Your Five chapter free sample, enjoy!
The long night had been an unexpected one. As Scarlett splashed the water onto her face, she thought back to how the old soldier had bought her drink after drink until she couldn’t remember them coming any more. It seemed to her that she was getting attention that she had never received from her previous boyfriend. Brendan, in some ways had been perfect, but in other ways, he hadn’t seemed interested in her. She wondered if her own shortcomings were the problem: the way she looked, the way she talked with that uniquely Welsh accent, or her insistent chattering across the top of everything. The old soldier, on the other hand, seemed delighted with her constant yammering, indeed it seemed to be something that really appealed to him. Whatever, she thought. He was now just a memory, disappearing in a pile of other memories collected during her new “getaway” life that she felt compelled to undertake when Brendan dumped her.
Her tired eyes looked in the mirror where her face was somewhat paler than normal. Never again would she accept that many drinks. Turning to find some towels to wipe down her face, Scarlett arched her back, rubbed her face and then made for the exit. Her feet were slightly unsteady, not because she was still drunk, but because she was more hung over, and well, feeling very delicate today.
She exited the restroom and was clattered into by a fast-moving person. It was a gentleman’s frame much bigger than hers, and Scarlett felt her head smack into the cold floor beneath. The gentlemen landed on top, breathing heavily, obviously sweating. She tried to push him away, but he kept pushing down on her while his head was flicking from side to side apparently looking for someone. She felt a hand reach into her top and press upon her chest. Bloody pervert. And then he was up and away, running as if his life depended on it. If she had a say in the matter, it bloody well would.
A little groggy after the fall, Scarlett took a time getting back up. Before she could draw back up from the floor, she heard another set of footsteps run past her. Briefly, a face looked at her, then disappeared. It was deeply scarred on one side and gave a look like she didn’t matter. Be nice if some people these days would stop and help. She managed to pick herself up off the ground, brushing down her skirt which was dusty from the floor. She readjusted her blouse, messed with her hair, giving her best efforts to get it back to normal before returning to her coach party which was sitting in the car park.
The driver patiently waited while she mounted the steps. As had been her habit throughout the trip, Scarlett took a seat at the front, barely glancing back down to note what she saw as the oldies and the desperate were doing while awaiting the next hotel. It was now evening, and it would be good to get to the next hotel, have a quick dinner, maybe a walk and then retire to bed. The effects of the previous night and the tumble were beginning to get to her.
The coach pulled away and re-entered the motorway, heading deep into the heart of Scotland. Scarlett nodded off and never saw the coach arrive at the next destination. A tap on the shoulder brought her back to consciousness, and she stepped off the bus and picked up her luggage. It was a small purple bag which was all she had managed to pack in the three hours between booking the trip and joining the coach. Yes, it was time for a shower and to wash away last night’s escapades, keen to never do them again. She’d sort out this mess she’d become.
The hotel itself was typical of Middle Scotland. From outside the building, it looked rather grand in patches, but the issues of paintwork flaking, and curtains and drapes that looked rather drab compared to their previous splendour, killed the desired effect. An antiquated heating system failed to heat up the large bedrooms evocative of the period. Oh well, thought Scarlett, let’s hope the covers give a toasty effect to the unsturdy bed. Toasty was always something she struggled for, always feeling cold wherever she was. Although I was never cold when he was there, she thought.
As she stood in the shower, letting the water flow over her body and wash away the day, Scarlett thought her life had turned into such a drab and boring mess. She never wanted to be a librarian. She wanted to explore, she wanted to go to far-off lands and find never before discovered creatures. She watched all the programs, saw all the magazine articles, talking about those cameramen away for days, weeks, sometimes years, to film the animals no one ever saw. Sometimes she thought that she could have done all this if only her mother had not insisted on a proper job, a proper job being a grocery assistant at the supermarket to bring money in on her 16th birthday. National qualifications, none whatsoever, apart from the fact she could stack shelves faster than anyone else. What was worse, was the fact she lived in a flat where she couldn’t even have an animal for herself. There was a zoo only three miles from the building, and often she would get the bus and spend the day walking around from animal house to animal house, looking at the giraffes with their tall necks, sometimes listening to the belching of the hippos and other times watching the prairie dogs, their heads up and down looking out for danger. Animals she always seemed to connect with. Definitely better than with any person. Using the towel, she rubbed herself down and looked in a bag for something suitable for taking on a walk.
