situation would never be tolerated.”

“We need to present a united front,” Ephram replied. “We need to make Le Compte realize that he can’t just come here to the island and do what he wants. This place is not his personal playground, and he needs to understand that we have a voice, and that if necessary we’ll back up our words with actions!”

“ There you go again,” the doctor replied. “You're starting to worry me, Ephram. I know that a girl has died -”

“ She died in pain!” Ephram spat back at him. “She suffered! I know you filled her with drugs, but still she -”

Before he could finish, he spotted another figure entering the cantina, and he immediately began to worry as Inspector Isobel Cavaleri made her way to the table. She had a stern look on her face, as if she’d come to deliver some kind of a warning. Public drunkenness wasn’t exactly illegal on Thaxos, but it was frowned upon.

“I’m sorry,” Doctor Burns said, “but I asked her to come, Ephram. I’m worried about you. I’ve seen before how grief can change a man and perhaps spur him on to make bad decisions. When you started muttering about some of the wilder Le Compte rumors, I started to think that maybe you needed a dose of reality.”

“So this is the first meeting of the local vigilante committee, is it?” Isobel asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “A shop-keeper and a doctor sitting in the corner of the local bar?”

“I’m just here to look out for my friend,” Doctor Burns pointed out.

“There is no reason for you to be here,” Ephram replied, staring at Cavaleri. “We’re doing nothing illegal.”

“But if you’re planning something that might be illegal,” she said as she took a seat, “I need to know.”

Planning something?” Ephram replied. “What the hell would I be planning? I merely came here to drown my sorrows and try to forget the world for a few hours.” He turned to Doctor Burns. “And you have no right to be interfering in my life! If I want to get drunk, I will get drunk!”

“On the contrary,” Isobel continued, “he was absolutely right to tell me. In case you’ve forgotten, Ephram, we still respect the rule of law and order on Thaxos, and if there’s a problem, I’m the one who has to deal with it. No offense, but I can’t allow this level of anger to keep building and I can’t allow drunk old men to go staggering about like this. You’re not the only one who has come to see me recently to talk about Edgar Le Compte.”

“And yet, as you keep saying, there is nothing you can do. After all, he has broken no laws! By that token, the man is a model citizen!”

“That’s true,” she replied, “but I’m not here in my capacity as the town’s police officer. I’m here in my capacity as a concerned citizen, and as someone who loves Thaxos very much.” As if to make this point clear, she un-clipped her police badge and slipped it into her pocket. “I’m here because we have to do something, and because we’ve reached the limit of the protections that the law can offer.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Doctor Burns replied.

“Alice Marco is dead because of Edgar Le Compte,” Isobel said, turning to him. “Sure, he didn’t wrap his hands around her throat or put a bullet in her head, but everyone knows what happened. What I said earlier still stands. We can’t prove that Le Compte is responsible for the arrival of those rats, but we all know the truth.” She paused for a moment, as if to ensure that no-one was about to interrupt her. “You’re not the only one who is familiar with stories about the old days. I’m sure that all three of us have heard about life on the island under the Le Compte family. The pain, the misery, the girls disappearing in the middle of the night… The cries drifting down from the hill. Some people even claim that he had some kind of torture chamber up there. You don’t have to believe the crazier rumors to know that this kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen again.”

“Edgar Le Compte is not his grandfather,” Doctor Burns pointed out.

“But he’s from the same family,” Isobel continued, keeping her eyes fixed on Ephram, “and blood doesn’t lie. His grandfather didn’t care about the people in this town, and clearly the current Le Compte feels the same way. That’s enough to worry me. Ephram, I share your concerns about how this is going to pan out, but I don’t agree that clandestine meetings in the back of a bar will solve anything, and I certainly don’t think there’s any point in forming some kind of committee to go up to the mansion and ask him to be a better neighbor.”

“Then what are you suggesting?” Ephram asked.

“I don’t believe in half-measures,” Isobel replied. “If talking to this man won’t work, we have to consider alternatives. That’s why I discretely spread word this evening that a meeting would be taking place here.”

“It would be better if Edgar Le Compte had never come back in the first place,” Ephram pointed out.

“But he did come back,” Isobel continued. “Still, you’re right about one thing. Thaxos would be in a much better state if Edgar Le Compte was not here.”

“He won’t leave,” Doctor Burns said. “From what I’ve heard, he seems determined to claim his birthright and settle on the island. All those fences he’s erected certainly seem like the work of someone with a long-term plan.”

As he spoke, another figure approached the table, and Ephram immediately recognized the new arrival as Fernando Mediaci, a local boy who had grown up to become a sailor on one of the ferries that linked Thaxos to the mainland.

“Fernando was friends with Alice,” Cavaleri explained. “I felt that he would be particularly receptive to our concerns.”

“She was my first kiss,” Fernando replied as he took a seat, his voice filled with grief. “It was after a school dance. We went out to the end of the harbor wall and…” His voice trailed off for a moment. “It was never more than that, but still, I counted her as a friend and I know how sweet and innocent she was. Tell me, did she suffer?”

He waited for a reply.

“Well? Did she?”

Doctor Burns nodded.

“And the rat bite… There can be no doubt that this was the cause?”

“No doubt at all,” Ephram said firmly. “I was there when it happened. May the Lord have mercy on my soul, but it was in my own store. If only she hadn’t come to see me yesterday…”

His voice trailed off.

“Why would God allow this to happen?” Fernando asked. “We pray every day, and yet this monster walks into our community and takes up the same roost as his grandfather, and innocent people are dying! How could God look down at Alice and not protect her? Any one of the rest of us around this table would be more deserving of such agony!”

“This is not about God,” Cavaleri replied. “Pray all you want, but it won’t work. If God existed, men such as Edgar Le Compte would not.” She turned and looked over at the door for a moment, and then back at the others. “It seems that no-one else is going to join us tonight. I must admit, this saddens me. I’d hoped that more men and women of Thaxos might have the courage to stand up and take action against the threat we’re all facing.”

“They’re scared,” Ephram replied. “Can you blame them? They fear reprisals. Fear of the Le Comptes is almost a folk memory here, baked into children from the moment of their conception.”

“Then some other way has to be found to make him disappear,” Isobel replied. She stared at Ephram for a moment, before turning to the doctor. “I know you invited me here to cool the situation down, but the truth is, I think Alice Marco’s death should be a wake-up call for all of us. She won’t be the last, not if Edgar Le Compte remains on Thaxos. Other people will get sick from the rats, and there will be more dangers. It’s the rule of the Le Compte family, all over again, and we have to help ourselves if we’re going to save the island.”

“Then what would you have us do?” Ephram asked, starting to worry about the zealous look in the police officer’s eyes.

“We have to be smart about this,” Isobel continued, “and we have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes. We don’t have an entirely free hand, but I think there’s still one course of action open to us.”

Ephram stared at her as he began to realize what she meant.

“Gentlemen,” she continued, “I don’t believe that we have a choice. We need to get rid of him, and he’s not going to go willingly. When you want to get rid of a monster, you can’t simply ask it politely to leave. If Thaxos is going to have any kind of a future, I’m afraid we’re going to have to kill Edgar Le Compte.”

VII

 

“Listen to me!” Didi hissed as she held her cracked mobile phone up to her mouth. “I’m telling you, he’s absolutely goddamn insane! I’m not talking slightly crazy or a bit crazy, I’m talking totally out of his mind! I can’t do this anymore! I’m getting the hell out of Thaxos on the next boat!”

“Absolutely not,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Under no circumstances are you to leave Edgar Le Compte’s side until you have the information that we require. Do you understand me?”

As she listened to the reply, Didi glanced over her shoulder, just to make absolutely certain that no-one could overheard her. She was in a state of abject panic, and she was determined to get away as fast as possible. An electric light flickered above her, and as she stood in the kitchen she felt as if Edgar’s eyes might be staring at her from any direction. After all, he’d managed to sneak up on her in the basement, so she no longer felt confident that she could detect when he was nearby. Sometimes he seemed to move like a ghost.

“Do you understand me?” the voice asked again, sounding angrier this time.

“I don’t care!” she hissed into the phone. “When I signed up for this, you told me he was a little weird, but you didn’t tell me he was full-on nuts!”

“He’s just one man,” the voice replied, “and you are more than capable of looking after yourself. That’s why you were given the assignment in the first place, remember? Anyway, it’s been more than a year now. It’s hard not to wonder what’s taking you so long.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she replied, hurrying to the window and looking out at the lawn, before turning and hurrying to the door to make sure that no-one was loitering in the next room. “He showed me his basement earlier,” she continued. “There’s, like, all this torture equipment down there left over from when his grandfather was in charge of this place. The worst part is, I’m pretty sure that Edgar actually likes it! I mean, I could tell he was really enjoying himself. He even strapped me into one of the chairs, and there was a moment where I was actually worried that he might…”

She paused, reliving the horror yet again.

“You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” she continued eventually. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he actually wanted to hurt me! I mean, those machines he’s got down there are something else.”

“But he doesn’t suspect a thing?”

“Of course not. Trust me, there’s no way. As far as he’s concerned, I’m his devoted fiance and all I care about is bling and sex.” She paused for a moment, shuddering as she thought of the act she’d had to keep up since she first met Edgar. “This wasn’t about him being onto me. This was about some deep, primal anger bubbling up from the pit of his soul. He’s already crazy enough without needing to be prompted by anything! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you… There’s something wrong with him and I don’t think he can keep it under control!”

“That’s good,” the voice said. “It sounds like he’s opening up to you. Now you just need to make sure he lets his guard down and then you have to ask him about Mr. Nixon.”

“I tried that again this morning,” she replied, “and he wasn’t having any of it. I swear, the guy’s sealed shut tighter than a clam on Sunday.” She sighed as she realized that she wasn’t making her position sufficiently clear. “I don’t think he’s ever gonna tell me what really happened to James Nixon. Hell, I think he actually enjoys the fact that people think he might have murdered the guy. He likes the idea that he’s seen as this dangerous person.”

“Then use your feminine charms to get to the truth,” the voice replied. “I’m sure you can think of some way to get under his shell. Those fake tits cost a tidy fortune, so use them. You remember what we discussed before you went undercover, don’t you? No methods are out of bounds. Nothing is too extreme. You’re to do whatever it takes in order to get to the truth. After all, no matter else you might think about him, Edgar Le Compte is still a red-blooded male.”

“I just want out,” she said firmly. “You can have the money back, the part I haven’t spent yet, anyway. Have it back and let me just get the hell out of here.”

“No.”

“I’m scared for my goddamn life!”

“Tough.”

“He’s gonna end up killing me at this rate!”

“Then I would suggest that you get your job done as quickly as possible. You’re there for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to get Edgar Le Compte to admit the truth about James Nixon’s disappearance and probable death. Get his words on tape and you can be off the island as fast as your pretty little legs will carry you, but let me make one thing clear. If you try to leave before you get the job done, there will be consequences for you, and they will not be confined to mere financial penalties.”

As Didi ran to look out the window again, the lights flickered.

“Damn this place!” she hissed. “It’s like living in the goddamn stone age! He hasn’t even got the internet set up yet”

“I trust that we won’t need to have this conversation again,” the voice continued. “I appreciate that it’s the middle of the day where you are, but here’s it’s the middle of the night. Don’t call me again until you’ve got the job done. The other members of the board ask about this project regularly, and I’m getting tired of telling them to be patient. Frankly, your continued failure is starting to make me look bad.”

“ Yeah, but -”

As the line went dead, Didi felt her frustration starting to boil over. The incident down in the basement had freaked her out and she couldn’t handle the thought of spending another moment in the mansion, but at the same time she knew that she still had to get to the truth about James Nixon’s death. Taking a deep breath, she tried to remind herself that while Edgar might be a difficult man, even one with a dangerous edge at times, he wasn’t his grandfather and there was no way he would ever actually hurt her. After all, she figured that although he’d put her in the torture device earlier, he hadn’t actually used the damn thing on her. Besides, he had no reason to be suspicious.

“ Stay cool,” she whispered to herself. “Just stay cool and focus on the -”

Before she could finish, she heard the front door open. She took a moment to adjust her shirt so that her cleavage was fully on display, and then she turned to head through to the hallway. As she walked, her hips flicked into the swagger that she always deployed around Edgar. She knew what he liked in a woman, and she was already planning to spend the rest of the afternoon ravaging him in bed. In fact, she was thinking that maybe she could offer to make love to him down in the basement. She could handle some rough stuff if it meant getting the job done and getting the hell of Thaxos,and she was desperate enough to try anything if it meant she could leave soon.

All she cared about was getting the information she needed and then getting the hell off the island.

“ Hey, Eddie,” she said as she reached the hallway. “So if you fancy it, we could maybe try to -”

She stopped suddenly as she saw the shocked look on Edgar’s face, and the horrific sight in his arms.

“Eddie,” she continued, her voice filled with fear. “What… What are you doing?”

“I went to one of the maintenance huts to check on the power supply,” he explained, “and I… I… That’s when I found her.”

Stepping forward, Didi stared at the crumpled form in Edgar’s arms. It took her a moment to realize what she was seeing, but finally she realized that it was the broken and bloodied body of Kate Langley.

Part Four

I

 

The moth made its way along the dark street. Up ahead, a light was burning in a window, and the moth stopped on the glass, wanting to get inside.

 

***

 

“Okay, okay!” Doctor Burns shouted as he hurried down the stairs. “I’m coming!”

Tying the belt of his dressing gown around his waist, he made his way to the nightstand and grabbed the keys to the front door. As the island’s only doctor, he was used to being woken in the middle of the night by people needing medical treatment, so the sudden pounding on the door wasn’t exactly unprecedented. Still, as he fumbled to find the right key, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was wrong this time, that this wasn’t a normal night. It was almost as if something was reaching out and tugging at the very edge of his mind.

“ What's wrong?” he asked as he pulled the door open. “What -”

He stopped speaking as soon as he saw the ghostly, pale-skinned young man staring back at him. With eyes that seemed to be set a little too deep in his skull, the man had an unsettling countenance, looking less like he was standing and more like he was being held up by an absent-minded puppeteer. Also, the fact that Doctor Burns had never seen this particular individual before meant that there could be only one explanation: he had to be one of Edgar Le Compte’s men, and that realization instantly brought a host of worries.

“I’ve been sent to fetch you,” the man said solemnly. “You must come immediately.”

“Come where?”

“Baron Le Compte requires your services.”

“I…” By this point in the conversation, Doctor Burns would usually have already grabbed the emergency medical bag he kept by the door, but tonight something was holding him back. “What’s wrong? Is Le Compte sick?”

“You must come to the house,” the man replied. “Please, there’s no time to waste. It’s a matter of the utmost urgency.”

Realizing that he had no choice, the doctor turned and picked up his medical bag before stepping out into the cool night air. As soon as he saw the motor vehicle parked nearby, he paused for a moment, still unable to shake the feeling that something about the whole situation felt very wrong. In the distance, the lights of the Le Compte mansion burned high above the town, as if the house itself was keeping watch.

“What’s wrong with Baron Le Compte?” he asked, turning to the man. “I need to know the basics, in case I should bring any different equipment.”

“It’s not Baron Le Compte who requires your attention,” the man replied. “It’s one of the other residents.”

 

***

 

Not even ten minutes later, with the vehicle having driven at breakneck speed through the twisting streets of Thaxos before surging up the hill, Doctor Burns climbed out of the passenger seat and hurried toward the steps that led up to the mansion’s main door. Having lived all his life on Thaxos without ever visiting the house before, he found it almost surreal to be so close. He still felt as if the night was somehow twisted and unreal, as if the house was brooding, but he told himself that his duty was first and foremost to help whoever was injured, and that he could worry about everything else later.

“Where is she?” he shouted as soon as he made his way through the door.

“This way,” replied an elderly man, evidently Le Compte’s manservant.

“Tell me what happened.”

“She was found outside,” the old man explained, with the same impassive, almost disinterested tone as the young man who had driven the vehicle. “His Lordship is tending to her presently.”

Despite his age and his increasingly painful knees, Doctor Burns was still able to run along the dark, under-lit corridor that led through to the western wing of the building. He could scarcely believe that he was in such a place, and as he passed the huge oil paintings of various Le Compte family members, he felt almost as if they were staring down at him. Finally, as he reached the double doors at the end of the corridor, he made his way into a large state room and spotted a figure standing solemnly by a sofa, and another figure laid out nearby under a blanket.

“What happened?” Doctor Burns called out as he hurried across the room.

Slowly, Edgar Le Compte turned to him.

“Out of the way, man,” the doctor continued, dropping his medical bag and kneeling next to the sofa. “Tell me what happened to her!”

“It’s okay,” Edgar replied calmly. “She’s absolutely fine.”

Pulling the blanket back, Doctor Burns saw that Kate Langley seemed to be resting. Her eyes were closed and there were deep scratches all over her face, but it took only a second to establish that she seemed to have a strong pulse and that she was breathing unaided. There was blood on the blanket, but little on Kate herself. After double-checking her pulse and then peering more closely at the scratches, the doctor realized that they were indeed deep and ragged, although it was clear that someone had already tended to her.

“When I sent for you,” Edgar continued, “I believed that Ms. Langley was on the verge of death. I’m afraid, however, that you have had a wasted journey, since as you can see she is already recovering.”

“What happened to her?” the doctor asked, pulling the blanket down further to reveal Kate’s torn clothes, which in places seemed to have been completely shredded in some kind of furious attack. Moving a scrap of fabric aside from her belly for a moment, he saw more thick scratches, although these too seemed to have already begun to heal.

“She seems to have been attacked by some kind of wild animal,” Edgar explained. “My suspicion is that there must be a wolf loose somewhere on Thaxos, but if that is the case, I shall have my men deal with it. Rest assured, the matter is in hand and there will be no further attacks.”

“There are no wolves on Thaxos,” the doctor replied, continuing to examine Kate’s injuries. “There’s nothing on this island that could possibly cause so much damage. Not even one of your goddamn rats.”

“They are not my rats,” Edgar replied patiently. “Besides, you can see Ms. Langley’s injuries for yourself. Regardless of what you say, it is absolutely clear that there must be some kind of large animal on the island, something that is able to cause this type of damage to a person. It would appear that she took shelter in one of my maintenance huts, and that the creature broke through the window and savaged her. This, to me, implies an animal of considerable heft and intelligence, which is why I believe that a wolf is the most likely culprit.”

“ Yes, but -”

“I have experience with wolves,” Edgar added. “I have seen their victims before.”

“There are no wolves on Thaxos,” Doctor Burns insisted. “I don’t care about your experience, there just aren’t any! What are you suggesting, that one swam all the way here from the mainland?” He paused for a moment as he carefully examined a deep cut that ran across Kate’s waist. “I don’t get it,” he muttered. “The cuts on her skin are deep and ragged, but at the same time they all seem to extend only through the flesh itself. The underlying muscle tissue is completely undamaged.”

He paused again, trying to understand what he was seeing. In all his years as a doctor, he had never encountered such specific injuries. It was as if the world’s most greatest surgeon had delicately savaged the poor woman.

“What did you do to her?” he asked eventually, turning to Edgar.

“Me?”

“This woman has received medical attention.”

“I simply arranged her on the sofa and tried to make her as comfortable as possible.”

“No,” the doctor continued, “she has received actual medical attention. There’s no doubt of that at all. Do you have your own private physician up here?”

“I do not.”

“Then who worked on her?”

“No-one.”

“Don’t treat me like an idiot,” he continued, struggling to stay calm. “I’m a doctor, Mr. Le Compte, and I know when another doctor has been at work. The injuries this woman has sustained are deep and serious, but at the same time someone seems to have begun to heal her. She’s my patient now, and I demand to know what has been done to her so far. I can’t work if I don’t know what treatment has been administered!”

“As you can see for yourself,” Edgar replied, “Ms. Langley is now recovering after her ordeal. Whatever happened to her out there, I’m sure she will confirm once she wakes up that some was attacked by a wolf. I’m sorry to have had you disturbed and brought up here at such an unfortunate hour, but at the time it seemed like the best approach. I can only hope that you will accept my apology for the trouble, and perhaps a drink as recompense for your troubles.”

“ I'll need to give her a thorough check-up,” Doctor Burns replied. “Once I get her down to my surgery -”

“That will not be necessary.”

“Excuse me?”

“She requires no further medical attention,” Edgar explained. “All she needs is to rest.”

“ That's fine for you to say, but you're not a doctor. I'll be taking her down to my surgery, and I'd appreciate it if you could make your vehicle available so that the journey can be -”

“She will not be going anywhere.”

Doctor Burns stared at him for a moment, taken aback by Edgar’s refusal to listen to medical advice. He had never met Edgar before, although he had heard a great deal about him, and the man’s arrogance seemed second to none. Turning back to look at Kate, however, the doctor couldn’t help but admit that she genuinely did seem for the most part to be okay. He felt that he should take her to his surgery for a check-up, just to be certain, but at the same time he knew that on purely medical grounds he had no cause to start issuing demands.

“Please,” Edgar continued, “take all the time you need to examine Ms. Langley while you’re here. Once you have ascertained that she is fine, I would very much like you to join me in my study for a few minutes. I feel that it would be a good idea for us to get to know one another. After all, even if on this occasion your skills are not required, I intend to remain on Thaxos for quite some time and therefore I’m sure it would benefit me to be on good terms with the local physician.”

“I am going to examine this woman’s injuries thoroughly,” Doctor Burns replied, “and I can assure you, Mr. Le Compte, that if I feel that she needs to be taken to my surgery, I will ensure that this is precisely what happens, even if I have to call the police for help in the process. Is that clear?”

Edgar merely stared at him, with a faint smile on his lips, almost as if he found the situation amusing.

“Is that clear?” Doctor Burns asked again.

“As crystal,” Edgar replied, calmly. “But please, come to my study when you’re done. We have much to talk about.”

 

***

 

Around an hour later, Doctor Burns made his way back along the dark corridor and found the door to Edgar’s study. Carrying his medical bag, he stepped inside and saw a figure standing on the far side of the room, staring out at the night sky. For a moment he said nothing, as he watched Edgar’s flickering outline picked out by candlelight, and he tried to work out exactly what kind of man he was dealing with. One thing was certain: he knew that Edgar Le Compte had somehow managed to accelerate Kate Langley’s healing process.

“Is your evaluation of Ms. Langley complete?” Edgar asked suddenly, still staring out the window.

“It is.”

“And what conclusions have you reached?”

“That she has the most remarkable injuries I’ve ever seen in my life,” the doctor replied, setting his bag down on a nearby chair. “Deep, lacerating cuts that go skin deep but no further. It’s savage and delicate at the same time. There are also clear signs of a struggle, as well as bite marks on her left shoulder and ankle.”

“Bites marks?” Edgar replied, turning to him with a faint smile. “And in your opinion, doctor, what kind of animal could be responsible for these marks?”

“Something bigger than a dog.”

“A wolf, perhaps?”

“There are no wolves on Thaxos!” Doctor Burns replied, his voice betraying considerable irritation.

“We shall see. Perhaps if my men bring back a corpse, you will change your mind.” He paused for a moment. “And her vital signs are stable?”

Doctor Burns nodded.

“So,” Edgar continued, making his way over to a drinks cabinet in the corner of the room and taking out two glasses, “I take it that we can stop worrying that she needs to be taken back to your surgery?”

The doctor watched as Edgar poured two glasses of brandy. The man was clearly confident, but while Doctor Burns would usually bristle at such behavior, on this particular night he felt disposed to give his host the benefit of the doubt.

“Again,” Edgar said, “I must apologize sincerely for troubling you tonight. You must understand that when I discovered Ms. Langley in the maintenance hut, her body was bloodied and I feared for her life. In my haste, I dispatched one of my men to fetch you at once, and it was only after he had departed that I realized Ms. Langley was perhaps in less danger than I had initially believed. I cleaned her up and made her comfortable, and I believe that this is all she needed. Physically, at least; the emotional damage might be rather more considerable. Tell me, though… Has she woken yet?”

“Not yet,” Doctor Burns replied. “She stirred a little, but I told her to rest.”

“That would seem to be the best approach. I’m sure that in the morning she will be able to tell us precisely what happened. In the meantime, I shall prepare another party to go out and search my land for signs of a wolf. My men will not rest until the culprit has been caught.”

“You really believe that a wolf is responsible?”

“I can see no other plausible explanation.”

“And the fact that there are no wolves on Thaxos doesn’t deter you from this view?”

“I am certain that her injuries are consistent with a wolf attack,” Edgar replied, crossing the room with the two glasses of brandy in his hands, before passing one of the glasses to the doctor without even asking if he wished to partake. “It stands to reason, therefore, that there must be a wolf here. How and when that wolf reached Thaxos is certainly a question of importance, but I believe it is vital to catch the animal at the earliest possible opportunity. After all, it might strike again.”

“If there is a wolf on Thaxos,” Doctor Burns replied, “it can only have arrived on one of your boats.”

“A few rats I can accept,” Edgar said with a faint smile, “but a stowaway wolf? I’m not sure that such a creature could go unnoticed. Not everything on this island is my fault.” He raised his glass. “Join me in a toast, won’t you? To Ms. Langley’s good fortune in surviving with such superficial injuries, and to her swift recovery.”

As the doctor took a sip of brandy, he felt that the whole situation was insane. Having lived on the island all his life, he knew damn well that there were no wolves, yet he also realized that there was no way such a creature could have hidden away on Edgar’s boat and then made its way unnoticed onto the island. It was as if a wolf had simply materialized on Thaxos out of thin air.

“I’m sure,” Edgar continued, “that Ms. Langley will be up and about tomorrow, and you are most welcome to come up and see her again. She will of course be able to make her own decisions regarding her medical treatment, although I imagine that she will simply want to get back to work. I confess to not knowing her very well, but she strikes me as the type of person who prefers to get back into the saddle rather than dwelling on past misfortunes.”

“I’ll be very interested to hear what she has to say,” Doctor Burns replied.

“As shall we all.”

Taking another sip of brandy, the doctor had to admit that it was quite the finest vintage he had ever tasted in his life. In fact, everything at the mansion seemed to be of the finest quality, and he couldn’t help but feel impressed that Le Compte had managed to create such a luxurious home in such a short period of time. As stiff and formal as the man seemed, Le Compte also seemed less like the monster that others had described. He had undoubtedly saved Kate Langley’s life, and he was most certainly very generous with his hospitality, even at such an ungodly hour.

“They talk about me in town, do they not?” Edgar asked after a moment, almost as if he had read the other man’s mind.

“You’ve made quite an impression,” the doctor replied, “and the people of Thaxos are something of a captive audience. It doesn’t help that your house is up here on top of the hill, overlooking the whole damn place.”

“What do they say about me?”

“All sorts of things.”

“Such as?”

Pausing, Doctor Burns thought back to the events he’d witnessed earlier that night, when Isobel Cavaleri had announced her dark plan in the cantina. As a man of medicine, the doctor had immediately excused himself, preferring to have no part in such an immoral conversation. Now, as he stood in Edgar’s study and drank the man’s brandy, he felt as if he should perhaps let him know that certain people were plotting against him, even though he felt certain that the plot itself was just a load of alcohol-fueled hot air.

“I see that you are reluctant to answer,” Edgar continued with a faint smile. “Perhaps I should not put you on the spot like this. I understand that it might be a little awkward, especially if you feel that you would be betraying any confidences.”

“It’s not that,” he replied. “It’s just… You’ve rubbed people up the wrong way, you know, and you’ve managed to make quite a few enemies, even though you’ve barely met anyone. Thaxos is a tight community, and everyone knows everyone else. It didn’t take much for a kind of group-think situation to occur. People band together when they’re scared.”

“I fear that my grandfather’s reputation preceded me.”

“That’s part of it, but there’s also the rats. They’re everywhere, Mr. Le Compte, and they’re ruining the island.”

“I am aware, and I have already begun to take measures to deal with the problem. I can assure you that soon there will be no more trouble with rats on Thaxos.” He paused for a moment. “In fact, I have begun to plan a small garden party, which I hope will encourage the local community to see me in a very different light. I am aware that I lack the social niceties, and that I often come across badly, and I would very much like to correct that error.”

“A garden party?” Doctor Burns couldn’t help but smile at the simplicity, and perhaps even naivety, of the idea. “Well, it’d certainly have novelty value. I doubt there’s ever been a garden party on Thaxos before.”

“But do you think it would help?” Edgar asked. “There will be food and drink, and of course I shall arrange for a band to play. It will all be free of charge, and I’m sure some activities can be devised for the local children. Perhaps I shall even open the house up so that people can take a look around. Curiosity seems to be a very human instinct, and I hope that it might overcome any reticence that exists among the general population.”

Sighing, Doctor Burns recognized the keenness in Edgar’s voice, and he realized that far from being a monster, he was actually desperate to become more popular among the locals. Although he still had reservations, he was starting to feel that he might be able to help after all.

“I think that an honest gesture would be appreciated as such,” he said eventually, “and that if you can deal with the rat problem, that would also go a long way toward making things right.”

“Then all hope is not lost,” Edgar replied. “The rats shall be gone in the very near future.”

“Some of the locals might be harder to win over than others,” the doctor continued. “Some of them are a little…”

His voice trailed off for a moment.

“Some of them are what?” Edgar asked.

“It’s just idle talk, really. Some of them are more angry than others. There was a death recently, you know. A young girl named Alice Marco, very popular here on Thaxos. She died after being bitten by one of your rats.”

“I was not aware of that,” Edgar replied, as a shadow of concern crossed his face. “I must confess to being shocked by the news.”

“As you can imagine, it has turned some members of the community against you. They see the rats as a symbol of your thoughtlessness in coming to Thaxos and acting as if you own the place.” He watched as Edgar, clearly shocked by this revelation, turned and walked over to the window. “Mr. Le Compte,” he continued, “you have to accept that there is real anger here. The death of Alice Marco just confirmed for many people the idea that your return… Well, it has not entirely been perceived as a good thing.”

“Evidently,” Edgar replied, lost in thought for a moment before finally he turned back to look at the doctor. “So will you help me?”

“Help you? To do what?”

“To change things. I don’t want it to be like this, I want…” He paused again. “I want the people of Thaxos to like me. There, I said it. Perhaps that sounds rather pathetic and weak, but I want them to welcome my return. Such things should not be important to me, but they are. I could throw money at the problem, of course, but I believe this would not be the best approach. As a respected member of the community, I believe that you might be in a good position to help mediate and remove some of the tension. Please, will you help?”

“ I'm not really sure that I can -”

“But will you at least try?”

Doctor Burns stared at him for a moment, genuinely shocked by this latest development. There was a look of desperation in Edgar’s eyes, as if he genuinely cared about his standing on the island. Having spent so many hours listening to Ephram’s pronouncements of doom over the past few months, he was starting to think that perhaps Edgar was merely misunderstood. The man before him now was certainly no monster, but instead seemed like someone who had been insulated from the real world and who had no idea how to interact with the rest of the island.

“I can speak to a few people,” the doctor said eventually, with a sigh. “No promises, mind, but I can certainly have a word in the right ears. You’re dealing with superstitious people, though. If you heard some of the things I’ve heard, foolish ideas being discussed as if they’re fact…” He paused, thinking back to Ephram’s suggestion the previous night that perhaps vampires might be real. “Trust me,” he added finally. “You’d never believe that smart people can be so dumb.”

“If you could at least persuade them to give me another chance,” Edgar continued, “I can take it from there. The garden party will be my attempt to set the counter back to zero, so to speak, and to ensure that better relations are fostered. If you would be so kind as to encourage people to at least give me the benefit of the doubt and attend in a few days’ time, I would be extremely grateful. I know that money is not the solution to life’s problems, but I would also like to make a donation to your medical center, in order to improve things on the island. Perhaps the center could even be named after the young lady who so unfortunately lost her life.”

“One step at a time,” Doctor Burns replied, “but yes, I’ll speak to people, and a donation is always welcome. Public opinion might take a little while to turn, but I think it can be done.” Checking his watch, he saw that it was almost one in the morning, and a sudden wave of tiredness hit his body. “And I’m sorry, Mr. Le Compte, but I’m afraid I must be on my way. I have patients coming in seven hours, and I could use some rest.”

“Might I ask one final question?” Edgar asked. “It’s about one of the local residents, a woman named Anna Kazakos. I asked her grandson about her health, and he was rather reluctant to tell me. I know you can’t reveal any specific details regarding her condition, but… is she okay? Is there any urgency to her condition?”

“She’s…” Doctor Burns paused, knowing that he was legally barred from divulging any information but still feeling as if he could trust Edgar to be discreet. He had never broken his oath before, but something seemed different this time, as if talking to Edgar was somehow acceptable. “She’s fine,” he said after a moment. “She spends most of her time in bed, but given her age I’m not too concerned. Might I ask why you’re so concerned about her?”

“No reason,” Edgar replied, as a flicker of emotion crossed his face. “Clearly I have detained you for far too long tonight. I shall have you driven home at once.”

“ Thank you.” The doctor paused for a moment, feeling genuinely sympathetic to Edgar's plight, and he felt himself starting to wonder if perhaps he might be able to help after all. “I would like to come back up here tomorrow, just to check on Ms. Langley for myself and to ask her a few questions. As the only medical -”

“Of course,” Edgar said, holding his hand out. “You have been so helpful, Doctor Burns, and I’m sure that we can assist one another in the future. I am so very much in need of some counsel from the local community, and I hope that I can count on your for assistance now and again.”

Although he hesitated for a moment, the doctor finally shook Edgar’s hand. A faint shiver passed through his body, but he forced himself to smile, even though he felt as if he had just passed across some kind of threshold and maybe even made a deal with the devil.

II

 

It came in waves, attacking her with greater ferocity each time.

Turning, she tried to crawl to the door, but a fraction of a second later she felt something grab her by the waist, its claws digging deep into her flesh before it dragged her back. The pain was intense and as she tried to resist, she felt her flesh being torn open. Twisting, she used her free leg to kick out blindly at her attacker. Hitting nothing, she tried to focus on the huge dark shape that towered above her, but something quickly smashed into the side of her face, momentarily knocking her unconscious before she opened her eyes again and found that she was already on the other side of the room.

In too much pain now to move, she felt hot breath on the back of her neck. She tried to turn, to see again the face of her attacker, but something held her back: there was pure, unadulterated fear in her heart, and she felt almost frozen, as if there was nothing she could do to save herself. She heard a growl, close to her ear, and then she felt the breath again, this time on the side of her face. Again she tried to turn and see her tormentor, but again she felt as if her body was paralyzed, as if the fear was filling her limbs and holding her in place.

“ Please,” she tried to whisper, the word emerging as an ill-formed, mangled guttural moan. “Don't -”

Before she could finish, she felt the claws dig deep into her waist, gouging out her flesh and spinning her around so fast that her head hit the wall. She tried again to call for help, but suddenly she felt her body being lifted up. Reaching out, she grabbed hold of a nearby table, but her hands were too weak and her grip slipped loose. Tears were flowing from her eyes as she felt herself being carried across the room. There was a pause, and then she felt the claws again, this time on her chest. She cried out in pain as the sharp talons dug deeper into her flesh, slipping closer to her heart until she felt it burst open and blood -

 

***

 

“No!” Kate shouted, sitting up suddenly.

She stared straight ahead, shocked to see that the long, lazy light of sunrise was already spreading across the horizon and flooding the room. For a moment, she struggled to remember where she was or what had happened to her, and she half-expected to find that she was still in London. She waited for the sound of buses and people, but all she heard was the distant lapping of a morning tide against the beach. Blinking a couple of times, she reached up and wiped sweat from her brow, and it was at that moment that she felt a strong sense of soreness in her ribs.

“What the hell?” she muttered, looking down at her arms and seeing that her flesh was zig-zagged with cuts and scratches.

She took a deep breath as thoughts of London faded away. Thaxos. She was on Thaxos. That much, at least, she could remember. But the rest… She stayed completely still, convinced that the memories would flood back into her mind, but it felt as if there was some kind of barrier. Blinking a couple of times, she tried holding her breath in the hope that somehow she might start to remember, but -

“Ms. Langley?” asked a frail voice nearby.

At first, the voice barely penetrated her thoughts.

“Ms. Langley? Are you okay?”

Turning, Kate saw that Edgar’s manservant Jacob was approaching, carrying a silver tray upon which there rested a small white cup,from which a little steam was rising. It was one of the more surreal sights that Kate had seen for a while, and all she could do was stare as Jacob shuffled closer and then, finally, placed the cup on a table next to the sofa. The whole situation felt bizarre and normal at the same time.

“His Lordship instructed me to have a cup of tea ready for you when you woke,” Jacob explained, “and to cater to any requests that you might have.”

Pausing for a moment, Kate tried to make sense of the muddled thoughts in her head. She felt as if she should get back to work in Edgar’s archive, but there was something else in her mind, some kind of dark memory that seemed to be hiding in the shadows with its wings wrapped tightly around its dark body.

“What happened?” she asked eventually. “How did I… Why am I on the sofa? What happened to my arms?”

“His Lordship was worried that you might struggle to remember,” Jacob replied. “He told me to assure you that he will be along to answer your questions shortly, although I fear that after such a dramatic night he might be rather late to rise from bed this morning. He did, however, tell me to insist that you take the day off in order to rest. I believe Doctor Burns will be coming back up later to take another look at you.”

“Another look at me?” Kate asked, pulling up the sleeves of her shirt to find more scratches. She was trying not to panic, but at the same time she felt as if something huge and awful had happened. It was as if, between this moment and the night before, her life had been ripped apart, and now the two edges didn’t match. “Why the hell am I all cut up like this?” she continued, starting to fill with panic. “Tell me what happened!”

“ His Lordship will be -”

“Tell me!”

Jacob paused for a moment.

“I am not at liberty, M’am,” he said finally. “It is not my place, but please, just rest and His Lordship will be along shortly. You have suffered quite an ordeal, and you must allow yourself time to recover.”

As Jacob made his way from the room, Kate sat and stared at her torn arms. She knew that something was terribly wrong, but it felt as if the dark memory was still brooding in the shadows of her mind, watching her lazily with one eye closed and the other half-open. No matter how hard she tried to focus, she couldn’t manage to make her mind’s eye turn to see whatever troubled her, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that some kind of mental block was preventing her from remembering what had really happened.

 

***

 

“Five pigs,” she muttered, reading from the faded old piece of paper. “Payment upon delivery. Must be certified by veterinarian.”

Standing in the middle of the archive room, she tried to focus on the task at hand. Although Jacob had told her to rest, and although she knew he was probably right, she simply couldn’t spend the whole day just sitting on the sofa and doing absolutely nothing. Even though her mind was still swimming with confused thoughts and brief flashes of images that filled her with terror, but at the same time she couldn’t remember what had happened to her. All she’d been able to work out so far was that the cuts and scratches on her arms actually extended much further, covering her chest and abdomen as well as parts of her neck, face and even her legs. She was sore all over and she felt weak, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was almost as if she’d been attacked by something.

After spending a few minutes looking around the archive room, she began to feel that pushing herself to keep working might not be a good idea. Heading back out into the corridor, she made her way to the main part of the house and looked for Edgar, but there was still no sign of him. When she got to the window overlooking the patio, she spotted Didi swimming in the pool, but the last thing she wanted was to go and start a conversation, so she turned and wandered into the games room, then the library and the study, and then finally through to the kitchen. Lost in thought, she almost didn’t notice Jacob by the door, until he cleared his throat.

“Good morning, M’am,” he said calmly. “Can I help you?”

“No, I just…” She paused as she realized that she had no particular reason to be in this part of the house. “I guess I was just looking around.”

“The doctor did say that you should rest,” he told her.

“Doctor?”

“A doctor came up from the town during the night to check on you,” Jacob continued. “It was just a precaution, really, but His Lordship insisted that you must be properly cared for.”

“So what exactly happened to me?” she asked.

“ His Lordship will -”

“Can’t you just tell me?”

Jacob paused for a moment, evidently feeling a little uncomfortable.

“Was I attacked by something?” Kate asked eventually. “These scratches… It’s like something mauled me.”

“I’m afraid it’s really not my place to say.”

“So where’s Edgar?”

“I believe His Lordship is busy at the moment.”

“Well, then maybe I should go and see the doctor. Do you have his number?”

“ Doctor Burns was most insistent that you should simply rest,” Jacob replied. “I believe he is planning to come back up in due course and check on you, most likely this afternoon. I overheard him telling His Lordship that your injuries are not too serious, but that the emotional shock -”

“I don’t remember anything about the other night,” she said, interrupting him. “I mean, I remember being in town, and then I remember walking back up here by myself and then…”

Her voice trailed off for a moment as she thought back to her journey through the darkness. She’d already replayed her steps over and over in her mind, but the same thing happened every time: she got to the point at which she thought she heard something nearby, but as she turned to look the memory evaporated completely. She felt certain that her mind was covering something up, and she was worried that she’d been through something so horrific, so traumatic, that her senses were trying to protect her from the truth.

“Are you starting to remember?” Jacob asked.

“How long have you worked for Edgar?” she replied, changing the subject.

“Oh, a very long time,” he said with a faint smile. “Longer than I can remember, almost.”

“So you must know him pretty well.”

“I have come to learn his habits,” Jacob replied, “but I would not say that I know him on a personal level. Ours is very much the relationship of a master and his employee.”

“Huh,” Kate replied, feeling as if Jacob was being deliberately evasive. It was clear that he was on a very tight leash and that he wouldn’t say anything that she might actually find useful. “Tell Edgar I’d really like to talk to him as soon as he’s free,” she said finally. “Tell him… Tell him I’ll be around all day.”

For a moment, her mind was filled with a flash of memory: something in the darkness, slowly unfolding its vast wings.

 

***

 

“Hey,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she stood by the pool and looked down at Didi, who was flat on her back as she sunbathed topless with sunglasses covering her eyes.

No reply.

“Hey,” she said again.

Silence.

“ Hey,” she said a third time, leaning down and nudging the younger woman's shoulder. “Didi -”

“Jesus Christ!” Didi yelled, almost leaping off the sunbed, and knocking over a small table in the process. “What the hell are you doing sneaking up on people like that?” she continued, seeming far more manic and nervy than over the previous few days. “Christ on a bike, you almost gave me a goddamn heart attack!”

“Sorry,” Kate replied, genuinely stunned by the reaction. “I didn’t realize you were asleep.”

“Is he here?” Didi asked, looking toward the house as if she was nervous that Edgar might be around.

“ I don't know where he is,” Kate told her. “I haven't seen him all day. Actually, I was wondering if you -”

“I’m just having a day off,” Didi replied, still sounding highly strung and nervous. “Can’t a girl take a day to just relax every so often?”

“Sure,” Kate said, although she couldn’t quite work out what Didi was taking a day off from, since her entire life seemed to revolve around the pool, sunbeds, and alcohol. “Actually, I was hoping to get a word with you,” she continued. “Were you there last night when I was found and brought back to the house?”

“Yeah,” Didi replied cautiously. “Why?”

“I want to know what happened. So far, all I’ve managed to work out is that I was hurt somehow, and…” She pulled her sleeves up, in order to display some of the cuts. “Jacob said that a doctor came, and that Edgar’s going to tell me the whole story, but I can’t find him and I feel…” She paused, trying to come up with the right word. “Weird. Wrong. Just… different somehow.”

“Eddie found you in one of the maintenance huts,” Didi explained, eying her with suspicion. “I swear to God, when I first saw you last night, I thought you were…”

Her voice trailed off.

“What?” Kate asked.

“You know.”

“Dead?”

“Uh-huh. There was so much blood, and I could see how your skin had been torn open. When Eddie carried you through to the study, there was literally blood dribbling out of you. Made a horrible noise on the marble.”

“Seriously?” Kate replied, shocked to learn that her injuries had been so extensive. She looked down at her arms again, but although the cuts were certainly severe, they didn’t seem as if they could account for the kind of thing that Didi had described.

“I really thought you were dead,” Didi continued, “and I think Eddie did too. He yelled at Jacob to get hold of the doctor and then he carried you through to the next room, and then…” She paused. “And then he closed the door. Wouldn’t let anyone in, not even me, not even Jacob. He just told us to let him know when the doctor arrived. It was, like, half an hour before the old guy got here, and by the time Eddie came out of the room, he was much calmer, like he wasn’t worried about you anymore.”

“But Edgar’s not a doctor, is he?” Kate asked.

“Hell, no.”

“So…” Kate paused, her mind filled with questions as she tried to work out what the hell had happened. “I don’t get it,” she said finally. “What happened between the time he brought me up here and the time the doctor arrived?”

“Beats me,” Didi replied. “You’re sure looking pretty perky, though. Whatever he did, it obviously did the job.”

Kate smiled uneasily, but deep down she was more than a little worried. The past few hours simply didn’t make sense, and Edgar’s sudden disappearance was another factor that was making her worry. Turning back to look at the house, she found herself wondering if he was watching her from one of the many windows that looked out over the patio. Somehow, she felt that even if he wasn’t physically at a window, in some strange way he was still close by, still keeping track of her every move.

Looking down at the scars on her arm again, she heard – for just a fraction of a second – an echo of her own voice. Screaming.

III

 

“Ephram!” he called out as he pushed the door open and stepped into the shop. “Hey, old man! Where are you? Not still up and drinking, I hope!”

Stopping for a moment, Doctor Burns listened to the silence. After a moment, he heard a scratching sound nearby, and he looked down just in time to see Ephram’s chicken hurrying across the floor. The sight was something of a surprise, since the doctor was fully aware that the chicken had been kept in a coop lately so that it wouldn’t be attacked by rats. Figuring that Ephram must have been too drunk the night before to even remember to close the coop’s door properly, he made his way past the chicken and over to the counter, sniffing at the fusty smell in the air. Finally, he spotted Ephram slumped down on the floor in the corner, evidently having passed out.

“Jesus Christ,” Doctor Burns muttered as he grabbed two metal pan lids from a shelf and walked over to the corner, before leaning down and banging the lids together. “Wake up!”

Almost jumping out of his skin, Ephram scrambled to his feet in a state of blind panic, staring around frantically for a moment until, finally, he seemed to remember where he was.

“This is why drinking the best part of a bottle of whiskey is not to be advised,” Doctor Burns said with a smile as he set the pan lids down. “I imagine your head is not a nice place to be right now.”

“How did I…” Ephram paused, clearly still a little confused.

“Let me guess,” the doctor continued. “You were up all night in that cantina with your co-conspirators, fantasizing about how the bunch of you are going to set the world straight. Am I right, or am I right?”

“I don’t…” Ephram made his way to the sink and poured himself a glass of water, which he downed quickly before pouring another. He muttered something inaudible under his breath.