In the middle of February, the air was notoriously cool and crisp. The rain, having fallen mainly in the morning, gave way to weather that wasn’t unpleasant but cool. Picking out some track bottoms, T-shirt and a large thick jumper, she picked a large coat which would wrap around her like some sort of duvet. With her trainers slipped on, she left the room and exited the hotel to the fresh air outside, hoping that the clear air would help her sore head and allow a good night sleep.
Stepping down the rather ornate steps at the front of the hotel, she strolled silently along the long driveway before reaching a small gate at the side of the main entrance. She was passing through this when several cars roared into the driveway, but although she saw them, they could not see her. They were black, official looking and had windows you couldn’t see through. It was almost as if some celebrity was arriving, except that the cars looked much more official than that, maybe some sort of government minister?
When she had cleared the gate, she started off on a walk, her long blonde hair bobbing behind her in a swish pony tail. Life needs to improve, life needs to get better, life needs to start, she thought. Yes, she would need to get things together make her way in this world, forget the drab dreary things that she was doing. But inconsiderately, the road away from the hotel dipped sharply before rising again. This meant she had to walk up the hill, and Scarlett preferred flatter places, places where you didn’t have to stretch your legs properly first, places where thighs didn’t hurt when you walked (which always happened when she walked sharply downhill). Sometimes life just never sorted itself out.
The walk continued alongside fields where she could see the remnants of previous plantings, the fields not yet ready to take another dose of seed for the spring and summer ahead. She looked around, hearing the birds in the air, jealous of their ability to just fly anywhere, approach anywhere and sing anywhere. Singing was something else her mother had stopped her from doing. Why, for goodness sake? She was Welsh after all, she could actually sing.
After a short walk, she came upon a small forest, the entrance of which was at the side of the road. From what she could see ahead, it appeared to be just moors and this expanse of trees was the best piece of cover for the next few miles. Hearing the birds in the trees made her mind up and she decided to take a walk along the path.
The forest felt good. There was a smell in the air that you couldn’t find anywhere else, a freshness.
Her mind unexpectedly returned to her stepmother back in the rest home. It was six months ago when she went into the rest home after the terrible fall that had left her paralyzed. It was a godsend in some ways, as it got her stepmother off her back. During previous years, a girl from the state helped at the house, but now her mother was looked after by the state full-time. It sounded harsh when you put it like that, but she’d been tied down even when it came to boyfriends and mother interfered with everything. Now she was free. Free to get drunk with older men on a coach trip in the middle of nowhere. Yes, life would have to improve.
Scarlett wasn’t even thirty yet. Life had been pretty well rubbish up to this point, but in the next year she would make thirty and she would be off doing things she wanted to do. She fully intended to visit her stepmother at the home from time to time, but no longer would the woman dominate her life, no longer would life be about doing for others, now it would be about getting a little for herself. And that did not include tagging up with people like Brendan. It was not that she was such an intellectual that she wanted every man to only dote on her mind. But it would be nice if they would draw their eyes from her chest for two minutes to have at least a moment. It wasn’t like she was some sort of model either. At five foot three she was a bit stumpy. As one former boyfriend put it, “the product of a powerhouse and a prop forward to dream of.” He didn’t really know how to impress a lady.
Scarlett became aware that she wasn’t alone. At first during her brisk walk she barely noticed the surroundings, having wandered down the path through the trees. But she now began to see and hear signs that seemed unusual. It was just a cracking of a twig, the sound of footsteps, almost as if someone was trying to alert her to their presence. Turning, she found a hand clamping over mouth, and she stared up into two eyes that said they wanted to do her harm. Almost immediately, the figure stepped around, his hand still across her mouth but now holding the rest of the body tight with his other arm. Scarlett wanted to scream but the grip was so tight she couldn’t make a sound at all.