“So tell me,” Doctor Burns added, “what did you decide?”

“About what?”

“When I left you last night, you were starting to talk about… Well, about things that I didn’t want any part of. Ms. Cavaleri was advancing some rather strong ideas, and I noticed that you didn’t exactly run a mile.” He paused for a moment, aware that this wasn’t the best time to be prodding Ephram for answers. “Promise me, old friend, that those flights of fancy were dismissed as the evening drew to a close. I really don’t want to think that any of you were taking that stuff seriously.”

Nearby, the chicken clucked as it hurried back across the room.

“Gertrude?” Ephram said, shocked that the bird was out of the coop. “What…” He turned and looked toward the back door.

“Miracle, huh?” Doctor Burns asked. “Maybe she’s has learned how to fight off the rats.”

“I don’t remember much from last night,” Ephram replied after a moment, reaching up and rubbing the back of his neck. “Did I…” He paused. “We were up late. It was almost sunrise when I got home, we were talking about ways to deal with Edgar Le Compte.”

“Ways that don’t involve murder, I hope.”

“Murder?”

“When I left, Cavaleri was suggesting that Le Compte needs to be done away with. I’d like to think that she was on the sauce, but I suspect she was stone cold sober. I must admit, to hear that kind of suggestion from a police officer is something that troubles me, but I can only assume that she was caught up in the moment.”

“I’m tired,” Ephram replied, reaching down to try to grab the chicken, only for the bird to hurry out of the way. “I need to take a shower.”

“I thought I’d check up on your grandmother while I’m here,” Doctor Burns replied, “and then we have to talk, Ephram. I’ve had a very interesting night myself, and I think it’s time we put our cards on the table.”

Waving him away, Ephram staggered through to the back of the building, leaving Doctor Burns to watch as the chicken started pecking at the ground. After a moment, struck by the realization that he hadn’t seen a rat all morning, the doctor wandered through to the back yard, only to see a neat set of undisturbed garbage bags that hadn’t been torn apart. With a faint smile, he realized that it was almost as if all the rats had suddenly disappeared from Thaxos.

 

***

 

“Everything seems normal,” Doctor Burns said as he finished examining Ephram's grandmother in her bedroom. “Are you still spending all your time in bed, Anna? I can't help thinking that it would be good for you to get up and about, maybe -”

“Did you see him?” she asked suddenly.

“Who?”

“You saw him,” she continued, her voice frail and old, as if it took great effort for her to get the words out. “What did he say? How did he seem?”

“Are you talking about Baron Le Compte?” the doctor asked, somewhat taken aback by the directness of the old woman’s inquiry. He was used to Anna merely sighing during her weekly examinations, but something seemed to have stirred a little more life into her, and she was staring at him with uncharacteristic interest.

“Did he ask after me?”

“He… Yes, actually, he did. He asked if I had attended to you lately, and then he wanted to know how you’re holding up. I was quite surprised, really. He took great interest in your condition.”

She stared at him with tears in her eyes.

“You remember his grandfather, don’t you?” the doctor continued. “There can’t be many left on Thaxos whose memories stretch that far back. Tell me something, was he really the monster that everyone claims, or have the stories been exaggerated?”

He waited for an answer, but she seemed lost in thought.

“I know how it works,” he continued. “A sliver of truth gets blown out of all proportion, and before long a man with a few bad habits is being demonized. I can already see it happening again, with the younger Le Compte. Everyone, including Ephram I’m afraid, seems to have him marked down as a monster, but I spoke to Le Compte at length last night and I feel that he’s quite a reasonable man. A little stiff and socially awkward, perhaps, but if those qualities were criminal then most of us would have ended up in trouble at one point or another.”

“But what…” Seemingly distressed, Anna shifted her weight a little, almost as if she was trying to get out of bed. “The window is closed,” she muttered. “Why is the window closed?”

“Should I open it for you?” the doctor asked, getting to his feet and crossing the room. As he unlatched the window and pushed it open, he turned back to see that Anna was climbing off the bed and had begun to stagger toward the door.

Hurrying over to her, he grabbed her arm.

“Steady,” he warned her, worried that she might fall at any moment. “Where exactly do you think you’re off to, anyway? When I said you should get up, I meant gentle exercise only.”

“I want to go and see him,” she replied, pulling free from his grip with surprising force.

“Who? Le Compte?”

“Take me to him,” she continued. “My grandson refuses, but you must take me up there at once!”

“Wait,” he said, grabbing her arm more firmly this time. “There’s a big difference between gentle exercise and wandering up a steep hill. Why don’t you get back into bed and we’ll talk about this, okay?”

Unwilling to pull her back too roughly, the doctor ended up supporting her as she made her way out of the room and onto the landing. It was clear that there was no way she could get down the stairs, let alone all the way through town and then up the hill to the mansion, but there was no doubting her determination. After a moment, however, she seemed to run out of breath and Doctor Burns was forced to ease her down onto a small wooden chair that stood nearby.

“There you go,” he said, hoping to calm her fears. “One step at a time, Anna. It’s good that you’re up and about, though.”

“Why doesn’t he come to see me?” she asked, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Who? Do you mean Mr. Le Compte?” He paused for a moment, before kneeling in front of her. “Anna, why does it matter to you so much? I know he looks like his grandfather, but is that really any reason to behave this way?”

“What did he say about me?” she asked.

“Nothing much. He just wanted to know that you’re okay.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“That you’re getting better.”

“You must send him a message,” she continued. “Tell him that I’m waiting for him, and that I would like very much if he could come and see me. Promise you’ll tell him!”

“ I will, but -”

“Promise!”

Staring into Anna’s eyes for a moment, he realized that never in his life had he seen someone with such absolute desperation and frustration in their soul. It was as if this was the most important thing in the world to the old woman.

“I promise,” he replied. “You can absolutely count on me.”

“And do not tell my grandson,” she added. “He could never understand!”

“ Ephram only cares about -”

“Promise me!”

“I promise,” he said again. “I won’t tell Ephram. But now will you please go back to bed, Anna? You’re not doing yourself any good by being up like this.”

The old woman continued to mutter to herself as he helped her up and led her back into her room. Even as she settled back down on the bed, it was clear that she couldn’t stop worrying about whether or not the doctor would keep his promise, and finally she reached up and grabbed the lapels of his jacket.

“Tell him the window is always open,” she hissed. “Tell him there isn’t much time!”

“Anna…” Doctor Burns paused for a moment, feeling genuinely unsettled by the forcefulness of her passion. “If you don’t mind the question… Why are you so worked up about this man? I know you had a brief friendship with his grandfather, but I don’t understand why you’re so keen to see the current Le Compte. Is it just that they look alike?”

“You don’t understand,” she replied. “None of you do, and you never will. You can’t!”

As she rolled onto her side, Doctor Burns took a step back and tried to work out what, exactly, had just happened. He had known Anna Kazakos long enough to be certain that she wasn’t given to flights of fancy, and he also knew that despite her advanced years her mind remained strong and alert. Her determination to speak directly to Edgar Le Compte seemed, therefore, to be very much out of character, but he figured that there would be no harm in at least delivering the message.

Heading out of the room and making his way downstairs, he found Ephram fast asleep on his stool behind the counter. Turning the sign on the door to ‘Closed’ on his way out, Doctor Burns headed home.

IV

 

When the music started playing, she somehow knew at once that it was him. A light, airy piano piece – complex, clearly something that couldn’t be performed by an untrained player – was drifting through the house, and Kate followed the sound through the maze-like corridors until finally she reached one of the large drawing rooms in the west wing.

As soon as she entered the room, the music stopped.

“There you are,” Edgar said, looking over at her from the grand piano by the window. “I was wondering when you might come and find me. I hope you’ll forgive me for disturbing the peace, but sometimes I come in here when I need a moment to think.”

“I’ve been looking for you all morning,” she replied, making her way across the room. She had been in there once before, on the night of the grand ball, which felt as if it had taken place a lifetime ago. She still wasn’t quite sure how so many people had arrived on Thaxos and spent just one night before leaving, all without being seen in town, but she figured that Edgar seemed to have enough money to make anything happen. “You’re a hard man to track down.”

“Blame the house,” he said with a smile. “Even I find myself getting lost from time to time. I quite believe that two people could wander separately for days and never bump into one another. The place can be freeing, but also rather lonely if one is that way inclined.” He paused for a moment, eying her with interest. “How are you feeling today? I trust that the worst of your ordeal is now behind you?”

“I…” Reaching the piano, she stopped. “I have no idea. Is that weird?”

“It’s natural to still be a little shaken,” he continued, getting up and walking around to join her. “I want to assure you that at first light this morning, several of my men set out to scour every inch of the land around this house, looking for any sign of the creature that did this to you.” He looked down at her arms. “I want you to feel safe here, Kate. I want every living person on Thaxos to feel safe. If there is anything out there, it will be hunted down and slaughtered.”

“I don’t remember anything,” she replied. “Not from later on, at least. I remember being in town, and walking back up here, but then… Nothing.”

“Short-term memory loss is quite common after a traumatic incident.”

“So help me out here,” she continued. “It was you who found me, right?”

“ It was pure chance,” he replied. “I went to the maintenance hut because I was tired of all the electrical problems around the house. One of my men was supposed to be on the case, but I'm afraid that sometimes one simply has to... Well, the important thing is that I went to the hut, and as soon as I walked through the door I saw the most unbelievably horrific scene. In fact, it has been a long time since I witnessed anything like it. I shall spare you the details -”

“I want to know everything,” she said firmly.

He paused.

“Everything,” she said again.

“You were in the middle of the room,” he continued, “on the floor. Your body was bent and twisted in a quite unnatural position, and there was blood everywhere. Smeared across the floor, on the walls, on the window’s broken glass. The place was a mess, and I must be honest… My initial fear was that I had arrived too late to help you. As I knelt to examine your injuries, I was convinced that nothing could be done, yet once I had placed my hands on the side of your neck and begun to search for a pulse… You were alive, though barely. Not knowing what to do, I scooped you up into my arms and hurried back to the house.”

“And then you called a doctor?”

“Of course.”

“But my injuries,” she continued, “they just seem a little… I mean, if everything you say is true, how am I up and around already? I feel…” She paused as she felt a wave of doubt cross her mind, as if something was in her head, disturbing her thoughts.

“I think,” Edgar said after a moment, “that we must simply be very glad that you escaped without any permanent damage. You were very lucky.”

“Sure, but there’s luck and then there’s this, and right now…” She paused again. “This is like a miracle. I should be dead.”

“Miracles do happen from time to time,” he pointed out. “One doesn’t even have to believe in any particular deity in order to accept such things.” He waited for her to say something. “I want you to take as much time off as necessary. The papers in my archive can wait. For now, the priority is your health, and I want you to know that all my resources are at your disposal. If there’s anything you want that isn’t immediately available, let me know and I’ll have it shipped in from the mainland within just a few days. Anything at all.”

“I want to know what really happened to me,” she replied. “I want to remember.”

“That’s one thing that I’m afraid I can’t help with,” he told her. “Still, perhaps this is your mind’s way of protecting you. I’m quite certain that you were attacked by a wolf, and that the experience was traumatic. Do you really want to dig through it all again?”

“I want…” She paused, and suddenly she realized that there was only one idea that made her feel better. “I think I want to go back to London.”

“So soon?”

“I need to get my head together,” she told him. “I’ll come back. I mean, I think I will. I mean, this is…” Another pause. Part of her wanted to stay, to face her fears, but the thought of spending even one more night on Thaxos was suddenly terrifying. “I’m so sorry,” she continued, “I know I’m letting you down, but after everything that’s happened… You understand, don’t you?”

“I do,” he replied, “and I hope very much that you’ll decide to come back to Thaxos once you’re feeling better, but I suppose I must accept your decision. I do have one small request, however. I’m arranging a garden party here at my home later in the week, as a way of reaching out to the people of the island. Do you think you might see your way to staying just a little longer, so that you can assist me? I’m afraid that I’m very bad at this type of thing, and when I originally came up with the idea I assumed that you would be here.”

“I don’t know…”

“ Please, Kate. As a personal favor, from one friend to another.” He paused. “I'm sorry, perhaps I overstepped the mark. Perhaps we're not friends -”

“We are,” she replied quickly, before realizing that she’d effectively just talked herself into agreeing to his request. “Sure,” she added, even though the thought sickened her to her stomach. “I’ll stay. I don’t know if I can really do much, but I’ll stay for your party. But then I really need to go back to London, at least for a while. I know this is going to sound crazy, but right now I don’t quite feel like myself. It’s as if my mind is damaged somehow.”

“Then you must do whatever you feel is necessary,” he told her. “Please, don’t feel bad at all. I completely understand.”

V

 

“So the funeral will be on Saturday,” Cavaleri continued as she stood by the bench. “Given the nature of her death, the authorities on the mainland have requested that we take a few more precautions, such as -”

“I know,” Doctor Burns replied tersely, interrupting her. He set a tray of slide dishes down and paused for a moment, trying to contain his irritation at the way the local police officer had just barged uninvited into his surgery and started acting as if she was in charge. “They’ve already been in touch with me,” he explained, “since I’m the town’s doctor.”

“ You'll need to take six blood samples,” Cavaleri replied, “each with -”

“I know,” he said again, more firmly this time.

“I’m sure you do,” she continued, eying him suspiciously. “I just wanted to go over the basics with you, I hope you don’t think I’m treading on any toes.” She paused for a moment. “So I heard an interesting rumor this morning. According to one of your neighbors, you were woken in the night and spirited off in a motor vehicle. Is that true?”

“You know I can’t discuss private medical matters,” he replied.

“Of course. But you can confirm certain basic facts, can’t you? I mean, there’s only one person on the whole of Thaxos who could have had you driven off in such a manner. You went up to Le Compte’s home, didn’t you?”

“ I can neither confirm nor deny that I -”

“You don’t need to.”

Turning and heading back over to the counter, Doctor Burns opened his medical bag and began to restock it with a few of the items that he’d used on Kate Langley the night before. He was very much aware that Cavaleri was watching him work, and he was tempted to ask her – no, tell her – to get the hell out of his surgery so that he could continue his work uninterrupted. Still, he felt that for some reason she was suspicious of him, and the last thing he wanted was to draw more attention to himself. Silently, he cursed whichever neighbor had ratted him out.

“So what’s it like up there?” she asked eventually. “I don’t mean medical details, I just mean the whole place in general.”

“If you’re so fascinated,” he replied tersely, “why don’t you go up there and see for yourself? You’re the local representative of the law, after all. I’m sure you could think of a reason.”

“Actually, I was going to go up and talk to him about the rats,” she explained, “but as of this morning, I haven’t seen a single one of the damn things. It’s almost as if they vanished overnight.”

“I’m not sure that’s entirely possible,” Doctor Burns replied, “although I believe Mr. Le Compte said something about dealing with the problem.”

“Huh,” Cavaleri continued. “That’s very generous of him. And very accomplished, too. He’s a real asset to the community.”

“ Is this leading somewhere?” the doctor asked, turning to her. “I understand that you wanted to come and see me today in order to run over some details concerning Alice Marco's death, but with all due respect, you have now done that, and I'm extremely busy, so there has to be -”

“Did you tell him?” she asked suddenly, interrupting him.

“Tell him what?”

“About the conversation that you were part of the other night.”

“I was not part of that conversation,” he replied tersely. “I was merely there at the beginning, and if you’ll think back, you’ll note that I left before the three of you got into detail. Please, don’t act as if I’m taking any part of your little plot.” He paused, feeling a little unsettled by the way she was staring at him. “I do hope,” he continued after a moment, “that cooler heads prevailed. I can’t even begin to imagine that you could even entertain the possibility of taking direct action against Mr. Le Compte.”

“Of course not,” she said with a smile. “It was just drunken chatter, really. A few people, sitting around with beers and venting their frustrations. There’s no plot to kill Edgar Le Compte. The very idea would be ludicrous.”

“That’s what I assumed,” he replied.

“Well,” she continued, “I suppose I really should get back to the office now. Even with the rats gone, I’m sure there’ll be a queue of people lining up to complain about something.” She grabbed her cap from the counter and made her way to the door, before stopping and turning to him. “By the way, I hope that the late night medical emergency, whatever it was, had a happy ending? Is Mr. Le Compte okay?”

“Everything is fine,” Doctor Burns told her, taking care not to provide any other details. “Thank you for your concern.”

“Just doing my job,” she replied. “Watching out for the town. Just answer one question for me, doctor. I can rely on you, can’t I?”

“Why do you even ask?”

“We have to stick together in difficult times,” she continued. “The town is under attack, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Le Compte tried to sow the seeds of division. I want to make sure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. We can put Le Compte in his place if we maintain a united front, but it would take just one weak link to make the task so much harder.” She paused for a moment. “Still, I doubt I have to worry too much. A respected member of the community, such as yourself, can be trusted to play his part. Even if you don’t want to get directly involved, I’m sure you’ll do nothing to make my work harder, will you?”

Once she had left the building, Doctor Burns tried to get on with his work. Soon, however, he found that his frustrations were starting to boil over. He didn’t entirely trust Cavaleri, and her promise that the plot to kill Edgar was ‘drunken chatter’ just didn’t hold weight; he worried that she had something else in mind, and although he understood the frustrations of everyone in the town, he also believed that people needed to actually meet Edgar and see that he was no monster. In fact, he was starting to think that -

“Was that the local police officer?” asked a voice suddenly.

Turning, Doctor Burns saw a familiar figure standing in the doorway. Dressed in an immaculately-tailored suit as usual, and with black gloves covering his hands, Edgar Le Compte wore a subtle smile, as if he was fully aware that he had managed to arrive without making a sound.

“She…” The doctor paused, genuinely taken aback to have yet another visitor.

“It’s okay,” Edgar continued. “I was thinking that perhaps I should pay her a visit at some point, just to introduce myself and assure her that I am at her disposal in case she ever requires my assistance.”

“Sure,” Doctor Burns replied. “That’d probably be…”

He paused.

“I’m sorry, did you come here for any particular reason?”

“Two, actually,” Edgar continued. “First, I wanted to reassure you that Kate Langley is making a full recovery. She’s up and about, in fact, although unfortunately she has decided to return to England for a while. I fear that perhaps recent events have taken a toll on her nerves, and somehow I doubt that she will be coming back to Thaxos. It’s a terrible shame, albeit one that I understand on a human level. Then again, she might yet change her mind.”

“I’d still like to see her,” the doctor replied. “I need to make sure that her wounds are healing.”

“You are welcome to come up any time,” Edgar told him, “or I can ask Ms. Langley to come down and visit you here. Or perhaps you can wait and see her at the garden party. And then…” His voice trailed off for a moment, and he seemed almost nervous. “There’s another matter, actually. It’s concerning the young woman who was so tragically killed by the rats. As you might have noticed by now, my men have been able to eradicate the root of the problem, so I believe there will be no more rats on Thaxos after today, but obviously sentiment might still be running against me given recent events.”

“There’s going to be a funeral at the weekend,” Doctor Burns told him.

“Do you think I should attend?”

“I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”

“I see. But perhaps I could send a wreath?”

“I’m not sure that would be a good idea either.”

“I see.” Edgar paused. “Well, there we have it. Already, I’m benefiting from your advice. Whatever would I do without your wise counsel, doctor?”

Smiling uneasily, Doctor Burns looked over at the computer terminal that stood on a nearby bench. For some reason that he didn’t quite understand, he felt compelled to go over and log in to the system. Making his way across the room, he grabbed the keyboard and began typing in his credentials.

“What are you doing?” Edgar asked.

“I’m…” He paused, staring at the blinking cursor in the password field. “I’m not quite sure…”

“Whatever,” Edgar continued. “Please, don’t let me interrupt you any further.”

Once he’d finished entering his password and had logged into the medical files archive, Doctor Burns stared at the screen. He was certain that he’d had a good reason to bring up the files, but now his mind felt strangely blank, as if the reason was suddenly hidden from his mind. After a moment, aware that Edgar was watching him, he turned and smiled awkwardly.

“You know,” he said with a nervous smile, “I just had one of those real senior moments. I can’t for the life of me remember why I logged on.”

“I’m sure it’ll come to you,” Edgar replied. “Returning to the matter of the dead girl, would you possibly be able to give me some details about her death, and about her family?”

“Absolutely not,” the doctor replied, as he brought up Alice Marco’s medical records. “I’m sure you’ll understand that it would be a criminal offense for me to give out such information without a court order.” He took a quick look at the screen, making sure that everything was in order, before hitting the button to print a copy. As the printer whirred into life, he paused again, trying to work out why he was doing any of this. “The only person I can talk to about such things,” he continued, “apart from the family, is Inspector Cavaleri.”

“I see,” Edgar replied, watching as the printer spat out three pages.

“It’s not my choice,” Doctor Burns continued, taking the pages and stapling them together, before turning and handing them to Edgar. “The information on the computer system has to remain absolutely confidential at all times. If it ever emerged that I gave out such details, I would be justifiably struck off the medical register. I could never show my face in town again.”

“Of course,” Edgar replied, taking a look at the printouts for a moment before folding them and slipping them into his pocket. “I’m sorry that I even asked. I hope I didn’t put you in an awkward position.”

“I understand your concern,” the doctor replied, feeling strangely uneasy even though he couldn’t quite work out what was wrong. It was as if his thoughts weren’t quite his own.

“Perhaps I should delay the garden party,” Edgar continued. “I was planning to hold it tomorrow, but I wouldn’t want it to seem inappropriate. A party hardly seems like the right response in the middle of such tragedy.”

“On the contrary, I think it’d be a great idea.”

“You do?”

“Now’s the perfect time,” the doctor told him. “You need to lift the whole community, and I really believe that if you…” He paused again, feeling that the words coming from his mouth were somehow alien. “It might be good for the people here to have someone who can lead them out of the darkness. When a death occurs, especially with someone so young, it’s all too easy for the mood to stay down for months at a time. You might be just the right person to shake things up.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Edgar replied. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I should let you get on with your work. I still have a few more stops to make while I’m in town, and I’m quite certain that the good people of Thaxos will be waiting for your expert medical attention. I just want to thank you once again for your wise words, Doctor Burns, and to tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. And everything that you will do for me in the future, I’m sure.”

The doctor smiled politely, but as his visitor left, he couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow his thought processes were running abnormally. Standing in silence for a moment, he suddenly turned to the computer, and for a fraction of a second he had a strong memory of printing out Alice Marco’s medical records and handing them to Edgar Le Compte. Just as he was about to turn and run after Le Compte, however, he realized that he must simply be misremembering things. He knew there was absolutely no way that he would do such a thing.

After double-checking that the computer terminal was logged off, he made his way through to his office and prepared for the arrival of his next patient. By the time he was sitting at his desk, he had completely forgotten his concerns about the medical records, although he still felt as if his mind was a little fuzzy, and he was starting to develop a nasty headache.

VI

 

“Stop it!” Kate screamed. “Get it off me! Someone help!”

As the claws tore at her flesh, she tried to push the creature away, but with every second she was being drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness, until finally she felt her own blood burst from her throat, filling her mouth and then flowing down her chin.

She tried to scream again, but all that emerged was a guttural rage as the last of her life was torn from her body. And that was when she realized that there was no way to escape. She was dying.

 

***

 

“Kate,” Edgar said firmly, shaking her by the shoulders. “Kate, it’s me. You’re having a nightmare!”

Opening her eyes, she stared at him for a moment, barely able to believe what she was seeing. Her heart was racing and she could still taste the blood in her mouth, but as she looked down at her body and saw that her clothes were undamaged, she began to realize that he was right: it had all been in her mind. Sitting up, she tried to get her breath back as she examined her arms. She still had faint scars, but whatever had been attacking her had clearly been a figment of her increasingly feverish mind.

“Are you starting to remember what happened?” Edgar asked, as he sat on the edge of her bed.

He waited for a reply.

“Memories and dreams can sometimes take one another’s form,” he continued. “Still, this can be useful. Are you seeing images from the attack?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Tell me what you saw in your dream.”

“Something was trying to kill me,” she explained. “It was tearing at me, ripping my body apart. I don’t know why, but it seemed to be filled with rage, like all it cared about was that it wanted to hurt me. The pain was… indescribable. I felt my bones being torn from the muscle, and there was blood pouring from my chest.”

“Did you see its face?”

She shook her head.

“Would it surprise you,” he continued, “if I told you that I know exactly what attacked you in that maintenance shed the other night?”

“A wolf?”

“No, not a wolf.” He paused. “There’s something that follows me, Kate. Something dark and cruel and powerful. Wherever I go, wherever I run, it always catches up to me. It never comes for me directly, but it targets the people around me, those I care about.” Reaching out, he ran his fingers across one of the scars on her neck. “It’s scared of me. Perhaps it knows that it’s no match for me, or perhaps it understands that its purpose isn’t to kill me. Either way, it lurks nearby, and every so often it lashes out. It never goes for Didi, because it knows that I don’t really care about her, but… It’s my curse.”

Kate stared at his fingertips as they traced the line of one of the scars on her arm. His touch felt tender, and he seemed to be interested in the run of the scar, in the way that sometimes it followed her body and sometimes it carved against it. For the first time, Kate began to wonder exactly how and why each scar looked the way it did.

“I have seen its face,” Edgar continued. “I have nightmares too, you know. I see the creature when I close my eyes. Sometimes I feel that I should go out there and face it. I’m quite certain that I could kill it, but every time in the past when I’ve attempted to bring it down, it has always eluded me. I knew that it would catch up to me on Thaxos eventually, but I’d hoped that it would take longer. Now I know that it’s nearby, and consequently I must adjust my behavior accordingly.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“I cannot say,” he replied. “Show me the rest of your scars.”

Without even hesitating, she began to remove her shirt, followed by her jeans and then finally her underwear. Sitting completely naked, she made no effort to cover her body, and she found herself wondering why she had been so quick to strip off; at the same time, she felt that there was nothing she would deny Edgar, nothing she could deny him. It was as if he was inside her head, calming her every fear and bringing forth a kind of strength that had long lain dormant in her soul. At that moment, she knew that she would open up completely for him, if only he let her know what he truly wanted.

“Lean back,” he said softly. “You have nothing to be scared of.”

Settling flat on her back, she stared up at the ceiling as he leaned closer and examined her scars. His fingertips traced each ragged red line across the curves and contours of her naked body, as if he was trying to decode some secret message that had been left behind in the chaos of her flesh. Every few seconds his fingertips seemed to pause, and he focused his attention on one particular part of the scar tissue before continuing to examine her body. She felt a shiver pass along her spine as Edgar ran his hands along her waist, onto her belly and then up between her breasts until he reached her collarbone.

“I can trace the order of every cut,” he said after a moment, his voice soft and quiet.

“What do you mean?”

“This scar,” he continued, running a fingertip from her collarbone to her shoulder, “was created a second and a half before this one, and it respects the natural order of your body a little more.” He ran the fingertip down her side until he reached her hip. “By seeing the whole picture, I can tell where your attacker started and where the ordeal ended. I can tell which parts of your body incited the greatest ferocity, and which parts were merely collateral damage. There’s a whole story here, Kate, written on your flesh, and I believe that the creature has left a message for me.”

“A message written in my scars?”

“A message… or a challenge. Carved into you, because the creature grows more confident and yet it knows no other way of telling me how it feels.” He ran his fingers down to her bare legs, stopping at the kneecaps. “Yes, I’m right. It’s warning me that it considers itself to be stronger. It believes, rightly or wrongly, that it is in a better position to take me on, that maybe… There was a time, once before, when we had a direct confrontation, and I sent it shivering and bleeding back into the shadows. Naively, I hoped that I might have deterred it from ever trying again, but instead it has waited there all this time with its wings wrapped around its body, growing stronger and plotting its revenge.”

She didn’t resist as he pushed her knees apart a little, and she waited as he ran his fingertips along her inner thighs and then, from there, onto her belly.

“It wants to face me again,” he continued, with a hint of shock in his voice. “It’s challenging me to a duel. Can you believe that? After all this time, the fool wants to fight me again. It’s almost as if it has learned nothing. Still, perhaps being back on Thaxos has given it a little more courage.”

“Are you going to accept?”

“Of course. Not yet, but soon. I never begin a fight if I don’t know the nature of my enemy, so I will wait and try to learn some more. I might need to read these scars again, Kate. I hope you’ll make your body available to me.”

She nodded.

“As the scars heal,” he continued, brushing his fingertips against her chest, “their meaning will change. The whole message will be altered as the healing process continues, and new truths will emerge. This is how the message has been written, and it is how it must be read as well. I’m truly sorry that the creature used you in this way, but you see, its intention was never to kill you. It tore at you in a very precise manner, so that it could leave this message in your flesh. If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that you are in no more danger. The creature will now wait and see how I respond.” He paused. “You cannot leave Thaxos.”

“I promised to stay for your party.”

“Even after that, you cannot leave.”

“I can’t stay.”

“Try to leave if you must,” he continued, running his fingertips onto her face and tracing the scar tissue that ran from the corner of her mouth to the side of her left eye, “but you will not make it off the island. You know this, don’t you? Deep down in your soul, you know that I won’t let you go.”

“Please…”

“You’re mine now,” he added, leaning closer. “You’re marked, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t even try to deny me, because if you do, I will teach you a lesson that you will never forget.”

“ Edgar -”

Before she could finish, he leaned closer and she felt something sharp slice through the side of her neck. She cried out for help, but as she sat up suddenly the light in the room changed and she found herself fully clothed, staring at the fluttering curtains at the far side of the room. Her pulse was racing, but as she reached up and touched the side of her neck she realized that the whole encounter with Edgar just now must have been a dream. She looked down at her body and saw that she was wearing the same clothes she’d worn when she returned to her room to take an afternoon nap. As real as the past few moments had seemed, it had all been in her mind.

Resting her head back on the pillow, she stared up at the ceiling and tried to make sense of her conflicting thoughts. All she wanted was to leave the island and go back to London, where hopefully she’d be able to get her mind back in order. She had promised to stay for Edgar’s party, however, and she felt that she had no choice but to keep her word.

After that, though, she was going to leave Thaxos. And she knew, deep down, that once she left she would never return.

VII

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Fernando shouted, grabbing the piece of paper before Doctor Burns had a chance to tape it to the wall.

Turning, the doctor was about to answer when he suddenly realized that he wasn’t quite sure what to say. He looked down at the stack of papers in his hand, and for a moment he felt as if he’d never seen them before in his life:

 

Garden party

at the Le Compte mansion

 

Saturday from 10am

 

Food, drink, music, games,

open house and more

 

All welcome, by personal invitation

of Baron Edgar Le Compte. Transportation

to be provided.

 

He read the text through a couple more times, and finally he remembered picking the papers up from the counter in his surgery. Edgar Le Compte had dropped them off earlier… He had a vague memory of Edgar visiting him, and although he couldn’t quite remember what they’d discussed, he was starting to recall that he’d agreed to help promote the party. The memory was vague and indistinct, floating in and out of focus like a half-remembered dream.

“I…”

He paused.

“What are you,” Fernando continued, making no effort to hide his disgust, “Le Compte’s lap dog now? Jesus Christ, man, you’ve been putting these damn things up all over town! It’s like he’s hired you to spread the word!”

“No,” the doctor replied, “of course not. I just… I offered to help, that’s all. He came to see me and he told me about his plans, and I happened to think that it would be a nice gesture on his part.” Again he paused, as he realized that these words almost seemed to be coming from some other place, as if they’d been carefully dropped into his mouth by someone else. He knew he should be worried, but at the same time there was another voice in his mind telling him to stay calm, that this was all perfectly normal.

“A garden party,” Fernando muttered. “What the hell is he playing at? Where does he think he is, anyway, nineteenth century England?”

“He just wants to put things right,” Doctor Burns replied. “He wants to get to know the people of Thaxos. Have you noticed, by the way? All the rats are gone.”

“I noticed, but I’m worried about where they’ve gone. You can’t just make hundreds, maybe even thousands of rats disappear overnight.”

“Well, apparently you can,” the doctor told him, even though he was surprised by how defensive he sounded. He couldn’t shake the feeling that, for some reason, he was sticking up for Edgar Le Compte a little more than might be considered normal. On top of that, his headache was returning.

“Is this why your surgery has been closed all day?” Fernando asked. “I’ve heard people complaining. They turned up for appointments and found the door locked. Please, don’t tell me you blew everyone off so you could go running around putting up posters for Le Compte’s garden party.”

“Of course not!” Doctor Burns replied. “How dare you make such an outrageous accusation! As a matter of fact, I have been…”

He paused, however, as he realized that he had spent the whole afternoon putting up posters. Looking down at the sheets of paper in his hand, he struggled to work out whatever had possessed him to do such a thing. His diary for the afternoon had been full, and yet it appeared that he had simply walked out, locked the surgery, and spent his time going around town with the posters. The idea was shocking, but he couldn’t deny that it was true.

“I…” he started to say. “I mean, it was just…”

“This is pathetic,” Fernando muttered, screwing one of the posters up and dropping it into a nearby bin. “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with you, but you really need to get your priorities in order. You’re a doctor, not an over-excited teenage party-planner.”

“ Absolutely,” Doctor Burns replied, shocked by his own behavior. “You're right. I'm sorry, I seem to have... I think I should -”

“Start with this,” Fernando said, grabbing the rest of the papers and throwing them into the bin. “Jesus Christ, man, whatever’s wrong with you, I think you should just take a moment to work out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. Even if you don’t want to actively try to stop Le Compte, you don’t have to go in the other direction and start helping him. Whose side are you on?”

As Fernando walked away in disgust, the doctor stood for a moment, trying to work out what had come over him. He was stunned by his own behavior, and yet after a few seconds he glanced down at the bin and began to feel that he should probably get on with the job of spreading word about Le Compte’s garden party. Reaching into the bin, he took the papers and resumed his task, and by the time he got to the last poster the sun was starting to set and his stomach was rumbling. Stepping back, he again felt a little disturbed by his own behavior, and he resolved to go home, rest, and try to get his head straight.

As he walked back to his house, however, he couldn’t help notice that the center of town was covered in posters. He definitely didn’t remember putting up so many, and yet somehow deep in his heart he knew that he must be responsible. It was this realization, more than anything else, that sent a shiver through his bones as he was finally forced to accept that he had spent the entire afternoon on auto-pilot, not even thinking about his actions. It he didn’t know better, he’d have started to feel as if some other force had been directing his actions.

 

***

 

As he approached his home, Doctor Burns was surprised to see that a motor vehicle was parked outside, and that one of Edgar Le Compte’s sunken-eyed workmen was knocking on the door.

“Can I help you?” the doctor asked.

“His Lordship sent us to find you,” the young man replied, turning to him as he spoke with the emotionless tone that he seemed to share with all his colleagues.

“ I trust that everything is okay? If you need me to come to the house -”

“He wanted us to show you something,” the man continued, as he and his associate made their way to the back of the vehicle. Opening the rear door, one of them reached inside and pulled back a blanket, to reveal the bloodied corpse of a large gray wolf.

“My word,” Doctor Burns muttered, stepping closer. He could barely believe what he was seeing. “Where did you find this magnificent beast?”

“It was out on the northern side of the island,” came the reply. “We hunted it down and put a bullet into the back of its head. Took a bit of doing, too. We had to chase it for a couple of miles first.”

“Was that strictly necessary?” the doctor asked, leaning into the vehicle and taking a moment to admire the wolf’s beautiful fur. He had never seen such a creature up close, but he was taken aback by its majesty and grace, although the bloody bullet hole in its head was incongruously ugly.

“His Lordship ordered us to kill the beast.”

“ But couldn't it have been -”

“It mauled Ms. Langley. His Lordship felt that the creature was dangerous, and that it if was left alive it would only attack someone else given the opportunity. Its death was quick, so it didn’t suffer, and now there’s no danger of anyone else being hurt.”

“At least there’s that,” the doctor replied, reaching down and placing his hand on the wolf’s flank. It was still a little warm, and he couldn’t help but feel sad that such a majestic animal had been relieved of its life. “I wonder however it came to be on Thaxos,” he said after a moment. “Surely if there is one wolf, there must be others. A mate, perhaps, and some cubs. After all, such a creature cannot exist in isolation.”

“We’ve scoured the island,” one of the men replied, with almost suspicious haste. “There are no more. It looks like this one managed to stow away somehow and ended up here. It can’t have been on His Lordship’s boat, though, so it must have been on one of the ferries that stops here from time to time.”

“I see.”

Stepping back from the vehicle, Doctor Burns couldn’t take his eyes off the wolf for a moment. Although it was certainly a large animal, and although he had no doubt that a wolf could cause considerable damage to a human, he still had his doubts that this beast was responsible for Kate Langley’s injuries. Something about the whole story didn’t ring true, and he also found it rather convenient that Le Compte’s men had so quickly and easily tracked the culprit. Then again, as unlikely as a wolf seemed, he had to admit that it was less unlikely than any other explanation he could think of.

“We must be going,” one of the men said, as he pushed the door shut. “We’re to dispose of the wolf and then get back to work.”

“What are you going to do with it?” the doctor asked.

“His Lordship said we might as well dump it into the harbor. Unless you want it?”

“Me?” He paused for a moment, imagining the corpse being disposed of in such a careless manner. “If you’d be so kind, would you take it around to the back of my surgery and leave it in my tool shed? I feel that such a magnificent creature deserves a proper burial.”

“Suit yourself,” the man replied.

As he watched the vehicle drive away and then head around behind his home, Doctor Burns couldn’t shake the feeling that the wolf’s death was a terrible shame. He’d seen the injuries that Kate Langley had suffered, of course, but at the same time he felt that there was no excuse for killing the animal and then disrespecting its body. Although he was an old man and his body was weak, he figured that the least he could do would be to dig a proper grave. That would have to wait, however, since he was beginning to feel extremely tired after spending the whole afternoon traipsing around town, putting up posters for the garden party.

Once he was inside, he tried to rest but he felt far too jumpy. Instead, he made dinner and then, once he’d eaten, he went through to his office and began the laborious and humiliating task of calling his missed patients and rearranging their appointments. They all asked if he was okay, with most having assumed that he’d been taken ill, and eventually he simply claimed that he’d felt faint but that he was absolutely fine now. When he was finally done, he sat back, relieved that everything was back in order but still shocked that he’d made such a mistake in the first place.

After a moment, his gaze fell upon the silver letter opener he kept on his desk.

Reaching out, he picked it up and examined the blade. He used the letter opener every day, yet he had never examined it properly before. His mind felt foggier than ever as he ran the edge of his thumb against the blade itself, and then slowly he placed his left hand flat on the desk. Holding the blade directly above his flesh, he started blankly for a moment, his mind having emptied completely save for a sudden, overwhelming desire to stab himself. He didn’t know where this compulsion was coming from, but he barely even cared. All that mattered was the fact that, for some reason, he desperately wanted to do this.

So he did.

As soon as he forced the blade through the center of his hand, he let out a cry of pain. He pulled the blade out again and rushed to his treatment room, dripping blood along the way. The wound was by no means life-threatening, but it was intensely painful and as he began to apply alcohol rub to keep it clear, he glanced at a nearby mirror and was stunned by his own expression. The face staring back at him was his own, of course, but there was fear in his eyes, and it was almost as if he was no longer in full control of his own body.

“What in God’s name…” he muttered, feeling a rising sense of panic in his chest. “What in God’s name is wrong with me?”

VIII

 

The moth made its way through the darkness, fluttering higher than ever until it reached the open window above the courtyard.

 

***

 

Sitting in her bed, Anna Kazakos listened to the sound of midnight.

Beyond her open window, the town was silent. When a stray moth came fluttering into the room in search of light, its wings made the faintest noise, yet Anna heard it clearly. She watched as it flew toward the light-bulb in the middle of the room, and she saw dust fall from its wings as it flew around the bulb several times. Finally, the creature dared to go too close, and its form instantly disintegrated. With a whisper of sadness in her heart, the old woman watched as the remains of the moth fell to the floor as a kind of powder.

“Some lessons are never learned, are they?” asked Edgar.

Turning, Anna saw him standing in the corner of the room, next to the window. Her heart immediately began to race as she realized that this was no dream, no misguided waking fantasy. It was him, and he had returned to her after so many years away. While she had grown old, and deep wrinkles had etched themselves into her face like the scars of time, Edgar Le Compte looked to have aged not one day, not even one second, since the last time she had seen him all those years ago. Was it sixty? Seventy? Eighty? She no longer remembered the exact details, but she didn’t care. All that matter was that he had returned to Thaxos, and that he had not forgotten to see her again.

“The place is still the same,” he said as he crossed to the middle of the room. Reaching down, he delicately gathered up the remains of the moth. Walking over to the bed, he sat next to Anna and held his hand out so that she could see the dust in his palm. “I used to know so many tricks,” he continued. “Do you remember? They amused me, although lately I’ve begun to tire of them. Even making a man stab himself in the hand, I don’t feel the same buzz as before. Still…” He leaned closer and blew gently on the dust, which somehow seemed to jump and twist until the moth reformed and fluttered away.

Anna couldn’t help but smile.

“Keep watching,” Edgar said, turning to follow the moth’s progress as it flew straight back toward the light-bulb.

For a few seconds, the creature fluttered closer and closer to the bulb, until once again it flew too close and was burned to death. As before, it fell to the floor as powder.

“I honestly think,” Edgar continued, “that I could resurrect that poor, dumb little thing a thousand times in one night, and it would still fly straight back to the light every single time. Even death is not enough to teach it some sense. I suppose one could say that it is doomed.”

“Is it really you?” Anna asked, her voice sounding harsh and tired.

“Of course it’s really me,” he replied, turning to her. “I look the same, don’t I? But is it really you? After all, you’re the one whose appearance has undergone a most profound change.”

“I grew old,” she told him.

“ Yes, I know how it works.” He paused, staring at her with a look of genuine compassion in his eyes. “You didn't have to,” he continued. “Remember, I offered you -”

“I had no choice,” she replied, interrupting him.

“You had a choice,” he continued. “Don’t try to pretend otherwise. You chose to turn the offer down, as was your right. And I chose, in turn, to let you leave. I could have taken you down into my basement, like all the others who ever angered me.”

“I wanted to live my life,” she told him. “I couldn’t have done that if I was frozen.”

“I manage to live mine.”

“You’re different.”

“I promised that I would see you again,” he continued, “and I have delivered on that promise. I don’t know whether you thought of me very often over the years. I understand that you married, and that you had a son. It’s a shame that your husband died so young. I would have liked to have met the man who kept your heart warm while you waited for my return.”

“I loved him,” she said firmly, proudly.

“I’m sure you did, but surely it can’t compare with…” He let his voice trail off, realizing that some things are better implied than spoken. “I met your son recently, though. Ephram… He seems stubborn, like you, and quite angry. I think he senses that I have an interest in you, and he has worked quite hard to keep me away. Fortunately, he has lately taken to drinking quite heavily in the evenings, so tonight he’s fast asleep downstairs. We can talk until dawn if we wish, and there’s no chance of him hearing us.”

“He’s a good boy,” Anna replied.

“Probably. I have no particular opinion on the matter.” He paused again. “Do you remember that I told you it would take me a long time to meet someone else who I thought could be with me forever? Someone to whom I could make the same offer that I once made to you? There were times when I felt that I would never meet her at all, that I would never again experience blood-lock. Well, as luck and fate would have it, I have finally found her. She’s right here on Thaxos, and I believe that she has even greater potential than any woman I have ever met before. I believe you have laid eyes upon her once or twice. Tell me, when I finally give her the choice, do you think she will accept, or will she be like you? Will she turn away and cower from the possibilities that I offer?”

Anna stared at him with a look of horror in her eyes.

“Oh yes,” he continued with a faint smile. “It never ends. I told you that if you turned me down, I would have to leave you behind. Love works differently in such circumstances. Humans have it so easy, don’t they? Living only seventy or eighty years the way they do, it’s easy to love someone for the span of a lifetime. But how do you think it is for someone like me, someone for whom eternity really does mean eternity? Do you think that any love can truly last that long?” He waited for a reply, although he doubted that one would come. “So I shall ask her, when the time is right. Don’t be offended, Anna, but I think she is a little tougher than you, a little braver. She has already been through a great deal, and she has emerged stronger. I have visited her in dreams and tested her.”

“Do you remember my dreams?” Anna asked.

He smiled.

“Real life…” She took a deep breath, as tears filled her eyes. “Real life was never as powerful as those times you came to me while I slept.”

“Of course not,” he replied, reaching over and running his fingers across her face, feeling her deep wrinkles. “Fascinating,” he muttered after a moment. “Another message left for me, albeit by a very different enemy.”

“How many enemies do you have?” she asked.

“Three.

“What are their names?”

“One is called Death,” he told her, still reading the wrinkles on her face and neck. “Another is called Love. And the third… Well, I have already conquered him. I tore his name away and ate it, so there’s really no need to worry about him for the time being. In fact, all my enemies are more or less under control, even if they leave messages for me in the most unexpected places.” He took his hand away from her face. “It would be a lot easier,” he added with a smile, “if they could just email or write a letter, but no, they insist on doing things the hard way.”

“Can you stay with me?” she asked. “For one night?”

He shook his head.

“Why not?”

“I could tell you,” he replied, “but I don’t think you’d like the answer.”

“Say it.”

“I offered you eternity,” he continued. “You could have lived forever, with me, never growing old. Instead, you chose this, and now look at you. Old age disgusts me, as does any form of defeat. It breaks my heart, Anna, but you chose to remain human, and to me that is a sign of weakness. I pity you, and I look down upon you, even though at the same time I find myself imagining what it would be like if you had accepted my offer. Do you ever regret your choice, or have you fooled yourself into believing that you made the right decision?”

“No,” she replied, but there was a tug of hesitation in her voice. “Maybe. Sometimes, for brief moments.”

“You could be young, still,” he pointed out.

“And what would my life have been like?”

“Better than this.”

Leaning closer, he gently placed a kiss on her lips. As he pulled away again, he saw her how she used to be: young and beautiful, with the brightest dark brown eyes any woman could ever possess, and a smile filled with promise. It was the same face that he had seen many years ago, the same face that he had hoped to see for the rest of his life, yet whereas it had once brought him joy, now it seemed to be nothing more than a reminder of everything he had lost. Within seconds, reality reasserted itself and her face aged rapidly until he found himself once again staring at an old woman.

“I should go,” he said, getting to his feet.

“Just a few more minutes,” she replied, reaching out to him. “Please, Edgar!”

“I can’t. I have things to do.”

“But when will I see you again? Now that you’re back, you can come and see me more often, can’t you?”

“If I did,” he replied as he walked over to the middle of the room, “it would be to kill you. Surely that can’t be what you want?”

“I want to talk to you some more,” she continued. “I have lived such a full life since the last time we spoke. Don’t you want to hear about it?”

“Why?” he asked with a frown.

“So that you might know me better. Don’t you want to know how I’ve changed, and how I’ve stayed the same? And your life… I would like to know where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing.”

“I don’t see what purpose that would serve,” he replied. “You must remember how an ordinary human life appears to one such as myself, Anna. I really just came because I wanted to fulfill the promise I made to you all those years ago.” He paused. “And I wanted to ask you a question. After you turned me down, I became a crueler man. I’m sure you remember all the stories about me. The Impaler, they called me, and I suppose the name was rather accurate. But you’re uniquely placed to tell me… Now that I have finally returned to Thaxos, and you have looked into my eyes, do you think that I have changed?”

“Have you tried to change?”

“I have.”

She stared at him for a moment. “Yes,” she said finally. “There is kindness in you again. And love. It’s good to see, Edgar. I know that you went through a great deal and I am glad that you seem to have pulled back from the abyss.”

“Kindness and love,” he replied, seemingly lost in thought for a moment. “Two things that I lost when I lost you. It took me a long time to recover, but I think you’re right. I am the same man, but I have come to terms with the anger in my soul. It’s still there, but I have better control of its power. I can use it, rather than letting it overwhelm me, and I believe this will be of tremendous use going forward. I will certainly not make the same mistakes that plagued my previous time on Thaxos.”

“Stay with me,” Anna begged, still reaching out to him. “I’ve waited so long, and you’ve only been here for a few minutes. Please, Edgar… We used to talk for hours, remember?”

“Oh, why not try one more time,” he said, smiling as he gathered up the powder from the carpet and blew on it again, bringing the moth back to life. He watched for a moment as it fluttered back toward the light-bulb. “How many times,” he asked finally, “will it have to die before it learns its lesson? It certainly should not count on me being here forever to give it another chance. We must all face the consequences of our actions eventually.”

With that, he turned and headed to the door.

“I don’t regret my decision,” she said suddenly, with a new sense of steel in her voice.

He turned to her.

“I met a wonderful, kind man,” she continued, “and we had many happy years together. We had a son who grew up and took on the family business, and I’m so proud of him… Life was hard sometimes, and we didn’t always have enough money, but there was always food on the table and at the end of every single day, we found a reason to laugh together as a family. Can you say that, Edgar? Because if you can’t, then I really don’t believe that you have the right to judge me, or to tell me that I made the wrong choice. Would I give all of my life up in order to go back and accept your offer? No. Even as close to death as I surely am now, I would not.”

There was a pause, as her defiance seemed to fill the room.

“I told you I would come back and see you again,” Edgar replied eventually, opening the door. “I’ve done that. The truth is, when I look at you now I see nothing but failure. I offered you everything, eternal life, and you turned it down. I will not come to see you again, not unless I have to kill you. I wish you nothing but the best, and I hope that you can find some peace. However, you should pray that you won’t see me again, because if you do…”

He stared at her for a moment, before turning and walking out of the room.

“No, Edgar, come back!” she called after him, as she heard his footsteps heading down the stairs. “Edgar, please!”

She waited, but moments later she heard the front door opening and then closing, and she realized that he was gone. All her life, she had lived with the hope that he would one day be true to his word and come back to her, but now that day had come and gone, and she was left with only memories. Every word she had said about her husband and family had been true, but at the same time she felt that she had lost something else as well. It was as if the only way she could have been truly happy in her life would have been if she’d had two completely separate halves, one for each reality.

As she began to sob uncontrollably, the moth hit the light-bulb and died again. Its remains fell to the floor as a fine powder, but this time there was no-one around to bring it back to life.

Part Five

I

 

The huge black boat moved slowly, its prow cutting through the water of the harbor. As it turned to the port side, the boat’s great bulk creaked slightly, but for the most part the voyage was silent: no sailors shouted, no bells rang out; the boat simply did as it was commanded, until it gently bumped against the quayside, dislodging a few errant pieces of old wood in the process. On the bridge, the large, old-fashioned wooden wheel turned first one way and then the other before coming to a rest, while nearby the navigation system whirred briefly and then shut down. And then, slowly, a hatch opened in the boat’s side, and a deep groaning sound was heard from within.

 

***

 

Looking up suddenly from her paperwork, Inspector Isobel Cavaleri realized that there was an unfamiliar sound outside her window. She knew it couldn’t be, but it sure as hell sounded like…

Laughter…

Getting to her feet, she crossed the room and looked outside. Sure enough, at that moment a family walked past: Jonathan and Elise Corvey, and their daughters Melissa and Suzanne. Cavaleri knew the Corveys well, knew that they were all very hard-working people, so the sight of them out and about in such good spirits was a shock. Sensing that something was wrong, Cavaleri made her way to the police station’s front door and stepped outside, only to spot half a dozen other families all headed in the same direction. Nearby, the baker’s shop was closed, as was the hair salon.

“What the hell?” she muttered under her breath.

“I’m not getting my hopes up too much,” said a young girl, hurrying past with her friends, “but I heard there’s an actual band!”

Following the small crowd, Cavaleri found herself a few minutes later in the town square down by the harbor, where she witnessed another surprising sight: half a dozen motor vehicles were parked in formation, each of them with townsfolk climbing up into the open back sections. As soon as the first vehicle was full, it set off, juddering around the war memorial in the center of the square and then making its way along the road that led straight through the town and then up the hillside toward…

She looked up at Edgar Le Compte’s mansion, high above the town. Something seemed different this morning. Whereas usually the mansion stood in ominous stillness, today there were clearly people milling around in the garden. Lots of people. Moments later, she realized she could hear the faintest sound of music, as if a band really was playing up there. Turning to look at the nearby wall, she saw that several of Le Compte’s posters were still in place, promoting his garden party. Cavaleri had assumed that the posters were a joke, that a man like Le Compte would never even entertain the idea of hosting a party, and yet…

She almost jumped out of her skin as a truck sped past, carrying more excited townsfolk up to the mansion. Stunned, Cavaleri stood and watched for a few more minutes as almost everyone from the entire port town climbed into the trucks. It was as if the entire population of Thaxos was giving Edgar Le Compte a second chance. Slowly, Cavaleri realized she could feel her blood starting to boil.

 

***

 

They made their way slowly through the cemetery gate, as if weighed down by their grief. Both of them clutched a small offering of flowers, which had looked so beautiful in the garden but which now seemed so pitiful. Still, it was all they had to bring.

“ Are you sure you want to go on?” Maximo Marco asked. “We can -”

“She can’t be left alone,” his wife replied, staring ahead with impassive yet tearful eyes. “It’s her first morning here. If we don’t come to her grave, she might think we’ve forgotten her.”

“ But she -”

“Go home if you wish,” she continued. “I will tend to her alone.”

Realizing that there was nothing left to say, Maximo held up his arm to support Catherine. They made their way in silence along the narrow, winding path that twisted between the old gravestones until, finally, they came to the plot that had less than twenty-four hours been filled in. The gravestone here was new, its letters still sharply defined as they spelled out the name of the Marcos’ daughter:

 

Alice Marco

 

It was a simple stone, as the family had preferred. Catherine knelt to place her flowers next to the others, which had been left after the funeral. She bowed her head, letting tears drip from her eyes onto the churned soil.

“Perhaps we should come back later,” Maximo said after a few minutes. “This does no-one any good.”

“What if we leave and she feels alone?” Catherine asked, her voice barely heard through the tears.

“She’s not here,” he replied. “She doesn’t feel anything.”

As his wife continued to sob, Maximo put a hand on her shoulder. He knew there was nothing to do; her heart was broken, as was his. After a moment, he heard the distant roar of an engine, and he turned to look at the far wall. Somewhere in the distance, a motor vehicle was racing through the streets. Glancing up at the mansion high up on the hill, Maximo realized with a heavy heart that the island was already moving on. His daughter’s death was yesterday’s news, and soon her grave would begin to fade like all the others.

 

***

 

“What the hell is going on?” Cavaleri asked as she stormed into the shop, pushing the door open with such force that it banged against the wall and almost knocked the noticeboard down.

“You’ve noticed, huh?” Ephram replied mournfully, sitting in his usual position behind the counter. “Looks like there won’t be any customers today. I should probably close up, but then what would I do? Go up and join the party?”

“Have they lost their mind?” Cavaleri continued, slamming some coins onto the counter as Ephram passed her a packet of her usual cigarettes. She immediately tore open the box and lit up. “All the things the Le Compte family have done to the people of this island, all the misery and pain stretching back for decades, and all the things that have happened over the past few months, and it can all be set right with a garden party? Are the people of this island really so stupid?” She slammed her lighter down against the counter. “Seriously? A goddamn garden party?!?”

“Free food,” Ephram replied. “Free wine. Free music. Plus the chance to snoop around his house. I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I and my mother are the only ones who don’t go. I even saw Doctor Burns heading up there earlier.”

“Alice Marco has only just been buried,” Cavaleri pointed out. “It’s sacrilegious to hold an event such as this when there’s a dead girl still on everyone’s minds! Especially when the man who brought the rats to Thaxos in the first place is the same man putting up the bunting!”

“I was at the funeral yesterday,” Ephram continued. “Only a few people attended. The coffin was open, and she looked so peaceful and beautiful. I know it’s tradition that only close family members and friends attend the funeral, but still, it might have been better if more people had shown up.”

“And all the while,” Cavaleri pointed out, “Le Compte has been planning his party.”

Ephram held his hands up, as if to indicate that there was nothing he could do about the matter.

“I don’t know why I bother,” Cavaleri continued, pacing over to the front of the store and staring out the window for a moment, just as another truck sped past the courtyard, delivering yet more townspeople up to the mansion. Unable to contain her frustration any longer, she took a deep drag on her cigarette. “These people don’t know what’s good for them.”

“Have you noticed that the rats are gone?” Ephram asked. “Not a rat for two days now. I saw Le Compte’s boat was back in the harbor at first light this morning. Maybe all the rats climbed back onboard and sailed away, to be tipped into the Mediterranean. Maybe they were only ever here for a holiday.”

“That boat…” Cavaleri paused, as slowly an idea came to her mind. “Permits,” she muttered darkly.

“Permits?”

“I don’t recall Edgar Le Compte applying for a multiple docking permit,” she continued, taking another drag on her cigarette, which in her fury she had already reduced to half its original length. “That’s an offense, I can fine him.” Another drag. “I should go and serve papers on him, and tie him up in fines!”

“I’m sure he’ll be quaking in his boots,” Ephram said with a sigh.

“The law’s the law,” Cavaleri pointed out, almost shouting before she took another drag on her cigarette, which was by now little more than a stub. “Every instance of unauthorized docking carries a significant financial penalty. That goddamn boat could be bringing anything to the island, and the rules are in place for a reason.” She took yet another drag on her cigarette. “I’m going to go up there right now and serve him with the fine, plus a notice to cease all activities in the harbor until such time as the necessary paperwork has been completed. I should have done this when he first arrived, but as a good neighbor I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”

“So you’re going to his party too, are you?”

“I’m not going to the party,” she replied, stubbing the remainder of her cigarette out on the counter before heading to the door. “I’m going up there in my official capacity as the only person on this island who hasn’t lost her freaking mind!”

With that, she stormed out of the shop, slamming the door once again and leaving Ephram to sit in silence for a moment.

“Well,” he muttered to himself eventually, staring at the still-burning cigarette stub before him, “have fun.”

 

***

 

Although she could have taken a ride in one of the many motor vehicles that Edgar Le Compte had laid on for the party, Cavaleri stubbornly insisted on walking the whole way up to the mansion. Having stopped by her office and drawn up the papers outlining the fine, she loosened the buckles on her uniform and set off on the long trek, and she refused all offers of a lift whenever one of the vehicles rattled past her. In the late morning sun, however, she soon began to sweat, and by the time she reached the threshold of Le Compte’s land an hour later, she was on the verge of collapse. Still she pushed on, and eventually she reached the main gate, at which point she stopped for a moment to compose herself.

Up ahead, she could hear laughter from the massed crowd.

“Idiots,” she muttered. “Naive, gullible fools.”

Once she was through the gate, she was astonished by the size of the garden party. There were stalls everywhere, with Edgar’s men serving various types of hot and cold food, including meat from a large barbecue. A nearby stall held a huge array of cheeses from around the world, along with piles of bread and huge jars of pickle; another stall was overflowing with cured meats. One entire section of the garden, meanwhile, had been set aside for the town’s children, with play equipment having miraculously appeared along with special tables of food for young visitors and even games such as a lucky dip. It was all a little old-fashioned, but Cavaleri couldn’t help noticing that the town’s children seemed to be having a wonderful time, playing freely and happily with one another.

“Mind control,” Cavaleri muttered darkly. “He’s indoctrinating them at an early age.”

She made her way toward the mansion, passing the brass band that had drawn a large crowd. Nearby, a test-your-strength machine was also proving popular, with the men of the island lining up to smash the hammer down against a large red target, sending a drum shooting up toward a bell at the top. Even the less athletically able members of the community seemed to be enjoying themselves, and Cavaleri couldn’t help but feel increasingly suspicious as she noticed that every single person was having fun. Deep in her bones, she could already tell that something was definitely not right with the situation.

“Inspector Cavaleri!” shouted Melissa Corvey, waving at her while holding a huge hamburger in one hand. “So good to see you up here! Isn’t it wonderful?”

Cavaleri paused, realizing that she should at least pretend to appreciate the party.

“It’s stunning,” she replied, forcing a smile. “Really… amazing.”

“I can’t believe how generous he’s being,” Melissa continued. “He’s given every child a gift! I can’t believe we were all so suspicious of Baron Le Compte! He’s actually a wonderful, kind man!”

“Isn’t he just?” Cavaleri replied, hurrying along. She felt sick to her stomach, a sensation that became even worse when she spotted Doctor Burns snoozing in a chair by the wall, having evidently had a couple too many fruit cordials already. Stopping, she nudged his shoulder, but the old man merely frowned and continued his nap. She tried again, but he was deep in his slumber.

“Best leave him to it,” said a passing woman with a smile.

“Wake up, old man,” Cavaleri continued, nudging his shoulder for a third time. Although he seemed to stir for a moment, it was clear that he would be no use even if he could be roused.

Turning, Cavaleri looked up at the facade of the mansion. She took a deep breath, before making her way up the stone steps and through the main door.

Inside there were people everywhere, wandering from room to room as if the Le Compte house was some kind of vast museum. Signs had been put up to inform visitors about the history of the place, and huge oil paintings of Le Compte’s ancestors stared down at the scene. As Cavaleri pushed her way through the crowd, clutching the legal papers she had brought for Le Compte, she began to wonder if she was in fact dreaming the entire experience. She had grown up on the island, always being told that the mansion was out of bounds, yet here it was with the doors flung open and happy visitors enjoying the chance to snoop around.

It was as if the world had been turned upside down.

“That’s his grandfather,” a boy was telling his friend, pointing up to one of the paintings. “They called him the Impaler!”

“He looks just like the current Baron Le Compte,” replied the other boy.

“Maybe he’s still got the torture equipment his grandfather used to use!” the first point suggested excitedly. “Maybe it’s all hidden away in part of the house we can’t get to!”

“Excuse me,” Cavaleri said as she reached an elderly gentleman in a butler’s uniform, “I’m looking for Baron Edgar Le Compte.”

“His Lordship is here somewhere,” the old man replied. “My name is Jacob, and I am the head of the serving staff here. Perhaps I can be of assistance?”

“It’s Le Compte I need to see,” she continued, holding up the papers. “Official business.”

“I see,” Jacob replied. “I’m afraid that you’ve come at a rather inopportune moment, so you will simply have to take a look around and wait until you bump into him. I believe he is quite enjoying the opportunity to discuss the history of his family with some of the people who have come to visit. You could always come tomorrow…”

“This is urgent business,” she snapped back at him. “The police don’t change their plans just because someone happens to be holding a party, you know.”

“Quite,” Jacob replied. “All I can tell you is that he’s most certainly around here somewhere.”

“I’ll bet he is,” Cavaleri muttered, making her way past the old man and heading along a corridor. Every time she heard someone laughing nearby, she felt a shiver run through her body as she realized how easily the entire town had been turned to Edgar’s side. Less than twenty-four hours ago, Edgar Le Compte was widely regarded as a dangerous man, as someone who was destroying the happiness of everyone on Thaxos; he was being blamed, at least indirectly, for the death of Alice Marco and for the influx of rats to the island. Now, however, Cavaleri felt that she was the only person who still recognized his true nature.

Reaching the large ballroom at the end of the eastern wing, she stopped for a moment as she saw that yet another crowd seemed to be enthralled by the experience of exploring the Le Compte mansion.

“They’re mad,” Cavaleri whispered under her breath. “They’ve all lost their minds!”

II

 

“Have you seen Edgar?” Kate asked as she finally managed to find Jacob in one of the crowded rooms.

“I believe His Lordship is somewhere around,” Jacob replied, “but I couldn’t tell you exactly where, I’m afraid. As you can imagine, he’s rather popular today.”

“ I've been looking for him all morning,” she continued. “I need to -”

Before she could finish, she spotted an unfamiliar figure on the other side of the room. She’d noticed the man a few time already during the morning, but she hadn’t yet had a chance to speak to him. He certainly didn’t look like he lived on the island, since he was wearing a casual but expensive-looking suit, and he seemed to be happy just mingling in the crowd.

“Who’s that man?” she asked Jacob.

“Which man, Ma’m?”

“The guy in the pale suit. I haven’t seen him on Thaxos before.”

“That gentleman is one of His Lordship’s acquaintances from the mainland,” Jacob replied. “He is here for a short visit. A very pleasant fellow, from my experience.”

Kate kept her eyes on the newcomer, who seemed somehow separate from the rest of the people in the room. As she lost sight of him for a moment, she noticed a more familiar figure tottering unsteadily through the room.

“Never mind,” she told Jacob, before pushing her way through the crowd until finally she was spat out the other side next to Didi, who was holding a champagne glass that clearly wasn’t her first of the day.

“Katie!” Didi screeched. “Are you having a good party?” She grabbed a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter and thrust it in Kate’s direction. “Drink up!”

“ It's a little early for me. Have you seen -”

“Come on, don’t be a party-pooper! Join the fun! Everyone’s having a great time! Isn’t it freaky?” She took a big gulp of champagne. “I think it’s freaky,” she added, with a hint of darkness to her voice.

“It’s not even midday,” Kate pointed out diplomatically, taking the glass and immediately setting it down on a nearby table. “Have you seen Edgar?”

“Who?”

Kate sighed.

“Oh, Eddie,” Didi continued. “The lord and master of all we survey! I dunno, I guess he’s around somewhere. He doesn’t usually like crowds, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hidden himself away in one of the private rooms. My Eddie’s a lovely guy sometimes, but he’s got all the social skills of a broken vacuum cleaner, but hey, that’s one of the reasons I love him! Come on, why don’t you have a drink?” She grabbed another champagne glass from another passing waiter and held it out toward Kate, as if she’d completely forgotten the beginning of their conversation already. “It’s really good!”

“Are you drunk?” Kate asked.

“Are you a size twelve?” Didi replied, looking down at Kate’s waist. “I was trying to guess earlier. I’ve been a size six my whole life, but I really enjoy trying to guess other people’s sizes. At first I thought you were a ten, but now, no offense, I’m thinking a twelve. Am I right?”

“You’re definitely drunk,” Kate replied stonily, turning to look back across the room in the desperate hope that she might yet spot Edgar.

“Of course I’m drunk,” Didi continued. “How else do you think I get through the days here? At least with this party going on, my drunkenness is in context.” She took a step forward, but she quickly became unbalanced on her ridiculously high heels, and it was only Kate’s swift intervention that kept her from tumbling to the floor. “Was that an earthquake,” she continued, “or are you just pleased to see me?”

“Why don’t you sit down for a moment?” Kate replied, helping Didi over to a chair and easing her onto the cushion. “Just wait here and I’ll fetch you a glass of water. Deal?”

“No deal!” Didi exclaimed excitedly.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Kate replied, turning and pushing her way across the room. It took longer than she’d expected, but she was finally able to get to the kitchen, where she grabbed a glass and began to pour some water for Didi. She knew it wouldn’t be much use, but at the same time she was worried that the younger girl might get even more drunk, and might even end up ruining the entire party.

“Have you seen him?” asked a female voice suddenly.

Turning, Kate found that there was a sour-faced woman standing next to her, wearing a police officer’s uniform.

“Do you mean Edgar?”

“Baron Le Compte,” the woman replied humorlessly. “Where is he? I’ve been wandering around this place for half an hour and I still can’t find him!”

“ Sorry,” Kate replied, “I -”

Before she could finish, the police officer muttered something under her breath and stalked away, pushing her way angrily through the crowd.

“Isn’t Baron Le Compte wonderful?” said a woman nearby, talking to her friend. “I never thought I’d see the day when the whole of Thaxos is invited up to the mansion like this.”

“I’ve heard stories about his grandfather,” replied the other woman, “but clearly they’re like night and day. Thank God we’re living here today, and not all those years ago when the previous Baron Le Compte was in charge. I’ve heard some horror stories about that man.”

“That’s still no reason for Inspector Cavaleri to be so angry,” the first woman continued. “I don’t get why she can’t just relax for once!”

 

***

 

A few minutes later, having tried to deliver the glass of water to Didi but having found no sign of her, Kate made her way back through to the entrance hallway and then up the main stairs. It was still strange to have so many people around, but at the top of the stairs there was a sign marking off one of the corridors as private, so Kate made her way in that direction, figuring that perhaps Didi was right when she said that Edgar would be trying to find a little peace and quiet. By the time she reached the end of the corridor, the sound of the party had almost faded completely into the distance, and she could now just about make out voices coming from one of the rooms up ahead.

As she made her way along the corridor, Kate worried that perhaps she was intruding, but she figured that she, like Edgar, could use a moment away from the crush of the party. Ahead, the voices were becoming clearer, until finally she could hear what they were saying.

“How much longer will it take?” Edgar asked.

Kate stepped closer to the door and reached out to knock, but at the last moment she held back.

“A few hours,” said a male voice that Kate didn’t recognize. “We can’t rush it any more than we are already. Don’t worry, though. The centerpiece of your big party will still be delivered with all the necessary bells and whistles.”

“It has to be done properly,” Edgar continued, sounding agitated. “Even the slightest error could cause panic, maybe even anger. I’ve come so far with these people today and I can’t afford to have it all come to nothing.”

“ Relax -”

“Don’t tell me to relax! You have no idea what’s at stake here!”

“Look at her,” the other voice said. “Compared to what you brought to me last night, I think I’ve done a wonderful job. She already seems so much better. I mean, hell, she’s presentable now, but I absolutely insist that you wait a little while longer.”

“Better isn’t enough,” Edgar told him. “She has to be perfect.”

Kate paused, aware that she shouldn’t be eavesdropping but also unable to tear herself away. She felt as if she was getting a glimpse into another side of Edgar’s life, a side that he seemingly wanted to hide away from the world.

“Have you thought about how you’re going to do it?” the other voice continued. “Something like this… It requires some showmanship on your part.”

“I think I should be able to summon something up,” Edgar told him. “Besides, I think the shock will do most of the job for me. Can you imagine how people are going to react?”

“You’re a cruel man, Edgar.”

“I’m nothing of the sort,” he replied. “You’ve seen how successful the party has been so far. The people of Thaxos have come up here in great numbers, like moths to a flame.”

“And what happens to moths when they get too close to that flame?”

“Now you’re just being cynical,” Edgar continued. “For now, I think we should get back down to the party. Let’s leave the project for a few more hours, until everything is perfect.”

Seconds later, Kate heard footsteps coming closer to the door. She ducked around the corner just in time, as Edgar emerged from the room. Behind him was the smart-looking man Kate had spotted earlier, and it was immediately clear that the pair of them were up to something.

“Doctor Young,” Edgar continued as they made their way along the corridor, “I’m going to be forever in your debt. I could have achieved the same result myself, of course, but it would have taken much longer, given the unfortunate gap that was allowed to occur. I usually do this sort of thing as soon as the moment has arrived, but in this case it was simply not possible. In addition, my attention has been elsewhere in recent days, following an unexpected incident that has required constant care.”

“That’s why I’m here,” the other man replied, “and it’s why you’re paying me so handsomely.”

Kate waited until their voices got further and further away, and finally she realized that she was alone. She stepped out from the corner, but just as she was about to go back to the party she turned and looked at the door from which Edgar and this Doctor Young character had emerged a moment ago. She knew full well that she had no right to snoop around, but at the same time she was curious to learn what, exactly, Edgar was planning.

Against her better judgment, she reached down and tried the door handle. It turned, and the door clicked open.

Taking a deep breath, Kate pushed the door slightly ajar and listened for a moment. There was a sound coming from inside the room, like a kind of harsh, rhythmic rustling noise. Her heart racing, Kate told herself that she should just pull the door shut and go back downstairs, but her natural curiosity was getting the better of her. Besides, she was planning to leave Thaxos the following day, so she figured this might be her last chance to get a fuller understanding of the kind of thing Edgar Le Compte got up to in private. The man clearly had secrets, and she wanted to know at least a few of them.

Slowly, she pushed the door open.

The first thing she saw was that the room was dark, with the only light coming from a crack between the curtains. As she took a step forward, Kate listened to the slow rustling sound,which seemed to be coming from the far side of the room, where some kind of small box had been left on top of a chest of drawers. Pushing the door shut behind her, Kate made her way carefully over to the box, which seemed to contain something that was alive. She stood and listened for a moment as the rustling continued, but although she reached out and considered trying to open the box, some deeper instinct told her that perhaps she had already gone a little too far.

Suddenly she heard a creaking sound and looked back across the room.

For a moment, she saw nothing of interest, but finally she noticed a bed. The sheets had been pulled back, and as she made her way over to take a look, Kate was relieved to find that the bed was empty. She walked around and took a look at the bedside table, upon which there was a bowl of pills plus a small hand-held mirror. Reaching down, she placed a hand on the bedsheets and realized that they were warm, as if someone had been resting there recently. Just as she was about to turn and head back to the door, however, she heard another creaking sound from nearby, and that’s when she realized that it was coming from the floorboards.

She paused, telling herself that she was imagining everything, but seconds later she heard another creak.

There was someone in the room with her.

Although there still wasn’t enough light to see properly, she turned and saw a dark figure standing a few feet away, staring in her direction. From the silhouette alone, she could tell that it wasn’t Edgar or Doctor Young; it seemed smaller, possibly female.

“I’m sorry,” Kate said, trying not to panic. “I just thought I heard a noise and…”

Her voice trailed off as she realized that the figure seemed strangely unresponsive.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Silence.

“What are you… Are you sick?”

Again, there was no answer. Kate paused for a moment, her heart pounding in her chest as she tried to understand why Edgar seemingly had someone holed up in a room.

“My name is Kate Langley,” she explained, forcing herself to stay calm. “I’ve been living here and working for Edgar. I’ve been going through the archive room downstairs.” She waited once again for some kind of response. “Have you been downstairs?” she asked. “Have you even left this room?”

After a moment, she heard the faintest of sounds from the figure, like a subdued guttural moan.

“ Are you okay? I swear, I didn't know anyone was in here, I just thought -”

Before she could finish, the figure took a step forward, and finally the light from the window fell across what seemed to be a face covered by a sheet of white cloth, with two round eye-holes cut in the fabric. The figure was dressed in some kind of light nightgown, almost like something from the Victorian era, but as Kate stared in shock, she realized she could just about make out two eyes through the holes in the fabric, staring unblinkingly back at her.

“Are you okay?” she asked again.

In the room’s low light, the eyes were just about visible.

“Okay…” Kate muttered, forcing herself to stay calm. “Listen, I really didn’t mean to disturb you, okay?”

She backed away, but at the last moment she tripped over the edge of the bed and landed hard against the floor. As she got up, she turned to see that the figure was stepping slowly toward her, as if it was having trouble moving properly.

“ Are you okay?” Kate asked again. “Look, I really don't want to disturb you, so if you're okay I'll just -”

She stepped back as the figure reached out a hand toward her.

“I don’t know what you want,” she continued. “Are you hurt? Do you need me to fetch someone?”

Again, there was a faint groan from the figure. It was still holding a hand out toward Kate, with the fingers grasping at her. Although Kate wanted to help, she was starting to fill with panic, as if somehow her senses were trying to warn her of something that couldn’t get past the periphery of her mind.

“I’m really sorry,” she continued, hurrying across the room and pulling the door open. She turned back to see that the figure had stopped again and was merely staring at her from beneath its cloth mask. “I swear I didn’t mean to come in here. Please, don’t tell anyone, okay?”

Realizing that she wasn’t going to get a reply, she stepped out into the corridor and pulled the door shut, before stopping and trying to catch her breath. Part of her felt bad for not staying in the room to help the figure, but she’d experienced a kind of primitive, gut-level sense of fear; besides, she told herself that Edgar and Doctor Young had been in there just a few minutes earlier, so they would have acted if anything was truly wrong.

She waited for a moment, trying to work out what she’d just seen, but a few seconds later she heard another creaking sound from the other side of the door, as if the figure was coming closer. Not wanting to stick around, Kate hurried along the corridor until finally she reached the top of the stairs, where a crowd of party-goers had gathered to admire the oil painting of Edgar Le Compte’s grandfather. As she turned to look back the way she’d just come, Kate couldn’t help but realize that just as the people of Thaxos were becoming more trusting of Edgar, she was starting to develop serious doubts about his intentions.

III

 

“Furthermore,” Cavaleri continued, without even stopping to draw breath, “the vessel is also in violation of points nine and ten of the international shipping code. My office has received no notification of that boat’s destination or departure point, no cargo list, no import or export documentation, no information about its seaworthiness or its crew, not even any indication of its adherence to European safety standards. For all I know, it could be coming from some ebola-infested hellhole!”

Edgar raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“The rats were just the start,” Cavaleri added. “I’ve been very tolerant so far, Mr. Le Compte, but as of this moment I am officially serving you with papers barring the docking of that vessel anywhere on Thaxos, until such time as the matter has been resolved. Do you understand?”

“ Of course,” Edgar replied, taking the documents. “I shall have my lawyer get in touch with you at the earliest opportunity. Rest assured -”

“That boat will be impounded if it breaches the ban,” Cavaleri pointed out, interrupting him. “Also, I must impress upon you the fact that the ban covers any and all landings on the island, so don’t think for one moment that you can get around this by docking on the north side of the island!”

“I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.”

“I’m onto you,” she added. “If you think you can get one past me, you’re in for a surprise.”

“I can only apologize for this unfortunate misunderstanding,” Edgar continued. “I had hoped that my men would deal with the paperwork, but evidently they have neglected to do so. The boat is currently docked, but it is going to leave very soon and I shall ensure that it does not return until you are happy. I want to assure you that I completely understand the need to comply with the rules. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the police and their work.”

“I hope so,” Cavaleri replied, aware that a small crowd had now gathered to eavesdrop on the conversation. “Well, that’s all I came up here for, Mr. Le Compte, so I think I’ll be bidding you good afternoon.”

“Can I not tempt you to stay for some refreshments?”

“Absolutely not.”

“ But if -”

“No,” Cavaleri continued. “Really, Mr. Le Compte, just… No. I’m at work, so I don’t have time to socialize. Besides, I’m afraid I have a keener understanding of human nature than most of the people on this island.”

“I can only imagine what that might mean,” Edgar replied with the faintest of smiles.

As Cavaleri turned and walked away, she noticed that some of the locals were eying her with suspicion. It was almost as if, now that she had gone up against Edgar, she was somehow seen as the enemy. By the time she reached the front door, she was starting to feel as if the whole of Thaxos had fallen under Edgar Le Compte’s spell, but she was determined to make sure that nothing prevented her from dealing with what she felt was a serious threat to the community. She figured they could have their dumb garden party, but that normal order would very soon be restored.

“You’re a disgrace,” she said, knocking Doctor Burns’ hat off his head as she walked past him.

 

***

 

“My love, what are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Catherine asked as she set the flowers down and began to wrap their stems in paper. “I’m taking flowers to our daughter’s grave.”

“ We already took flowers this morning,” Maximo pointed out. “Do you really need to -”

“Yes,” she replied, her hands trembling as she continued her work.

“ But surely once a -”

“Would you rather leave her out there alone?” Catherine shouted, turning to him with tears in her eyes. “Unloved? Forgotten?”

“ Nobody thinks we have forgotten her,” Maximo replied. “My love, she has been dead for less than a week, and in the ground for less than a day. If we don't -”

“I am her mother,” Catherine replied, interrupting him. “Perhaps for a father it is not the same, but I carried her inside my body, and I saw so much of myself and my own mother in her eyes. I can’t simply leave her to rot in that coffin. I must go to her, and if you don’t like this, there is nothing I can do to help you.” She turned and headed to the door, but at the last moment she stopped as she felt her knees weaken. Finally, she dropped to the floor, sobbing as Maximo hurried to comfort her.

 

***

 

“Hey! Inspector, wait up!”

As she reached the threshold of Edgar’s property, Cavaleri stopped and saw to her surprise that Fernando Mediaci was running to catch up.

“Not you too,” she said with a sigh. “Been enjoying Le Compte’s hospitality, have you?”

“I wanted to scope the place out,” he replied. “No harm in learning as much as possible about the enemy.”

“And did you uncover anything interesting?”

“Not much. Le Compte’s fiance is basically an alcoholic, and the men who work for him seem incapable of giving anything other than one word answers.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t doubt that the guy has some dark secrets, but whatever they are, they’re stashed away out of sight.”

“ I had no idea the people of Thaxos were such cretins,” Cavaleri continued, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked back up the hill toward the mansion. The band could still be heard playing, and the sound of laughter was drifting across the entire island. “After everything that has happened, all he had to do to make things right was to slap on some fake charm and toss some food at them. You'd think the sun shone out of his -”

“I’m more interested in that thing,” Fernando replied, looking the other way.

Turning, Cavaleri spotted Le Compte’s large black boat docked down in the harbor. There was something absurd about the sight, as if the boat was clearly too large for the island’s small, stone-walled harbor area.

“It’ll be gone by nightfall,” Cavaleri muttered darkly. “I refuse to stand for such a flagrant breach of the rules.”

“I heard you serving him with those papers just now,” Fernando continued. “Do you really think he’s going to do what you asked?”

“He has to,” she replied. “Whatever’s on that boat, it’ll be gone soon.” She paused for a moment, as her natural curiosity began to creep into her thoughts. Turning back to look up at the mansion again, she listened to the music for a moment, before turning to Fernando.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied, “except… Everyone’s up at the mansion right now, aren’t they?”

“The whole goddamn town.”

“Which means that boat is probably unguarded.”

Fernando paused, but it was clear that he was starting to understand what she meant.

“No-one knows exactly what the hell goes on with that thing,” she continued, “so I’m thinking that it’d be useful to take a look. I suppose I could probably demand to inspect it properly, but that’d just tip Le Compte off and give him time to hide anything he doesn’t want me to see. Whereas if someone were to sneak onboard while all his men are busy up at the party, we can see everything. Warts and all.”

“What exactly are you suggesting?” Fernando asked.

“As the official representative of the police,” she replied, “I can’t be seen to act improperly. There’s no way I can risk being caught trespassing on the boat.” She paused. “But you, on the other hand, have no such restrictions.”

“You want me to board the boat and go sneaking around?”

“You’re a sailor,” she pointed out. “You know boats.”

“It’s illegal!”

“There’s no way he’ll ever find out,” she continued. “It’d do it myself if I could, but I can’t, so I need someone I can trust. Come on, do you seriously want him to get away with all of this?”

“ Of course not, but -”

“Think about Alice Marco,” she added. “That poor girl’s body is cold and stiff in a coffin in her parents’ home, waiting for the funeral tomorrow. You knew Alice, Fernando. You were friends. If there’s something on that boat that I… that we can use against Edgar Le Compte, don’t you think we owe it to that dead girl to take action?”

“You’re the island’s only police officer,” he pointed out. “Aren’t you supposed to uphold the law, instead of encouraging people to break it?”

“My job is to maintain peace and order,” she replied firmly. “The law is just a tool, a means to an end.” She waited for him to reply, but she could see that he was already starting to crack. “Don’t do it for me,” she continued. “Do it for Alice.”

Another pause, but this time it was clear that Fernando was being won around to her way of thinking.

“Fine,” he replied uneasily. “I’ll go and check it out. Just promise that if I get caught and Le Compte wants me slung into jail, you’ll go easy on me. This can’t come back and bite me on the ass!”

“Don’t worry about that. Anyway, I can unofficially keep watch from the shore and warn you if anyone’s approaching. I doubt that’ll happen, though. Le Compte has so many men working up there at the garden party today, there’s no way he can have anyone left over to keep an eye on the boat. And I’ll look after you, I promise. The same way I look after everyone on Thaxos.”

“And you’re sure there’s no other way?”

“There’s nothing,” she continued, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “For Alice Marco, for the whole of Thaxos, I need you to do this for me, Fernando. It’s time for us to start pushing back at him with more than words.”

“Then I guess I’ve got no choice, have I?” he replied. “Let’s just get this over with as fast as possible.”

IV

 

“Kate?”

“Jesus!” Kate shouted, spinning round as soon as she felt Edgar’s hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, looking genuinely startled. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I saw you standing here with a rather faraway look in your eyes and I wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

“No, it’s fine,” she continued, “I just…” Pausing, she took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. She wanted more than anything to ask Edgar about the cloth-faced woman in the upstairs room, but she felt that a direct question wouldn’t get her very far. Besides, she didn’t want to admit that she’d been snooping around.

“The party seems to be going wonderfully,” Edgar continued, “despite Inspector Cavaleri’s rather ill-timed intervention. She seems to have a rather dim view of me. Still, I must thank you, Kate, for agreeing to stay for a few days and help out. Without your guidance and planning, I’m sure that today would have been much less successful.”

“It was nothing,” she replied nervously.

“Please,” he continued, “don’t diminish your contribution. Organizing an event such as this might seem easy to you, but to someone like me…” He paused, clearly feeling a little awkward. “Let’s just say that I lack the popular touch. I’m fully aware that I put people on edge, and that I have a tendency to misjudge social interactions. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life, but I gave up trying to alter this facet of my personality a long time ago. We can all change certain aspects of our behavior, but I’m not sure that we can change who we really are.”

“I’m sure you’re doing just fine,” she told him. “So what are the plans for the rest of the party? Is it going to go on into the evening?”

“I imagine so,” he replied, “although…”

She waited for him to finish.

“I have a surprise lined up,” he continued, with a faint smile. “I thought about everything that the island has been going through, and I felt that while this party would certainly offer some temporary relief, I should try to do something more permanent. To that end, I invited a friend here today, Doctor Dale Young, and between us we have cooked up a rather extraordinary development. I’m confident that everyone on Thaxos will be extremely grateful. Well…” He paused again. “Grateful is not the word, perhaps. Thankful. Shocked, but in a good way.”

“A surprise, huh?” Kate asked, thinking back to the figure in the darkened room. “Any clues?”

“I’d rather wait,” he told her.

“But you just said that you have trouble with social things, so maybe it’d help to get a second opinion?”

“I think that on this occasion everything will be okay,” he continued. “Trust me, Kate. This day will live long in the memories of everyone who is here. Why, even Inspector Cavaleri would have been impressed, if only she had stayed long enough. I anticipate announcing the surprise in a few hours’ time, once the final touches have been completed. Not long to wait now. I just need to wait for Doctor Young to confirm that everything is ready.”

Kate smiled awkwardly, but she couldn’t help but feel worried that Edgar’s ‘surprise’ might go a little wrong. The image of the cloth-faced figure was still haunting her, and she couldn’t imagine how such a creature could possibly cause a positive reaction. There had to be a link though, and she felt a shiver pass through her body at the thought that perhaps that figure had been hidden away in the house all this time.

“You looked concerned,” Edgar added. “Is everything okay? Are you still suffering from the effects of the wolf attack?”

“No,” she replied, “I’m fine, really. I guess it’s just been a long day.”

“And are you still determined to leave tomorrow?”

“ After everything that has happened -”

“You still don’t feel safe?”

She paused.

“I understand,” he continued. “What happened to you must have been extremely traumatic, and you were lucky to escape with such minor injuries. Have you recovered any of your memories from that night?”

“Only flashes,” she replied. “Just sensations, really. Moments in my dreams.”

“Dreams can be as real as waking life,” he replied. “You should never fall into the trap of prioritizing one above the other.”

“ I need to get my head straight,” she continued. “I don't feel settled, not after... whatever happened to me. My scars are healing, but inside... I still feel wrong somehow, as if maybe there's some damage I don't really know about yet. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and it's as if I'm having palpitations, like my heart is fluttering. I know that sounds crazy, and I've asked Doctor Burns about it but he can't find anything -”

“Perhaps I can be of assistance,” Edgar replied. “As I mentioned, my personal physician, Doctor Young, happens to be with us today. Would you allow him to take a look at you?”

“ That's really not necessary. If I just -”

“For my sake,” Edgar added. “Please, I am most keen to ensure that you are in the prime of health, and Doctor Young is, in my opinion, the finest doctor in this part of the world. It would put my mind at rest if you were checked by him before you return to London. Trust me, if there are any lingering health problems associated with your experience, he will find them.”

Although she felt that an additional check-up was probably unnecessary, Kate suddenly realized that she’d like a chance to talk to the man who seemed to be somehow involved in Edgar’s secrets.

“Sure,” she said finally, forcing a smile. “I’d be glad to have someone else check me over.”

 

***

 

“So how long have you known Edgar?” she asked, sitting with her shirt off as Doctor Young took a stethoscope from his bag.

“Long enough,” he replied with a smile. “Edgar and I go back a few years.”

“Were you childhood friends?”

“I haven’t known him quite that long. We first met in Monte Carlo, when I was working with some of the racing series that use the streets of the principality, and Edgar and I happened to both be guests at one of the larger charity fundraisers. I was just there ‘cause I’d begged a ticket, but Edgar was spending big that night. I guess today isn’t the first time he’s gone out of his way to make a good impression on people.”

“I looked him up online,” she replied. “There’s really no information about him.”

“Edgar values his privacy. He’s not a man who wants to be famous, not by any means.”

Although she was still somewhat on her guard after the strange encounter in the room earlier, Kate was finding Doctor Young to be a friendly man, with none of the aloofness that she’d expected. They were in one of the upstairs rooms, with the sound of the party drifting through the house, and although she didn’t want to seem too keen, Kate was still determined to mine the doctor for a little information. As she opened her mouth to ask another question, however, she gasped as she felt the cold metal of the stethoscope against her back, just above her bra strap.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I should have warned you. It’s cold.”

She smiled as she waited for him to continue.

“You have a very slight heart murmur,” he said after a moment. “Is that something you were aware of before?”

“No,” she replied, shocked by the news. “What do you mean? How serious is it?”

“It’s very faint,” he continued, “but it’s definitely there. So it’s never been diagnosed before?”

She shook her head.

“And you’ve never experienced any symptoms? No palpitations, shortness of breath, that kind of thing?”

“Never.”

“Sorry for all the questions,” he continued, “but I want to work out if this is a long-standing condition that has gone undiagnosed, or something that has been brought about by whatever happened to you. Although I don’t see how a murmur like this could have gone undetected. In fact, I’m surprised that Doctor Burns didn’t notice it when he examined you the other day. Then again, he seems a little…”

Kate waited for him to finish.

“A little what?” she asked eventually.

“I’ve only been here for a few hours,” he continued, “but already at the party I’ve helped three locals with minor medical problems that really should never have been allowed to get so bad. I know it’s not really my place to criticize a colleague, but I’m getting the impression that Doctor Burns might not be quite as on the ball as he once was. I mean, the guy’s passed out already.”

“This heart murmur,” Kate replied, turning to him as he walked over to his medical bag on a nearby table. “Could it have been caused by some kind of physical trauma?”

“Like a wolf attack?” He paused. “Edgar told me what happened to you. Or rather, he told me what he thinks happened. I know a wolf was caught a few days later, but I don’t mind telling you that I have my doubts. If you’d been mauled by a wolf, you’d either be dead or at the very least in hospital.”

“So what do you think happened to me?” she asked.

“Based on just a superficial exam?” Another pause. “Hard to say. There’s only one type of animal that I know of that could cause such specific, and apparently carefully planned, injuries.”

“What animal would that be?”

“It would be a human.” He turned to her. “But like I told you, it’s hard to say. Right now, I’m more concerned with your heart murmur, which couldn’t possibly be caused by the attack.”

“Is it serious?”

“I’d have to run more checks. Probably not, but it’s always good to be careful. I’m curious about how it apparently went undetected for so long. There are so many possible causes, it feels useless to speculate right now.” Taking a small device from his bag, he carried it back over to her. “I want to attach this to you for a few hours. It only needs to be taped to your skin, and it’ll record your heart-rate. As well as the murmur, I picked up some other kind of irregularity that I want to check out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t be alarmed. You’re clearly fit and healthy.”

Kate waited as she felt the device being placed on her skin and taped into place.

“There’s never a dull moment around Edgar, is there?” Doctor Young continued. “I consider him to be a friend, but I have to admit that trouble seems to follow that man like a cloud. And I’m not just talking about that wild rat of a fiance.”

“You don’t like her?” Kate asked.

“You do?”

“I don’t understand what he sees in her,” she continued. “I don’t really know her very well, but so far she seems…”

She paused, trying to think of the right word.

“Feral?” Doctor Young suggested.

“Blunt,” she replied.

“Dumb? Vapid?”

“Screechy.” Kate paused again. “I’m sure she’s nice enough, but a man like Edgar could probably do better. The way he talks to her, he doesn’t even seem to like her very much. I’ve never really seen any affection between them.”

“It makes me wonder what he really wants in a woman,” Doctor Young replied as he fiddled with some settings on the device. “I always had him down as a refined kinda guy, someone who appreciated good company and conversation. I can’t tell you how shocked I was when he introduced me to that bimbo. I thought it was a joke at first. Well, to be honest, I actually thought she was a hooker. I guess I never had Edgar down as someone who’d fall for a pair of fake breasts and a permanent tan. She got her claws into him when he was vulnerable, though. After all the business with James Nixon, I mean.”

“Who’s James Nixon?”

“You don’t know?”

She turned to him. “I’ve never heard that name before in my life.”

“It was kept pretty quiet,” he continued, “or at least, it was kept out of the press. Plenty of people in Edgar’s circles were talking about it, though. Has he really never mentioned it?”

She shook her head.

“James Nixon was Edgar’s business partner,” Doctor Young continued. “He was his friend, too. In fact, it was James who introduced me to Edgar that night in Monte Carlo. The pair of them got along so well for a while. As I’ve gotten to know Edgar better, I’ve come to realize how rare it is for him to have an actual friend… someone he can confide in, someone he can just talk to without constantly playing psychological games. They had all these plans, too. James was a smart guy, someone with ideas, and Edgar’s got the money to bankroll those ideas and bring them to the market. In a way, it was a natural fit. I’m talking about projects that could really change the world. Renewable energy, new mining techniques, thermo-dynamic engine modeling and so much more.”

“So what went wrong?” Kate asked.

“That’s the million dollar question. Or rather, the billion dollar question. They just seemed to fall out one day, for reasons that were never made clear. For a few weeks there was a monumental tussle for control of the company they’d co-founded. Edgar was able to keep it out of the newspapers for the most part, but gossip still circulated in the business world. For a while, it seemed as if Edgar was going to lose everything, and then one day, out of the blue…”

He paused for a moment.

“One day what?” Kate asked.

“James Nixon vanished.” Another pause, and it was clear that Doctor Young felt uncomfortable. He glanced at the door, as if to make sure that there was no danger of them being overheard. “There’s been a lot of gossip,” he continued, “but no-one was ever able to find any trace of James, not even so much as a hair. His suite at the hotel was locked from the inside, cameras showed nothing untoward, he never tried to contact anyone or withdraw money. One of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs just vanished overnight. No financial trail, nothing forensic, nothing in his emails to suggest that he was having problems… It was as if he just disappeared into thin air.”

“Do you think he was kidnapped?” Kate asked.

“I know there was a big police investigation,” he continued, “and that Edgar was the prime suspect for a while. But in the end they weren’t able to come up with anything. As far as I know, the case is still open. Edgar and Didi stayed in Monte Carlo for a while, but the pressure and gossip became intense so they moved, first to Rome, then Barcelona, then London and New York, even Hong Kong for a while. Eventually Edgar decided that he could never be at peace until he came back to his family’s home here on Thaxos. Did he never tell you any of this?”

Kate shook her head, shocked to learn that Edgar’s life prior to Thaxos had been so eventful.

“Please don’t let on that I said anything,” Doctor Young continued. “It wasn’t really my place, and I imagine it’s something that he’s trying to leave behind. He’s already been the subject of so much gossip, it really wouldn’t be fair to add any more.”

“But…” Kate paused as he finished adjusting the device and went back over to his bag.

“You can get dressed again,” he told her. “I’ll need to check the readings in a few hours. Once I know how your heart-rate changes over a longer period of time, I can make a more informed guess as to the nature of the problem. I don’t want to alarm you too much, Kate. It’s probably nothing serious.”

“No-one seriously believes that Edgar is responsible for what happened to his business partner, do they?” she asked. “Sure, he can be a little awkward sometimes, but no-one actually suspects him of kidnapping someone… or worse?”

Doctor Young turned to her with a concerned look in his eyes.

“Do they?” she added.

“He’s my friend,” the doctor replied after a moment, “and so I personally don’t believe that he killed James Nixon, no. Of course, I’m probably biased.” He shrugged. “If he’d been involved, the police would have linked it to him by now. Anyway, I happen to think that it’s all worked out for the best. Edgar’s happier being here on Thaxos. It’s where he belongs. In fact, he’s got a big surprise linked up for everyone later.”

“What kind of surprise?” Kate asked, thinking back to the cloth-faced woman in the room. She felt a shiver pass through her body at the thought of those torn holes in the fabric, and the eyes staring at her from the other side.

“I’ve already spilled enough secrets for one day,” Doctor Young continued. “Let’s just say that this is a day that no-one is going to forget in a hurry. Edgar’s going to give the people of Thaxos the one thing they want more than any other. In fact, I helped him out with it a little. It’s an astonishing achievement, but I think maybe I’ve said too much already. Just promise me, Kate, that if you feel anything unusual over the next few hours, you’ll come and find me. Don’t go to Doctor Burns, he’s not… He doesn’t have my full confidence, that’s all.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, realizing that she was unlikely to get any more information from him. “I’ll let you know if anything happens. And… thank you, Doctor Young. I could tell something was wrong, but I had no idea what.”

“Call me Dale. And you’re welcome. Any friend of Edgar’s is a friend of mine.”

Once Doctor Young had left the room, Kate made her way to the window and looked out across the lawn. It was barely midday, and the garden party was in full swing, with everyone seemingly having a great time. After a moment, she spotted Edgar making his way through the crowd, shaking hands with everyone he met. As she watched him, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of surprise he was planning, and whether the cloth-faced woman had anything to do with what was coming next.

V

 

“What are you, a coward?” Cavaleri asked. “Get on with it!”

She and Fernando were standing on the quayside, staring up at the hulking shape of Edgar Le Compte’s supply boat. At least sixty feet long, and fitted out with rusty, jet black metal panels, the boat barely looked seaworthy, yet it had been traveling to and from Thaxos almost constantly over the past few months, delivering whatever items Edgar deemed necessary, seemingly manned by yet more of his quiet workers. Most of the locals had only dared observe the boat from a distance, seeing it as an ominous symbol of the changes that had recently been brought to the island. The town square stood next to the harbor and was usually busy during the day, but people tended to avoid the area whenever the boat was around.

“I’m not scared,” Fernando said after a moment, his eyes fixed on the deck above them, “it’s just… What if there’s someone onboard?”

“There isn’t,” Cavaleri replied. “We’ve called out for attention and no-one replied. All Le Compte’s men are up at the party, but the longer you wait, the more likely it is that they’ll come back. So get on the damn thing and see what you can find.”

“ Most boats leave at least one person behind to -”

“This isn’t most boats. Le Compte does things differently. If there was a lookout, we’d know by now.”

“But…”

“I’ll warn you if anyone comes,” she continued. “You’ve got your phone with you, haven’t you?”

Fernando nodded.

“I’ve checked with all the local ports on the mainland,” she added. “None of them have seen any sign of this boat for months. It’s never away for more than a week at a time, so there’s a limit to how far it can go, but it hasn’t been reported anywhere.”

“So where does it pick up supplies?” Fernando asked, turning to her.

“That’s what I need help finding out,” she replied. “Le Compte might have acted surprised earlier, but I guarantee you that the lack of documents was no mistake. You need to go into the captain’s office and find something that gives us a clue. An invoice, a tracking statement… anything with the name of another port. I want to know what Le Compte is bringing to Thaxos and why, and I want to know where he’s getting it from. For all I know, this could be some kind of drug-smuggling operation.”

“I really don’t think he’s into that sort of thing.”

“It was just an example.”

“Are you sure you can’t just serve a warrant and go onboard yourself?”

“And give him a heads up?” No chance.” She paused. “If you can’t do it, Fernando, just say so and I’ll find a real man.”

“I can do it,” he replied, stepping toward the edge of the quayside.

The boat’s gangplank had been drawn up, but there were enough lines hanging down the side to make boarding a simple enough task. Reaching up and grabbing the thickest rope, he gave it a tug to make sure it was secure, before starting to haul himself up. He had to rapel up the side of the boat, but finally he was able to climb over the top. Getting to his feet, he stared across the creepily bare deck, which had plenty of ropes and old chains strewn across the boards but which seemed strangely undisturbed.

Hearing his mobile phone ringing in his pocket, he pulled it out and saw that Cavaleri was calling.

“Well?” she said as soon as he answered. “What’s it like up there?”

“It’s a boat,” he replied, making his way across the deck, “what do you think it’s like? It’s got all the equipment you’d need.”

“Go to the bridge.”

“There’s something weird about this place,” he continued. “I’ve worked on boats before, and I’m telling you, the crew always leave stuff around, but this place is so neat and tidy. Either Le Compte’s got the most conscientious crew in human history, or…”

He paused as he reached the door that led into the bridge. Reaching out, he tried to wipe some of the dust off the window, only to find that it was caked on the glass from the inside. Making his way around to the front of the bridge, he found that the same was true of the main window.

“How do they see out?” he muttered.

“What’s wrong?”

“This place is more like a museum than a working boat,” he continued. “The windows are covered in crap from the inside.” He cupped a hand over the glass, in an attempt to get a look at the bridge, but all he could see was darkness. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, however, he was finally able to make out the main navigation desk, as well as the ship’s wheel. Heading back around to the door, he tried the handle, only to find that it was locked. “I can’t get in,” he said after a moment.

“Find a way,” Cavaleri replied.

“I can’t start breaking windows,” he pointed out.

Cavaleri sighed. “Don’t you know how to pick a lock?”

“No!”

“Jesus,” she continued, “then just smash the glass. If Le Compte comes to me and complains that there’s been a break-in, I’ll just tell him there’s nothing I can do.”

Fernando glanced both ways, checking to make sure that there were no cameras. The boat seemed so old and decrepit, it was hard to believe that there was any kind of modern technology at all.

“What are you waiting for?” Cavaleri hissed. “At this rate, the garden party’s gonna be over before you get in there. Christ, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say!”

“ Breaking in doesn't seem right,” Fernando replied. “It's one thing to come onboard, but actually -”

“As your local police officer,” Cavaleri said firmly, “I am ordering you to break that window and enter the bridge.”

“Can you do that?”

“Just get on with the job!”

Sighing, Fernando took a step back and grabbed a large metal hook that had been left on one of the oil drums. He turned it over in his hands for a moment, weighing up his options, before finally deciding that he had no choice. Aiming at the bottom left corner of the window, he slammed the hook against the glass. The first time, nothing happened, but when he tried again with more force, the window shattered, sending a shower of glass down to the deck. Instinctively, Fernando turned to make sure that no-one had come running, and his heart was racing now, even though there was no sign of anyone else onboard. Despite his reservations, he was starting to realize that the boat really had been left unmanned.

“Get in there!” Cavaleri hissed over the phone.

“Are you sure no-one’s coming?”

“I can see the road that leads down from the hill,” she continued. “You’ll have at least five minutes’ warning if anyone leaves the mansion.”

Reaching through the broken window, Fernando fumbled for the lock before finally finding the dial and giving it a turn. Pulling the door open, he stepped onto the boat’s bridge, which turned out to smell fusty and damp, as if no-one had been in the room for years. All the requisite equipment was in place, but again it felt as if it had been laid out as part of a museum rather than as a working boat, and when he reached the navigation table and checked the chart books, he found that they just seemed to be a random assortment, none of which appeared to have been opened for quite some time. A thick layer of dust covered every surface, with more dust drifting through the air.

“Anything?” Cavaleri asked.

“This isn’t a working boat,” Fernando replied, heading over to the wheel. “It can’t be. No-one’s been in here for ages.”

“The damn thing only arrived yesterday,” came the reply.

“Then there must be another bridge,” he insisted, “because I’m telling you, there’s no way this place could be used to guide a goddamn dinghy.”

“Have you found anything to indicate a route?” she asked.

Heading over to the far end of the room, Fernando wiped dust off a set of papers before holding them up and taking a look. He saw a list of port names, but few of them were local, and when he looked at the dates he realized why: these logs covered more than half a century of travel, during which time the boat had been to almost every port in the world. Johannesburg, Oslo, Boston, Southampton, Melbourne, Dubai, Barcelona… It was like a list of every decent-sized port in existence. As he scanned the dates, however, Fernando realized that there was nothing listed after the early 1980s, as if the boat had been nowhere in the intervening years.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” he said after a moment, checking for any other logs. “They must keep the recent documents somewhere else.”

“Then keep looking,” Cavaleri replied. “You’re not getting off that boat until you’ve got something I can use!”

Spotting a door nearby, Fernando headed over and tried the handle. To his surprise, the door swung open, and he looked through to see a set of steps heading deep into the belly of the vessel.

“I’ve found a way down,” he said after a moment.

“Then what are you waiting for?”

Flicking a switch on the wall, he was surprised to find that the electric lights still worked.

“Are you sure there’s no chance of anyone sneaking up on us?” he asked.

“Of course not,” she replied. “I’m not stupid. Now get down there and find something I can use against Le Compte. You’ve already done the hard work. All you need now is to find a scrap of paper.” She paused for a moment. “Move!”

After taking a moment to listen out for any hint of noise from the depths of the vessel, Fernando began to make his way down the steps, each of which creaked a little under his weight. Although he knew full well that the boat had been sailing regularly for at least the previous three months, he quickly found the a thick cobweb was covering his path.

“Working boat, my ass,” he muttered, brushing the cobweb aside and making his way further down the steps.

 

***

 

Staring at the photograph, Maximo momentarily found himself transported back to a time when Alice was still young, when she used to play in the garden. He could almost hear her laughter still, as if it had been trapped in the stone walls of the house. Feeling a tightening sensation in his chest, he turned and made his way to the foot of the stairs, and there he paused for a moment, listening for any hint that his wife might have woken.

Heading to the kitchen, he began to boil some water on the stove. Catherine had been sleeping for some time now, and he felt that it would be good to wake her with a cup of tea. For several minutes, he busied himself with the process, while trying to ignore the gnawing sensation in his chest. He felt that he, too, could collapse in a fit of tears if he allowed himself to think about Alice too much. At the same time, he knew that he had to be strong, so he -

Glancing at the counter, he suddenly realized that something was wrong. Catherine had packed some flowers earlier, ready to take to Alice’s grave, but she had left them behind when she instead went up to bed. Now, however, the flowers were gone. Looking up at the ceiling for a moment, Maximo suddenly realized that the silence coming from the bedroom might not mean that his wife was asleep after all. As the kettle boiled on the stove, he hurried upstairs and burst into the bedroom.

The bed was empty.

With a heavy heart, he realized that Catherine must have sneaked out during the afternoon, and was probably already on her way to the cemetery.

 

***

 

“Damn thing doesn’t even look seaworthy,” Cavaleri muttered as she wandered along the quayside, looking up at the rust that was eating into the boat’s hull. When she reached the far end, she spotted some faded white letters, parts of which had already begun to peel off.

She paused for a moment, trying to read that boat’s name.

“D… Do…”

Another pause.

“Dov…”

Finally, she gave up. Turning to look back toward the hill, she saw that there was still no sign of anyone coming back down from the mansion, and she could just about make out the sound of the brass band still playing. Her blood boiled at the thought of everyone up there having a good time, lapping up Le Compte’s hospitality and acting as if the past few months had never happened. Lost in thought, she barely even noticed the beeping sound from her phone, which indicated that another caller was trying to get through.

“There’s someone on the other line,” she told Fernando. “Just hang on a moment.”

She waited for a reply, but all she heard was some garbled, static-filled noise that made no sense.

“ Just get on with it,” she muttered, before switching to the second line. “Inspector Cavaleri here, how can I -”

“You have to get here at once!” a voice shouted, with the sound of a woman screaming in the background. “Hurry! You have to come to our house! Something terrible has happened!”

“What’s wrong?” Cavaleri asked, forcing herself to stay calm. “Who am I talking to?”

As she listened to the reply, she was already sprinting away from the quayside and across the town square. She glanced up at the hillside and saw that there was still no sign of anyone coming back down to the boat. Figuring that it would be safe to leave Fernando for a few minutes, she hurried toward the little orange house on the corner, from which she could hear the sound of Catherine Marco screaming in terror.

VI

 

“Me? Drunk? Are you kidding?”

Struggling to support Didi’s weight, Kate finally managed to get them to the door, at which point she used her knee to turn the handle. Pushing the door open, she half-supported, half-carried Didi over to the huge four-poster bed at the far end of the room, at which point she was finally able to ease the drunk girl down onto the covers.

“Jesus,” Kate muttered, taking a step back. “So much for looking after my heart.”

“What are you saying?” Didi asked, slurring her words as she tried, but failed, to get up. “You think I’m drunk, don’t you? I know you always act all superior, but you’re not fooling me. You think I’m D, R, U, N, K, and in your head, that makes you better than me!”

“You just need to rest for a few minutes,” Kate told her, unable to stifle a faint smile at the thought of the hangover that Didi was clearly going to be suffering the next morning. “I’m sure you’ll be fine soon.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” Didi continued, rolling across the bed for no obvious reason. “Don’t you worry about me. Tomorrow, bright and early, I’ll be back on the case. I’ve got a job to do, you know.”

“What’s that,” Kate replied, turning to leave the room, “drink cocktails and sunbathe?”

“I’ve got to find Mr. Nixon’s fate,” she mumbled.

Stopping, Kate turned to see that Didi’s eyes were now closed, as if she was falling asleep. She paused for a moment, trying to work out if she’d really just heard what she thought she’d head.

“What did you say?” she asked, making her way back over to the bed.

“What?” Didi mumbled, keeping her eyes closed.

“You said something about Mr. Nixon,” Kate continued, sitting next to Didi and gently nudging her shoulder. “What did you mean?”

“What did you mean?” Didi asked hazily, turning her head and pressing her face into the pillow. She mumbled something else, but Kate couldn’t make out a single world.

“Didi,” she continued, grabbing the girl’s head and turning it back toward her. “What did you mean about Mr. Nixon? You’re talking about James Nixon, aren’t you?”

“I’ve gotta find his fate,” Didi slurred, opening her eyes a little but suddenly looking far drunker than before. “I’ve gotta find his fate, is all I’ve gotta do. I’ve gotta… find out what happened to him, from the one man who knows, and that man, do you know who he is?”

“Edgar?”

“Bingo!” A grin spread across her face. “Edgar is the only one who really knows what happened, and I’m gonna wheedle it out of him one way or another. He’s stubborn, but I’ll get him to talk eventually, and then I’ll be outta here before he has a chance to get me down to his silly basement.”

Kate paused for a moment.

“But what do you care?” Didi asked. “Why… What do you…”

“You don’t think that Edgar knows,” she said finally. “Do you?”

“I’ve gotta find Mr. Nixon’s fate,” Didi continued. “I’ve gotta find out what happened to him, and then I can get what I want. I haven’t got what I want yet. I’m still waiting.” Rolling onto her side, she muttered something unintelligible, as if all the alcohol was finally dragging her into unconsciousness.

“Didi,” Kate continued, nudging her shoulder, “what exactly do you mean?”

She paused for a moment, but it was clear that the conversation would have to wait until at least the following morning. Grabbing one edge of the duvet, she gently wrapped it over Didi’s sleeping body and then got to her feet, as a long, slow snoring sound started to emerge from the girl’s mouth. Kate had no idea exactly how many glasses of champagne Didi had managed to get down her throat during the course of the party, but it was clearly too many for her to be able to talk properly. Questions would have to wait until the morning.

“Is everything okay in here?”

Turning, Kate saw to her surprise that Edgar was standing in the doorway.

“Totally,” she replied, startled that he had yet again managed to sneak up on her, and unsure about how much of the conversation he might have overheard. “I was just putting her to bed.”

Edgar made his way over to the bed and looked down at Didi with a faint, sad smile on his lips.

“Drunk again,” he muttered. “Sometimes I wonder whatever is wrong with this girl. I honestly don’t remember the last day she didn’t end up passing out. Why do some people like to knock themselves into oblivion like this?”

“ Maybe -” Kate started to say, before thinking better of it.

“Maybe what?”

“Nothing.”

“I’d like to know your opinion,” he continued. “I’ve tried to do something to help her, but… Perhaps you might have some better ideas.”

“People don’t drink like this without a reason,” Kate pointed out. “Something must be wrong.”

Edgar nodded.

“So you just have to figure out what,” she added.

“There’s something she keeps from me,” he replied. “She’s not honest about her intentions.”

“What do you think that might be?”

“She looks to be sleeping peacefully enough,” Edgar replied after a moment, his eyes fixed on Didi as she continued to snore. “Perhaps that is the problem. An alcoholic daze is preferable to reality, in which case it might be worth seeing if a nightmare shakes her out of this state.” He reached down and placed a hand on the side of Didi’s face. “Or maybe I’m being too harsh,” he added. “Let us hope that she dreams of something that brings her a little happiness, such as… Let us hope that she is dreaming about me.”

As if on cue, Didi’s sleeping face ruffled into a frown, and she rolled over on the bed, as if she had indeed been struck by a nightmare. Although Kate knew that such a thing was impossible, she couldn’t shake the impression that Edgar seemed to have slipped the nightmare directly into the girl’s mind.

“There is no time for this,” he said after a moment, turning away from the bed. “If she wants to get drunk, that’s her problem, but it need not detain us. I trust your check-up with Doctor Young was all in order?”

“Absolutely.”

“And he didn’t find anything wrong with you?”

Kate paused. “No,” she said after a moment, forcing a smile. “I’m absolutely fine.”

“Is that so?” Edgar asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.

“Maybe one or two minor things, but nothing to worry about.”

“Then I must go and find him at once,” he continued. “The afternoon is proceeding so fast, and I still have to reveal the surprise that I have lined up for everyone. If Doctor Young agrees that it’s ready, I plan to make the announcement in the garden in just a few minutes’ time. Please, promise me that you’ll join the crowd. In fact, could I trouble you to urge anyone else you find to come and join us out there as well? I really don’t want anyone to miss it.”

“Sure,” Kate replied, trying to hide the fact that she was feeling distinctly uneasy. “I can’t wait to find out what you’ve got up your sleeve.”

“It’s…” He paused, as if he wanted to tell her already. “I will be very interested to see your reaction,” he said finally. “I believe it will change everyone’s opinion about me, including your own.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to wake Didi and drag her out there too?” Kate asked as Edgar headed to the door.

“Wake Didi?” He turned to her for a moment. “Why would I bother to do such a thing? I don’t give a damn what she thinks about anything. The only opinion I care about is…” He paused. “Please, gather people together on the lawn.”

With that, he left the room, leaving Kate to wonder exactly whose opinion really mattered to him the most, as Didi continued to toss and turn on the bed.

 

***

 

It took half an hour for word to spread that Edgar was planning a surprise, but finally the house began to empty and everyone began to gather on the lawn. People were beginning to talk excitedly about Edgar’s plans, with everyone having their own theory about what he was planning. Some believed he would be giving away money or cars, while others felt that he was planning a less materialistic gift such as an announcement of regular garden parties or some kind of broader initiative to improve life on the island. The one thing upon which everyone seemed to agree, however, was that it would be something wonderful. With almost every inhabitant of Thaxos having gathered, there was seemingly not one person who had any skepticism at all.

Until, finally, Ephram made his way through gate.

“You came,” Kate said, heading over to him as soon as he arrived, slightly out of breath, at the edge of the crowd. “I was starting to think you might be the only one holding out.”

“Just because I don’t agree with it,” he replied, “doesn’t mean I don’t want to see what’s happening. Besides, the whole town is empty. I haven’t had a customer all day, and by the looks of this place, I imagine everyone on Thaxos will be filled for a week. Where did he even get all this food from? All the things up here must have been brought in on that cursed boat of his, but I swear, I never see more than a few crates being brought up here each week.”

“You got here just in time,” she told him. “Edgar’s planning a surprise.”

“And everyone’s waiting with baited breath,” Ephram continued, unable to hide the scorn in his voice. “I don’t know what the hell’s going on here, but I can’t believe people have been suckered in so easily. Have they forgotten everything? Then again, life on Thaxos is hard. Edgar Le Compte shows up and promises something better, and they all want to believe. It’s shocking to see how quickly people can forget the past.”

“They don’t have to forget it,” Kate replied. “They just want to move on.”

“It will come back to bite them,” Ephram told her. “This man cannot be trusted, not even for a second. There is a streak of poison that runs through his entire family, and he will destroy everything he touches, whether by accident or by design. Even my mother now admits this.”

“She wasn’t well enough to come today?”

“She seems different this morning,” he continued. “It is as if something has changed in her. All her old optimism and fight has faded away. I’m worried that she has decided to simply waste away now in that bed.”

“I’m sure she’s stronger than that,” Kate told him. “You can’t give up so easily.”

“Something is new,” he explained. “It’s in her eyes. I asked her over and over what was wrong, but she just stared at the window as if…”

Before Ephram could say anything more, there was a murmur from the crowd, and a figure appeared at the top of the steps. Edgar Le Compte had emerged from the house, flanked by some of his men and with Jacob standing a little way back. A microphone had been set up, and the crowd quietened as it became clear that Edgar was planning to make his announcement. The atmosphere of tense expectation was palpable, as people nervously awaited the news. Even before he had said a single word, Edgar had their full attention.

“God help us,” Ephram muttered, making the sign of the cross against his chest.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Edgar began, standing in front of the microphone, “first of all I want to thank you all for coming here today. I know that it was a lot to ask you to drop your daily activities and join me here at my home, but I’m so pleased to see that almost everyone has chosen to make the effort. I hope very much that you have enjoyed yourselves, and that while one single event can’t possibly make up for the hurt that the Le Compte family has brought to Thaxos over the years, you will all accept today’s activities as a sign of my commitment to a new era. We can all live here in harmony.”

Spontaneously, the crowd erupted into a round of applause. Even for Kate, who clapped cautiously, the mood seemed somewhat strained and forced, as if the enthusiasm of the people of Thaxos was a little extreme. She couldn’t quite believe how quickly and fervently people seemed to have fallen under Edgar’s spell.

“I know that the past few months have been difficult,” Edgar continued as the applause died down, “so I wanted to end today’s celebrations by offering you all something more valuable, something more important than mere frivolity. Anyone can lay on some food and entertainment, but I feel that a deeper, more important offering is required. Something that will perhaps even outlive most of us here.”

As he spoke, two figures emerged from the main building, and Kate was shocked to see that Doctor Young was leading the cloth-faced figure into the light. Her face was still hidden behind fabric, and as Doctor Young led her down the steps, it seemed as if the entire crowd had begun to hold its breath. From the way she walked, with half-staggered steps, it was almost if the figure was in something of a daze, and Doctor Young had to hold her by the arm and guide her into position until they stopped a little way back from where Edgar was standing.

“What kind of monstrosity is this?” Ephram asked.

“There are some scars that cannot be healed,” Edgar continued, “and some pain that can never be fully scrubbed away. We can, however, move on and find a way to cope, and every so often we are blessed with something that might seem, at first, to be something of a miracle. I do not take full credit for what you are about to witness, but I hope you will all understand that sometimes all that is required is a change of perspective. Trust me, once you have surmounted your initial shock, you will come to understand the nature of what you are witnessing, and you will see that the future of Thaxos is assured. This is, indeed, a new era.”

As Edgar headed over to the cloth-faced figure and took her hand, Kate couldn’t help but feel that he was doing a good job of building up the atmosphere. For someone who always seemed so uncomfortable in social situations, Edgar certainly seemed to have this one in the bag. The crowd was hanging on his every word, with barely a murmur.

“And now,” he continued, once the cloth-faced figure was in place before the microphone, “I will let her introduce herself.”

Silence fell, such that there seemed not to be even the slightest sound on the whole island.

“Go on,” Edgar said to the figure, “it’s quite alright. These people are your friends.”

The cloth-faced figure stood at the microphone, staring out from behind the fabric that covered her features. After a moment, the microphone picked up the faintest of sounds, like a kind of brief gurgle, but the figure was seemingly unable to speak. The faint gurgle returned, rumbling on for a few seconds, as if the figure was desperately trying to speak yet could not manage to get any words out. Still the crowd waited, but finally the figure took a step back, as if suddenly overcome by fear. After a moment, Edgar whispered something to Doctor Young, who nodded in agreement. Forcing a smile, Edgar stepped behind the cloth-faced figure and began to loosen her mask, which finally fell away to reveal the bare face of a beautiful young woman, her eyes staring blankly out at the crowd.

Kate squinted to get a better view.

And then suddenly someone nearby let out a horrified scream.

The crowd erupted. Someone fainted, and someone else cried out that they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Kate turned and watched as a woman dragged her children away, as if to hurry them back down the hill toward the town. When she turned to Ephram, Kate saw fear in his eyes, but also tears, as if he sight of the girl’s face was almost too horrific for him to accept. He took a step back, once again making the sign of the cross on his chest.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, unable to understand what was happening. “Ephram?”

“It’s not possible,” he whispered. “It can’t… What kind of cruel trick is this?”

“What is it? Who is she?”

“This is the work of the devil,” he continued, his shock seemingly giving way to anger. “This is the cruelest thing anyone could ever have done to us! In all the years of the Le Compte family, they have never, ever stooped so low before!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Edgar continued, his voice difficult to hear now above the cries and sobs that had begun to break out across the crowd, “I know that this must seem impossible, but I assure you that it is quite real and that it can all be explained. It is my great honor and privilege to reveal that Ms. Alice Marco has been returned alive to Thaxos!”

There were several gasps from the crowd as the revelation began to sink in. Up on the steps, still looking shocked and a little confused, the girl stood as if she was waiting for someone to tell her what to do next. Among the people gathered around her, however, there was absolutely no doubt: it was Alice Marco, back from the dead.

“It’s a trick!” shouted a man standing nearby. “What kind of a sick joke are you playing on us!”

“It’s not a trick,” added a woman, her vice filled with fear. “It’s the work of the devil himself!”

As Kate pushed her way through the crowd, she could sense the hostility starting to rise all around her. People were angry and scared, but no-one had left yet; they all seemed frozen in place. Reaching the foot of the steps, Kate looked up at the girl, whose face still seemed curiously blank, and then at Edgar, who was clearly shocked by the reaction to his great surprise. Her mind was racing as she tried to understand exactly what was happening.

“It must be a lookalike,” reasoned a man at the front of the crowd.

“I thought Alice Marco died,” said a child, his voice filled with tears.

“She did, sweetheart,” replied a woman, taking the child’s hand. “This is just… It’s a joke, that’s all.”

“Please,” Edgar said after a moment, “won’t you all stay and celebrate this joyous moment? There are still many hours of daylight, and the party will go on well into the night!”

“Go back to hell!” shouted a woman from the back of the crowd, her call immediately being supported by cheers from everyone around her.

“Listen to me,” Edgar continued, “there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this! Alice Marco is alive, she…” His voice trailed away for a moment. “Please,” he added after a moment, “won’t you stay and celebrate such a joyous event?”

“You should be ashamed of yourself!” a voice called out, filled with anger.

Turning, Kate saw that Ephram was one of the few who had chosen to stay.

“I…” Edgar paused, clearly lost for words. “Is this not what you all wanted? You wanted the rats to be removed, and they were removed. You mourned the loss of Alice Marco, and now that loss has been undone.”

“What is this?” Ephram shouted as he reached the foot of the steps. “What do you hope to achieve by pulling this kind of stunt! What did you do, bring in some lookalike from the mainland and make her up to look like Alice?”

“This is Alice Marco,” Edgar replied, clearly shaken by the reaction. “I can assure you, it is the girl herself.”

“Alice Marco is dead,” Ephram sneered. “Everyone here knows that. You might be able to win people over with offers of food and wine, but there are some lines we will never cross. Do you not think that every person in this town has been to the Marco house to pay their respects? That poor girl’s coffin has been in her parents’ home for days now, and we have all been to see her. Every person here has viewed her lifeless face!”

“ And you were all wrong,” Edgar continued. “There were -”

“Perhaps I can explain,” said Doctor Young, stepping up to the microphone. “Ladies, gentlemen… I have nothing but respect for the work of Doctor Burns, who has evidently served this community well for many years. However, after hearing upon my arrival about the sickness that was said to have struck Ms. Marco down, I was immediately moved to consider the possibility that she might in fact have merely suffered from a particularly rare and virulent form of fever that can bring death-like symptoms for several days.”

“What rubbish is this?” Ephram shouted.

“Every word is true,” Doctor Young continued. “Alice Marco was bitten by a rat, yes, but while a sickness followed, it was not fatal. It merely placed her into a type of coma that is characterized by an extremely low metabolic rate combined with suppression of almost every non-essential bodily function. In effect, her heartbeat became so slow and quiet that it was difficult to detect. She would probably have died soon, but I was able to administer a combination of adrenalin and several other drugs to bring her back to wakefulness. In order to facilitate this and avoid any superstitious resistance, I’m afraid that we had to remove Ms. Marco’s body from her family home under cover of darkness last night, but I am pleased to tell you that she is absolutely fine.”

Silence fell, as the crowd stared in stunned horror.

“I’m just glad that I was able to help,” he added. “If I hadn’t happened to come to Thaxos for my friend’s gathering, poor Alice might have remained misdiagnosed, and then she would have been buried alive. As I have already explained, she most likely would have died, but there would still have been a chance of her waking up in her grave.”

“What the hell was Doctor Burns thinking?” asked a voice nearby. “That mad old man needs to take more care of what he’s doing!”

“Perhaps Alice should say a few words herself,” Doctor Young continued, gesturing for Alice to step up to the microphone. “It’s okay, Alice. I know you’re probably still a little hazy, but these people are only glad to see you.”

Kate watched in shocked, disbelieving horror as the girl took a few shuffling steps forward. There was clearly something very wrong with her, and she stared out at the crowd with the horrified expression of someone who was not entirely sure of her surroundings. The crowd waited in silence, but after a few seconds it became clear that Alice might not be able to say anything at all.

“I…” she managed finally. “I have…”

“It can’t be,” Ephram whispered, his eyes filled with tears. “This can’t be happening.”

“I…” Alice paused. “Please… Where…”

“Let me see!” Ephram shouted suddenly, making his way up the steps and grabbing Alice by the shoulders, turning her so he could look directly into her eyes. He stared for a moment, but finally his expression seemed to soften. “Alice?” he said finally. “Is it really you? Tell me, child, is this some joke or have you really been brought back to us?”

“G…” She paused again, clearly struggling to speak. “My… My godfather?”

“It is you!” Ephram replied, before taking a step back. “Something is not right here. This is -”

“It’s her!” a voice shouted from the crowd. “It’s really her!”

Kate watched, stunned, as slowly people began to make their way up their steps. It seemed as if everyone wanted to see Alice Marco up close, to check for themselves that the girl had truly been returned to life. Alice herself seemed somewhat dazed still, and Doctor Young was careful to ensure that she wasn’t swamped. Still, Kate felt as if something was very wrong, and after a moment she noticed that Ephram had pulled away from the crowd, as if he still couldn’t quite accept what he’d seen with his own two eyes.

“Ephram!” she called out. “Are you okay?”

“ This is not right,” he replied, turning to her. “I don't care what he says, this is not right! That girl is dead -”

“ Ephram -”

“I saw her!” he shouted, filling with rage. “I saw her dead body at the surgery, and again several times when she was laid out at her family’s home! There was no mistake! That girl has been dead for several days now! Whatever witchcraft is being practiced up here, that abomination is not Alice Marco!”

“This is sick!” shouted someone else. “He’s just taunting us!”

“Taunting you?” Edgar replied. “Of course not! Why aren’t you happy? You wanted Alice Marco back, and I’ve given her to you!”

“Mummy, you said Alice was dead,” cried a little girl nearby.

“She is, sweetheart,” replied the girl’s mother, holding her tight. “This is just… I don’t know what this is…”

With more and more people expressing their horror, the crowd began to disperse. People were heading back down to the town, apparently disgusted by what they considered to be a cruel joke. Edgar, for his part, was standing on the steps with a stunned look on his face, as if he genuinely didn’t understand what was happening.

“Why aren’t you grateful?” he called after them. “I did this for you! For all of you!”

“Go back to hell!” shouted one of the last villagers to leave. “And take your sick jokes with you! Alice Marco is dead! Everyone here saw her body, so whatever you’ve got up there, it’s a sick joke!”

“Stop!” Edgar shouted, as his anger began to boil over. “I command that you all stop and listen to me!”

Kate stood and watched as the last of the villagers made their way through the gate, leaving behind the garden party with its stalls still piled high.

“Get back here!” Edgar screamed. “I command every one of you to get back here! I did this all for you!”

Next to him, Alice Marco stood with a look of utter shock in her eyes, and finally she took a step back before dropping down to the steps. Doctor Young caught her just in time, but as he laid her out on the grass, it was clear that she had fainted.

“ She's not well,” the doctor said as he examined her. “I need to -”

“Don’t bother me with that now,” Edgar replied, making his way across the lawn, as if he intended to go and physically drag every last villager back.

“ Maybe you should wait,” Kate said, intercepting him. “There's just -”

“Ungrateful fools,” he muttered, storming past her. “I did all of this for them, and now they act like idiots. If they don’t come back and show their gratitude, I swear I’ll make them pay.” As he reached the gate, he stopped and stared at the swarm of frightened villagers heading back to town. “Get back here!” he shouted, his voice carrying across the entire island. “This is an order! Get back here and see all the things I’ve done for you!”

VII

 

“Are you still there?” Fernando asked, with his mobile phone pressed against the side of his face as he made his way along a corridor deep in the bowels of the boat. “Cavaleri, say something!”

He stopped at a junction and waited for a reply, but all he heard was static.

“Hey!” he hissed. “Are you there or not?”

Again, nothing but static.

Figuring that a combination of the metal walls all around him and his position below the water line must be interfering with the signal, he told himself that there was no need to panic. He knew that Cavaleri would ridicule him if he headed back up without anything useful, so he turned left and made his way past a few more doors until he finally reached the entrance to the boat’s main storage room. Pushing the door open, he peered into the darkness and listened.

Silence.

It was as if the air itself was completely still, having been undisturbed for many years.

With no lights in this part of the boat, he was forced to use the torch on his phone as he stepped forward. There were large crates secured to the walls, but when he went over and inspected one, he found that the labels were faded and illegible, while the lids were screwed into place. After a few minutes he found one with a partially loose lid, and when he prized it open he found that there was nothing inside other than a pile of dust. After a moment he noticed a foul stench, and he realized that whatever had been in the crate once, it had now rotted away.

“Cavaleri,” he continued, speaking into the phone, “this place is abandoned. It’s like no-one has been here for years. I’m not saying I get what’s going on, but I can tell you one thing for sure: no-one’s transporting anything in this pile of junk. The whole place is covered in dust and grime. It’s more like an antique than a working boat.”

All he heard back was static.

“You’d better be keeping an eye out,” he muttered, while forcing himself to focus on the fact that if Edgar’s men had left the boat unmanned at all, they would probably be staying away until the garden party was over many hours later.

He wandered to the far end, where he found some kind of joist system that appeared to be set up to haul items up to the upper level. The boat certainly had a decent-sized cargo area, and he could well imagine it being used to transport goods from all over the world, but every surface and every piece of equipment was covered by a thick layer of dust. He spotted a safety document pinned to the wall, but when he checked the date he found that it was more than forty years old. At that moment, as if to underline the decrepitude of the place, a small black spider crawled across the face of the document.

“Great,” he sighed. “At least there’s something else alive down here.”

Finding another door on the other side of the room, he pushed it open and saw another set of steps leading even further down, which he figured must be the way to the engine room. He paused for a moment, but all he could hear was a very faint, very distant rumbling noise; it was something he recognized, from his years on various commercial vessels, as simply the auxiliary power units in power-saving mode while surrounded by thick metal bulkheads, but it still added a discomforting sense to the atmosphere, as if the noise itself implied some kind of presence.

“There’s nothing here,” he said, raising the phone to his mouth again. “Do you hear me? I’m not going to find anything.”

He waited for a reply.

“Cavaleri? Are you even there?”

Again, nothing. The signal was unable to connect while he was so far down in the boat, and he was starting to think that it would soon be time to turn around and leave. He took a couple of steps down the stairs, before stopping and telling himself that there was no chance of him finding anything down there other than the engine room and a load of tools.

Sighing, he turned and looked back across the darkness. Although he’d never been someone who was easily spooked, he had to admit that there was something about the boat that seemed very wrong, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. He held his phone up for a moment, casting light across the room, just to make sure that there was no-one nearby.

A moment later, there was a slow, loud creak from above, as if the frame of the boat itself was pitching slightly.

“ That's nothing,” he whispered to himself. “Just the -”

Suddenly there was a second, louder creak.

“ Okay,” Fernando muttered, “screw this, I'm -”

Before he could finish, the creak was suddenly joined by a loud banging noise, and then what seemed to be the sound of thick metal chains being run though a harness. Turning, Fernando cast the phone’s light toward the engine room door, but there was still no sign of anyone. Still, the metal deck beneath his feet was starting to shudder a little now, and a moment later he watched in horror as a valve handle on the wall suddenly flicked upward, as if it had a life of his own. Seconds later, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a steam compressor being evacuated, and the juddering beneath his feet become stronger and more sustained.

Looking down in horror, he realized what it sounded like: the engines being started.

Turning, he ran back the way he came, but as he reached the door there was a sudden jolt to the entire vessel; he tripped against something and slammed down against the foot of the stairs, dropping his phone in the process and sending it sliding across the floor. The boat shifted again, and as he tried to get up Fernando was thrown against the wall, slamming his head into the metal and then dropping back down. In the darkness, he blinked a couple of times, vaguely aware that he’d blacked out for a few seconds.

Although the fall had hurt his shoulder, he immediately hauled himself up and ran back to grab his phone, before turning to scramble up the stairs. As he did so, the entire boat seemed to shift a little, leaning to the starboard side as the rumbling sound from below became even louder. The electric lights in the stairwell flickered off and on a few times, and by the time he got up to the bridge Fernando was starting to realize what was happening.

To his shock, the bridge was empty, even as the wheel was somehow turning of its own accord. He turns to look over at the navigation equipment, and he couldn’t be certain, but he was convinced that the charts had been moved aside, and that one of them in particular had been opened and propped against the top of the monitor.

“Cavaleri!” he shouted into his phone as he hurried across the room, which was tilting heavily to one side now. “Where the hell are you?”

Pushing the door open, he ran out onto the deck and hurried over to the side of the boat, and that’s when he saw something impossible. He stared for a moment, unable to quite process what was happening, and then he turned back to look at the bridge. There was still no sign of anyone else on the boat, and he knew with absolute certainty that a vessel of this size would need a crew of at least a dozen men to set sail. Even with the most complex navigational equipment in the world – which this boat clearly didn’t have – an unmanned journey would be impossible.

Hearing a loud, heavy rattling sound nearby, he turned just in time to see the boat’s huge anchor being lifted high above the deck, carried aloft by a crane rig attached to a pulley that, in turn, appeared to be operating without any human intervention.

“No way,” he muttered, taking a step back. “No goddamn way.”

And yet, as he turned back to look over the side of the boat, he couldn’t deny what he saw. The island of Thaxos was receding rapidly into the distance and was already at least a couple of miles away, as the huge, hulking black boat had already set sail, heading to some unknown destination. Turning to look back toward the bridge, Fernando realized with horror that somehow he was the only man onboard, yet the boat itself was under full power, almost as if some hidden crew was hard at work out of sight.

“Cavaleri!” he shouted into the phone. “Cavaleri, for God’s sake, answer me!”

Part Six

I

 

For Doctor Alistair Burns, it started forty years ago. Newly qualified and out in the world for the first time, he stepped off the ferry and breathed his first lungful of Thaxos air for quite some time. It was fresh, crisp air, unlike the air to which he’d become accustomed on the mainland; the air on Thaxos filled him with a sense of vitality, of strength… and most of all, youth. He was a young man back then, and he felt that there were no limits to his life.

“Doctor Burns, I presume?”

Turning, he saw a little old man shuffling toward him, smiling patiently.

“Doctor Paul Lassiter,” the old man continued, holding out a trembling, liver-spotted hand. “I thought I should come down and welcome my replacement personally.”

“I’m glad to be here,” Doctor Burns replied, shaking the man’s hand with calculate firmness, just as his father had once taught him. “It’s been so long since I left to study on the mainland.”

“You’ll have to get used to the pace of life here again,” Doctor Lassiter told him, “but if you can manage that, you’ll be quite happy. One can certainly never feel lonely when one has the privilege of looking out the window and seeing such a beautiful view. Sometimes it feels as if Thaxos is a whole world away from any other place. You don’t get such a wonderful environment in Athens or Rome, do you?”

As they made their way across the town square, Doctor Lassiter filled him in on a little local history. He explained that Thaxos was a quiet place, that on most days there would be no more than two or three patients, and that for the most part life moved slowly. He made brief mention of the dark mansion up on the hill, but he added that the place was long since abandoned and that there was no chance of the Le Compte family coming back to claim their ancestral home. The Le Comptes, he insisted, were lost to the island’s history. Finally they reached the surgery, which the old man had recently vacated and which Doctor Burns had arrived to take over.

“You’ll rarely have to deal with anything too serious,” Doctor Lassiter explained. “Most people will just come to see you with a bunion or an ingrown toenail, although that won’t stop them making a right old fuss in the process.”

Doctor Burns smiled politely.

“I suppose I shouldn’t natter too much,” Doctor Lassiter added. “As of today, I’m officially retired. I shall simply have to find some other way to fill my time.”

Again, Doctor Burns smiled, while inwardly thanking God that he himself was still a young man. He could scarcely even begin to imagine what it would be like to be old.

Although he waited patiently as Doctor Lassiter fussed, Doctor Burns was keen for the old man to get going. To clear the decks, as it were. For half an hour, he listened to stories of the island’s history, and he began to realize that for the old man, this was a difficult moment. Eventually, however, Doctor Lassiter seemed to realize that the time had come, so he offered one final piece of advice – “Do your best for these people, and they will do their best for you” – and then he bade farewell and carried his tattered old medical bag out the door. Doctor Burns went to the window and watched as the old man shuffled away along the dusty road, and for a moment he caught himself thanking the Lord that he himself was still young.

Full of enthusiasm, he decided his first job should be to hang his new sign outside the front door. He’d spent so much money on that sign, a little luxury he shouldn’t really have afforded, but he wanted to set off on the right foot and show the locals that he was a man they could trust. Grabbing a ladder, he went out the door and climbed up, removing Doctor Lassiter’s old wooden sign and proudly hanging his own. Climbing back down the ladder, he took a step back and admired the sign as it glinted in the afternoon sun:

 

Doctor Alistair Burns Phd

Physician

 

He knew it was foolish to be so proud of a simple sign, but still… He was the island’s new doctor, its only doctor, and he felt a duty to these people. As he headed back inside to start setting up his surgery, he told himself that the sign would serve as a kind of beacon, encouraging people to come to him for help. The future, he was convinced, would be good, and he would never end up like Doctor Lassiter, being shuffled out of the way by a new man. Thaxos was just a stepping stone to something greater, something more important. He was going to change the world.

As he headed back inside, he tossed Doctor Lassiter’s faded old wooden sign into the trash.

 

***

 

Today, Doctor Burns’ sign remained in place above the door to his surgery. It was a little dirty perhaps, since Doctor Burns had stopped cleaning it a few years back, but the afternoon sun still caught its edges.

“Do your best for these people,” he muttered to himself, “and they will do their best for you.”

Stopping by the front door, he paused for a moment and looked up at the sign. It had been many years since he’d really paid it much attention, but for a few seconds – still a little drunk after the garden party up at Edgar Le Compte’s mansion – he found himself blinking at the sign and wondering where all the years had gone. Had he really spent four decades sitting behind his little desk, dispensing advice and medicine to the people of Thaxos? He’d been a young man when he arrived, but now he was getting old and he could no longer ignore the fact that one day soon he would have to send word to the medical board on the mainland, telling them to start looking for his successor. Not yet, though. He told himself that he still had a few years left. Making his way inside, he felt a little unsteady on his feet, and he was just about to lock up and take an early night when he remembered something that suddenly seemed extremely important.

“The wolf,” he muttered.

He walked – a little unsteadily, it had to be said – through to the yard at the back of the surgery, and then he headed into the tool-shed. Pulling the tarpaulin off the bench, he stared at the dead body of the wolf that had been killed by Le Compte’s men. A few days ago, he’d asked them to leave the body here so that he could give it a proper burial. Since then, he’d been so busy, and all those thoughts of nobility had somehow faded away. He was tired and still drunk, but he told himself that these things were not an excuse. The wolf had been a majestic beast and it simply would not do to leave it in the tool-shed for even one more night. He would simply have to summon up the strength to get the job done, and it could not be delayed a moment longer.

“Doesn’t seem right,” he muttered. “None of it seems right.”

Grabbing a spade, he stumbled out into the yard and stopped for a moment, trying to pick a perfect spot for the grave. He was having a little trouble focusing, thanks to the five – or was it six, or maybe even seven? – glasses of champagne he’d somehow ended up drinking at the party, but finally he staggered over to the corner and realized that the wolf would probably want to be buried in a part of the yard that received a lot of sun during the day. To this end, he carefully pressed the edge of the spade into the dirt and started to dig, although the process was somewhat slowed by the fact that the whole world seemed to be spinning around him. Finally, after a few disconsolate attempts to dig a decent-sized hole, he lost his balance entirely and tumbled down to the ground.

He sat up and sighed.

“When did all of this become so difficult?” he muttered, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Groaning as he felt his old bones creak, he nevertheless managed to get back up. He grabbed the handle of the spade and once again set about digging the grave. When he was a young man, the job would have taken him just a few minutes. Even now, in his sixties, it should normally have taken only a quarter of an hour. With all the champagne in his belly, however, he ended up spending fully forty-five minutes, until finally he leaned back against the wall and stared down at the rough, uneven hole that he figured would just about be good enough. Dropping the spade, he wiped his brow again before stumbling back toward the tool-shed.

“ Alright,” he said out loud as he wrapped the tarpaulin back around the wolf and prepared to lift it. “Let's -”

As soon as he tried to haul the wolf’s body up into his arms, he was shocked by its weight. He tried to steady himself, but instead he merely ended up falling back against the wall and dropping the wolf. Muttering a few select curse words, the doctor reached down and decided to try another tactic: holding onto the wolf’s rear legs, he began to drag it across the ground until finally he managed to get it to the edge of the grave.

“Sorry, old boy,” he muttered, pausing to catch his breath. “I know it’s not perfect, but at least it’s better than being tossed into the sea, eh? You…” He paused, admiring the wolf’s majestic fur, which still seemed so fine despite the bloody bullet-hole in the back of its head. Although he’d never seen the wolf when it was alive, he imagined it as a proud animal, and he hated to see it in such a terrible state.

“I’m sorry,” he added finally. “Just… I’m sorry. Happens to us all in the end, though.”

With one final burst of energy, he pushed the wolf’s corpse into the hole. He grabbed the spade, ready to fill the dirt back in, but first he had to lean back against the wall and catch his breath. He felt so old and tired, he wasn’t even sure that he could get the job done, and it was only now that he realized he had somehow lost his hat during the day. The evening sun beat down on the top of his head, slowly burning his skin and giving him a headache. He knew he should just go inside, but he was determined to give the wolf an honorable burial. It seemed like the only decent thing he could do at that particular moment.

“It’s time for him to go,” said a voice suddenly. “It’s a disgrace.”

“Whatever happened,” said another voice, “he clearly made a mistake. I mean, if you can’t trust your doctor, what are you supposed to do? I’ve got a bunion. Should I go and ask him for help or not?”

“He’s always been good to me, but now I’m starting to wonder if he really knows what he’s doing! I mean, surely it’s not hard to determine whether someone’s alive or dead? Did he perform that autopsy or not? The old fool must have been lying. Then again, he looked pretty wasted today, so maybe he’s got a drinking problem?”

“Do you think we can contact the authorities on the mainland? Maybe get them to send a replacement?”

Turning, Doctor Burns looked at the wall that ran along the far side of the yard, and he realized that two people were making their way along the alley. They were talking about him, discussing all his recent faults and failings, and he continued to listen to them as their voices receded into the distance. For a moment, he turned their words over and over in his mind, feeling every cut of disappointment and humiliation. He still didn’t understand what had happened in the case of Alice Marco, but he told himself that it would all become apparent in the morning once the effects of the champagne had worn off. One thing was certain, however: he knew that if he’d truly made a mistake and signed the girl’s death certificate when she was in fact still alive, he could no longer trust himself to serve the people of Thaxos. He would have no choice but to resign immediately. And then what? Retirement? He wasn’t ready to admit that he was old, not yet. He still felt like the same man who arrived on Thaxos all those years ago and took his first lungful of the island’s air.

“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered, forcing himself to somehow muster enough energy to start filling in the hole. He began to shovel dirt down onto the wolf’s body, until finally the crude grave was finished. He leaned back and admired his work. It wasn’t the most fitting grave in the world, but it would do for now. Reminding himself to put some kind of marker in place, he dropped the spade and staggered back inside. With champagne still sloshing about in his belly, he needed more than anything to get some sleep. First, though, he had a couple of house-calls to make, but he figured he could hide his drunkenness well enough.

Tomorrow would be better, he told himself. Tomorrow, he would be back to his usual self. Tomorrow, he wouldn’t feel so old.

II

 

“It’s okay,” Kate said, pressing a glass of water into the girl’s trembling hands. “Why don’t you drink this? It might make you feel better.”

Alice stared at the water for a moment, but she seemed uncertain about what to do next. After a few seconds, she looked up at Kate as if she wanted to ask, but something seemed to be holding her back. Ever since she’d woken up, she’d seemed horrified, and her eyes darted across the room as if she expected to see something waiting for her in the shadows.

“How are you feeling?” Kate continued, sitting next to her. They were in Edgar’s study, next to a window that offered a stunning view of the island all the way down to the port town. “Doctor Young said you were suffering from shock. It seems you’ve been through a lot lately.”

“I…”

Kate waited.

“I feel cold,” Alice managed eventually, her voice sounding fragile. “Really cold.”

“ Here,” Kate replied, grabbing a blanket from the back of one of the chairs and arranging it carefully over the younger girl's shivering shoulders. “You should get warmer soon. Maybe we should go outside where it's -”

“No.”

“Okay, maybe later.”

There was a pause as Alice raised the glass to her lips and took a sip, but her hands were shaking so much that she spilled as much as she drank. Kate reached up and helped her to steady the glass until finally all the water was gone.

“Does that feel better?” she asked finally.

She waited for a reply.

“What…” Alice paused. “Why… I… What happened to me?”

“You were sick,” Kate continued, trying to offer a reassuring smile. “From what I’ve heard, you were bitten by a rat and you succumbed to some kind of rare virus. The other doctor here, Doctor Burns, actually declared you dead because your heart-rate had dropped so low.” She paused for a moment as she realized how crazy the explanation sounded, but she figured Doctor Young must know what he was talking about. “It’s okay, though. You’re safe now.”

“They… thought I was dead?” Alice asked.

Kate nodded. She knew there was more to the story, that Alice had actually been buried for a few hours, but she felt that the girl had already been through enough torment. She could learn the rest of the story once she had recovered.

“And now I’m here?”

“Edgar Le Compte thought it would be a good idea to unveil you to the whole island,” Kate continued. “I think maybe he went a step too far. People were so convinced that you’d died, they seemed to react with a kind of panic. I’m sure they’ll realize it’s all okay eventually, though. It’ll just take a while before they come around to understanding what really happened.”

“Why am I so cold?” Alice replied.

“ I don't know,” Kate told her, placing a hand on the girl's forehead and realizing that she felt like ice. Her color was off too, as if her skin was more blue than red. “I think I should go and get Doctor Young, just so we can be certain that there's nothing else wrong. Wait here -”

As soon as she got up to leave, she felt Alice’s freezing hand on her arm.

“Don’t leave me.”

“ I'm just going to -”

“Don’t leave me,” Alice said again, with tears in her eyes. “Please, I don’t want to be alone, not even for a moment. I’m so cold, and I’m scared I might…”

Her voice trailed off, but the fear in her eyes was palpable. Again she glanced across the room, as if she was worried that someone else was nearby.

Forcing a smile, Kate retook her place on the sofa right next to Alice. She felt hugely sorry for her, and although Doctor Young had insisted earlier that the effects of the virus were now wearing off, Kate couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still very wrong. For one thing, Alice’s skin was preternaturally cold, and for another it was clear that she seemed troubled by what had happened to her.

“I’m sorry I disturbed you in the room earlier,” Kate continued after a moment. “I shouldn’t have been snooping around. It might be better if you don’t tell Edgar or Doctor Young that I was there.”

“What room?” Alice asked.

“When you were waiting to be revealed to everyone,” Kate reminded her. “You had the cloth over your face and I was in your room for a few minutes. Remember?”

“I don’t remember very much,” Alice replied. “I remember being in my godfather’s shop, and there was a rat. Then I remember feeling sick at my parents’ house, getting hotter and colder at the same time, and I think I was in the doctor’s surgery for a while, but everything went black and then I remember standing on the steps just now, but apart from that…” She paused . “I remember… I think I remember being…”

Kate waited for her to finish, but it was clear that she was struggling with her memories. Finally, she put a hand on Alice’s shoulder, hoping to give her a little comfort. It was as if Alice had woken from a terrible nightmare, something that had seized her mind and was still not willing to let go, even though she was awake now.

“You just need to focus on getting better,” Kate told her eventually. “Doctor Young seems like he knows what he’s doing, and he’s adamant that you’ll be okay. You just need to get some rest, try not to push yourself too much, and wait for your body to recover.”

“Will you stay with me?” Alice asked. “Please, I don’t want to be alone.”

“I’ll…” Kate paused. “I’ll stay with you until Doctor Young comes back. After that, I’ve got a ferry to catch. I’m going home today.”

“Home? Where?”

“Back to London. I promised I’d stay until after the party, but things have been crazy around here lately and I feel like I need to get away and clear my head. I had a bit of a medical drama of my own.”

“But can’t you stay a little longer?”

“I…” Kate paused. “I really need to get going today.”

“Okay,” Alice replied, unable to hide her disappointment, “I understand.”

“But you won’t be alone,” Kate continued. “I promise. You’ll have your family, your friends… Hell, after everything that’s happened, you’re going to be the center of attention. Everyone’s going to want to talk to you.”

“I don’t know what I’ll say to them.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Kate reassured her. “It’s not as if you’ve done anything wrong. They’re just going to be so pleased to have you back.”

As if on cue, Kate and Alice both turned to the door as they heard raised voices elsewhere in the house. A woman was shouting, with a man trying to calm her down, and there were at least a couple of other voices adding to the cacophony. After a moment, Kate realized she could also hear Jacob trying to calm everyone down. It sounded like bedlam, and she felt certain that wherever he was in the house right now, Edgar would definitely not like the disturbance.

“My parents,” Alice whispered, without much enthusiasm.

“See?” Kate replied, turning to her. “They’ll make you feel better, won’t they?”

Alice stared at the door as the voices came closer.

“I remember,” she said suddenly, turning to Kate. “I remember being dead.”

“You…” Kate paused. “You remember what?”

“I was dead,” she continued. “I remember it. I remember what it was like and where I went, every second of it. I was in -”

“Alice!” a female voice screamed, and seconds later Catherine Marco came rushing over to envelop Alice in a huge hug. “Oh my God, my dear sweet girl, what are you doing here?”

Alice stared at Kate, seemingly lost in the hug.

“Let me look at you!” Catherine continued, dropping to her knees and placing her hands on her daughter’s cheeks. “My God, you’re frozen. We must get you home at once!” With tears of joy in her eyes, she grabbed Alice’s hands and tried to get her to rise from the sofa, but Alice seemed too stunned to comply. “My darling,” Catherine continued, “we must get you out of here. I don’t know exactly what has happened, but we must take you home where you belong!”

“It’s a miracle,” Maximo muttered as he reached the sofa. He puts his hands on Alice’s shoulders, as if he couldn’t quite believe that she had really returned. “It’s a gift from God.”

“Come,” Catherine added, still trying to pull Alice up from the sofa. “We must celebrate!”

“I want to stay here,” Alice replied weakly.

“ Don't be foolish -”

“I don’t want to go outside!”

“What are you talking about?” Catherine asked. “My dear, perhaps you’re delirious. I still don’t understand exactly what happened to you, but it’s clear that you’re confused. Come home and we’ll get you into a nice hot bath, and then we can try to work out how this whole thing happened. And we must find some way to thank the Lord, because he has surely delivered you back to us from the jaws of death! He must have heard our prayers and seen our tears, and he must have realized that he had taken you far too soon. His mercy shows no limits.”

“I don’t want to go,” Alice told her. “I… I feel… I don’t want to go home.”

“ There's no need to be scared,” Maximo told her. “Alice, you must come with us. You don't belong up here. Whatever has happened to you -”

“ I'm staying here,” Alice replied, slipping her hands free from her mother's grasp. “I don't want to go outside and I don't want to go home, not yet. I want to stay right here. I can't go back, please don't try to force me -”

“Alice,” Catherine continued, sitting next to her. “I…” She paused, before looking at Kate. “Please, can you leave us alone with our daughter for a moment?”

“Of course,” Kate replied, getting to her feet.

“Please don’t go,” Alice snapped, grabbing Kate’s hand. “Don’t leave me here!”

“I’ll be right outside the room,” Kate told her, surprised by how quickly and strongly Alice seemed to have taken to her. “You should talk to your parents. They’ve had a huge shock.”

“But we’re…” Alice paused, with tears running down her cheeks. “I need to talk to you later. I think we’re the same.”

“The same?” Kate asked.

“Promise you’ll talk to me later!”

“Sure,” Kate replied, pulling her hand away, “we’ll talk. Just spend some time with your parents first. They’ve been through a huge shock.” With that, she turned and made her way to the door, while rubbing her wrist in an attempt to get a little heat into it after Alice’s icy touch.

When she reached the corridor outside the study, she realized there was someone nearby. A woman in a police uniform was pacing agitatedly up and down, while muttering something into a mobile phone.

“Where the hell are you, Fernando?” the woman hissed. “For God’s sake, tell me!”

From the phone, there came the faintest hiss of static.

“Jesus Christ,” the woman continued, before glancing over at Kate. As soon as she realized she wasn’t alone, the woman put her phone away. “Inspector Isobel Cavaleri,” she said, heading toward Kate with an outstretched hand. “You must be Kate Langley. I’ve heard a lot about you, but we haven’t had the pleasure yet of being properly introduced.”

Kate shook the woman’s hand, but it was a loose handshake and Kate couldn’t help but feel that Cavaleri was studying her.

“You’re Le Compte’s personal historian, I believe?”

“Archivist,” Kate replied. “Until today, anyway.”

“This is a messed-up situation, huh?” Cavaleri continued. “I don’t even know where to begin investigating.”

“What is there to investigate?” Kate asked.

“Well, there’s a desecrated grave,” Cavaleri replied. “That’s certainly one thing of note. I was down in the town square when I heard Catherine Marco screaming. When I got to the house, I found that she’d just returned from the cemetery where she’d found that Alice’s grave had been disturbed. We were just trying to get her to calm down when people started returning from the garden party, and that’s when we heard all these crazy stories about Alice being alive, so we came up here and…” She paused for a moment. “Where’s Edgar Le Compte?”

“He’s…” Kate paused as she realized that she hadn’t seen Edgar for a while. He’d been angry earlier, and somehow Kate felt it was better for him to be alone while he calmed down. “He’s around,” she continued finally. “I’m sure he’ll be through soon.”

“This has got something to do with him,” Cavaleri replied. “I can feel it in my guy, it’s got all the twisted hallmarks of some stunt that Le Compte cooked up. I knew that garden party was too good to be true, but did anyone listen to me? Of course not. They just lapped it all up like goddamn puppies. I swear it was almost like he’d got inside their minds and changed their thoughts. At least most of them finally snapped out of it.” As she spoke, her phone began to ring. “Excuse me,” she continued, checking the screen, “I have to take this.”

Kate watched as Cavaleri made her way along the corridor.

“Fernando,” she was hissing into her phone, “you keep calling me but all I hear is static. Where the hell have you got to? Did you find anything on that boat or not? You need to get off, there might be people coming soon!”

Turning and heading back to the door that led into the study, Kate stopped for a moment and watched the heartbreaking scene on the sofa. Maximo and Catherine Marco were sitting on either side of their daughter, wrapping her in their arms and sobbing as they tried to cope with everything that had happened over the past few hours. For her part, however, Alice was simply sitting with a fearful look in her eyes, as if she found her parents’ attention to be somehow disturbing. When she turned to look directly at Kate, it was clear that she felt lost and terrified, and Kate couldn’t shake the feeling that for some reason Alice seemed to be looking at her for answers.

In the distance, seen through the window, Edgar Le Compte’s large black boat could be seen disappearing over the horizon.

III

 

“You seem worried about something,” the old woman said eventually, breaking the silence. “Is it the girl?”

For a moment, as he adjusted the position of the stethoscope on Anna’s chest, Doctor Burns barely registered her words. His mind was elsewhere, going over and over the day’s events as he tried to get them to make sense. All he needed was a single thread of logic to link all the extraordinary things that had happened, but as hard as he tried, he couldn’t come up with anything. Finally, however, he glanced up at Anna and realized that he hadn’t been paying attention to her at all.

“I hear things,” she replied with sadness in her voice. “Ephram was rambling about it when he brought my dinner earlier, and people stop sometimes near the window and discuss the latest news. It’s the Marco girl, isn’t it? He’s pulled some kind of stunt with her. She’s not dead anymore.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Doctor Burns replied, trying to focus on the sound of the old woman’s heartbeat, which was a little more erratic than usual. “It’ll all resolve itself in time.”

“They’re saying that you had a living girl put into the ground,” Anna continued. “Apparently she was dug up at the behest of some other doctor, and he discovered that she was still alive. I just wanted you to know that I don’t believe it for one second, Alistair. You’ve been taking care of me for four decades, and I trust you with my life. I know that you’d never make such a mistake.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he replied, “but I think there’s a little more to it.”

“Such as?”

He paused for a moment. “It must have been my fault,” he continued eventually, “because otherwise… I mean, what other explanation could there be?”

“Edgar Le Compte is involved.”

“A man,” Doctor Burns pointed out. “That’s all he is. A difficult man, for sure, and a man who has a certain mystique, but still just a man. I hardly believe that he can raise the dead from their graves.”

“Then you don’t know him.”

She watched as the doctor put his stethoscope away. His hands were trembling slightly and his focus seemed a little off; she felt it was almost as if he was drunk, although she told herself that there was no way Alistair Burns would ever consume alcohol before visiting a patient. He was a good man.

“Your predecessor had none of this to worry about,” she said after a moment. “Doctor Lassiter was a good doctor and a fine man, but he had it easy. After all, during his tenure the island was free of the Le Compte family. We all thought they were gone forever, and that their little tricks were over.”

“Your point?”

“That the Le Comptes will play with your mind just for their own amusement. That they’ll have you doubting your own sanity.”

“I am a doctor,” he replied, “and that means that there are certain immutable things that I hold to be true, and that I cannot ignore. Facts, science… Things that hold true for life wherever it is found.”

“But you are also a man of faith,” she pointed out. “You’re a doctor, but you also believe in God. That must mean that you have room in your mind for things you cannot fully comprehend.”

“Let’s not start comparing Edgar Le Compte to a god,” he muttered. “If that man is anything, he is more of a devil.”

“ Consider the possibility for a moment,” Anna continued, “that he is something else, something in-between. Consider the possibility that the girl really did die, and she was properly buried in hallowed ground, the way the Lord intended. Everyone – you, her parents, the people in this town – all did the right thing. And then -”

She paused, as if she was scared to say the words.

“And then what?” Doctor Burns asked as he closed his medical bag. “Edgar Le Compte came along, dug her up and breathed life into her again?” He turned to Anna and saw from the look in her eyes that this was, perhaps, what she was seriously suggesting. “If a man could do such a thing, I would be the first to embrace him, but it is simply impossible. Life is life and death is death, and they cannot be blurred together.”

“And yet she lives and breathes.”

He opened his mouth to argue with her, but no words left his lips.

“You’re not a fool,” she continued. “Look at it logically, Alistair. Don’t let your beliefs cloud your judgment.”

“ Perhaps I imagined -”

“You imagined nothing,” she replied firmly. “You know she was dead. Don’t let fools convince you otherwise. Hold true to yourself, man!”

They stood in silence for a moment as the truth settled in the doctor’s mind.

“I examined that girl’s body after she died,” he said eventually, his eyes wide with fear. “I took a scalpel and I sliced her skin, and then I opened her chest and weighed her organs. For God’s sake, I took her apart piece by piece until…” He held up one of his trembling hands, as if to prove his point. “I literally carried her still heart across my examination room. I placed it in a metal pan and I weighed it, and then I put it back in her chest. I did the same to her liver, her lungs, her brain… I damn near took her apart like she was some kind of machine, and when the autopsy was over… I know I didn’t imagine those things. It’s impossible.”

“And now she’s up there at the house, isn’t she?” Anna continued. “She walks, she talks, she thinks…”

“How?” he asked. “Either I am losing my mind and I imagined the autopsy, or…”

“Or Edgar Le Compte has done this thing,” Anna pointed out. “I know it’s a difficult concept to believe, but if you can believe it, then everything else falls into place.” She paused for a moment. “He came to me two days ago. He was right here in this room.”

“ Ephram would never -”

“Ephram has no idea.” Another pause. “It was him, you know. It was Edgar.”

“ I'm sure, but -”

“I mean my Edgar. The man I loved all those years ago.”

“He’s looking mighty fit and healthy for someone who should be over a hundred years old.”

He forced a smile, but after a moment he saw that Anna was absolutely serious.

“He was already over a hundred years old when I first met him,” she replied. “I don’t know the full story, but I know that there is something ancient in his heart. Back then he was different. Harsher, angrier. It was his anger that scared me more than anything, because while he tried to keep it under control, every so often it would burst out and…” She paused. “His anger caused so much suffering. When he is truly filled with rage, anything can happen. I remember one time his sister earned his ire. She was this flaky, playful girl named Madeleine. One day she pushed him too far, and let’s just say that he made her regret it.”

“He murdered his own sister?” Doctor Burns asked.

“No. He couldn’t murder her. She was… She is… like him. Very much so, in some ways. But he caused her to suffer so much pain, and she ended up being hauled off to an asylum, some place called Tor Cliff. I imagine she’s there still.”

“ But...” He paused for a moment. “No. This is all nonsense. I'm fully aware that you knew Edgar Le Compte's grandfather, but the Edgar Le Compte who is here on Thaxos now -”

“Is the same man.”

“No!”

“I swear it’s true,” she continued. “He admitted it himself when he was here two nights ago, but there was no need for him to say the words. I already saw it in his eyes. I don’t know why he went away for so long, or why he finally came back, but as God is my witness, it is him. All that is left is for us to all hope and pray that he never rediscovers the anger that used to fuel his cruelty, because if such a thing transpires… I don’t want to even imagine what might happen to the entire island.”

Taking his coat from the chair, Doctor Burns paused again. He wanted to dismiss Anna’s words, or to humor her aged rambling, but at the same time he felt as if there might be some truth to her claim. After all, he remembered Alice Marco’s autopsy so clearly, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to accept that he might have somehow imagined the whole thing. Still, he had always prided himself on his rational mind, and he couldn’t yet accept that such an astonishing story might be true. Edgar Le Compte was just a man.

“Don’t let him get into your mind,” Anna warned him. “If you give him the chance, he’ll wrap his thoughts around your own and change the way you see the world. Then he’ll either tire of you and let you limp away, or he’ll use you to relieve his boredom, in which case there’ll be no helping you. I fear that you are becoming his plaything, Alistair.” She paused. “What happened to your hand? Why are you wearing a bandage?”

“You need to rest,” Doctor Burns replied. “You’re still weak.”

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I believe that you think think all of this is true.”

“But you’d rather tell yourself that you’re losing your mind, that you imagined that poor girl’s autopsy, than accept that Edgar Le Compte is who and what I say he is. You’d rather believe that you’re mad, than that the world could breed such creatures.”

Doctor Burns turned and headed to the door, feeling as if there was no point arguing with the old woman.

“Then go and see her,” Anna said after a moment. “Ask to see Alice Marco’s chest again. If there’s a scar, you’ll know that it’s all true. And if there isn’t, you’ll know that I’m just a crazy old woman. It’s a simple enough way to settle all of this. Why don’t you go up there right now?”

He glanced back at her, but no words seemed suitable.

“And tell me this,” she continued. “Have you felt at any point that your mind is not your own? That maybe he has reached out and pushed your thoughts in the wrong direction?”

He gave her no reply. Instead, he slipped out of the room and pulled the door shut, before taking a moment to gather his thoughts. He knew she was right, that he had a duty to go straight back up to the mansion and examine Alice Marco for himself, but he figured that since he was still affected by the champagne, he should probably delay the visit until the following day. After all, if that scar was really there, it would be too deep to ever fade away.

IV

 

“Edgar, are you -”

Stopping suddenly as she reached the door, Kate saw that there was a figure at the far end of the room, framed in silhouette by the sunset that was visible through a large window. She knew immediately that after searching for him for the best part of an hour, she had finally managed to find Edgar Le Compte. Deep down, she felt that if he truly did not want to be found, he would have remained hidden. His turned back was a deliberate challenge.

“Hey,” she continued, staying by the door. “I just thought you should know that Alice Marco’s parents showed up, but she’s refusing to go back down to the town with her. She seems scared of going outside. I think maybe she’s not well, but I can’t find Doctor Young anywhere, so…”

She paused, hoping that he might at least acknowledge her presence in some way, but it was almost as if he hadn’t even heard her speak. She’d noticed before that Edgar had a tendency to sometimes withdraw into his own mind, and this seemed to be such a moment. Normally she’d just leave him alone, but this time she didn’t have the luxury of that option. Besides, she knew Edgar well enough to still be convinced that he had allowed her to find him.

“ She's very cold,” she added, making her way cautiously to the middle of the room. She paused, waiting for some kind of reply. “She looks pale, too. I'm worried that maybe she's bleeding internally, so I think maybe you should get someone to check on her. I'll be gone in a couple of hours, but -”

“Gone?”

Slowly, he turned to her with a dark look in his eyes.

“I told you I’d be leaving today,” she continued. “There’s a ferry leaving tonight for the mainland. I said I’d stay for the garden party, and I did, but I’ve managed to find a connecting flight from Athens. I can be back in London by tomorrow night.”

She waited for a reply.

“ Edgar -”

“No.”

She paused.

“I’m sorry?”

“No.”

“No?”

She waited for him to explain, but he simply continued to stare at her as if the matter was settled and it was her duty to back down.

“ What do you mean?” she continued. “I told you I'd be -”

“You’re not going to leave,” he replied, interrupting her. “Not today. It’s out of the question.”

“ I've got a flight booked,” she told him. “The ferry is in two hours and -”

“No. It’s simply out of the question. I need you to stay here.”

She opened her mouth to tell him that it was impossible, but something caused her to hold back. There was something so definite about his tone of voice, as if he simply refused to consider any other possibility. She’d heard Edgar speak this way to Didi and to Jacob, but she’d never before been on the receiving end of it herself.

“ Edgar,” she continued after a moment, “we already discussed this. After everything that happened last week, I feel like I can't be here. I need to -”

“The archive work is not complete,” he replied, interrupting her again.

“ I know, but -”

“I hired you to do a job.”

“ I know, and normally I'd -”

“Are you in the habit of walking out on your employers?” he continued. “I was in the archive room earlier, and the boxes are still piled up, there are papers everywhere. The job is not done and it’s still a total mess in there. Barely a week ago, you were coming up with grand plans about the archive. I was under the impression that you were a conscientious and professional worker who could be relied upon.”

“I am,” she replied, “but what happened to me out in that maintenance shed… I mean, I still don’t know exactly what attacked me, but whatever it was, I almost died.”

“But you didn’t die,” he pointed out, “did you?”

She waited for him to continue.

“Did you?” he asked again.

“ No, but -”

“And as I’ve already told you,” he continued, “the wolf was caught and killed. There’s no more danger here. I can assure you that for as long as you remain on Thaxos, you will be under my protection, and when I say that, it means something.”

“I still need to…” She paused. Technically he was right, and there was a part of her that felt bad about leaving, as if she was somehow being weak. At the same time, she felt that life on Thaxos was rapidly becoming unbearable. “I’m truly sorry about abandoning the project, but I keep having nightmares about what happened, and I feel as if the only way to get back to normal is to leave.”

She waited for him to reply, but he merely stared at her for a moment, as if he was contemplating his next move.

“Fine,” he said eventually. “If that’s your decision, I suppose there’s not much I can do to stop you. It’s not as if I can hold you here, is it? There’s no physical reason why you have to remain in my proximity.”

“Thank you for understanding,” she replied. “Maybe I’ll come back some day to visit, but in the meantime I can recommend half a dozen good archivists who I’m sure would be thrilled to come out and take my place.”

“Don’t worry about that. Perhaps it was a foolish idea. There’s no need to go raking up the past.” He paused again. “Well, I suppose you have a lot of packing to do, so I shouldn’t detain you a moment longer. I shall be rather busy up here dealing with the fallout from everything that happened, so I shall not be available to come and wave at you as you sail off into the sunset. Goodbye, Ms. Langley. I hope you have a pleasant journey.”

“ Right,” she replied, realizing that he was being somewhat brusque. “Again, I'm sorry but -”

“There’s no need to keep apologizing,” he told her, turning back to look out the window. “You’re entitled to make your own decisions. Be sure to lock the archive room up before you leave. I wouldn’t want anyone wandering in by accident. It’s better to seal the past away altogether. I have so much to deal with right now. Unexpected visitors, prying eyes, stowaways…”

Realizing that he clearly wasn’t in the mood to talk, Kate turned and headed to the door. She wanted more than anything to make him understand, but she figured that the atmosphere at the mansion was so toxic, she’d be better off just getting out of there as fast as possible. Thaxos felt like a dream, and she wanted to get back to the brutality of London life.

“Can I ask you one final question?” Edgar added suddenly.

She looked back over at him and saw that he was still looking out at the sunset.

“Why did they all run like that?” he continued. “I gave them what they wanted. I removed the rats and I brought Alice Marco back to them. So why did they run? I thought they’d be grateful, I thought they’d understand that I did it for them, and yet when they saw Alice they seemed to react with horror. This was… not what I had anticipated.”

“I think they were all just shocked,” Kate told him, “and…” She paused. “I don’t think anyone quite understands what really happened. The doctor claimed to have performed an autopsy.”

“That pathetic old drunk? I find it hard to believe that anyone listens to him. He damn near caused Alice Marco to be buried alive. It was only Doctor Young’s intervention that averted a terrible tragedy, and then thankfully he was able to quickly revive her.”

“ Maybe you should just give people time. They only want to -”

“I’ve given them enough already,” he snapped. “I’ve given them everything, and they threw it back in my face like a bunch of superstitious peasants. If that’s how they want things to be, then I suppose I must simply accept the situation. I certainly won’t be going out of my way to earn their friendship anymore. Once was enough.” He paused again. “I don’t understand these people, Ms. Langley. I’ve tried, but their emotions, their responses… It’s all alien to me. I was a fool to think that I could bridge such a great divide. They have their part of the island and I have mine, and that is simply how it shall have to be from this day forward. I can assure you of one thing, however. They will regret the day that they chose to reject my gifts.”

Kate stared at the back of his head, and she couldn’t help but fear that Edgar was going to close himself off at the mansion, cutting all ties with the town and living a quiet life with just Didi and Jacob for company. She wanted to tell him to try again with the people of Thaxos, to make him see that he’d simply gone too far, but somehow she knew that he wouldn’t understand. There just seemed to be a part of Edgar that could never truly connect with the rest of the human race, and the mansion – high up on the hill, separate from everything else – was almost a metaphor for the man himself.

“I’ll be leaving for the port in one hour,” she told him. “I hope you’ll come to the door at least, to say goodbye properly.”

She waited, but no reply was forthcoming.

“Edgar?”

Again, there was nothing.

“If you don’t come,” she continued, “then I guess this is… goodbye.”

She waited.

Nothing.

Turning, Kate walked away from the door, even though there was a part of her that desperately wanted to stay.

V

 

“Have you see Fernando Mediaci?”

As he reached his front door, Doctor Burns found that Isobel Cavaleri was waiting for him. The sun had almost set and he’d been hoping to get home and sleep, but with a sigh he realized that his night was not yet over. He knew this look in Cavaleri’s eyes: she was like a terrier, and there was no way she’d give up on her little witch-hunt until she was satisfied.

“He was up at the garden party,” he replied wearily. “I believe so, anyway.”

“How would you know?” she replied tartly. “You were drunk. I saw you slouched on a chair before midday.”

“Actually I was…” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his key. “Yes. I was drunk. It was foolish of me to allow it to happen, but there we are. All men are foolish occasionally.”

“What the hell happened to Alice Marco?” she continued. “I thought you signed a death certificate?”

He paused, feeling his anger start to boil.

“Well?” she asked. “Did you sign it or not?”

“I did.”

“And I thought you performed an autopsy?”

“I did.”

“So why the hell is she walking around up there?”

As he slid the key into the lock, Doctor Burns turned to her.

“Did you cut that girl open or not?” Cavaleri asked.

“Of course I did.”

“Then explain this situation to me.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re the town doctor,” she pointed out. “Can’t you even tell the difference between life and death? Hell, even I can tell whether someone’s dead or not. Just give ‘em a good kick and see if they wake up. It’s not rocket science!”

“ Of course I can tell the difference, but -”

“So was Alice Marco dead when she was in your exam room, or not?”

“She…” He paused for a moment. “She was dead. She had no heartbeat, and rigor mortis had begun to set in. I removed her vital organs, as per the usual procedure, and I examined and weighed them before putting them back in place and sewing her shut again. I documented the whole process, in accordance with local law, and I filled out the death certificate with all the necessary information. Information, I might add, that I could have obtained in no other manner.”

“And you’re certain of this? There’s no way you could have been drunk?”

“Let me show you something,” he sighed, pushing the door open and leading her into the dark hallway. Once he’d set his bag down and switched on the light, he headed through to his office and began to sort through the files on his desk. Eventually he found the one he was looking for, and he opened it to reveal the photos from Alice Marco’s autopsy. He’d half expected them to be missing, and for his madness to be confirmed, but instead his blood ran cold as he stared at the image of Alice Marco’s naked body on the cold metal slab, with her chest carefully cut open and her organs exposed. In the first photo, her intestines glistened under the harsh light of the laboratory.

“Let me see,” Cavaleri barked, hurrying across the room and snatching the photos from his hand.

“You see?” he replied. “I always document my work.”

“This makes no sense,” she continued, flipping through the set of photos, each of which showed a different stage of the autopsy: Alice’s brain in a dish, and then her heart, and in another photo her lungs; one image even showed her with the top of her skull removed. “Doctor,” Cavaleri added as she held up the last of the photos for him to see, “you’re a man of science, and I’ve come to trust your opinion over the years, so I’m going to ask you this question. In your professional capacity, how can you reconcile these photos with the fact that Alice Marco is alive and more or less well up at Edgar Le Compte’s mansion?”

“I can’t,” he replied.

“You can’t?” she sneered with barely-disguised contempt.

“It cannot be explained.”

“Fat lot of good you are,” she replied. “You’re not in on this with him, are you? That’s the one thing that might make sense here. You and Le Compte aren’t cooking up some kind of grand scheme to fool everyone?”

“ Of course not -”

“ If I find even the slightest hint of evidence that the pair of you are colluding,” she continued, “I'll throw the book at you both. For example, if you came up with some kind of wax model of that girl and used it to stage a fake autopsy -”

Grabbing the photos back from her, Doctor Burns slipped them back into their folder.

“ In all my years as a physician,” he replied after a moment, “I have never been so insulted. To suggest that I could be swayed into assisting with a so-called joke that is so repulsive and so ungodly -”

“You helped advertize his goddamn party,” she pointed out. “He had you in his pocket.”

“That was different, that was…” He paused as he realized how bad things looked. “Inspector Cavaleri,” he continued once he’d regathered his composure, “I’m afraid that I must ask you to leave. If you wish to continue this conversation tomorrow, I would be most happy to discuss things with you, but right now I’m tired and I must retire to bed.”

“Got some champagne to sleep off, have you?”

“I have to be up early.”

“I’ll get to the bottom of this,” she replied. “There’s one central fact in all of this that isn’t in dispute. A girl can’t die and then come back to life, not unless Edgar Le Compte is a goddamn…”

She paused, as if she’d suddenly experienced a moment of realization.

“Unless he’s what?” Doctor Burns asked, even though he was worried about the possible reply.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” she continued, turning and heading to the door. “There’s a rational explanation for all of this, and I’m damn certain that Edgar Le Compte’s up to something. When I found out what he’s doing, I’m going to make sure that he pays. He’s a clever guy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s made sure to cover his tracks, but no matter how smart he is, I can take him down, and anyone who’s in league with him. Do you understand?”

Doctor Burns nodded wearily.

“If you see Le Compte,” she added, “tell him I’m onto him. And if you happen to bump into Fernando Mediaci, tell him I’m looking for him.”

“Is he in trouble?”

She turned back to him. “Not at all. I just want to know what happened to him. The last time we spoke, he was… engaged in some activity that carried a degree of risk. I haven’t heard from him for a few hours, and I want to make sure he’s okay.”

Once Cavaleri had left, Doctor Burns began to arrange his medical equipment ready for an early start the next morning. Outside, the long, lazy light of evening began to give way to the dull black of night, and eventually the doctor felt a faint chill. Heading through to the kitchen, he was just about to close the window when he happened to glance out at the yard and spot the freshly-dug pit where earlier that day he’d buried the wolf. He stared for a moment, wondering if he had truly begun to lose sight of the dividing line between life and death, before pulling the window closed.

Aware that he was too restless to sleep, he poured himself a whiskey and returned to his study, where he began to re-examine the photos from Alice Marco’s autopsy. He told himself that he was missing something vital, but each of the images served only to confirm what he already knew: that girl was dead when she was on his table, yet now she seemed to be alive again. As the room darkened around him, he realized that all his certainties in life had now been stripped away.

VI

 

“It looks like it’ll be a calm crossing,” Doctor Young said as he and Kate stood at the dock, watching the ferry’s slow progress past the harbor wall as it maneuvered into position. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry too much about seasickness.”

Smiling politely, Kate turned and looked back up toward the mansion at the top of the hill. There were a couple of lights in the windows, but the place still seemed so isolated all the way up there, with a swathe of dark land separating it from the lights of the port town. She couldn’t help but think of Edgar spending the rest of his life up there, living in eternal isolation from the rest of the island.

After a moment, Doctor Young started to whistle some old show-tune, although finally he stopped as he saw the look on Kate’s face.

“Are you worried about him?” Doctor Young asked.

“Aren’t you?” she replied, turning to him.

“I’ve known Edgar Le Compte long enough to understand that he’ll always be okay. We should be more concerned about the people he’s being left with.”

“I just don’t like the idea of him and Didi rattling around in that place,” she explained. “They’re not good for each other.”

“Of course they’re not. Hell, they’ll drive each other crazy, picking at each other, fighting, screaming… But at the end of the day, I promise you that Edgar will be fine.”

“And Didi?”

“I think she can look after herself. She’s tougher than she looks. Anyway, it’s too late now. The boat’s here. It’s not your problem, Kate. It’s not mine, either. Edgar’s made his own decisions.”

“Maybe he’ll leave Thaxos?” she suggested.

“No chance. He’s here for good. He always said that when he returned, he’d never leave again. He’ll be here until the day he dies.”

Kate turned to watch as the boat’s engines were cut and it began to edge closer to the quayside. She’d hoped that Fernando might be working tonight, so that she could say goodbye to him, but the deckhand was unfamiliar. Glancing back across the town square, she realized that a small part of her was going to miss Thaxos, even though she still felt compelled to leave. Ephram, for one, had always been good to her, and although she’d promised to keep in touch when she dropped by to see him earlier, she knew deep down that it was a promise she wouldn’t keep.

“Allow me to take your bag,” Doctor Young said as the deckhand jumped ashore.

“Thanks,” Kate replied, feeling a faint tremor in her chest. She paused as Doctor Young carried her bag onto the boat, and then she climbed aboard herself. The tremor was lingering, as if something was slipping between her ribs and causing them to vibrate a little.

“You feeling okay?” he asked after a moment.

“Fine,” she replied, although it was a lie. All evening, she’d been feeling little flutters just behind her ribcage, and although she’d been trying to ignore them she was starting to worry that they were getting stronger. She figured it was probably just stress, and she’d already decided that she’d get her heart checked out properly when she got back to London.

“I’m a doctor,” he reminded her, “and you’re a bad liar. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Really, it’s nothing,” she insisted, even as she felt a jolt of pain arcing through her chest. Taking a seat, she turned to watch as the deckhand began to push the boat away from the quayside. With every passing second, however, the uncomfortable sensation in her chest became stronger, and finally she felt Doctor Young put his arm around her shoulder and ease her down onto the bench.

“Is it here?” he asked, pressing a hand against her chest.

“It feels…” She gasped as she felt the pressure building, as if something was pushing down with inordinate strength against her breastbone. “I don’t know what it is…”

“What about here?” he continued, squeezing her left shoulder. “Do you have any pain here or lower down in the arm? This is important, Kate.”

She shook her head.

“But you’re feeling breathless, aren’t you?”

She nodded.

“Is she okay?” asked the deckhand as he made his way over to them.

“ I don't think we can risk this journey,” Doctor Young told him. “Can you -”

“I’ll be fine,” Kate insisted, sitting up before suddenly she felt a powerful jolt of pain in her chest, as if a hand had reached through her ribs and clamped its fingers tight around her heart. She let out a cry of pain and sank back down against the bench, while trying to take short snatches of breath.

“Take us back to the shore,” Doctor Young said firmly. “Now! This woman needs proper medical attention!”

As she listened to the sound of the boat changing gear, Kate tried to tell him that she’d be fine, that she still wanted to get to the mainland. Every time she tried to speak, however, she felt as if the fingers tightened a little more around her heart, and finally she tasted a hint of blood in the back of her throat. Turning her head, she felt the boat bump against the quayside again as another burst of pain exploded in her chest.

“Kate, it’s going to be okay,” Doctor Young continued, pushing the hair back from across her face. “The deckhand and I are just going to lift you gently off the boat and onto dry land, okay? I don’t really want to move you right now, but it’s better than staying here.”

She tried to tell them that she was okay, but the pain was throbbing now in her torso and she was powerless to resist as she felt herself being lifted up and then finally being placed on the stones that lined the quayside.

“I’ll go and get Doctor Burns,” the deckhand said.

“No,” Doctor Young replied, “it’s okay, I’m a doctor. Anyway, I think I know what’s wrong here.”

“Heart?” Kate managed to whisper. “Is it my heart?”

“ Yes, I think it's your heart, but -”

“Heart attack?” she asked. “Am I having a heart attack?”

“I don’t think it’s quite that,” he replied, checking her pulse. “It’s more of a minor cardiac event, but I still think we need to monitor it. There’s absolutely no question of you going on the boat tonight. We need to get you back to the house so you can rest, and I’ll stay to monitor you overnight.”

“Am I going to die?” she asked.

“No chance,” he told her, “not while I’m here. Don’t worry, Kate, I think this is just a minor manifestation of your heart murmur, probably brought on by stress. With some rest and a few extra check-ups, I’m certain you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”

“Are you both staying, then?” the deckhand asked.

“Yes,” Doctor Young told him. “I’m sorry, but there’s no way she can travel in this condition.”

“ No refunds,” came the reply. “It's in the terms and conditions, you buy a ticket, you don't -”

“I know,” he snapped. “Just go!” He checked Kate’s pulse again. “Tell me about the pain,” he continued. “Is it the same as before, or worse, or better? Just try to describe it as best you can.”

“ It's...” She took a deep breath as she realized that the worst of it had passed now, although she could still feel its echo in her body. “I think it's getting better. I'm -” Turning, she watched as the ferry made its way out to sea, and she realized that she was going to have to stay on Thaxos a little longer after all. After a moment, she turned back to Doctor Young. “I can tell you exactly what it felt like,” she continued. “It felt like a hand in my chest, clutching my heart and squeezing it. It's like... it was worse in the boat, when we started to leave the shore, and now it feels a little better.”

“I’ll give you something to help you calm down,” he replied, turning to his bag and opening the top.

As she waited for him to find whatever he was after, Kate turned and looking up toward the mansion on the top of the hill. There were still lights in several of the windows, and after a moment she squinted and realized that she could just about make out a figure up there, looking out from the study. In fact, as she stared, she began to feel as if the figure was watching her, almost as if someone up there in the mansion knew exactly what had just happened down by the quayside.

“Edgar…” she whispered, before suddenly she felt something sharp in her arm.

“It’s just a sedative,” Doctor Young told her. “I’m worried that if you have too much adrenalin in your system, this murmur might develop into something else. You’ll start to feel relaxed soon. Not sleepy, just relaxed.”

“Edgar…” she whispered again, her eyes still fixed on the lights of the mansion. Somehow she knew that he was staring straight back at her, and she couldn’t help but feel that the events of the past few minutes were no coincidence. She wouldn’t be leaving Thaxos just yet. Edgar had got his way again.

VII

 

“Careful,” Doctor Young said as he opened the door and reached up to take Kate’s hand. “You’re under doctor’s orders to take it easy.”

“I’m not an invalid,” she replied as she carefully climbed down from the truck’s passenger seat. It was dark now, but there were lights in some of the windows of Edgar’s mansion. Kate couldn’t help but feel as if she’d somehow lost a challenge and been forced to back down, and as Doctor Young grabbed her bag and set it down on the gravel, she looked up at the windows and half expected to see Edgar staring back at her.

“Come on,” Doctor Young said, leading her toward the steps. “There’s no shame in admitting when you need help.”

“I feel fine now,” she protested.

“And twenty minutes ago you were gasping for air on the floor of the ferry,” he pointed out. “Please, Kate, don’t be a difficult patient.”

“ But -”

“Kate!”

She sighed. Although she knew he was right, she still felt that Edgar would see this as some kind of victory.

“As soon as you’ve worked out what’s wrong,” she continued, “I’m leaving. This doesn’t mean I’m staying on Thaxos for more than a few more days, okay?” They started to make their way up toward the main door. “Are you sure I can’t get a room down in the town? I know someone who has rooms for rent.”

“I need you where I can help you in case anything else goes wrong,” he told her.

“ But it's not like we don't have phones -”

“Kate, this could be serious. I know I’ve tried to play things down, but when we’re talking about the heart, extra precautions have to be taken. Any kind of cardiac event requires attention.”

Although she wanted to argue with him some more, Kate allowed Doctor Young to take her into the house. No sooner were they inside, however, than they were joined by Didi, who came sauntering through from one of the nearby corridors, dressed in an almost-too-short silk dressing gown and wearing a pair of sunglasses. With flip-flops on her feet and some kind of plastic pink flower in her hair, she looked absolutely ridiculous, as if she’d just escaped from a fairy princess gulag.

“I thought you’d, like, gone away?” she asked, sounding distinctly unimpressed as she took a sip from the champagne flute she was carrying.

“Long story,” Kate muttered.

“Is something wrong with you?”

“I’m fine. Where’s Edgar?”

“Oh God,” Didi replied, taking off her sunglasses. “His foul mood was the last thing I needed after the day I’ve had. I mean, Jesus Christ, I woke up a little while ago and I could feel this raging monster hangover coming on, so I figured I needed some hair of the dog.” She raised the champagne flute. “Cheers!”

“Your solution to a hangover is to get drunk again?” Kate asked.

Didi grinned.

“Very inventive,” Doctor Young muttered. “Remind me to run some numbers on your liver some time.”

“My liver’s fine,” Didi continued. “I’m still young. I figure when I get old, like twenty-eight or twenty-nine, then I’ll start knocking off the sauce a little. The liver’s an amazing organ, y’know. It, like, regenerates and stuff like that. Don’t they teach you anything at medical school? I don’t know why they don’t make every organ out of whatever they make the liver out of. It’s like the black box of the human body. When the rest crashes and burns, the liver’ll tell you what really happened.”

“I want you to go upstairs and rest,” Doctor Young told Kate, conspicuously ignoring Didi. “I need to consult some files and then I’ll come up and run some tests on you in an hour. Until then, you’re not to exert yourself in any way, is that clear?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Didi asked.

“Nothing,” Kate said darkly. “Sure, I’ll rest.”

“Are you pregnant?” Didi continued. “I was wondering if I saw a hint of a bump the other day.”

“I am not pregnant!” Kate snapped at her, before realizing that she’d over-reacted.

“Huh,” Didi added with a smile. “Well, if you want, I’ve got some brilliant slimming tablets I can let you use. They make it so you never wanna eat more than a lettuce leaf at a time, and they’re guaranteed to drop you a dress size in one week. They’re especially good if you’ve got fluid retention, so you should definitely give ‘em a go.”

“Thanks for the offer,” Kate replied, forcing herself to remain calm. “If I ever want to look like a stick insect, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Did you hear what I said about taking it easy?” Doctor Young asked Kate, leading her to the foot of the stairs. “That includes arguments, so get to bed before I have Jacob come and escort you.”

“ Fine,” Kate muttered. “Just...” She turned to Didi. “I think maybe I should talk to Edgar first, he's -”

“He’s gone off somewhere,” Didi replied, taking another sip of champagne.

“What do you mean?” Kate asked.

“After you left,” she continued, “he kinda stood at the window for ages, looking out with that mean old look in his eyes. I tried to cheer him up, but he kept going on about the people from the town and Alice and you and something about a stowaway, I dunno exactly what was bugging him. Eventually, about half an hour ago, he suddenly, like, headed for the door. I asked him what was wrong, but he was all in a rage, said he needed to get his frustration out. I told him he could get it out with me in bed, but he said he’d end up snapping me in two.” She giggled. “I guess he doesn’t know how much punishment I can take, huh? Even after all the rough stuff we get up to.”

“Where exactly did he go?” Kate asked.

Didi shrugged.

“But he was angry?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so mad,” Didi replied. “He said he was sick of the people here showing their disrespect. He kept muttering about how he’d tried to do nice things for them and they’d shoved it back in his face, and he was gonna make them regret it. Like, he’s not just a bit pissed off. He’s properly fuming about the way his dumb-ass garden party kinda all fell apart at the end. Something about big gift he tried to give them, and they weren’t exactly over the moon. Anyway, I tried to get him to calm down, but eventually I thought he was gonna clock me one in the mug, so I struck first.”

“You hit him?” Kate replied.

“He likes it rough,” Didi continued. “It’s not the first time I’ve lamped him one. Anyway, so then he went stalking off into the night, said he was walking to the town. Obviously I offered to go with him, but I get the feeling he wanted to take out his frustration some other way. Anyway, I wouldn’t like to be whoever comes across him first, ‘cause he’s in one hell of a foul mood.”

Shocked, Kate turned to Doctor Young.

“He’ll be fine,” he told her. “Don’t worry about Edgar, worry about yourself.”

“I’m not worried about Edgar,” she replied, “I’m worried about what he’s going to do in town.”

“I’m sure it won’t be anything too dramatic,” he continued, taking her hand again and leading her up the stairs. “I imagine he’‘ll probably just make a fool of himself, exacerbate all the tension, and then come storming back up here. His bad moods tend to last for a few days, so tomorrow might be a little tricky too. We can all find out in the morning. For now, I’m prescribing bed-rest and a check-up by me in…” He checked his watch. “Maybe a little longer than an hour. Let’s say midnight. I think I might have a few things to do first, and later I need to take a look at Alice too. I only came here for a few days’ holiday, and now look at me, taking over the medical care for half the island.”

“Fine,” Kate replied, “but just so you know, I hate being told to rest, and I hate being told to relax, and I definitely hate being told to calm down.”

“Then don’t make me keep saying it,” he replied. “Go on, get back to your room. I’ll get Jacob to bring your bag up.”

“ And I'm leaving as soon as you tell me I'm better. Tomorrow or -”

“I’ll decide when you’re fit to travel,” he told her. “If there’s really something wrong with your heart, I’m not willing to take any risks. Like it or not, while you’re here, I’m your doctor.”

Sighing, Kate turned and made her way up the stairs. Every footstep felt like another surrender, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow Edgar was responsible for her having been unable to leave the island. More than anything, she was determined to make sure that this little stay didn’t last much longer. As soon as Doctor Young told her she was free to leave, she was still going to get the hell out of there on the first ferry.

“What are you looking at?” she muttered as she passed the portrait of Edgar’s grandfather.

As she headed to her room, she suddenly became aware of a soft sobbing sound coming from behind one of the other doors. She paused for a moment and listened, and then finally she pushed the door open and saw Alice Marco sitting on the edge of a bed with her face in her hands. For a moment, Kate felt that maybe she should just leave the poor girl alone, but finally she figured that if there was one time she should butt in, it was now.

“Hey,” she said, making her way over and putting a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

“I can’t leave,” Alice replied, looking up at her with tears still falling down her cheeks. “My parents wanted me to go home, but I… I just can’t… I don’t even know how to explain it. I just feel as if I can’t leave this house, as if stepping foot outside will…”

Her voice trailed off as she glanced at the door with a look of horror in her eyes.

“Maybe you’re in shock,” Kate pointed out.

“It’s something else,” Alice replied. “It’s like I’ll fall apart if I go too far from this house. Does that sound crazy?”

“No,” Kate replied. “In fact, I think I actually understand a little too well.”

“I thought you were leaving tonight?”

“Change of plan,” Kate continued. “I guess I’ll be here a little longer.” She paused for a moment as she realized that Alice still seemed to be freezing cold. “Have you just been sitting here for the past few hours?” she asked eventually. “Has no-one come up to check on you?”

“I keep thinking back to everything that happened,” Alice continued, staring straight ahead. “It’s like…”

Kate waited for her to finish the sentence.

“It’s like I have all these strange memories that don’t make sense.”

“Earlier,” Kate replied, “you claimed you remembered being dead.”

“It was like I was here but not here,” Alice replied. “I was wondering the streets of Thaxos, calling out for someone to come and help me, but I was all alone. Every house, every building, was completely deserted. I even tried the cantina, but the whole island was deserted, except for…” She paused. “I could tell there was someone watching me from up here, from the mansion. It was like I could feel his gaze burning into me. Eventually I tried to hide, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or where I should go, and I was just panicking more and more. I tried to find something to eat, but I wasn’t really hungry. The store was closed, so I broke the window and went inside, but there was no sign of my godfather and all the food was rotten, as if it had been there for years. My parents weren’t around either, and the whole town seemed so dusty and empty, as if it was completely uninhabited. Everything was just… blank and empty, and lifeless. Except this house. I could tell that someone was up here, but I was too afraid to come and see. But then I heard something moving nearby, and I chased after the noise and that’s when I saw…”

“Saw what?” Kate asked.

“You’ll think I’m crazy.” She paused. “There was a wolf, standing at the edge of town, staring straight at me. I don’t now what it wanted, but I wasn’t scared. I should have been terrified, shouldn’t I? There was just something so calming about its eyes, as if it understood what was happening to me. And then there was a noise, like an animal screaming, and the wolf ran. I wanted to follow, but…” Another pause. “The screaming continued until it was almost on top of me, and I turned and…”

“And then what happened?”

Alice stared into space for a moment, with a slight frown forming.

“Alice?” Kate continued. “What happened next?”

“And then I woke up in one of the rooms here,” she continued, “with some kind of cloth over my face, and a doctor was examining me. There are other things I remember too, but only in flashes. I saw a blinding light, and I felt myself becoming almost weightless, and I think I heard voices nearby, talking about me. I wish I could remember what they said, but…” She paused again, and her shivering seemed to be getting worse. “I feel sore,” she added. “Deep down, in my chest, and all through my head, I feel saw and tender, like something’s wrong.”

“You’re as cold as ice,” Kate told her. “If I run you a warm bath, would you see if maybe it helps? I think we need to get your core temperature up or you’re going to get sick again.”

Alice paused for a moment, before finally nodding.

“Doctor Young’s going to come and check on you later,” Kate added. “He’s going to check on both of us, actually. We can be sick together.”

“I don’t want to be sick,” Alice replied. “I want to be like I used to be.”

“I can’t really claim to understand exactly what’s been happening to you,” Kate continued as she headed through to the en-suite bathroom and turned on the taps. “Doctor Young seems to know what he’s talking about, though. I trust him.” She tested the water with her hands, to make sure that it was the right temperature. Steam was already filling the room. “We’re kind of both in the same boat,” she continued. “I think we’ll be okay, though. He seems like a good guy. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m going to follow whatever advice he gives me.”

She paused for a moment, reaching up to check her pulse. Her heart-rate felt normal, and she felt better than ever, but she couldn’t help thinking back to the moment when she collapsed on the boat. She’d never felt so sick before in all her life, and it had seemed to come and then go with such abruptness, almost as if someone had flicked a switch in her body.

“I want to be myself again,” Alice said as she walked slowly and painfully through to the bathroom. “I feel like I’m someone else. Even my body seems wrong somehow. The way I walk, the way I think… Something’s not right.”

“It’s been a crazy day,” Kate continued. “I’m sure things are going to be better tomorrow. Doctor Young can tell you more about this virus you contracted, and about how it affected you and more importantly about what it means going forward. You’ll feel better once you know the facts. And maybe it’s better that you don’t remember everything that happened to you over the past few days. It sounds like you’re well off with a spot of amnesia.”

“I was buried, wasn’t I?” Alice asked.

“Apparently.”

“I don’t remember that part,” she continued. “I suppose I should be thankful that small mercies, shouldn’t I? If I had woken up while I was down there in that coffin, I should surely have…”

Her voice faded away.

“There’s no point dwelling on things like that,” Kate told her. “You’ve got enough to deal with as it is.”

Alice smiled weakly as she began to undress.

“I’ll give you some privacy,” Kate told her, heading to the door. “Just try to relax and stop worrying about things. I know this place can seem strange, but tomorrow’s another day and…” She paused for a moment and turned back to Alice. “Things seem different when the sun’s up. At night, I guess that’s when the shadows start to seem a little more menacing. Just let me know if you need anything, okay? There aren’t many of us normal people up here, so we need to stick together.” She paused. “God, you know, I never really considered myself to be normal until I came here.”

She smiled, but Alice seemed too busy with the slow, painful job of undressing to really respond.

“What did you mean,” Kate continued, “when you said earlier that you thought you and I were the same?”

“I…” Alice paused. “I don’t know. It’s just that I feel everyone at this house knows something I don’t, except for you.”

Kate smiled, watching as Alice continued to undress.

“You need a hand?” Kate asked, feeling sorry for her.

Alice shook her head.

Heading out to the bedroom, Kate paused by the window, looking out at the dark night and, in particular, at the lights of the town down by the harbor. She couldn’t help wondering what Edgar was doing out there, and how his anger might manifest itself. If he truly had gone to the town, there would probably be ugly scenes, and there was a part of her that wanted to see whatever happened. The idea of Edgar drunkenly getting into a fight in the cantina, or skulking through the darkened streets, was a little absurd. Then again, she told herself that it wasn’t her problem. If Edgar and his anger management issues were going to cause a scene, then maybe that was what was required in order for him to learn a little humility. In fact, she -

Suddenly she turned as she heard a scream from the bathroom.

“Alice?” she called out, hurrying to the door. “Are you okay?”

As she stepped into the bathroom, the steam obscured her view for a moment. Finally, however, she saw Alice standing by the bath, completely naked and with a horrified look on her face.

“ Alice?” Kate continued, stepping closer. “What -”

And that’s when she saw it.

Running vertically down Alice’s chest, from just below her collarbone, down between her breasts and over her belly until it stopped just above her crotch, there was a thick gash, held together by large metal staples. There was blood on the surrounding skin, too, as if the process of undressing had caused the wound to be partially reopened, and in some places the staples seemed to be straining to keep the edges of skin together, revealing glistening meat through the gap.

“What is this?” Alice asked, her voice trembling as she stepped toward the mirror. “What happened to me? What have they done?”

Kate made her way over and took a closer look. The gash was thick and deep, as if the skin and muscle had been torn apart and then crudely pushed back together.

“Don’t touch it,” she said, as Alice reached her hands up and began to tug at the metal staples.

“What is it?” Alice whimpered. “Please, tell me what they’ve done to me…”

“Stop that,” Kate continued, pulling her hands away. “Whatever this is, I really don’t think you should do anything to it.”

“What have they done to me?” Alice asked, on the verge of tears.

“ I don't know,” Kate replied, “I -”

Suddenly, she happened to notice a trickle of blood running down Alice’s neck, coming from her scalp. She reached up and moved the girl’s hair aside, revealing another thick cut that seemed to run all the way around Alice’s skull, sewed tight shut with the same metal staples. It was as if someone had taken her body apart and then crudely put it back together, like a dissection.

Or an autopsy.

“What’s wrong with me?” Alice asked, with absolute terror in her voice as she stared at her reflection. “What am I?” She pulled her hair back to look at the staples running around the top of her skull, and finally she screamed.

VIII

 

“What the hell is that racket?” Doctor Burns muttered, sitting up in bed and staring at the window on the far side of his dark bedroom. He paused, and seconds later he heard it again: a heavy thudding sound coming from the yard, as if something was trying to smash down the wooden gate.

Climbing out of bed, he grabbed his dressing gown before hurrying out of the room and down the stairs. The thudding sound was continuing, but it wasn’t regular or rhythmic: instead, it had all the chaotic violence of some kind of trapped, wild animal. Then again, although Thaxos tended to be a quiet place at night with no real pests, he couldn’t discount the possibility that one of the locals might have had a few too many beers at the local cantina and somehow wandered into the yard. After all, the garden party had broken up rather suddenly, and it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that some of the angrier men had decided to drown their sorrows.

Making his way to the kitchen window, he hit a switch on the wall, and seconds later the outside light flickered into life, illuminating the yard. At that exact same moment, the banging sound stopped.

Doctor Burns waited, convinced that whatever was out there, it couldn’t have fled so quickly.

After a couple of minutes, he headed to the back door and turned the key before pulling it open and looking out at the yard. There was no sign of anything out there, and the whole island seemed to be completely quiet. Stepping outside, the doctor looked first at the back gate and then at the door to the tool-shed, but there didn’t seem to be any damage. Glancing over at the wolf’s grave, he saw that it hadn’t been disturbed.

“Hello?” he called out.

Silence.

“If there’s anybody out here,” he continued, “I want you to leave, is that understood? I’m too old to play silly beggars.”

He waited.

Nothing.

Finally, figuring that perhaps the noise had simply been a trapped bird or something equally innocuous, he made his way back inside and locked the door again. His hands were trembling as usual, which made it harder for him to turn the key. After taking a glass of water and glancing out the window one final time, he switched off the outside light and then made his through the dark house, heading to the stairs. He was far too tired to even -

“What is a doctor?” a voice asked suddenly.

Doctor Burns stopped in his tracks. That voice was familiar, but it couldn’t be…

“What is a doctor?”

Turning, he saw that there was a figure standing in the darkness nearby, visible only as a silhouette against the window. It was more than a figure, though. It was a presence, reaching out through the air between them.

“Who’s there?” Doctor Burns called out, hurrying to the counter and pulling open one of the drawers. Finding a carving knife, he turned to face the figure, who had seemingly not moved an inch.

“Don’t you recognize my voice?” the figure replied. “Come now, doctor. Please don’t insult me.”

“Le Compte?” Doctor Burns replied, taking a step forward. “What the hell are you doing here at this time of night? Are you…” He paused for a moment. “I heard something outside, in my yard. It sounded like a wild animal. There’s something out there.”

“There’s something in here too,” Edgar replied.

“I don’t have time to play stupid games,” the doctor continued, turning on the light. As soon as the bulb flickered to life, he saw that Edgar looked a complete mess, with his usually immaculate clothes having been torn to shreds, and with blood smeared across his bare flesh. There were tears in his skin, too, as if he’d been attacked by some kind of wild animal that had torn ragged strips away from his body. “My God, man, what happened to you?”

“Where do you want me to start?” Edgar replied with a faint smile. “How far back do you want me to go?”

“Are you drunk?”

Edgar shook his head.

“Are you hurt?”

“I had to take my frustration out on something,” Edgar explained, with a curiously blank look in his eyes, “so I brought down a couple of trees on my way to town. Unless someone introduces a fresh population of bears or wolves to the island, I suppose there are precious few targets. I was hoping that perhaps the gesture, futile as it seemed, might nevertheless suffice. Unfortunately, when I got here, I found that I was still filled with rage. This has happened before, of course, but I’ve always been able to contain it. Tonight, however, my anger is particularly strong. I feel as if this entire town has pushed me beyond my limit, and I need to vent my frustration in some other way.” He looked down at his hands. “How else is a man supposed to release such feelings?”

“ You're bleeding,” Doctor Burns replied. “I can take a look if you -”

Edgar smiled.

“What’s so funny?” the doctor asked.

“The idea of you doing anything to help me. The idea that you could even begin to…” He paused. “You didn’t answer my question from earlier, so I’ll ask again. What is a doctor?”

“Are you sure you’re not drunk? Are you on some kind of drug?”

“I’m stone cold sober,” Edgar replied, as he reached up and tore away the last few tattered strands of fabric that were once a white shirt, revealing his bare, torn chest with a flap of glistening red muscle hanging loose from the bone.

“You…” Doctor Burns paused. “I should take a look at that.”

“It’ll heal.”

“ But -”

“It’ll heal,” Edgar said firmly, reaching up and pushing the flap back into place. “The pain is… good. It helps.”

“Helps what?”

“Pain is a tool,” Edgar replied, “like any other. There is no need to fear it. Pain is the body’s way of letting the brain know that there is something amiss. One must simply understand the message and then act accordingly. If there is no immediate threat, the pain becomes rich and calming.”

“You’re insane,” Doctor Burns told him.

“You know,” Edgar continued, “I always promised myself that I would never again let my anger erupt in this way. I believed that I had it under control, that I was almost a new man. It’s not often that I’m wrong about anything, but I have to admit that in this case, I have been hopelessly naive. I am still the same man I have always been, and certain aspects of my character simply cannot be stifled, especially not when they have been so brazenly provoked. How did I ever convince myself that I could bury my old self and start again?”

Doctor Burns stared at him for a moment as he tried to work out exactly why Edgar had chosen to visit him so late at night. He didn’t want to overreact and risking coming across as a fool, but at the same time he felt extremely uneasy, as if he should try to get this intruder away as fast as possible.

“You looked scared,” Edgar continued finally, with a faint smile. “I trust that today’s events have not left you feeling too concerned?”

“Today’s events?”

“It must have been quite a shock for you to have seen the Marco girl up and about again. She was a little peaky, but apart from that she seemed remarkably well for someone who not twelve hours earlier was six feet underground. Tell me, have you been able to ascertain what, precisely, happened to her?”

“I’m keeping an open mind.”

“But you did perform an autopsy on her, did you not?”

“I…”

Edgar smiled again. “Come now, doctor. A learned man such as yourself must surely be able to answer such simple questions. Did you perform that autopsy or did you not? It’s a simple question. Yes or no?”

“ I... Yes, but -”

“Excellent,” Edgar continued, “so you know that the autopsy happened, and you know that Alice Marco turned up alive and well at my garden party. Tell me, have you managed to fill in the gap between those two events yet? After all, there has to be some explanation that will draw together two otherwise contradictory facts.”

“I’m still working on that.”

“But you’re a smart man. Isn’t it usually the case that the simplest explanation is often correct? And what would the simplest explanation be in this case?”

Doctor Burns paused, feeling that he was being toyed with.

“You seem reluctant to make any definite statements,” Edgar continued. “What’s wrong, man? Don’t you trust your judgment? Or do the facts contradict your mistaken beliefs?”

“A dead person cannot come back to life,” the doctor said firmly.

“So what happened?”

“I…”

Edgar smiled yet again.

“A dead person cannot come back to life,” the doctor repeated.

“You keep saying that,” Edgar replied, “like it’s some kind of mantra, but there seems to be some awkward evidence to the contrary. You’re a man of science, aren’t you? Is science letting you down at last?”

“What are you playing at?” Doctor Burns asked finally, turning and making his way through to his office. Once he reached his desk, he suddenly realized that he had no idea why he had left the kitchen. A second ago, there had been some aim in his mind, something he meant to come and fetch, but now that idea had faded away. As he heard Edgar coming through to join him, he looked down at the desk and desperately tried to remember what he’d come for.

“Memory playing tricks on you again?” Edgar asked.

Doctor Burns turned to him.

“You have a faint tremor in your hands,” Edgar continued. “Early Parkinson’s, perhaps?”

“ I... You don't know what you're -”

“You drink at night,” he added. “Just a tipple here and there. More than you should, and you tell yourself each morning that the alcohol is the reason for the tremor. It’s not, though, is it? You’re just deluding yourself. It’s the beginning of the end for you, I believe. Old age.”

“Absolute rot.”

“ How long have you got left?” Edgar asked. “A year? Two? How long before Doctor Alistair Burns is forced to retire for the good of his patients? Or would you prefer to push on, making more and more mistakes -”

“I do not make mistakes!”

“What about Alice Marco?”

“That was not my mistake!”

“Then what happened to her?”

Doctor Burns opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out.

“You remember Doctor Paul Lassiter, don’t you?” Edgar asked with a faint smile. “He was the man you replaced when you came to work on Thaxos. He was so old back then and you were so young. Now he’s dead and you’re the one who is old. It’s funny how the human lifespan works, isn’t it? One moment you’re a young buck, pitying the elderly, and then in the blink of an eye you’re old yourself. It has taken you forty years to become an old man, forty long and slow years, but now that they’ve passed, those years must feel like nothing at all. I’ve watched so many men and women grow old, and I think perhaps I shall never truly understand the process. Tell me, how does it feel?”

“Growing old?”

“I cannot even begin to understand it,” Edgar added.

“When I was a young man,” Doctor Burns replied, “I felt that the whole world was waiting for me. I felt that I could be anything, do anything, that I’d find a woman I loved and who loved me, and that we’d have children of our own, and that the possibilities were infinite, and… and…” He paused, feeling a shadow of sorrow in his chest. “Being old,” he added finally, “is the opposite of all that.”

They stood in silence for a moment.

“Then you have my utmost condolences,” Edgar replied eventually. “It all sounds… quite horrific.”

“I’d like you to leave,” Doctor Burns said firmly.

“Why?”

“I want to be alone.”

“To contemplate your own mortality?”

“To go to bed, damn it! I’m tired!” He waited for Edgar to get the message. “I want you to leave!”

“And I shall,” Edgar replied, “but not until I’ve finished what I came here for. Doctor Lassiter was a good man. I knew him briefly, when he himself was new to the island. Our time here overlapped for a short period.”

“What rubbish are you on about now?” Doctor Burns asked, making his way around the desk and pulling open one of his desk drawers. He stared down at the letter opener. A few days ago, he had stabbed the blade straight through his hand for reasons that he still couldn’t quite remember. Now, he felt the same urge again, as if some other force was inside his mind, gently urging him to go against every rational impulse in his body. “Doctor Lassiter has been dead for almost four decades,” he muttered. “He’s long gone.”

“I know.”

“ So how could you -”

“He had a faded wooden sign above the door,” Edgar continued. “He was very wary of me, and I imagine he was glad when I left. In truth, I think I scared him a little. By the end of his life, however, I’m sure he felt more content. He probably thought I was gone forever, and that the island of Thaxos was free for all eternity from the Le Compte family.”

“No,” Doctor Burns replied. “None of this is possible.”

“You know what I am,” Edgar said after a moment. “You pretend not to, because you’re scared to admit that such things could walk among you, because I conflict with all your medical textbooks, but deep down you know exactly what I am. Don’t you want to open your eyes to the truth? Don’t you want to say the word?”

Reaching into the drawer, Doctor Burns picked up the letter opener and stared at it. He was still trying to resist the urge to cut his hand, but after a moment that urge seemed to suddenly vanish, replaced by something new. A few seconds later, he set it down on the desk before opening another drawer and taking out the pistol he had always kept there for personal protection. Again, it was as if he was being pushed to hold the gun by a voice in his mind that was not his own, and for which he could not account.

“Say it,” Edgar continued.

“Say what?” the doctor muttered.

“Say what I am.”

“No.”

“Why not? What are you scared of?”

“Nothing.”

“Then say it, man.”

“You’re Edgar Le Compte.”

“And what is Edgar Le Compte?”

“He’s a…” He paused, before looking over at Edgar. “He’s a cancer that’s killing this island.”

Edgar smiled.

“You find that funny?” Doctor Burns asked.

“I find it amusing that you prefer to call me a cancer,” Edgar replied, “instead of using the proper word. After all, cancer is something from your world, doctor, not something from mine. You’re clinging to your tired old terminology rather than facing the truth.” He paused. “Say it. Say what I am. Or are you too scared to admit that I exist?”

“You’re just a man.”

“No, you’re just a man. I’m something else.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because it can’t be true!”

“Alice Marco is up at my home right now,” Edgar continued. “She talks, she walks, she breathes, and yet just a couple of days ago she was being cut open on your table. She still has the scars, you know. The process of reviving her did not involve mending her flesh. I could have done that if I had so wanted, but I chose to leave the scars intact. Cruel of me, perhaps, but she needs to understand the truth. So if all of that can happen, then what about me? Please, doctor, humor me. You know exactly what I am, so say the word.”

“ Dear Lord,” Doctor Burns replied, “protect this island and all who live here from this -”

Edgar started to laugh.

“ Protect us from this heathen beast,” the doctor continued, “and deliver us from darkness into the light, so that we may -”

“Retreating into religion?” Edgar asked. “Really?”

“Shut your mouth!” the doctor shouted, suddenly aiming the gun straight at Edgar’s face.

“Or what?” Edgar asked, clearly amused. “You’ll shoot me? A man of science, a doctor, will commit cold-blooded murder?” He paused. “Then again, that might be a good idea. Sacrifice your own good character in order to rid Thaxos of this menace.”

“I wouldn’t waste my life on you,” Doctor Burns replied, lowering the gun for a moment before suddenly his arm sprang back up, pointing the weapon at Edgar once again. He tried to lower it, but it was as if his arm was not his own.

“Do it,” Edgar told him. “Blow my head apart. Finish me.”

Reaching up, the doctor tried to force his arm down, but some other force seemed to be holding it in place.

“ By the love of God,” he muttered as he tried with all his strength to get his arm down, “save us from this -”

Before he could finish, his finger involuntarily squeezed the trigger. The gun fired once, hitting Edgar in the chest and knocking him down to the floor.

Doctor Burns stood completely still, staring straight ahead.

The room was silent. The only sound was the memory of the gunshot.

“Mother of God,” he whispered, finally able to lower the gun, “what have I done?” He moved around the desk until he could see Edgar prostrate on the floor, with a bullet wound on the right side of his chest. It was a shocking sight, and he had to fight his instinct to rush to the body and try to help. Turning away, he looked down at the gun in his hand and he realized that although he had tried not to fire, something else had taken control of his body. Then again, no-one would ever believe such an insane story. Figuring that he had to alert Inspector Cavaleri at once, he reached out for his phone. His hands were trembling more than ever as he began to dial.

Suddenly, however, he heard a sound behind him.

He froze in place, before finally turning to see that Edgar Le Compte was back on his feet and smiling.

“May the Lord have mercy on all our souls,” Doctor Burns whispered, barely able to believe what he was seeing.

“Say my name,” Edgar replied, with blood still dribbling from the bullet wound in his chest. “Not the name given to me by my forebears, but the name of my species. You see now that you can’t hurt me, that I’m beyond the physical and moral laws you hold so dear, so there is no further need for pretense. How much evidence do you need, man? Say what I am.”

Doctor Burns shook his head.

“Say it,” Edgar said firmly.

“No,” the old man replied, with tears in his eyes as he dropped the phone.

“Say it!”

“No!” Suddenly his arm raised the gun until it was pointed straight at the side of his own head.

“Say it,” Edgar commanded him. “Deny the truth and I can promise you a pitiful death, but acknowledge what I am and I promise that things will be better for you.” He took a step closer. “Say it!”

“I can’t!” Doctor Burns shouted, as the tears began to roll down his cheeks.

“Why not?”

“ Because vampires don't exist! They're -”

Before he could finish, Edgar ripped the gun from his hand and then bit down hard on the old man’s neck, sinking his two sharp fangs into the flesh and ripping a chunk away. Blood sprayed from the wound and Doctor Burns tried to stumble back, but Edgar held him in place and reached up, twisting his head to one side and burying his face in the open wound as blood flowed into his mouth. The old man struggled for a moment before the life began to fade from his body, and although he wrapped his arms around Edgar’s bare torso, he was losing the ability to fight and his fingers merely pressed helplessly against Edgar’s firm flesh.

Finally Edgar loosened his grip.

Slowly, Doctor Burns slipped down to his knees. He reached up and pressed his bloodied hands against Edgar’s bare chest, smearing his flesh crimson before finally slumping down to the ground and landing with a cold, dead thud.

“Thank you,” Edgar said with a smile. “Was that really so hard?”

He stepped over to the body and gave it a gentle kick, rolling it over so that he could see the old man’s dead eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. One side of his neck had been completely ripped apart. Turning to look at the wall, Edgar saw blood splattered everywhere. It hadn’t been the messiest death he’d ever witnessed, but it wasn’t too bad. He reached up and wiped a little blood from his chin.

“Go on then,” said a voice nearby. “What is a doctor?”

Edgar turned to see Doctor Young entering the room.

“A doctor,” Edgar replied calmly, “is someone who helps humans navigate the thin line between life and death. I require no such competition here on Thaxos. Life and death are my domains.”

“The people will demand a medical man, though,” Doctor Young continued. “I suppose I’ll have to stick around for a while. This was just supposed to be a holiday, you know. It’s dashed inconvenient that you’re so determined to keep me around. Do you realize I have a dinner date next week, and tickets for the theater in London? I’m going to have to put some noses out of joint by canceling.”

“Are you demurring?”

“Do you think I’m insane?” Doctor Young replied. “If you want me here, what choice do I have? I suppose I shall just have to get on with things and…” He sighed. “I guess Thaxos isn’t that bad. I can manage here for now. I’ll have to get myself a nice shiny sign made, won’t I?”

“I trust that Ms. Langley is back at my home?” Edgar asked.

Doctor Young nodded.

“I shall return there shortly,” Edgar continued, kneeling next to the corpse. “For now, my anger has made me hungry and I wish to eat some real food for a change. I’m sick of all that cow meat and caviar up at the house, and that damnable wine that humans insist on drinking all the time. Kindly leave me in peace and return tomorrow morning. Doctor Burns has some patients coming, and you’ll need to explain to them that he has suddenly gone to the mainland, and that you are taking over his surgery for the time being.”

“Don’t you think they’ll want a better explanation?”

“I believe most of them are already rather disillusioned with the doctor’s performance,” Edgar pointed out. “The events of the past twenty-four hours should have sealed the deal. I have been steering things in this direction for quite some time now.”

“Always a couple of steps ahead, huh?”

“Always.”

“Well, have a nice feast,” Doctor Young replied, heading to the door. “Try to clean up after yourself, won’t you? I don’t really want to have to deal with an old corpse when I arrive in the morning. I spotted some disturbed soil in the back yard just now. I think the old fool buried that wolf out there, so at least there’s already a convenient grave for any bits of bone when you’re finished with him. It’s almost like the idiot dug it for himself. Then again, I guess we all do that one way or another during our lives, don’t we? Just not usually so literally.”

He paused for a moment, staring down at the dead body on the floor.

“So strange,” he muttered, “how hard it was for him to admit the truth. I have no respect for anyone who denies what’s right in front of his eyes. I mean, what’s so hard about saying the word vampire?” He paused for a moment. “I don’t suppose this changes anything between us, does it?”

“Leave,” Edgar replied darkly. “I wish to be alone while I eat.”

“ But can't you just...” Doctor Young paused again as he struggled to find the right words. “You know what I want, and I've proved myself -”

“Leave,” Edgar said again.

“ What more do you want from me?” Doctor Young asked. “I've done everything you've asked, I've lied to people about how we know each other, and now you want me to drop my entire life and stay here to help you. Can't you just give me something in return? I know you think I'm not ready, but you're wrong. Father, please -”

“Leave!” Edgar shouted, his bellowing voice causing the windows to rattle in their frames.

Doctor Young stared at him for a moment, before turning and heading to the door. He glanced back one final time at his father, before leaving the room.

Edgar remained silent for a moment, staring down at the bloodied corpse. His anger, which had been driving him all day since the townspeople ran from his party, was finally starting to abate, and he knew that the following day he would be calm once again. For now, however, he was driven by the urge to feed. Leaning down, he opened his mouth and sank his teeth once again into the dead man’s neck. It took several minutes for him to drain the remaining blood, but he was already starting to feel the strength coursing through his veins, filling him with the vitality that could only come from a fresh kill. When he was done he decided to eat a little more, so he bit down hard into the flesh.

Moonlight streamed through the window, but the only noise in the room was the sound of the old man’s body being torn apart and eaten. Outside, Doctor Young began to whistle an old show-tune as he walked away.

Part Seven

I

 

When she opened her eyes, he was already standing at the window, silhouetted against the moonlit night sky. She sat up, but he disappeared as soon as she blinked, leaving the curtains blowing gently in a midnight breeze.

She waited.

Silence.

And then suddenly he was upon her.

Pushed back down against the bed, she felt his hot breath against her neck. She wanted to call out, not because she wanted him to stop but because she felt she should not allow herself to be taken so easily; she remained quiet, however, as his fingertips danced across her flesh and calmed her soul. Every touch sent a tingling sensation through her flesh, as if his fingers were sending flashes of lightning into her core.

Seconds later, he moved down her body and she felt his hands squeezing her bare breasts, not with the gentle inquiry of a lover but with the force of an explorer who felt he had already conquered this new land. She arched her back as she pressed her inner thighs against the side of his torso, trying vainly to hold him in place between her legs in an attempt to make him realize that he wasn’t in complete control. He was too strong, however, and he swiftly pushed her legs apart again before leaning down to kiss first her left breast, and then the nipple.

“Kiss me,” she whispered, closing her eyes as she closed her mouth.

He began to bite at the nipple, teasing it and filling her with a sense of pure lust that she barely even remembered.

“K…” she started to say again, but the word dissipated into a slow, trembling moan.

He released her nipple and kisses the underside of her breast, and then he pulled back a little.

She waited, but although she could tell that his lips were close, he seemed reluctant to give her what she wanted. Instead, she felt his hands on her chest again, and then she felt him getting into position between her legs. For a moment, it was as if he was examining her, the way a dog examines a new piece of meat. She knew there was danger involved, but she kept her legs open, inviting him inside.

What’s he waiting for? she asked herself, as her breathless anticipation caused her chest to rise and fall rapidly.

As soon as he entered her, she gasped and waited as he filled her completely, slipping deeper and deeper into her warmth. It was the first time a man had penetrated her for many, many years. Opening her eyes, she reached up and puts her arms around his shoulders, placing her hands on his back as if to welcome him into her body. She turned her head to one side and listened to the sound of his breath as he began to make love to her. He was grunting, like a rutting animal. The rhythm was slow at first, but she could feel his body slowly building up more and more power, and she knew that soon he’d unleash all the strength of a beast. There was something so urgent about the way he was taking her, as if it was a purely physical impulse.

“Wait,” she whispered eventually, turning to look up at him. She tried to focus on his face, but although the rest of his body was clear in the moonlight, his face seemed somehow blurred. Reaching up, she tried to put her hand on his cheek, but something held her back. Somewhere in the blur, she thought she could just about make out a pair of white eyes staring down at her, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage to focus on them.

Gasping, she felt him increase the pace.

“ Edgar,” she whispered, putting her hands on his chest, “wait, I want to -”

Suddenly he let out a faint sound, like a growl.

“ Edgar -”

Without warning, he suddenly leaned closer and kissed the side of her face. A shiver passed through her body as she turned to one side. After a moment, she felt two sharp little pinpricks of pain on the side of her neck, and the pain quickly began to grow. Reaching her hands down his back, she eventually let her fingers fall on the upper part of his buttocks, and she felt strangely comforted by the engine-like thrusting of his body. In fact, his whole torso seemed to be shuddering, as if soon he’d reach his peak.

Slowly, she began to feel something hot running down the side of neck. Reaching up, she realized that she was bleeding. Two thin lines of blood had begun to run down to her collarbone. Her trembling hands were soon smeared red, and she instinctively wiped blood against her breasts.

“ Edgar,” she said after a moment, “I think -”

Before she could finish, she felt the two pinpricks of pain get even worse, as if something was digging deep into her body. She gasped again, as the pain in her neck and chest began to twist down through her body and merge with the sensual pleasure that was building like an ever-tightening knot in her crotch. It was a sensation she’d never expected to feel again, but now it was growing and growing, threatening to overwhelm her body. All she could do was hold onto her lover and wait for him to bring her to the point of pleasure. Holding her arms around him, she began to hold her breath as his every thrust twisted the knot tighter and tighter, until finally the effort brought tears to her eyes. She was on a plateau, waiting for the orgasm to burst and push back the pain, and all it would take would be for him to choose the moment. And then, finally, she let out a soft moan and as he bit down harder on her neck and she came for the first time in a decade.

 

***

 

The door creaked slightly as she pushed it open. Not enough to wake anyone else in the vast house, but enough to make her pause for a moment and listen to the silence.

The dream had felt so real, so intense, that she’d felt compelled to get out of bed as soon as she woke up. Not only because her whole body was drenched in sweat, but also because she felt that she needed to reset her mind. Wandering through the house’s moonlit corridors, her bare feet padding against the cold stone floor, she’d somehow made her way downstairs in a trance-like state until, finally, she was standing in the archive room. After a moment, she realized that she was still breathless from the dream.

It had been a long, long time since she’d felt even a hint of sexuality in her body. So long, in fact, that she’d begun to think that those days were over. She’d enjoyed a fairly normal sex life with her ex-boyfriend, but they’d broken up years ago and thoughts of sex had faded over the years as she threw herself deeper and deeper into her work. At first she’d tried to fight it, telling herself that she wouldn’t be complete if she didn’t have an appetite for other people, but eventually she’d come to think herself as asexual. There had been guilt at first, and then calm acceptance, and then finally – until her arrival on Thaxos – she’d mostly put the matter out of her mind.

And now her sexual side was awake again. The orgasm in her dream was the first she’d felt for years. It had shocked her and reminded her of her body’s potential, a potential that she’d assumed – hoped? – had simply been lost in the years.

Making her way across the dark archive room, she looked at all the boxes and tried to imagine what must be inside. Mementos and reminders from Edgar’s past, she assumed, as well as items from previous generations of the Le Compte family. Wanting to distract herself from the echoes of pleasure still drifting like smoke through her body, she walked over to one of the boxes and picked up some papers from the top. Leafing through them, she found they were inventory notices from almost a century earlier, presumably from the time when Edgar’s grandfather ruled Thaxos. Just as she was about to head away, however, she noticed something beneath the papers. Reaching further into the box, she pulled out a small leather-bound book with a simple title inscribed on the front:

 

The diary of J. Beecham, an account of his travels.

 

Opening the book, she found that its faded and yellowing pages were filled with tiny, intricate handwriting. The script was old-fashioned and she struggled at first to make out more than a few words, but she’d dealt with such items before and it didn’t take long before she was able to decipher the spider-like writing.

“August the first, 1919,” she read aloud. “My arrival on Thaxos was not without incident.”

She smiled. Apart from the date, she felt that the line could describe her own arrival on the island.

“It began with a disappointment,” she read, “continued with a mystery, and ended with a ghost. And all before my first night!”

She paused.

“A ghost, huh?”

Turning the book over in her hands, she tried to work out why the item felt so incongruous. She’d never heard of anyone named J. Beecham, and although she could quite understand that someone might travel to Thaxos and keep a diary, she couldn’t help but wonder why that diary would have ended up in Edgar Le Compte’s archive room. Opening the back of the book, she found that it was almost full, stopping only a few pages before the end. She flicked back through to the front and looked for anything that might indicate its provenance, but there was nothing. It was almost as if the diary had simply appeared out of thin air.

Figuring that she was still too alert to sleep, she wandered over to the far side of the room and sat on the nook that nestled in one of the windows. There was enough moonlight coming through the window for her to be able to read the diary without too much trouble. Although the handwriting was still something of a challenge, she began to decipher the text, hoping to find out what had brought this J. Beecham individual to Thaxos and, perhaps more importantly, how his diary had ended up in the archive. After all, she felt that if a man went to the trouble of writing a diary, he would surely bother to take it with him when he left.

Turning onto her side so as to better see the moonlit page, she began to read.

II

 

August the first, 1919 – My arrival on Thaxos was not without incident. It began with a disappointment, continued with a mystery, and ended with a ghost. And all before my first night!

Having been invited down here by my good friend Jonathan Merrick, I was somewhat dismayed at the last port to receive a telegram informing me that he had been called away on urgent business. Nevertheless, having already purchased my ticket and allocated some time to the journey, I resolved to continue and enjoy a few days in the Mediterranean sunshine. As such, I boarded a small ferry and busied myself with some work during the long crossing. I asked the boat’s crew a few questions about our destination, particularly concerning the geology of the place, but they were uncommunicative gentlemen and eventually I settled to read.

Upon arrival, I was struck by the peculiar nature of Thaxos, in particular the juxtaposition between the sedate little town that hugs the port area and, further up the hill, the rather ominous-looking mansion. It certainly seemed like an island of two halves, and this impression was compounded after I made my way across the town square and reached the cantina where I hoped to reserve a room. The gentleman with whom I dealt seemed fearful, and a little suspicious of my sudden arrival. Nevertheless, he was willing to let me stay in a room above the main bar, albeit for a price that I felt was rather on the steep side.

After settling in, I resolved to take a walk through the streets of the town. There were few souls out and about, and the handful of people I encountered seemed, to my estimation, to be rather timid. On several occasions I attempted to start conversations, only to have myself cut off by a brusque rejoinder; it was noticeable that each time, the individual seemed to cast a glance up toward the distant mansion, as if worried that even at this great distance we might be overheard. With little knowledge of the island’s history, I eventually came to the conclusion that the mansion must be home to some kind of landowner who evidently ruled the island with something of an iron fist.

I spent barely an hour exploring the narrow, cobbled streets before I found that I had returned to the small square by the harbor. It was still only midday and I was a little disappointed to realize that I had seemingly explored the whole town, and so I decided to strike out a little further. In his correspondence with me, Merrick had spoken at great length about a set of stones that stood on the north side of Thaxos, and I felt that the place was sufficiently compact for me to have a stab at finding this monument without the aid of a map. Consequently, I set off along a winding path that headed out of town, past an orchard, and along the edge an increasingly high cliff.

A couple of hours later, just as I was beginning to think that I must head back, I spotted the stones up ahead. I must admit that at this point my intellectual curiosity got the better of me and I somewhat hurried, until finally I reached the stones. My first impression was that they must be the work of some religious cult, perhaps of Druidic origin, since I was reminded of some of the stone circles we have at home in England. At the same time, there was something a little different about the stone circle of Thaxos: for one thing, the circle itself was a little tighter than one might have expected; for another, the precise positioning of the circle on the island seemed to offer no benefit either in terms of mapping the stars or governing the seas. In fact, if I had been a Druid all those years ago, I scarcely think that I should have chosen this particular spot for my rituals.

As is my way, I spent several hours examining the stones, although I discovered nothing of real interest. I made some sketches, but all in all I could not shake the feeling that these stones were keeping their true purpose well hidden. There were no markings or engravings that I could make out, and I began to think that the stones might never reveal their original use. After all, a man requires at least some kind of clue if he is to investigate such a mystery, yet these stones stood defiantly in the sun, as if they were daring me to even speculate. I have a long and storied career in the fields of both archeology and geology, but I must admit that as I sat on the grass and stared up at the stones, I began to feel that I had finally been beaten.

What happened next, I am not sure I can explain, so I shall merely record the events here so that I might come back to them at a later date and find some sense. I am not a superstitious man, but I must admit that I felt my fears stirred a little over the following few minutes.

Here’s the thing: I had been sitting quite alone, in total solitude, when I suddenly became aware of a man standing nearby. How he crept up on me, I do not know, nor can I even begin to understand why he would not have made his presence known sooner. Nevertheless, there he was, standing approximately fifteen feet from me and staring at the stones, almost as if he had no idea of my presence.

I watched as he wandered between the stones. Although I expected him to acknowledge me at any moment, he seemed oblivious to my presence. Eventually, I felt that the onus was on me to make first contact.

“Splendid weather!” I called out to him.

Ignoring me, he made his way to one of the stones and placed a hand on its surface.

“I said, splendid weather!” I added, feeling that the gentleman – although young-looking – must be a little deficient in the ears.

He turned toward me for a moment, not quite making eye contact, and it seemed that perhaps he had an inkling of my presence.

Getting to my feet, I walked over to the fellow. I was starting to wonder if he was perhaps fully deaf and blind, or maybe an escapee from some home for the mentally inadequate.

“I was just remarking upon the weather,” I continued, stopping when I was no more than five or six feet from him. “As a Londoner, I’m not used to the heat.”

The man turned to look past me, as if something over my shoulder had caught his attention. I turned to follow his gaze, almost expecting to find another fellow, but there was no-one. Turning back to the man, I could see a look of confusion in his eyes.

“I say,” I continued, “perhaps I should properly introduce myself. My name is…”

Before I could finish, he began to walk away, heading across toward the stones on the other side of the circle.

“Well,” I muttered, taken aback by his rudeness. “So this is the hospitality of the people here, is it?”

I watched for a moment as the man went around the circle, examining each of the stones in turn. Actually, when I say that he ‘examined’ them, I mean more that he brushed his hand against them, almost as if he expected to feel something. Feeling rather left out, I began to do the same, but there seemed little point and eventually I stopped and watched him some more. I felt certain that he would have to acknowledge me eventually.

“I’m a fellow of the Royal Institute,” I said eventually, convinced that this news would pique his interest. “I’ve dug at Avebury, you know.”

He made his way behind one of the stones, disappearing from view.

“I said I’ve dug at Avebury!” I called after him. “Did you hear me?”

No reply was forthcoming.

“ I'm sorry,” I continued, hurrying around the stone so that I could address the fellow directly, “but I really do think that you're being a little -”

I stopped dead in my tracks as I saw that there was no sign of him.

Hurrying back around the stone, I still was unable to locate him. I made my way around the circle until I was certain that there was no sign of him, and then I stepped back for a moment, so as to get a better view of the entire scene. I am quite certain that there is no way he could have made off without my having seen him, and yet I cannot deny that the fellow seemed to have disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. It was at this point, alas, that my primal senses became a little too animated, and I admit that I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that I had encountered some form of specter. If this makes me seem a little weak-minded, then I shall just have to accept the barbs. As I stood out there by the circle, I truly felt a faint shiver pass through my body.

Feeling that it would not do to linger, and with the sun beginning to set, I turned and began the long walk back to the town. I had a few more days planned on Thaxos, so I resolved to return to the stones and carry out some more work. As I walked, however, I could not help glancing over my shoulder a couple of times, just in case my strange companion might show his face again. It shames me to admit it, but I was rather fearful of the situation, and I was unnaturally happy to reach the town again with no further strange experiences.

Upon arriving at my accommodation, I discovered that a message had been left to me. I was most surprised to find that Baron Edgar Le Compte had invited me to dinner at his mansion the following night. Whoever this Le Compte fellow is, he seems very agreeable.

And now to bed, so that I might be rested for the morrow.

III

 

“Oh,” Didi said, with obvious disappointment, “so you’re still here, huh?”

“Doctor’s orders,” Kate replied as she set another pile of papers down on the desk. “I figured that if I can’t leave for a few more days, I might as well do some work.”

Bright morning light streamed through the window, spilling over the desk and across the floor. Having slept poorly, Kate was feeling a little dulled, but she had spent a couple of hours working with the papers and, as such, she felt strangely settled. Her mind occasionally drifted back to the diary, and in particular to the dream that had woken her earlier, but for the most part she had managed to keep her carnal thoughts under control.

“What about thingy?” Didi asked. “What’s her name again? The one who was screaming last night.”

“If you mean Alice,” Kate continued, “she’s resting. Doctor Young is worried that she might set her recovery back, so he’s given her something to help her sleep.”

“Is it true that she’s got, like, a big cut between her boobs?”

“ It's complicated,” Kate explained. “I don't think Doctor Young has quite worked out what's wrong yet, but he said he's going to run some tests. Meanwhile -” She picked up an old file and blew dust from the cover. “This is what I'm doing with my time.”

“What is it?” Didi asked with disdain.

“Archive work.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

Kate smiled.

“You know there’s, like, a pool, don’t you?” Didi asked as she made her way over to the desk, while wearing nothing more than a bikini and dripping water with every step. “And the sun’s out. Like, you’re on a totally gorgeous Mediterranean island. You could be out there, working on your tan and maybe doing a few lengths, some yoga to tone up… Instead, you’re stuck in here with a bunch of old letters and stuff.”

“I like to keep busy.”

“Me too, but with cocktails.”

“I’ve always been…” Kate paused as she realized that she didn’t feel like going into her personal history at that particular moment. “Horses for courses.”

“Weird,” Didi muttered. “So, how’s it going in here?”

“Fine,” Kate replied, before realizing that for some reason Didi actually seemed genuinely interested. “Why?”

“No reason, just…”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Kate continued, “but you don’t strike me as someone who cares too much about the contents of some dusty old boxes.”

“You never know, there’s gotta be something interesting in here, right?”

“Would it surprise you to learn that I find everything in here interesting?”

“Even this?” Picking up the nearest piece of paper, Didi studied it for a moment. “It’s just a bunch of numbers, and the names of some trees.”

“It’s the gardener’s notes,” Kate replied, taking the paper from her. “With this, I can work out what methods the gardener used, and maybe even what the climate was like at the time. From that, I might be able to follow a lead in another document and come to a conclusion about the shipping patterns around here and the types of merchant vessels that docked. Each piece of paper in this collection advances my knowledge a little further.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“And what’s the point?”

“It’s another piece of the puzzle.”

“What puzzle?”

“The history of the mansion,” Kate explained, taking care not to sound too exasperated, “and the history of the Le Compte family, and maybe even the history of the whole island.”

“It’s an island,” Didi replied, “it doesn’t have history. It sorta just sits here.”

“Well, the world would be very dull if we all cared about the same things,” Kate pointed out. “Believe it or not, I’m quite happy in here. Anyway, I burn easily if I’m out in the sun.”

Smiling politely, she started sorting through the latest stack of papers, but after a moment she realized that Didi was loitering, as if she wanted to ask something. She continued to sort through the papers, hoping that she might be able to convey the fact that she wanted to work alone, but eventually she began to sense that Didi was hanging around for a particular reason.

“Did you come down here for something?” she asked eventually.

“Not really, I was just…” A pause. “It’s no big deal, but did you happen to find anything about a guy named James Nixon?”

“Edgar’s former business partner?”

“You know about him?”

“A little. I doubt there’ll be anything in here about him, though. Everything in these boxes is from a much earlier period, mostly the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

“Huh.”

Looking over at Didi, Kate could see from the look in her eyes that she was lost in thought.

“Why are you so interested in James Nixon?” she asked.

“No reason,” Didi replied quickly – perhaps a little too quickly. “I just wondered, is all.”

“Doctor Young told me the basics,” Kate replied. “I’m guessing you don’t know any more about it than anyone else?”

“Not really.”

“That must be hard.”

“Hard?”

“You’re going to marry Edgar,” Kate continued. “It must trouble you if there are strange rumors circulating about him. Surely you want to know everything about the man you’re going to take as your husband?”

“I know he’s rich,” Didi replied, “and hot, and…” Her voice trailed off for a moment. She glanced back at the door, as if she was worried about being overheard, before turning back to Kate. “Okay, cards on the table. If you find anything about James Nixon at all, you have to bring it to me, right? Not to Edgar, not to Doctor Young or Jacob or anyone else. You bring it to me. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Kate raised a skeptical eyebrow, surprised by this sudden change in Didi’s demeanor.

“Are you worried?” she asked.

“About what?”

“About your fiance.”

“I…” Didi paused again, and Kate couldn’t help but feel that there was a hint of conflict in the younger girl’s eyes, almost as if she was wearing a mask to disguise her true intentions.

“Why are you really here?” Kate asked finally.

“ I was just wandering through the house and -”

“I mean here on Thaxos at all. With Edgar.”

“I’m marrying him.”

“And there’s nothing else?”

“Like what?”

Staring at her, Kate still felt as if she wasn’t getting the whole truth. She’d previously written Didi off as a hedonistic, binge-drinking idiot, but now she was sensing something much deeper, a kind of calculating intelligence hidden beneath the surface.

“So what’s this?” Didi asked suddenly, picking up the leather-bound diary. “Cool book. Is it yours?”

“It’s a diary I found,” Kate explained. “It’s a hundred years old.”

“Who was J. Beecham?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ve looked online but I haven’t been able to come up with anything. As far as I can tell, he seems to have come to visit Thaxos in 1919. There are a couple of references to the First World War and to him having a bad hip, so I think maybe he’d been injured. I haven’t finished reading everything yet, though. He was a geologist, from what I can tell, and he seems to have gone out to look at the stones on the north side. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he discovered anything.”

“Huh,” Didi replied, flicking through the pages. “So what’s his diary doing here?”

“That’s another question for the pile,” Kate muttered. “I’d like to finish reading it today, but if you’re interested I can pass it on to you when I’m done.”

“Nah,” Didi replied, “it’s just boring stuff from the past. Who cares what some old guy got up to when he came to visit this place.”

“Or why he apparently left his diary behind.”

A faint, nervous smile crossed Didi’s lips.

“After all,” Kate continued, “the last few pages are empty. People don’t tend to just leave their diaries behind, especially when they’ve been filling them with notes and drawings.”

“So what do you think happened to him?” Didi asked.

Kate shrugged.

“It’s kinda creepy,” Didi added, setting the diary down as if she suddenly found it to be somewhat discomforting. “I hope he, like, just forgot it in a hurry.”

“I’ll let you know if I turn up anything interesting,” Kate added, “and also if I find any mention of James Nixon. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m digging into things that happened a few centuries ago, but you seem more interested in the recent past.”

“I think I need another swim,” Didi replied, turning and heading back to the door before turning to Kate one more time. “Oh, and Edgar’s looking for you. He said to tell you to go see him if you get a chance. He’s working all day, but he usually finishes around four, so that might be a good time to catch him. Don’t go knocking on his door earlier than that, though. I swear to God, he goes ballistic sometimes if he gets disturbed.”

“I’ll…” Kate paused. She could still feel Edgar’s hands on her body after the intense dream the night before. “I’ll drop by his office later.”

“And let me know if you come across anything about James Nixon,” Didi added. “Really, just to satisfy my curiosity.”

Once Didi had left the room, Kate paused for a moment and tried to work out what, exactly, Didi was hiding. Figuring that she probably had little chance of coming up with an answer, she glanced over at the desk and saw J. Beecham’s diary. For a moment, she felt Edgar’s hands on her body again, as if he was reaching out from the dream and touching her under her clothes. Telling herself that she needed to put such thoughts out of her mind, she grabbed the diary and resolved to distract herself.

IV

 

August the second, 1919 – Upon my arrival at Baron Le Compte’s house, I was met at the door by his manservant Jacob, who informed me that His Lordship (as Le Compte evidently likes to be known) would meet me in the study. My coat and cane were taken, and I was led along a beautifully decorated corridor lined with oil paintings. Barely had I managed a few steps, than I felt that this must be a very fine and cheery house indeed.

When I reached the study, I was ushered inside and at first I believed myself to be alone. I admired the bookshelves and noted that Baron Le Compte possessed a remarkable range of titles on various subjects, and I began to realize that I was surely in the company of a remarkable intellect. In fact, I could not help but wonder why such a learned and refined gentleman would hide himself away on an island such as Thaxos; as beautiful as the surroundings might be, there seems to be little stimulus here for the active mind, and I would have expected to find Le Compte in a metropolis such as London or New York, not a backward little stump of green and yellow surrounded by the blue of the Mediterranean. As a man of the printed page myself I’m afraid that I rather lost track of time as I admired the books, only being disturbed when I realized that someone had begun to clear his throat nearby.

Turning, I came face to face with a rather dour-looking gentleman wearing a black suit. The first thing I noticed about him was that his youthful features stood in marked contrast to the weight in his eyes, and the second thing was that he bore a striking resemblance to the men in the paintings I had noticed a moment earlier. He was the kind of man who draws all eyes in a room, and I have to admit that I immediately felt a little intimidated by his presence.

“Baron Le Compte, I presume,” I said with a smile as I removed my gloves and shook his hand. “It’s an honor and a surprise to be invited to your home.”

“I’m just glad that you were able to come,” the man replied with a somewhat deep, yet also silken voice that hinted at great confidence and poise. “It’s not every day that a man of learning come to our humble island.”

“I was invited by a friend,” I explained. “Perhaps you know him? His name is Jonathan Merrick, he’s an antiques dealer in the town. Specializes in silverware and the like.”

“I can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure of his company,” Le Compte replied. “I’m afraid that these days, I spend very little time away from this house. My relations with the people of the port town are rather tense, which is another reason why I was so keen to invite you up here. Some fresh blood is good for the soul, and by my estimation you are a very interesting man, Mr. Beecham.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t put myself up on a pedestal,” I told him as he led me to the drinks cabinet and, quite unbidden, began to fix us each a drink. He seemed to be the kind of man who makes decisions quickly, without seeking the view of others, and I suppose I can appreciate such an approach. “I’m merely a bumbling old man who takes note of the world around him,” I added. “My achievements in life are not great.”

“A bumbling old man who was educated at Cambridge, I believe,” Le Compte replied with a smile.

“Why, that’s right. However did you know?”

He explained that he had read a few of my old pamphlets concerning the history of Hellenic culture, and although I found the coincidence to be rather striking, I simply told myself that this was clearly a rather intelligent man who read widely on a great number of subjects. He certainly possessed a keenly intelligent eye, and I felt that he was expending little intellectual energy on our conversation. It is not often that I feel myself to be at a disadvantage, but such was undoubtedly the case while I was in Baron Le Compte’s company. The man’s intellect was already proving itself to be truly astounding.

“You’re interested in the stones on the north side of the island, I believe,” Le Compte continued as he passed me a brandy. “You’re certainly not the first who has come to examine them.”

“And yet there are no papers of note regarding their provenance or purpose,” I pointed out.

“Indeed. I have begun to wonder if their mystery will be solved within my lifetime. I feel sure that it cannot be beyond the abilities of humankind to come up with an answer. They are, after all, just a collection of stones.”

“But what were they in the past?” I ask. “Such stones clearly do not come from Thaxos, so they must have been sourced from some other place, and then transported here to be erected. The process itself would have been extremely time-consuming. If the stones were put in place by a small local religion, I struggle to see how they would have achieved it all. No, I believe that something grander happened here in the past, but this only raises more questions. Who would go to the considerable effort of doing such a thing, and why?”

“I hope you can tell me.”

“ I'm afraid I must disabuse you of certain notions,” I continued. “I am only here on a casual whim, really, so I have no way of launching a proper investigation into the stones and their meaning. Such an undertaking would require a great sum of money -”

“How much?”

At this point, I confess that I rather showed my naivety as I struggled to come up with a figure. For a short while, Le Compte actually seemed to be interested in funding such a survey, but his interest passed when I informed him that the job would take many years. He insisted that he was keen only on quick results, and he mentioned in passing an enormous archive that he wanted to have organized one day; the job, he feared, would take so much time that it would exceed his patience, although he added that he had identified one person he believed might be suitable to the task, but that it would be quite some time before she might become available.

“Tell me,” he said eventually, as he led me through to the dining room, “have you had any cause to consider what might be beneath the stones?”

I told him that I had not, but that it was standard practice when conducting a major survey to excavate the foundations. Tools and other items could provide valuable information about the method of construction. Archeology, I added, is as much about the small things as the large.

“But that is not what I mean,” he continued, gesturing for me to take a seat. “The stones are built on a piece of land that rises slightly near the edge of the cliff. I have often wondered if there might be some secret chamber. Otherwise, the entire structure would seem to be unambitious and perhaps even pointless.”

“Secret chambers are rather fantastical,” I told him. “They exist in stories told to children, but rarely if ever in real life. Why, next you’ll be suggesting that there’s gold buried somewhere nearby, or that pirates are using the coves of the island to smuggle their booty.” I took another sip of brandy, while congratulating myself on the examples. “In my experience,” I added, “the simplest explanation is usually the one that turns out to be correct.”

“You might be right,” he replied, but I could tell that he had raised the possibility not as a joke but as a genuine idea.

I spent several minutes regaling him with information about the history of various stone circles across the continent, and I feel that he enjoyed my impromptu speech. In fact, he continually checked his timepiece, as if he was worried that the evening might run out before I had a chance to finish.

We enjoyed a most wonderful dinner, with a kind of wild pheasant that he told me he had sourced from the next island along. The wildlife of Thaxos, he lamented, was rather limited, and he had to import most of the items for his kitchen. He told me that he owned a large vessel that was constantly in use, ferrying items from far and wide. I made a casual remark about the cost of such an operation, but I immediately realized my foolishness, since it was readily apparent that Le Compte was an extremely wealthy individual. Keen to play to my strengths, I continued to give him a potted history of stone circles, and I think I did a good job of explaining why a subterranean chamber was most unlikely.

Looking back, I feel that perhaps I made a fool of myself, especially given subsequent developments. Nevertheless, I was honest and open with the man, and at the time I believed what I was saying. How was I to know that Thaxos was set to unleash a surprise just a few hours later?

“Have you been to any of the old henges in England?” I asked him at one point.

“I cannot say that I have.”

“You surprise me,” I continued. “I would have thought that you might have traveled the world.”

“I’m afraid not. I spend all my time here on Thaxos. This place is my home, and I have never felt the kind of wanderlust that seems to consume so many men. I know my place in the world and I see no reason to move very far.”

I began to tell him of the wonders I have seen on my travels: the pyramids of Egypt, and the hustle of New York, and the beautiful vistas of the Ganges in India. Usually such tales cause great excitement, but Le Compte’s eyes seemed to glaze over a little, as if he had no interest in the broader world. Thaxos, it seemed, was the limit of his curiosity.

Once we had eaten, he gave me a tour of the house, but I could tell that his interest had begun to wander. I suppose I am not always the most entertaining of dinner guests, and the clock had not even struck nine before he told me that he would have to retire to bed. I accepted this news graciously, and I told him that I was most pleased to have met him. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we parted and I was shown out by the manservant. As I reached the main gate a few hundred feet from the house, I glanced back and had occasion to contemplate the fact that Baron Edgar Le Compte seemed to be a man who was most happy in his own company. A solitary man, yes, but not a lonely one.

For a moment, I even envied him. I cannot imagine what it is like to feel completely comfortable in one part of the world, and not to seek out new experiences. Then again, traveling broadens the mind, and a man with Le Compte’s riches could explore the whole planet if he so chose.

Feeling rather invigorated, I took the long walk home, following a meandering path that took me back toward the stone circle. Although the sun was riding low in the sky, I ventured all the way to the stones and had cause to examine the land a little further out. I am not sure what, precisely, I was expecting to find as I prodded the grass with the end of my cane, but eventually I felt the soil give way a little. My natural curiosity got the better of me and I got down on all fours, only to find once I had pulled the grass away that there was an opening, like some kind of tunnel leading deep underground. It was far too large to be the work of an animal, and rough wooden struts had been set up to support the roof. I could not help thinking that it was the most remarkable thing, especially since Le Compte had openly speculated about precisely such a discovery being made.

“Hello?” I called out, although I immediately admonished myself. The idea of someone being down in the tunnel was utterly ridiculous, and I felt that perhaps I had been reading too many adventure novels.

Looking over at the stones, I was suddenly reminded of the young man I’d witnessed up here on the previous day. Once again, although I am by no means a superstitious man, I certainly found myself wondering if perhaps it was unwise to be out so late. The island of Thaxos was still very unfamiliar to me, and not only was I unfamiliar with its topography, I also had no idea whether there might be dangerous animals on the loose. It would be better, I realized, to return the following day with the proper tools.

I turned back to look into the tunnel.

“Probably nothing,” I muttered to myself. “Probably just…”

I paused as I realized that I could think of no natural explanation. For a moment, the tunnel seemed to be almost drawing me inside, as if the darkness wanted me to enter.

Fighting my natural curiosity, I got to my feet and resolved to return the following day with at least a modicum of equipment. For one thing, I would require a light source if I ventured down the tunnel, and for another I would rather work during daylight hours. After marking the spot to the best of my ability, I turned and began the long walk back to my room in the port town. I was eager to get to bed, so that the night would be over more quickly and I might be able to venture beneath the stones and discover whatever might have been left down there.

And now, as I sit here in my little room above a merchant’s store in the town, completing tonight’s entry in the diary, I find myself wondering if I finally understand the lure of Thaxos. There is something strange about this place, something that seems to overtake the soul, and I fancy that it is linked to Baron Le Compte himself. If ever a man seemed to embody the spirit of the land around him, it is “His Lordship”, and I fancy that Thaxos has quite won me over. I feel certain that tomorrow morning, I shall get to the bottom of the stone circle and its true meaning.

 

***

 

Addendum – In my haste to set down my thoughts on the stone circle, I neglected to note one other strange event that took place tonight. I imagine that it shall come to nothing, but it rather sticks in my mind.

Upon my return to the guest house, I found to my dismay that my diary – the very book in which I am writing now – was no longer in my breast pocket. I searched my person, but swiftly it became clear that I had dropped the book somewhere on my travels since leaving Le Compte’s home. I hurried back out into the street and retraced my steps to the edge of town, but at that point I realized that perhaps I would never be able to find the diary again.

As I turned to go back to the guest house, however, I was suddenly accosted by a young woman who came running out from the shadows and stopped directly in front of me. The first thing I noticed about her was that her clothing was very unusual, unlike anything I have seen before. She had a rather startled expression, and for a moment I began to wonder if she was perhaps a little simple in the head, but finally she held out her hand and I saw to my shock that she was holding my diary.

“Wherever did you find it?” I asked as I took it from her.

“It was…” She paused, as if uncertain as to her answer. Looking back over her shoulder for a moment, she seemed worried that someone might be coming after her. Finally she turned back to me with a look of genuine fear in her eyes. “It was just…”

I waited patiently for her to finish the sentence.

“You should have it,” she said finally. “Not him.”

“I am so grateful to you,” I continued. “I would have been quite lost without the notes I’ve been making.”

“I read it,” she replied. “Every page.”

“You did?” I must admit that I was rather surprised that she had intruded in this manner, but I chose to bite my tongue. “Well, I suppose that there is nothing too scandalous between its covers. I use it not to record my personal thoughts, but to make notes about my work. I hope that you didn’t find them too dry.”

“I just…”

I waited patiently for her to continue, but it was becoming evident that the young lady was trouble by something.

“I thought you should have it,” she said eventually. “And thank you.”

“For what?” I asked.

“The…” Again, she paused, seemingly unable to complete more than a single sentence at a time. “I have to go,” she added finally. “He’s coming. He’ll find me if I stay. If you see him, don’t tell him you saw me, or tell him I went down a different street!”

I tried to ask what was wrong, but she grabbed me rather rudely by the lapels.

“Promise you won’t tell him which way I went!” she hissed.

“Who are you running from?” I asked.

“Just promise!”

Feeling that she was quite out of her senses, I told her that I would do as she asked. I offered to accompany her to her home or to the police station, but she said she could deal with the problem herself. I have no doubt that her fear was genuine, but I’m still not certain that she was of sound mind. I suppose every place, even a paradise such as Thaxos, can produce a feeble mind now and again.

“He won’t hurt you,” she told me, letting go of my lapels. “I don’t think so, anyway. It’s not you he wants. It’s me.”

“Well,” I replied, “that is good to hear. I am quite sure I have done nothing to upset anyone in my short time here. Are you supposed to be out alone? If someone is waiting for you, or looking for you, perhaps it would be better if I escorted you to them?”

At this point, she seemed startled by some thought, and she muttered a few more words before turning and hurrying away. I stood and watched as she disappeared around the corner, and I must confess that at this point I was starting to wonder what had just happened. She seemed almost scared, as if she was being pursued, yet there was clearly no-one else out in the streets at such a late hour. Still, I was glad to have the diary back, and I resolved to take better care of it in the future. When I opened it, however, I was surprised to find that one of the blank pages at the back had been ripped out. The young woman had made no mention of this, yet I am quite certain that the page was intact when I last had the diary. Why she would have done such a thing, I cannot imagine.

I do hope that she will be okay. Even now, I wonder if I should have reported the matter to the local police, just in case anything happens. I might drop by in the morning and let them know what happened.

But now I must sleep. Tomorrow is set to be a long and interesting day, and since it is to be my last on Thaxos before I catch the ferry back to Athens, I must make the most of both the time and the light. I might not be able to solve the entire mystery of that stone circle in one day, but I am certain I can make inroads and perhaps uncover a few pointers. It has been a long time since I felt so enthused about a project. The stones of Thaxos await!

V

 

“I ventured all the way to the stones and had cause to examine the land a little further out,” Kate read aloud as she stood on the clifftop, with a gentle breeze blowing in from the sea.

It was mid-afternoon and having worked in the archive all morning, she had finally decided to come out to the stones on the northern part of the island and search for the tunnel entrance that Beecham mentioned in his diary. She’d already read ahead and found some diagrams, as well as a map showing the approximate location, although several of the landmarks that had been used for reference points were no longer visible, which meant that she had only a rough idea of the spot. The whole area was covered with long grass, and she was already starting to wonder if she was on a hiding to nothing.

Still, anything was better than staying in the mansion and trying to not think about her dreams.

Making her way around the edge of the incline, she looked down at the grass in a vain attempt to see anything resembling the tunnel entrance that Beecham had sketched. It seemed impossible that such a thing could exist without someone else having found it. Over the next few minutes, she had a couple of false starts, and finally she completed a full circuit of the incline without finding anything. For a moment, she examined the sketches again, trying to work out where she’d gone wrong. Just as she was flicking through to the later pages, however, she heard a nearby rustling sound, and she looked over to the stones, expecting to find that someone else was around.

There was no-one.

She paused, as a slow sense of dread began to creep through her chest. The last time she’d been out alone on the island, she’d ended up half-dead, and now she was starting to wonder whether this latest trip had been wise. Edgar insisted that the wolf had been killed, but she found it hard to believe that a lone wolf could exist on Thaxos without at least a mate. Her heart was racing now, and she -

Suddenly she spotted a figure stepping out from behind one of the stones. It looked like one of Edgar’s men, and although she usually found them a little creepy, for once she was actually glad to not be alone.

“Hey!” she called out.

The man ignored her, making his way around the edge of the stone circle.

“Hey!” she shouted again, this time waving at him.

Although he was now heading more or less in her direction, he made no effort to look directly at her.

She waved a moment longer, before lowering her hand. There was a strange look in the man’s eyes, as if he wasn’t really aware of his surroundings. She watched as he continued to walk around the circle, and then finally he stopped and placed a hand against one of the stones. It was as if he was feeling for something, and Kate watched as he stayed in position. Finally, figuring that she could be ignored no longer, she started making her way through the long grass, heading for the circle.

“ Hello!” she called out to him. “Do you know if -”

Before she could finish, she felt the ground beneath her feet give way and she fell down into a narrow ditch, landing hard against the compacted mud. Letting out a gasp, she was about to get up when she realized that the ditch was actually more of a long trench, leading down into the ground. Reaching out, she ran her hand along a piece of wood that seemed to be half-buried in the ground, and slowly she began to realize that she’d finally found the entrance described in Beecham’s diary.

Checking the pages, she compared his sketches to the strut before her. It took a moment, but she was soon able to make an exact match.

Getting to her feet, she looked over the top of the long grass and saw that there was no sign of the man back in the stone circle. She waited for a moment, figuring that he must have disappeared behind one of the stones, but finally she realized that he seemed to have disappeared entirely.

“Hey!” she called out. “Hello?”

No reply.

Looking back down at the trench, she began to pull the long grass aside, and soon she was faced with the entrance to a passageway that seemed to extend down into the ground, heading directly beneath the stones. Grabbing the torch she’d brought from the house, she switched it on and shone the light into the darkness, but all she was able to make out were more struts as the tunnel went deeper and deeper. She could tell that it was leading directly beneath the stones, and she felt that this couldn’t be a coincidence.

Taking a couple of steps forward, she gave the nearest strut a push, to check its strength. Although the wood seemed old and gnarly, the construction seemed sturdy enough, and she had her phone with her in case anything went wrong. She couldn’t help but smile as she thought of all the Health and Safety forms she’d have to fill in if she was carrying out the search as part of an official project, and she figured that there were definitely some benefits to working alone. Inching a little further forward, she shone the torch against another strut and found more of the markings that Beecham had sketched. Every few steps, she glanced back over her shoulder, just to make sure that she could still see the way out, but her natural curiosity was winning the struggle and she headed further along the tunnel. Finally, after roughly twenty meters, she came to the end, where a wooden door had been set into an old oak frame, with carvings all around the edges.

She ran her fingers through the deep grooves of what appeared to be letters cut into the wood. Her first instinct was to assume that they were of Druidic origin, but she quickly realized that they were closer to the Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt, although in general they seemed to be something completely new. For the most part, they were unfamiliar shapes, sometimes with small images scratched into the lettering, but she could tell from there was some kind of syntactical logic. A whole language, buried under a hill on Thaxos, unseen by human eyes for many years. She was already starting to think that she might get an academic paper out of the discovery.

Reaching down, she pushed the door handle. At first it stuck, but finally – to her surprise – it creaked down and she heard the latch disengage. The door slowly inched open, revealing darkness on the other side, and Kate felt cold air against her skin, as if there was a faint draft coming from within. Although she knew that she should probably be a little more cautious, she nevertheless pushed the door all the way open and shone the light from the torch into the void ahead.

The first thing she saw was a huge piece of stone, running down from the low ceiling to the floor. Reaching out and running her hand against its surface, she realized that it was one of the stones from above, extending all the way down through the soil and into the chamber. She took a step forward and, spotting a rock on the floor, she used it to prop the door open. There was another large section of stone nearby, and it soon became clear that all the stones above were deep enough to reach the chamber, lining a large round room.

Stepping forward, she swung the torch around, unable to believe what she’d found.

Between each of the stones, wooden panels were set into the walls, and the panels themselves contained a mixture of carvings and shelves. Candlestick holders were attached to each shelf, with half-melted candles still in position and dried wax on the sides, while the air smelled musty, as if the place hadn’t been disturbed for a long time. Heading over to the wall, Kate saw that the carvings were mostly in the same format as those she’d found on the main door, although there were also images showing crudely-drawn figures engaged in various activities. Shining the torch up to the top of the panel, she saw that a few words had been carved in a separate section, along with what appeared to be English translations:

“Gothos,” she whispered, reading aloud. “Sangreth. Karakh. Attaroth.”

The words meant nothing to her, but she made a note in the back of Beecham’s diary, where he’d left several blank pages. Making her way to the next panel, she found an elaborate carving that seemed to depict some kind of church or cathedral, with strange wolf-headed creatures partially submerged in the surrounding mud. There was some text above the image, which she cross-referenced with the earlier panel and thereby translated as ‘Sangreth’. The next panel was even stranger, showing what appeared to be a battlefield with a naked man standing atop a large stone, and the symbols for ‘Gothos’ carved into the sky. Heading around the room, she found more and more of these illustrations, and it soon became clear that they were an attempt to tell some kind of story. Characters reappeared, and although she wasn’t certain she was reading the panels in the correct order, she began to get a vague idea that they were an account of a great battle, perhaps even a war. Finally she reached a larger panel, showing the naked man standing alongside several of the wolf-headed men, with huge spiders towering above them.

“Karakh,” she read, from the text on this image.

Leaning closer, she examined the carved spiders. They seemed huge, as if they were twenty feet taller than any of the humans around them.

“Freaky,” she muttered, reaching out and running a fingertip through the grooves and contours of the carving. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen before.

Taking a step back, she tried to work out exactly what she’d found. She’d expected the stones to be thousands of years old, but the carvings seemed to be much newer, perhaps hailing from only a few centuries earlier. It was possible that someone had co-opted an older site of worship, although her gut instinct told her that this was unlikely; the most plausible explanation was that the chamber was newer than she had originally believed, and that it had simply been designed to seem older. Whoever was responsible had clearly used a lot of time and money on the project, but it was clear that the place had long since been abandoned.

Glancing across to the next panel, she noticed another door. She made her way over and tried the handle, only to find that it was looked. She couldn’t understand why someone would have left the main door open but another, internal door locked, and although she tried a couple of times to shoulder-barge it loose, she finally realized that she’d have to return the next day with some lock-picking equipment.

Swinging the torch to the center of the chamber, she spotted some kind of table. Making her way over, she found that it was in fact an intricately-carved stone altar, complete with more illustrations around its edges. She reached down and ran a hand across the surface, feeling the cracks that ran through the stone, although she pulled her hand away when she realized that some of the cracks were stained dark red, almost as if blood had flowed. The red stain seemed to head deep into the stone, only to emerge as vein-like lines near the base, and there was what appeared to be a kind of basin designed to collect anything that flowed down from the top of the altar. Taking a step back, she turned and counted the panels that ran along the main walls, and she realized that there were thirteen. Pausing for a moment, she finally understood the purpose of the chamber. It was some kind of church.

“This is it,” she whispered, as a sense of awe rose through her body. “I’m going to be…”

She paused as, for a moment, she imagined herself presenting a research paper on the chamber. She was convinced that she’d found evidence of a hitherto unknown culture, and even if it had been confined merely to Thaxos – which was unlikely, though possible – she knew that the discovery was significant. She was familiar with the myths and legends of hundreds of European religions and cultural groups, and the carvings on the walls fitted into none of them. In addition, she found it impossible to believe that this chamber was an isolated location. Although she knew it was a little early to be jumping to conclusions, she was starting to think that perhaps she had stumbled upon the first sign of a culture that had deliberately kept itself hidden for centuries, just as Edgar has once suggested. Her mind was already filling with plans to excavate the entire site and -

Edgar.

She thought back for a moment to one of her first conversations with Edgar, when the subject of the stones had first come up:

The most convincing study I read,” he’d told her, “postulated that the stones were put in place by a forgotten civilization that once inhabited the island. There are certainly a few other indications of a religious or at least faith-based purpose, perhaps even human sacrifice. So perhaps there was a civilization here that has so far, for various reasons, completely eluded the history books.”

Sounds a bit melodramatic,” she remembered replying. “Do you really believe that could be true?”

She couldn’t help but smile as she realized that the truth seemed to be much closer to Edgar’s theory than to her own. In fact, she was starting to wonder whether he perhaps knew more about the stones than he’d let on. After all, he seemed to enjoy playing games, and she felt that it definitely wouldn’t be beyond him to deliberately hold back information. If that was the case, however, it meant that Edgar could also help her to learn more about whoever had built the chamber. She was starting to feel as if she might truly be on to a big discovery.

First, though, she needed to keep it secure.

Hurrying back to the door, she stepped out of the chamber and then kicked the rock aside. The door swung shut and she made sure it was firmly closed before heading back along the tunnel and finally emerging, blinking and hiding her eyes from the sun, back in the open air.

She stood for a moment, still trying to get her head around everything she’d just seen, and finally she realized that she needed to start planning. The longer she waited, the more she risked having someone else make a similar discovery. She knew she needed to work fast, but also that she needed to be discreet. There were a few people back in London who she trusted enough to enlist in the project, but as she made her way through the long grass and headed back to the -

Suddenly she froze.

Staring up at her from the grass, with the sunlight glinting against its bleached bone, there was a human skull.

VI

 

August the third, 1919 – It seems that my plan to work out at the stones today has not met with universal good humor!

This morning at breakfast, I regaled my host with the details of my meeting with Baron Le Compte last night, and I can honestly say that I saw the color drain from his face. It was as if I had claimed to have supped with Satan himself! Although usually a jolly fellow, my host immediately became extremely sullen, and he attended to my breakfast needs with the minimum of care and attention. Presently he disappeared into the kitchen, only to emerge a little while later and tell me in no uncertain terms that I should immediately leave Thaxos. When I asked him why, he said only that it would be unwise to become too drawn into the affairs of the island, and that every second I stayed would represent a further danger.

I politely disagreed with him, of course, but he was absolutely adamant that I should leave. I informed him that my ferry ticket was now booked for tomorrow, the fourth, and that I had pressing work to complete today at the stones. This did nothing to calm his fears.

When I tried to change the subject and bring up the strange encounter with the panicked young woman, he seemed unsurprised and informed me that this was the least of my worries. He offered to contact the ferry company himself and have my ticket changed, but eventually I grew rather tired of this superstitious nonsense so I cut my breakfast short and told him that I would be out all day. He took this news rather badly, but I became a little firmer and informed him that at my age I am more than capable of looking after myself. I believe that this point finally made him realize that his words were falling on deaf ears, and I should think that after I left the room he felt thoroughly ashamed of himself.

 

***

 

Addendum – This day goes from one strange even to another.

After leaving the guest house, I thought to drop by the local police station and mention the girl I met last night. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a rather dour gentleman by the name of Inspector Robert Charles, an Englishman who for some reason had turned up on Thaxos and taken the role of the island’s only police representative. He listened to my story and made some notes, but I could tell that there was no sense of urgency in his actions, and although he told me he would “look into” the matter, I felt certain that he was planning no such thing.

“She seemed very upset,” I explained, hoping to impress upon him the seriousness of the situation. “I feel that it was remiss of me to let her run off so easily.”

“There’s nothing you could have done,” he replied. “There’s nothing any of us can do. Whoever she is, I imagine that she is at the mansion by now.”

“The mansion?” I asked. “Do you mean to say that she is somehow connected to Baron Le Compte?”

“Whatever he gets up to on his own land,” he continued, “is his own business. It’s not often that his activities spill out into the streets down here, but when they do, we can only stand back and make sure that we don’t anger him.”

At this, I realized that the man was either lazy, or a fool, or both. I decided not to waste my breath on him and, satisfied that I had at least discharged my duty and reported the matter, I headed outside. Now I am sitting in the small cantina next to the town square, having a cup of tea before I begin the journey to the island’s north side. I must admit that I am aware that I have become something of a spectacle. People are clearly interested in my activities, and I confess that I worry they are talking about me behind my back. I cannot understand why I should have attracted so much attention, but it is becoming tiresome.

Once I have finished my tea, I shall head to the stones.

 

***

 

Addendum – It is now midday and I am taking a break from my work to eat a sandwich and record a few of my thoughts. The day’s work has, so far, been something of an anticlimax, but I feel certain that I can achieve a great deal more if I attack the afternoon with renewed vigor.

Upon making my way along the subterranean tunnel, lighting my way with a small oil lamp, I eventually came to a wooden door. I must confess that this is not what I was expecting, and when I tried the handle, I found that it was locked. I am not the strongest man in the world, nor the youngest, and although I tried to break the door down, I had no luck. Eventually I realized that I must take a different approach, so I tried to detach the handle and the lock, with no success. I must admit that the lock itself seemed to be rather newer than the rest of the door, as if someone had quite recently chosen to improve the security of the place.

Eventually, I realized that I would have to come up with another solution.

For the rest of the morning, I worked on recording the strange notations that are carved into the door, its frame, and the struts that support the tunnel itself. The language is quite unlike anything I have encountered before, being a mix of Latin-style letters and pictographs. I must confess that this is not my area of expertise, so I focused on getting the drawings down in my diary with as much accuracy as possible, so that I will be able to show the results to a friend back at the Royal Academy in London. I am quite sure that he will be able to deduce the meaning.

And now I sit here in the shade, contemplating my next move. I am determined to get that door open, and I will let nothing stop me, even if I have to take the cursed thing apart piece by piece. I cannot explain it fully, but I feel as if my curiosity is overflowing and I am becoming profoundly agitated by the fact that I have so far not been able to get through that door. Whatever is on the other side, someone clearly wants to keep it hidden, which only confirms my opinion that there is something of profound interest beneath the stone circle.

 

***

 

Addendum – I am taking another break, at four in the afternoon, to make some more notes. I fear that if I do not set things down, I am likely to forget.

For the past few hours, I have been working steadily to get that blasted door open, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the place is secured with the rigor one would expect at Fort Knox or the Bank of England. Judging by the strength of that door, one would be forgiven for thinking that the crown jewels are hidden on the other side. I know that I should give up and focus instead on the rest of the site, but as the afternoon has worn on I have found myself becoming more and more determined to get the door open.

The heat doesn’t help. Even down in the tunnel, I find that I am sweating profusely. In fact, I have even begun to become a little paranoid. More than once, I have heard a noise nearby, only to come out to the surface and find that there is no-one nearby. I keep telling myself to focus, but I cannot shake the feeling that I am being observed, and I fear that if I do not get through this door soon, I will go quite mad. The thought of leaving Thaxos tomorrow without finding out what is hidden beneath the stones is simply impossible to entertain. In fact, I might even delay my departure.

The light is going to fade in a few hours. I must continue to work.

 

***

 

Addendum – It is now eight in the evening. The sun has almost set, but I am still here at the stones, and I have resolved to stay here all night if necessary. I must get through that door!

Never before have I felt so obsessed by something so simple. The idea that a simple door could keep me from making a potentially vital discovery is infuriating, and I am starting to feel my blood boil. I am no locksmith, but I feel that I am an intelligent man and I am absolutely certain that I will not be beaten by whoever put this door in place. The longer I have to work, the more frantic I become, and my frustration is starting to boil over. I have even begun to mutter and curse under my breath, and I fear that anyone who happened past this site right now would assume me to be a madman.

The other problem is that I am becoming increasingly certain that someone or something is watching me. Even as I set these words down, I feel as if they are ridiculous, but the sensation persists: whenever I have been working on the door for more than a few minutes at a time, I begin to feel as if there is someone standing a little way behind me. I force myself not to look, but eventually the sensation becomes too strong and I turn, only to see that there is no-one. Unfortunately, this situation is getting worse, and my attempts to stay calm are becoming more and more difficult.

I must simply focus on the task at hand.

 

***

 

Addendum – I don’t know where he’s hiding, but I’m certain that there is indeed someone down here with me, someone watching my every move and probably laughing at my inability to get this door open.

I must simply ignore him. I shall not add any more updates to my diary tonight, since I have to work without interrupting.

 

***

 

Addendum – The intruder is becoming intolerable. He is loud without speaking, and he constantly attends to my every move even though he never comes close enough to touch me.

I also fear that he has perhaps begun to read my diary. The reason I say this is simply that the creases on the spine are changing in ways that do not match to my own habits. Again, I worry about seeming paranoid, but when I turn the front of the diary to one side, I am sure I can see fingerprints on the surface that are not mine. So if I am right, and if this invisible intruder is indeed reading what I write, then I have a message for him: Either help me or leave me alone!

There, it is said now. I shall update no more tonight. No more addenda. Just good, honest hard work.

 

***

 

Addendum – Will he ever leave me alone?

As midnight approaches, my cursed companion continues his silent, invisible vigil. In my anger, I have begun to shout quite openly at him, admonishing him for his rudeness and demanding that he leaves me alone. He ignores me, of course, as is his wont, and I am quite certain that he is laughing at me. In fact, I believe I can even hear him guffawing every time I throw my weight at the door and try to force it open. What he doesn’t realize, of course, is that his mocking tones only make me more determined than ever to break through.

If I have to stay out here all night, I shall do so.

 

***

 

Addendum – I have lost track of time now. I know only that it is dark outside, and that I have lost my watch somewhere. Worse, I have a searing pain in my shoulder and I fear that perhaps I have injured myself.

Still, though, I am determined to get through the door.

I have been throwing myself at the damnable thing over and over, yet it has not even begun to crack. I fancy that it must be made of some special type of wood that has been artificially strengthened, but I am also quite certain that it cannot possibly hold me back forever. By hook or by crook I will get through, and then I shall discover the secrets that someone has gone to such lengths to keep hidden.

My visitor, meanwhile, continues to watch, even though he does not do me the courtesy of stepping out of the shadows. I fancy that he feels superior to me, that he looks upon me as a weak and feeble man. I shall show him the truth, however; I shall make him realize that I, Jeremy Beecham, possess remarkable purpose of mind. When I set my mind to something, I refuse to be beaten.

 

***

 

Addendum – Still dark. No light. No need, though. Door still strong.

I shall not give up. This door will be broken before the sun rises, and I shall take sight of whatever treasures are hidden within. This is the first time in my life that I have ever been in such a frenzy, but I must embrace the passion and focus on ensuring that I succeed. At the same time, I feel something tugging at the edge of my mind, as if my very thoughts are being toyed with.

 

***

 

Addendum – I saw him! My tormentor, my visitor! He appeared briefly in the darkness at the mouth of the tunnel, and for a moment I was able to make out his fearsome shape. He seems to be part man and part beast, and I fancy that I hear him growling.

I am trapped down here. Still, I would not leave, even if I could. I shall break this door down, even if it is the last thing I ever do! And if that beast out there wants to get in the way, it will have to come in here and physically drag me out.

VII

 

“Jeremy Beecham,” said Doctor Young as he used a pair of tweezers to pick up a small, round piece of metal from next to the skeleton. “Thank God for personalized cufflinks, huh?”

“Never heard of him,” replied Inspector Cavaleri, before turning to Kate. “Does that name mean anything to you?”

Kate shook her head.

“Sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Kate replied, trying not to sound annoyed. “Why would it?”

“I doubt it means anything to anyone on the island,” Doctor Young continued, dropping the cufflink into a clear plastic pouch. “I’d estimate that this body has been here for a century, maybe longer.”

“And no-one found it until now?” Cavaleri asked, clearly skeptical. Again, she turned to Kate. “What exactly were you doing poking about up here, anyway?”

“I was…” Kate paused, keen not to admit the truth. The entrance to the underground chamber was just a few meters away, but it was well hidden and she hoped to keep it that way. “I’d been studying the stones,” she continued, “and then I just happened to see the skeleton.”

“And then you called me?”

“Of course.”

“It’s not a full skeleton,” Doctor Young continued, pulling away some of the grass to reveal the ribcage and part of the pelvis bone. “It looks like it was literally ripped apart. There’s no sign of the rest, although there are a few smaller bone fragments nearby, suggesting that the pelvis and upper leg were shattered.”

“What kind of animal could do that?” Cavaleri asked.

“Animal?” Doctor Young paused, with a faint smile on his lips. “Yes, I suppose it must have been an animal, mustn’t it? I honestly don’t know enough about the history of Thaxos to say.”

“A wolf?” Kate asked. “A bear, maybe?”

He shrugged.

“I was attacked by something,” she continued. “It wasn’t even that far from here.”

“This skeleton is much older,” Doctor Young replied. “It’s hard to see how there could be a connection.” He pointed at the shoulder, where one of the bones looked to have been fractured. “This is different, though. I think he damaged his shoulder somehow shortly before he died. There’s no evidence of healing, so I imagine that the injury occurred no more than an hour or so before he was attacked.”

Staring down at the skeleton, Kate couldn’t help but notice that its fingers seemed to be partially dug into the soil, almost as if it had been trying to save itself from being dragged away. It was facing the direction of the hidden tunnel entrance, almost as if it had been inside.

“Are you sure ,” Cavaleri continued, “that these bones are old? If there's any chance that this is a more recent death -”

“Absolutely no doubt,” Doctor Young replied, getting to his feet. “I’ll prepare a full report once I get back to the surgery. I can run various tests, and I can also send scans to a few friends back in London, and get their opinion. I also happen to have a spectrometer that should be able to determine the age to within a couple of years.”

“Fancy,” Cavaleri muttered. “How long did you say Doctor Burns is going to be away, again?”

“He was a little unclear on the matter,” Doctor Young replied diplomatically. “I was given to assume that we should not expect him back in the immediate future.”

“Strange that he didn’t drop by to see me before he left,” she continued.

“I’m afraid I can’t account for his decisions,” Doctor Young added. “All I know is that he came to see me late last night and asked if I could take over his surgery with immediate effect. I was as surprised as anyone else. After all, I wasn’t even planning to stay on Thaxos.”

“Something about this feels wrong,” Cavaleri replied, turning to look over at the stones. “Call it gut instinct if you want, but I’ve been in this job for a long time and I know when I’m not seeing the whole picture. Skeletons don’t just go unnoticed for all this time, even out here on the north of the island.”

“ So what happens now?” Kate asked, keen to ensure that Cavaleri wouldn't launch a detailed search of the area. “If it's a bunch of old bones -”

“Someone still died here,” Cavaleri pointed out, interrupting her.

“ But if -”

“Murder’s still murder.”

“This wasn’t a murder,” Doctor Young interjected. “This was a wild animal attack.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“I can,” he continued. “You can see for yourself, in fact. This body was literally torn apart, and there are scratches on the remaining bones that are consistent with them having been stripped of meat. Probably tooth marks. I’d say that the poor guy’s lower half was dragged back to a den somewhere.”

“Then we have to find the rest of him,” Cavaleri continued.

“Do you really have the time and resources to scour every inch of this island for the legs of a man who died over a century ago?” Doctor Young asked. “This is something your predecessor’s predecessor should have looked into.”

Cavaleri paused, and it was clear that she was finally coming around to his way of thinking.

“Get these bones back to town,” she said finally, “and confirm the age of the skeleton. I guess we all have more important things to be doing. There are enough dangers here today, without digging up things that happened a hundred years in the past.”

“Have you found Fernando?” Kate asked.

Cavaleri turned to her.

“You were looking for him,” she continued. “You seemed worried.”

“He’s…” Cavaleri paused. “I’m afraid I can’t comment on official police business.”

“I’ll have a preliminary report for you tomorrow morning,” Doctor Young told her. “Final results should only take a couple more days, but I’m telling you, this guy died a hundred years ago, and whatever killed him, it sure as hell wasn’t a human.”

As they continued to talk, Kate allowed herself to glance in the direction of the grass that covered the tunnel entrance. When she’d found the bones, she’d immediately called Doctor Young, who in turn had called Cavaleri, and it had seemed at first that the tunnel was going to be uncovered; now, however, she was starting to breathe a sigh of relief as she realized that it would remain her secret. Reaching into her pocket, she felt the edges of Beecham’s leather-bound diary, and she told herself that she was doing the right thing by keeping back some of the facts. After all, it wasn’t as if she could help Beecham now, and the last thing she wanted was to have Cavaleri blundering around in the chamber.

The chamber would remain her little secret for a little longer.

 

***

 

“I hear that there was some excitement on the north side of the island,” said Edgar an hour later, as he poured brandy into two glasses. “Doctor Young headed off in that direction in something of a hurry. I trust that nothing is wrong?”

“It’s fine,” Kate replied, forcing a smile. “Some old bones, that’s all.”

Edgar turned to her with a glint in his eye.

“A man’s body,” she continued. “Don’t worry, it’s old. Maybe a century or more.” She paused, feeling that although she wanted to keep the existence of the chamber a secret, she also wanted to test Edgar. “His name was Jeremy Beecham.”

“Beecham,” Edgar replied with a faint smile. “Well. That’s certainly a memorable name.”

He crossed the room and handed a glass of brandy to Kate, before taking a sip from his own. He seemed lost in thought for a moment.

“And you were the one who made the discovery?” he asked eventually.

Kate nodded.

“You were out at the stones?”

“I was taking a look,” she replied. “I wanted to…” Again, she paused. Reaching into her pocket, she took out the diary. “I found this in the archive room,” she explained. “It’s Mr. Beecham’s diary, covering his arrival on Thaxos and his experiences here.”

Edgar took the book and turned it over in his hand, and for a moment he seemed fascinated by its existence, almost as if he’d seen it before. The faintest smile curled across his lips.

“He came to the island,” Kate continued, “and met your grandfather. They even had dinner together one evening. He also took an interest in the stones and made some notes. From what I can tell, he had an interest in geology and archeology.” She paused, trying to decipher the curious expression on Edgar’s face. “There’s one thing I don’t understand, though,” she added. “I mean, he kept a diary, and clearly it was important to him. He made notes, so I’m assuming he planned to continue his studies of the stones. So how did the diary end up in your archive?”

“I imagine,” Edgar replied, “that he had no further use for it once he was dead.”

“But how did it physically get there?” she asked. “After he died, someone either took it from his hotel room, or took it from his jacket, or…” She paused, watching Edgar’s face carefully for any hint of emotion. “I guess I just think it’s a little odd that a man can die without anyone finding his body, and yet his diary ends up in a box in your archive. Those two facts don’t seem compatible.”

“Perhaps you will be able to come up with an answer as you continue to work,” Edgar replied, “or perhaps it will remain a mystery. I’m sure there must be a reasonable explanation, although I admit that it does seem a little unusual.” He handed the book back to her.

“You don’t want to read it?” she asked.

“You’re the archivist,” he continued. “I’m sure that you’ll let me know if there’s anything interesting in there. After all, that’s why I hired you, to put together all the pieces of the puzzle.” He paused. “I can’t help but wonder what other items of interest you might find as you continue to work. Even after just a few days in there, you seem to be coming up with a steady stream of revelations. I had no idea that my family’s history was so rich.”

She opened her mouth to remind him that she was only staying for a few more days, but something stopped her. In the back of her mind, she was already planning to go back to the chamber, so she figured she might stay a little longer.

As Edgar made his way over to the window, Kate slipped the diary back into her pocket. She knew it had been a risk letting Edgar hold it, since he might have opened it and read Beecham’s notes about the underground chamber. At the same time, she couldn’t shake the feeling that Edgar knew more about the situation that he was letting on, and she felt that his apparent lack of interest in the diary was itself an important sign. It was almost as if he knew about it already.

“This reminds me,” Edgar added, as he stared out at the sunset, “of a dream I had once.”

“A…” Kate paused, surprised that he’d mention something so personal.

“It was a long time ago,” he continued. “I was young. In the dream, I was running through a field of long grass, much like the one near the stones. This was before I had ever visited Thaxos, of course, so the similarity must have been a mere coincidence. In the dream, I tripped on something and came crashing down, and when I looked back I saw a human skeleton with its face turned toward me and its hand outstretched, as if it wanted to grab my leg. When I got to my feet and tried to run, the same thing happened again and again until finally I realized that there were bones hidden all over the field, hundreds and hundreds of them. I didn’t know which way to go, and then suddenly I heard a rattling sound, as if bone was banging against bone. Slowly, the skeletons began to rise and although I tried to run, there was nowhere for me to go. The field stretched to the horizon in all directions, and everywhere there were skeletons, turning to me and…”

He paused.

“And what?” Kate asked eventually.

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “It was just a dream, after all. Not real life.” He turned to her. “Dreams are perhaps private things. I always find it rather dull when people insist on telling others about their dreams.”

Kate smiled awkwardly, trying not to think back to her dream from the previous night.

“Then again,” Edgar continued, “sometimes a dream can be…”

Another pause.

“Something different,” he added. “Something a little more real.”

“ I should go,” Kate replied, setting her brandy down. “I still have -”

“If another person shares your dream,” he asked, “is it still a dream?”

“I…” She stared at him for a moment. “I’m not sure what you mean. By definition, a dream is something that just takes place in your own mind.”

“So if you have a dream involving another person,” he continued, “and if that other person also experienced the dream… Every moment, every touch, every sensation… Then was it really a dream at all? Or was it some other kind of encounter?”

“I don’t know,” Kate replied, trying not to panic. “A dream… A dream is a dream, it’s private, so I don’t see how…” She turned, but in the process she knocked the glass off the side of the table, sending it crashing down to the floor. She immediately knelt to pick up the pieces.

“I’ll get Jacob to clear that up,” Edgar replied with a smile. “Please, don’t trouble yourself.”

“ I'm sorry,” she replied, “I -”

Before she could finish, she cut the side of her finger on a piece of broken glass. A bead of blood ran out, but she quickly wiped it against her shirt.

“Did you cut yourself?” Edgar asked.

“No,” she replied, getting to her feet while keeping her hand turned away from him. “It’s been a strange day. I should go and work for an hour or two, to distract myself.”

Edgar sniffed the air, almost as if he could smell the blood.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Kate replied, turning and hurrying to the door.

“Or maybe tonight,” Edgar called after her, “in a dream.”

She turned to him.

“Just a little joke,” he added. “As you say, dreams are private things. We can’t share them with others, can we? Although life would be more interesting if we could.”

As soon as she was out in the corridor, Kate pulled the door shut and then leaned back against the wall. Her heart was racing, and her mind was filled with images from her previous night’s dream. She could feel Edgar’s hands running under her clothes, clutching at her flesh, and moments later she realized she could also feel herself becoming more excited, as if to welcome him again. Looking down at her hand, she saw that the cut was just superficial and was already drying up.

She turned and hurried along the corridor, heading back to the archive room. At first, she opened the diary and read it again. When she reached the blank pages at the back, she began to think back to the chamber she’d found beneath the stones, and she stared at the crude pencil sketches she’d completed earlier. Figuring that she should return the diary to the archive, she carefully tore out the last page, containing her sketches, before putting the diary in a clear plastic bag and placing it on a shelf. Opening the makeshift catalog she’d begun to keep, she recorded an entry for the diary, before folding up the torn-out page and slipping it into her pocket for later study.

She spent the evening working, refusing to go to bed, convinced that her dreams were no longer safe. At 8pm, she told herself she’d work for one more hour, and then the same at 9pm, 10pm and so on until midnight. Finally, just after 2am, she was unable to keep her eyes open any longer and she let her head drop as she sat at the desk. With the electric light still switched on, she dozed in her chair.

That night, in her dreams, she and Edgar made love again and again.

VIII

 

The hull of the huge black boat creaked as the engines began to power down. The prow of the vessel cut through the harbor water until finally the boat’s starboard side came to a gentle rest against the dock, at which point several crew-members jumped ashore with ropes and began to tie the boat in place.

Nearby, a small wooden hut bore a sign informing visitors that they had arrived at Parios, a port on the western coast of Greece. Parios was far from the country’s busiest port, with most merchant ships choosing one of the larger stopping points further along the coast. Still, Parios was known for its trading links with northern Europe, and as the port-master emerged from the hut with a clipboard in his hand, a set of pallets already stood waiting to be loaded aboard the vessel.

After a few minutes, up on the deck of the boat, a door inched open and Fernando peered out. He was determined to ensure that no-one spotted him, but at the same time he felt that he had to find out where the boat had arrived. Once he was sure there were no crew-members around, he hurried to the side and looked down at the pier, where the port-master was discussing matters with one of Edgar’s men, while several other crew-members were already starting to load the pallets. It seemed like a fairly normal scene, and it was clear that the process of bringing the goods onboard would take a few hours.

Hurrying to the set of steps that had been lowered from the side of the boat, Fernando took one last look around to make sure that he wasn’t being watched, and then finally he hurried down onto the pier. After spending more than twenty-four hours at sea, hiding in one of the boat’s empty offices, he was glad to be on dry land again, but he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. Trying his phone again, he found that he was still unable to get a proper signal.

“Excuse me,” said a voice suddenly, “are you one of the crew?”

Turning, he found that the port-master was standing behind him.

“I saw you come ashore just now,” the man continued. “Come on, I need you to go over the customs papers with me. That other guy was about as useful as a wet fish.”

“Sure,” Fernando replied, figuring that this would be a chance to learn a little more about Le Compte’s operation. “Anything I can do to help.”

As the port-master led him to the hut, Fernando happened to glance at a group of Le Compte’s men, who were struggling to get one of the pallets free from the rest. There was something strangely calm about them, but that wasn’t what worried him the most: instead, he was trying to work out how half a dozen crew-members could have appeared out of nowhere, when there was no sign of any of them during the crossing.

Part Eight

I

 

“It’s really nothing to be alarmed about,” Doctor Young explained as he set the stethoscope’s drum on Alice’s bare chest. “So far, everything seems normal.”

“ But the scar -”

“Is healing.”

“But why’s it there in the first place?”

“You’d have to ask Doctor Burns,” he continued, moving the drum down a little further onto the top of her left breast. “I’m afraid he was responsible for everything that happened to you up to the point when you were found and brought up here to Edgar’s house. Unfortunately, Doctor Burns has left Thaxos and I don’t know when he’ll be back.” He paused for a moment before removing the drum from her skin. “I can assure you, though, that there’s nothing to worry about. You’re on the road to recovery.”

Before she could answer, Alice heard the door to her room creak open. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw to her relief that Kate had returned.

“Everything okay in here?”

“I was just telling Alice not to worry,” Doctor Young replied as he set the stethoscope back in its case. “All her vital signs are fine. Her skin might look a little damaged, but what matters is what’s going on inside. The healing process is well underway.”

“How do you feel?” Kate asked as she walked over to the bed.

“I’m okay,” Alice replied, slipping her gown back over her shoulders and closing it across her chest. “I…” She paused, as if she was momentarily consumed by some other thought. Every so often, the torn ribbons of half-forgotten nightmares seemed to flutter briefly before her eyes. “I haven’t been sleeping so well.”

“That’s to be expected,” Doctor Young replied. “It’s only been a few days, Alice. Your body is working overtime to heal you up, and that’s bound to take a toll. Just make sure that you continue to rest, get good meals and plenty of water, and try not to stress yourself so much. You’re only human, and there’s no way to rush these things.” He turned to Kate. “I also need to talk to you later,” he added, his tone sounding notably more concerned. “It’s nothing to worry about, but I want to run some more tests on you.”

“My heart again?” she asked.

“I just need to rule a few things out,” he explained as he headed to the door. “I’ll come and find you later today. Right now, I have to go and deal with some patients down at my surgery.”

Your surgery?”

“The island needs a doctor,” he pointed out, “and although it’s inconvenient, I’ve managed to juggle a few things. I’ll be here until the end of the month at least.”

“So you don’t think Doctor Burns is coming back?”

“I don’t know,” he continued, “but if I were you, Kate, I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Kate watched as he left the room. Something about him wasn’t sitting right with her, and she felt certain that – at the very least – he was holding something back. A couple of times over the past few days, she’d entered rooms in the house only to find Doctor Young and Edgar deep in conversation. They always seemed to change the subject when they saw her, and she felt certain that they were up to something.

“Why does he lie to me?” Alice asked suddenly.

Kate turned to her.

“He is lying, isn’t he?” she continued, opening her gown again to reveal the top of the scar, which looked just as thick and deep as ever. “He says he doesn’t know why Doctor Burns did this, but…” Another pause. “He barely even examined it. It’s like he doesn’t want to know, or he knows already but he doesn’t want to tell me.”

“How’s the pain?” Kate asked.

“There’s no pain at all.”

“That’s odd,” Kate replied, staring at the scar. “It looks so deep. Have you thought any more about going back to town and seeing your parents? They must be worried sick about you.”

“I can’t,” Alice told her, her voice trembling a little. “I just… Whenever I think about going down there, I feel sick, like I might die. I didn’t even like it when they came up to visit me yesterday. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but every time they touch me I just feel as if my whole body is going to go into convulsions. I love them, I swear, but…” She paused as a shiver passed through her body. “Something has changed. I don’t feel like I’m myself anymore.”

“Are they coming today?” Kate asked.

“They said they’d be up this afternoon,” she replied. “My father has tried to convince my mother to give me a little space, but she’s so desperately worried about me. I know when they arrive that they’ll try to get me to go with them again.”

“And you really can’t stand the thought of leaving Edgar’s house?”

“I don’t know why,” Alice continued. “It’s just something deep inside.”

Kate stared at her for a moment, unable to shake a sense of profound pity. Alice seemed so weak and fragile, as if her recent ordeal had torn her apart. Although she didn’t know Alice very well, Kate felt an urge to try to help her.

“What about going to the north of the island?” she asked finally.

“The north?” Alice replied.

“I’m heading over there to look at the stone circle. I already made some interesting discoveries there yesterday, but I need to catalog the whole site and come up with a new direction for my work. I know it doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world, but at least it beats sitting around in here.”

“ I don't know if I'm...” Alice paused, but slowly a tentative smile crossed her lips. “Are you sure? I don't want to get in the way, and Doctor Young said I should rest -”

“You won’t be getting in the way,” Kate replied. “I could use someone to bounce a few ideas off. And as for Doctor Young, I’m pretty sure he meant not to go running around, and we’ll double-check with him first that it’s okay. A slow walk will probably do you some good.” She forced a smile, hoping to get the younger woman to accept her offer. “Come on, do it for me. We’ll let your parents know that they don’t need to come up here today. It’s a win-win situation.”

 

***

 

“I used to come out here as a child,” Alice replied as she and Kate reached the stone circles a couple of hours later. A fair wind was blowing in across the top of the cliff, rustling the long grass and offering some relief from the heat of the midday sun. In the distance, a light sea haze was threatening a hint of mist. “My friends and I used to pretend we were sacrificing each other.”

“Sounds kind of morbid,” Kate replied.

“We used to steal tomatoes from Ephram’s shop,” she continued, “and squish them against our fronts to make fake blood. It seems silly now, but at the time it was a lot of fun.”

“So people on Thaxos have always just accepted the stones?” Kate asked as they approached the edge of the circle. “Did no-one ever try to work out who put them here?”

“Of course,” Alice continued with a faint smile, “but I think most people just assumed they were something to do with… Well, you know Baron Le Compte’s predecessors weren’t exactly popular. A lot of people were scared of them. As children, we weren’t supposed to leave the town at all, but of course we did. There was a lot of superstition, even though there were no Le Comptes around at the time. They still cast a heavy shadow. Although they were gone, they were never really gone, if you know what I mean.”

“And now they’re back,” Kate pointed out. “One of them, anyway.”

“It’s almost as if he never left.”

“I’m starting to think that this site might be the key to discovering a whole new culture,” Kate replied, placing a hand on the nearest stone. “This place doesn’t fit with anything else I’ve ever seen. There are stone circles in other places, of course, but certain aspects of this particular site just stand out.”

“What do you mean by a new culture?”

“I mean a group of people, maybe a society or a religion, who don’t appear anywhere in the history books.”

“Is that even possible?”

“I would never have thought so,” Kate replied, making her way to the center of the stone circle. “Sure, there are always new discoveries to be made, but the idea of a group of people existing in the margins, never being noticed by the rest of the world. It’s hard to believe they could do that, unless…”

She paused.

“Unless what?” Alice asked.

“Unless they did it deliberately,” she replied, turning to her. “They’d have needed a lot of skill, and some luck, and probably a huge amount of money. Then there’s the question of why they’d bother. If they’d been persecuted at some point, there’d be a record. These people must have slipped like shadows through history, dodging every shaft of light.”

“And then they ended up on Thaxos?”

“Or they started here. I doubt they were entirely contained on one island, though. Thaxos isn’t exactly the biggest place in the world.”

“But you think they’re gone now?”

“I don’t see anyone around, do you?”

“These are just stones, though,” Alice replied. “I mean, what would be the point?”

“I’m sure they built more,” Kate continued. “Maybe this is all that remains, or maybe we just…” She paused. “Are you really interested in all of this?”

“The history of Thaxos fascinates me. My family has lived her for generations. I’ve never even thought of leaving. If something has been hidden here all this time, I want to know.”

Kate stared at her for a moment as she tried to work out whether or not she could be trusted.

“If I show you something,” she said eventually, “could you keep it to yourself? You wouldn’t be able to tell anyone, not even your parents, and especially not anyone at the house.”

“What is it?”

“First you have to promise.”

“Of course.”

“This way,” Kate replied, leading her out from the circle. Although she was worried that this might be a mistake, she felt that Alice had a good heart and an honest soul, and she figured that it would be useful to have someone with her as she explored the stones a little further. Even though Alice was by no means a historian, she knew a lot about the island and she seemed genuinely curious.

“Where are we going?”

“Here,” Kate said as they reached the entrance to the subterranean tunnel. “When you came up here as a child, did you ever stumble across this?”

Peering into the opening, Alice was clearly shocked.

“Hard to believe that no-one ever noticed it,” Kate continued. “When kids play, they don’t exactly stick to one spot. How could you not have found this thing?”

“I…” Alice paused, before turning to her. “I have no idea. I swear, we played here so many times, and we always…” She paused again. “It can’t have been here. Someone must have dug this recently.”

“Impossible,” Kate replied. “I found a diary written by a man who came to Thaxos almost a century ago. He found the tunnel too, so it must have been here when you were a child.”

“But we’d definitely have found it,” Alice continued. “We must have spent hundreds of hours up here, and there were other children too. If even one person had found something like this, everyone would have heard about it.”

“Then we’ll add that to the pile of mysteries,” Kate replied, taking a step into the mouth of the tunnel. “Trust me, that pile is really adding up.”

“Are we going in there?”

“I’ve been in before. It’s totally safe, but I think you’ll be interested when you see what’s under the stones.”

“Under the stones?”

As Kate led her alone the tunnel, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small torch. It didn’t take long before they reached the door, and once it was open Kate stood back to let Alice go first.

“This is impossible,” Alice exclaimed as she stepped into the chamber. “How could something like this be here?”

“Hidden,” Kate replied. “Like so much else on Thaxos.”

“What do these words mean?” Alice asked, running her hands across the carvings. “They’re not English or Greek. I’ve never seen anything like them before.”

“Neither have I, and I’ve studied European root language structures. This text is unrelated to any language that has ever been studied. It has its own letter-forms, its own syntax, its own everything. I can’t even be sure whether it’s supposed to be read from left to right or right to left. It’s another thing that points to this culture having existed in isolation, away from the rest of the world.”

“Is this an altar?” Alice asked, making her way to the center of the room. “Is that blood?”

“The dark stain might be blood,” Kate told her. “I’d need to run some tests to find out for certain, though.”

“Does that mean they sacrificed people here?” Alice asked, turning to her. “My friends and I used to play games like that in the circle.”

“I’d like to speak to those friends.”

“You can’t,” Alice replied with a hint of sadness in her eyes. “I’m afraid they died. They both drowned one summer while swimming off the western point.”

“At the same time?”

“The police thought Elizabeth got into trouble first, and then Karya went to rescue her. They were both such good swimmers. I never understood how something like that could happen. They were nine, the same age I was at the time. Their bodies were never found.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate replied.

“I was supposed to be with them that day, but I was sick. If I’d gone…” She paused again, as if the memories were overwhelming her, before she forced a smile and reached out to touch one of the wooden panels on the wall. “So what’s this?” she asked, clearly trying to change the subject. “It looks like an image of someone in a fight.”

“Looks more like a war to me,” Kate told her as she took a camera from her pocket and lined up the first shot. “One of my jobs today is to get photos of everything I can. I know people back in London who might have a better idea of how this all fits into the history books.” With the photo taken, she lowered the camera. “At the same time, I don’t want to draw too much attention to this place just yet.”

“You’re worried about someone coming and damaging it?” Alice paused. “Or do you want all the glory for yourself?”

“It’s not that,” Kate said, gesturing for her to follow as she crossed the chamber. When she reached the door at the far side, she tried the handle but found that it was still locked. “It’s this.”

“Can’t you get through?”

“No, and look at the door. Notice anything about it?”

“It…” Alice stared at it for a moment. “It looks new.”

“ Exactly,” Kate replied, turning to her. “If I didn't know better, I'd say this isn't entirely a historical site. It's almost as if someone's still using it. If that's the case, I don't want them to know that we've been here, and I also want to find out what's on the other side of this door. Maybe this secret society isn't quite ready for the history books yet. Until we've managed to find a way through, no-one can know we're down here or -”

Before she could finish, she heard a coughing sound from nearby. As she and Alice turned, they were both shocked to see a figure standing on the other side of the chamber, silhouetted against the dim light of the tunnel.

“I wondered why you two were sneaking out of the house,” Didi said after a moment, grinning mischievously as she stepped forward. “Looks like this day suddenly got a lot more interesting.”

II

 

“I think she’ll be okay,” Doctor Young said as he set his empty glass of brandy on the table. “Well, as okay as someone can be after such an ordeal. That scar on her chest is the real giveaway. I don’t think it’s going to heal any time soon. We can fool her mind, her organs… but her flesh seems to know the truth.”

Sitting at his desk, Edgar continued to study his papers. He’d made no attempt to even acknowledge Doctor Young’s arrival, and he hadn’t even touched the glass of brandy that had been placed next to him. It was as if he had absolutely no interest in anything he was being told and was, instead, lost in his work.

“You have to feel sorry for her,” Doctor Young continued, taking a sip of brandy before holding the glass up to admire his fingerprints on the side. “I imagine she has nightmares. Death separates the body from the mind, and it’s not so easy to squash them back together like this. The bungled autopsy didn’t help, either. Old Doctor Burns had trembling hands, and the cuts he made were crude at best. The man was an oaf.”

He turned the glass, marveling at the fingerprints before turning to Edgar.

“Of course,” he added, “Alice isn’t the one who matters. She’s sweet, and I suppose she’s reasonably intelligent, but she’s not smart enough to really dig deep for answers. When it comes to questions, we need to be more worried about Kate Langley.”

At the mention of Kate’s name, Edgar finally looked up.

“She asks the right questions, too,” Doctor Young told him with a smile. “Questions that make me worry.”

“You needn’t concern yourself with Ms. Langley,” Edgar replied. “Leave her to me.”

“Leave her to you. And…what exactly will you do with her? Or to her?”

“Ms. Langley is not your problem,” Edgar told him. “I won’t say this again. Don’t interfere with her.”

“She’s wrong for you, you know. This is just another example of you going after the wrong person.”

“Still bitter about your mother?” Edgar asked.

“Why would I be bitter?” Doctor Young replied. “You explained what happened. She was weak, I accept that.”

“Still,” Edgar continued, “I could understand if you were shocked by the way I treated her.”

“That’s just how the food chain works. The strong kill the weak and so on until… Well, here we are.”

“What I think, or for that matter do not think, about Kate Langley is my concern,” Edgar replied, looking back down at his papers. “I would like to believe that you can accept my decision.”

“I accepted your decision to take on Didi, and look how that worked out.”

Edgar pointedly picked up another sheet of paper, as if he was keen to give the impression that he wasn’t listening.

“Fine,” Doctor Young continued, “I know it’s not my place to interfere, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t get through to you. You’ll do whatever you want, and if it all goes to hell – no, when it all goes to hell – you won’t be the one who suffers. You’ll toss them all aside, just like you did with my…”

He paused before he made the mistake of finishing the sentence.

Nevertheless, Edgar looked back up at him.

“Kate Langley’s smart,” Doctor Young pointed out. “I don’t know if you’ve figured that out yet, but she’s not like the girls you usually go for, my mother included. Kate’s got a good mind and she’s more than capable of seeing through your lies. Her biggest problem is going to be believing that certain things are possible. I think she clings a little too closely to the rules. She’s already seen enough to make her question this place, but she insists on rational beliefs.” He paused, waiting for Edgar to respond. “There’s something on your mind,” he added finally. “For once, it’s not Ms. Langley.”

“Do you know what I hate more than anything?” Edgar asked.

“I didn’t think you discriminated, father. I thought you hated everything equally.”

“Stowaways.”

“I see.” Doctor Young paused again. “Are we talking literally or metaphorically?”

“Both.”

“I can see how that would trouble you, but I find it hard to believe that your hands are tied. There’s only one thing to do with a stowaway once they’ve been located.”

“Throwing them overboard would not be enough,” Edgar replied. “It doesn’t take long to drown, or to be eaten by sharks.”

“Are we talking about Didi?”

“Among others.”

“Well, you know what I think about her,” Doctor Young pointed out. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept, father, that humans are curious creatures. We tend to go where we’re not wanted. If you put a sign on a door that reads ‘Keep Out’, I can assure you that any human will instinctively reach for the handle. It’s what makes us special.”

“I don’t like it when people pry into my business,” Edgar replied.

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t be around people. I told you months ago, father, that if you came back to Thaxos you’d inevitably invite suspicion from the locals. Wouldn’t you rather be out on the road still? At least in the old days you were able to move on whenever people began to annoy you. Monaco, Rome, Singapore… You have the money, so why not go traveling again?”

“Because Thaxos is my home.”

“And yet you hate it here.”

“You don’t know me at all.”

“Yes I do. You feel drawn here because of the past, you feel as if you have some kind of duty to be the Baron of Thaxos and fill this pathetic little island with your spawn. I understand, at least to some extent, but at the end of the day this place does bad things to you. It twists you inside out and undoes all the good work of the past few years.” He paused, wondering how far he should go in this moment of truthfulness. “You’re regressing.”

“How so?”

“You’re becoming more like your old self.”

“ You don't know what you're -”

“Talking about?” Doctor Young paused again. “I might not have your perspective, father, but I know enough about you. Mother told me before she died. All that time spend traveling, all those years when you were trying to turn yourself into a good man… You almost succeeded, too, by all accounts. But you have to ask yourself whether such a thing is possible. We are who we are, and we are what we are as well. Maybe the one thing you truly want is the one thing that is beyond you.”

“You don’t know what I want.”

“Yes I do. You want to be a good man. You want the evil and cruelty to be washed from your soul.”

Edgar looked back down at his papers.

“I know I’m speaking out of turn,” Doctor Young continued. “You’re probably fighting the urge right now to get up from that seat and rip my head open. But I’m right. Every day, you fight the desire to go down to the port and kill every last one of those pathetic idiots in town. You feel your true nature bubbling up through your soul, but you tell yourself you can fight it, that you can dominate your instincts and somehow train yourself to be kind and caring and loving. It’s rather sweet, father, but in the long run it’s not going to work. Perhaps you can put on the mask for short intervals, but no-one can wear a mask forever. We both know that the cruelty is part of you. You can never be a good man for long. You’re evil, through and through.”

“You should leave now,” Edgar replied darkly. “Come back tonight.”

“She won’t help.”

“Who?”

“Ms. Langley.” Doctor Young paused, watching the hint of anger in his father’s eyes. “You think she’s the one who’ll finally turn you into a good man. Is that because you think she’s good herself? I’m not so sure about that.”

“You know nothing about her.”

“I know she’s out on the north side of the island right now with Alice Marco,” he continued, “and I know Didi went running off after them.”

At this, Edgar looked up from his papers with concern.

“Kate Langley isn’t on Thaxos at the moment because of you,” Doctor Young pointed out. “Don’t fool yourself. She’s here because she thinks she has a chance to make a name for herself if she comes up with some big discovery about the stones, and she’s here because you stopped her when she tried to leave. If you think she has feelings for you, or that she’ll ever have feelings for you, you’re… Well, no-one’s perfect. We all delude ourselves from time to time. I dare you. Let me tell her she’s healthy and she can leave. Give her the choice and see what she does.”

“Don’t you have patients waiting for you?” Edgar asked.

“As a matter of fact,” Doctor Young replied, smiling as he checked his watch, “I do. I’m late, but the wretches can wait. Still, I should probably head down there now.” He turned and headed to the door, grabbing his briefcase from the chair before stopping and turning back to his father. “There’s one young woman who has a tumor in her belly,” he explained. “I’ve told her it’s gout. I thought I’d be bored working as a doctor here, but it’s rather fun giving them false diagnoses and watching them suffer. Mother always said that I take after you in some respects. She was right.”

As he left the room, he couldn’t help but smile.

III

 

“Girl guides,” Didi muttered as she continued to wiggle the nail-file about in the lock.

“You learned to pick locks in the guides?” Kate replied, not even bothering to hide her skepticism.

“That’s my story,” Didi said with a smile, “and I’m sticking to it. Now could you both stop crowding me? If you want me to get this door open, I need a little space.”

“This is the same man,” Alice said suddenly.

Turning, Kate saw that she was examining another of the wooden panels.

“It’s a story,” Alice continued. “It’s as if each panel tells another part of… whatever happened. There’s a man fighting all these creatures. It’s hard to make out exactly what’s going on, but I think he and the wolf-headed things are trying to kill the huge spiders.”

“So it’s some kind of fairy-tale,” Kate muttered, walking over to join her.

“You think?”

“Well it can’t be real.”

“ Obviously not, but -” Before she could finish, Alice let out a faint gasp and put a hand up to her chest.

“What’s wrong?” Kate asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” she replied, even though she was clearly struggling a little. “It’s passing. I don’t know, I just felt a kind of rush, as if something was pushing through my body.” She forced a smile. “Really, I’m okay. What do you make of the text? There’s one part that’s in English. Have you ever heard of any of these things? What’s Gothos?”

“No idea” Kate replied, “but it might be useful in a Rosette Stone kind of way.”

“Rosetta Stone?”

“A way for us to crack the language,” Kate explained. “The Rosetta Stone is a ‘stele’, a kind of stone slab, that was found a few hundred years ago in Egypt. It contains the same text in Demotic text, Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which helped early scholars to understand the hieroglyphics part.” She reached up and ran a finger across a set of symbols that had been carved into the wooden panel long ago. “It looks like this symbol is the equivalent to the word Gothos,” she pointed out, “and this next one is Sangreth. It’s not much, but it might help us work out how the other language is constructed.”

“So you think you can read it?”

“ I'll need help,” she replied. “That's why -”

“Damn it!” Didi called out

“What’s wrong?” Kate asked, turning to her.

“I chipped a nail,” she continued, holding her hand up for them to see. “It was barely even dry! I spent all morning on the damn things!”

“How’s the lock going?”

“Don’t worry about the lock, I’ll get it open. Worry about my nails!”

“Do you trust her?” Alice whispered as Didi got back to work.

“ I think she's hiding something,” Kate replied, keeping her voice low. “She acts like this stereotypical party girl, but -”

“I know you’re talking about me!” Didi continued. “I can’t hear what you’re saying, but I can hear you whispering to each other. It’s annoying.”

“We were just talking about your surprising skill-set,” Kate told her. “Have you got any other tricks up your sleeves?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Didi muttered. “This lock is tough, though. Someone really doesn’t want anyone getting into the next room. They’ve used something called a double tumbler, which I’ve read about but never actually come across before. Must’ve cost a bomb!”

“They taught you that in the guides?” Kate replied.

“Absolutely!”

“But can you tell how old the lock is?”

“Definitely after 2011. The type of tumbler wasn’t in use until then at the earliest.”

“Not bad security for an ancient site,” Kate pointed out.

“What about the blood on the altar?” Alice asked. “If it is blood, I mean… If it was old, wouldn’t it have faded away by now?”

“Not necessarily,” Kate replied. “I mean, it depends on the type of stone, but it could easily be a few centuries old or more. Still, that’s pretty recent in the grand scheme of things.” She made her way over to the altar and looked more closely at a small hole on one corner. “This was probably used to secure the chain,” she continued, “assuming that sacrifices were carried out. I know it sounds kind of ghoulish, but that kind of practice definitely occurred in parts of Europe. Blood cults have been found in almost every country.”

“But not these days, right?” Alice continued. “No-one does that anymore.”

“Try looking in the darker parts of the internet,” Kate told her. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if there are some strange people out there who’d be interested in something like this, but…” She turned to look at the door that Didi was still trying to open. “Not here,” she added. “This is too organized, too controlled. I’m pretty sure that the altar hasn’t been used for a long time, but someone has taken care to protect the chamber, probably for its historical value.”

“You think it’s Edgar?” Didi asked.

“He’s the only person on the island with enough money,” Kate pointed out.

“He’s never mentioned this place,” Didi continued. “Not that he tells me everything, but still, I thought I’d got most of his kinks figured out.” She turned to Kate and smiled. “It’s kinda hot, isn’t it?”

“Hot?”

“A hidden chamber. An altar. I could totally get down to some kinky stuff in a place like this. I don’t mind telling you, I’ve had sex in a lotta different places, but never on a real-life altar in a real-life underground chamber. Add a load of candles, maybe get some scented oils going on, and I reckon I could easily spend a fun night in here.”

“Finally,” Kate muttered, “we’ve managed to get you interested in history.”

“You think sex isn’t part of history?” Didi replied. “Sex drives history. You keep things dry, you're missing out on half the story and -”

She let out a gasp as the lock made a sudden clanging sound.

“What?” Kate asked.

“ I think I've got something,” Didi continued, fiddling with the nail-file a little more. “Hang on, I've almost got this baby open. One tumbler, then the other, and finally -” She smiled as a clicking sound was heard from the lock, and finally she reached up and turned the handle, which this time allowed her to swing the door open with a dull creaking sound. “Ta-da! How impressive am I, huh? Thank you, you can pay me later in vodka!”

“You’re a genius,” Kate replied as she hurried over and peered into the darkness on the other side of the door. “I owe you. And you owe me an explanation for how you managed it.”

“Long story,” Didi replied. “Damn, there’s some cold air through there. What do you think’s in there? No offense, but I’m not gonna be the first one inside.”

Holding her torch up, Kate stared ahead.

“It’s another tunnel,” she said after a moment. “Stone walls this time, though. It looks like it goes straight rather than down.”

“Straight where?” Didi asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Kate replied, taking a step forward. “You’re right, though, it is cold in here.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Alice asked.

“We’re just going to see where it leads,” Kate told her. “If you’re scared, you can wait right here and we’ll be back in a minute or two.”

“No, I…” Alice paused, and it was clear that although she definitely didn’t want to go with them, she didn’t want to stay in the chamber alone either. “Of course I’ll come.”

IV

 

“How long has it been since you were out of this bed?”

Anna didn’t respond. She merely stared at the window as Doctor Young put his stethoscope away.

“If you don’t get out of bed,” he continued, “you might find one day that you no longer have a choice. Your body is weakening and your mind will go with it.”

He paused, watching the old woman’s aged face. There were so many lines and wrinkles in her skin, it was as if time itself had left a message on her body.

“Who are you waiting for?” Doctor Young asked.

At this, the old woman turned to him.

“If you’re waiting for my father,” he continued with a faint smile, “you’ll be waiting an awfully long time. He’s not coming back.”

There was a pause, as Anna’s eyes widened in shock.

“Yes,” he added, “Edgar Le Compte is my father. I’m surprised you hadn’t spotted the resemblance already, although I concede that I look more like my poor mother. You see, Edgar finally found a human woman who was stupid enough to carry his child. Things didn’t work out too well for her, but hey, I’m still here. Don’t you see a little of him in my eyes? I’m sure you do. My mother told me all about you, Mrs. Kazakos. I know that you and my father were close once, and that you pushed him away. I’m surprised he didn’t… punish you.”

Slowly, Anna raised a trembling hand to touch the side of his face.

“Stop that,” he replied, pushing the hand away. “It’s pathetic.”

“How…” She paused, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “Are you… Are you like him?”

“A bastard? Yes.” He smiled. “In other ways? No. He has not seen fit to bless me with that particular curse. Not yet, anyway. I’m only telling you these things because I know you don’t have long left, and I’d hate for you to spend your final days staring at that window, waiting for a man who has already forgotten that you even exist. My father isn’t going to come and see you again. You’re old news to him, and besides, he doesn’t like seeing old humans. They sicken him.”

“There is…” Anna stopped short, as if her dry throat no longer allowed her to get more than a few words out at a time. “You’re wrong. He’ll… come…”

“No. He won’t. Why would he want to see a dry old prune again?”

“He will… I know he will…”

“I’ll give you something for the pain,” he replied, opening his briefcase and taking out a syringe and a small bottle.

“He comes every night,” she continued.

“No,” he replied as he filled the syringe and then tapped its side. “He doesn’t leave the mansion.”

“In my dreams,” she continued. She paused for a moment as the pain became too much. It passed after a few seconds, but she knew it would return soon. “He comes and… I rarely dream now, but when I do, it’s because he comes and talks to me. I don’t remember what we talk about, only that he was here again.”

“My father is capable of visiting people in their dreams,” Doctor Young told her, “but in this case, I fear you are simply dreaming in the old-fashioned human way. He cares nothing for you.”

“You don’t know everything,” she whispered. “Your father is a good man.”

At this, Doctor Young couldn’t help but laugh.

“He is,” Anna continued. “I’ve seen his true nature. Underneath the cruelty… His heart is good. I once hoped to help him, but… It must be someone else.”

“My father is a killer,” he replied, “and a torturer, and a cruel man. If he pretends to be good around people, it is only so that he can manipulate them, or so that he can lure them closer. Trust me, I have seen him literally strip the flesh from a screaming woman while she begged for death, and while her blood ran into the drains by her feet. Do you know the sound that flesh makes as it’s being torn apart? The screams, the begging, they were one thing… but the sound of flesh being ripped will always be with me. And that is my father’s fault. Do you still think he’s a good man?”

He took a moment to double-check the syringe.

“This mixture will ease the pain you’re experiencing,” he explained. “It’ll last for approximately twenty-four hours.” He rolled up her sleeve and then used a cotton pad to quickly clean her skin. “The pain is bad, isn’t it? You suffer in silence.”

“Agony,” she whispered.

He placed the tip of the needle against her arm.

“You’re wrong about him,” she continued. “He is a better man than even he himself knows.”

“Why do you care?” he replied. “You’re just…” Staring at her, he finally understood. “You still love him, don’t you? After all these years, you still have all those silly feelings. Have you spent your whole life like this, in love with a man you know you can never have?”

Anna didn’t reply, although a single tear ran down her cheek.

“How utterly pathetic,” Doctor Young continued. “More so than I ever could have anticipated.”

He paused for a moment, and then finally he moved the syringe aside and depressed the plunger, squirting the liquid harmlessly across the bedsheets.

“Enjoy the pain,” he said finally. “Why should I help you when you’re a fool? I truly was going to give you something to make you more comfortable, but now I think I’d rather let you suffer.” Dropping the needle into a nearby bin, he began to gather his things. “My father brings nothing but pain and misery to all those around him, and it would somehow feel wrong for me to undo some of his work. If you want to delude yourself into believing that he’s a good man, then good luck to you, but I won’t lift a finger to alleviate your physical agony. My mother was right about him, and I won’t have you or anyone else claim the contrary.”

He made his way out onto the landing, making sure to pull the door shut as he left. For a moment, he was tempted to go back into the room and give the old woman an injection that might actually increase her pain. Figuring that he could always come back and do that another day, he turned and headed downstairs.

 

***

 

“Your grandmother is dying.”

Doctor Young stood in the doorway and watched as Ephram set some cans of beans on a shelf. The old man glanced over at him, but he swiftly resumed his task.

“She has been dying for forty years,” he muttered eventually. “As long as I remember. And complaining about it too. My God, that woman has turned complaining into an art-form.”

“This time she’s actually dying,” Doctor Young countered. “She’s getting weaker by the day, and I suspect her internal bleeding will only worsen over the next few weeks. There’s nothing I can do to help her. It happens to us all in the end. Well, most of us.”

“When is Alistair coming back?”

“Doctor Burns? I have no idea.”

“He knows what he’s doing.”

“And I don’t?”

“He is her doctor,” Ephram replied, as he finished stacking the beans and began to flatten the cardboard box in which they’d been delivered. “He knows her.”

“I know her,” Doctor Young pointed out. “I know the human body. They’re all more or less the same. I’m afraid that none of us are special snowflakes, Mr. Kazakos. We all have the same bits plugged into the same other bits.”

“My grandmother has been dying since I was a child,” Ephram continued. “She has taken to her bed so often, she might as well just live there. There is always something wrong with her. Do you know when I would be truly worried? The day she got up, came downstairs and declared herself to be fighting fit and healthy. Then I would be concerned that something was wrong.”

“You’re in denial,” Doctor Young replied as he made his way over to the door. “Like all children, you think of your forebears as having superhuman abilities to dodge death. Well, not all children, but most.” He opened the door, before turning back to Ephram. “It gives me no pleasure to say this, but your grandmother is going to die very soon. It doesn’t matter what you or I say. Her body is failing, and everyone has to die eventually. I remember when my mother died. She was all I had, really, and I couldn’t believe that the world could be so cruel.”

“How did she die?” Ephram asked.

“She was murdered.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m over it now. I watched the whole thing happen. I was just a child at the time, so my memory is rather vague. The killer was going to do the same to me, but he chose to spare my life. I’m eternally grateful.” He paused. “But perhaps I’ve said too much. My mother was the victim of a horrifically violent attack when she was in the prime of her life. Your mother, by contrast, has lived for a century and is now coming to her natural endpoint. You’re lucky that you’ve had her around for so long, but it’s time to grow up.”

“You’re telling me to grow up?”

“I am. It’s not my fault if you have no children of your own, no-one to continue your family once the older generation has expired. Once she’s gone, you’re going to be all alone in the world, and I’m afraid you have only yourself to blame.”

With that, Doctor Young headed out of the shop and made his way to the street. He couldn’t help but feel a little satisfied by his morning’s work, and he still had several patients waiting for him at the surgery. Each of them would have some sickness, some disease for him to exploit, and the anticipation of a little cruelty put a spring in his step as he walked away from the store. He could feel his father’s temperament rumbling in his chest, and he liked the sensation.

V

 

“It goes on forever,” Didi muttered as the three women continued to make their way along the stone corridor. “If I knew there was gonna be so much walking involved, I think I’d have stayed home.”