“Where is it, girl? Just tell me where it is.”
Scarlett felt the hand release slightly, presumably to give an answer to the question. Instead, she screamed out loud.
“That’s enough of that, you bitch.”
The man roughly began to frisk her evidently searching for something. It was a bizarre feeling. Several times in darker moments, Scarlett had wondered how it would feel to be attacked. How would it feel to be at the mercy of a man stronger than herself? But this was nothing like she thought it would be like. And it soon became apparent that the man wasn’t after her, after her body. He clearly wanted something she had but something that was buried on her.
“Hurry up! Ain’t you searched her yet? Or are you having fun?”
It was a different voice. Not as deep as the first man but still clearly a man
“She doesn’t seem to have it, doesn’t know nothing.”
Scarlett then heard one of the men gasp, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the ground. The man holding her slightly loosened his grip, and Scarlett knew this was her chance. She drove a foot down hard on his. The man yelped and the grip was released slightly. It was enough for Scarlett to run forward in a desperate attempt to escape, but his hand latched onto her throat…but then suddenly she heard the man cry out. The hand released her, and he fell to his knees looking stunned. Scarlett didn’t hesitate, launching a kick into the man’s nether regions that would hopefully bring tears to his eyes. Beyond the man she saw face. A woman taller than herself, dressed in black leather from head to foot with long black hair. She was trim, obviously well used to a fight and had a grim look on her face.
“We need to go.”
“I am not going with anyone,” said Scarlett. “Just who the hell are you people?”
“Now isn’t the time, you need to go. You need to come with me.”
“Like I said, I’m not going!”
But the woman grabbed Scarlett’s hand and dragged her back down the path she had come along earlier. She saw both men lying on the ground in pain but presumably they would be capable of moving again soon. It only took a few minutes to run back down the path to reach the roadside again where there were two vehicles. One was one of the black governmental type vehicles she had seen before and the other was a light blue transit van of which the door was now sliding open. It revealed a small man, the size of a child, standing in the doorway.
“Just get the car going, Rodriguez,” said the woman. The man nodded and jumped through to the front seat while the woman threw Scarlett into the back before jumping inside, closing the door behind her.
“Go! Go! Go!” said the woman. The transit van roared and Scarlett rolled in the back of the van until she hit the doors at the back.
“You’re lucky girl, you’re damn lucky.”
The Good Guys?
Scarlett felt around inside the van for anything that she could hold onto. It was careering along the road at a fast pace, and she was unsure of where she was going and who she was with. She was aware of the fact that the woman who had helped her into the van was watching her closely, only occasionally turning ahead to look at the window and see where they were going. The small man, who had been called Rodriguez, was driving the van but could not been seen over the height of the seat due to his own lack of height. Everything she was seeing was a blur at this time, and Scarlett was unsure of what was going on. All she knew was somebody had wanted something from her, and if these people hadn’t turned up to help, well…, but she still didn’t know who they were or why they were here.
“What did they want from you?” asked the woman. Her eyes were penetrating, her voice insistent but she did have a demeanour about her that said friend. Despite this, Scarlett wasn’t going to trust anyone at face value and decided she probably shouldn’t tell what happened during the last couple of hours.
“Who are you? What’s happening to me?”
“We don’t have time for this,” said the woman in black, “what I need to know is what they were looking for? Where did they look on you?”
“I don’t know what they are looking for, I haven’t got anything. Who are you?” asked Scarlett again.
Are they still on us, Rodriguez?” the lady asked the man in the front.
“No, I think we’ve shaken them,” said the small man in the front.
“Okay pull over, and we will see what our friend here knows.”
Feeling the van pull to one side, Scarlett reckoned they disappeared along a track that sounded quite off-road. The van stopped, the engine going silent as the woman in black moved across the van. She reached out a hand to help Scarlett up into a sitting position. Her touch was cold, something akin to the inside of a fridge. Her skin was pale and rough, but other than that, she was extremely attractive. Her body, although cold, was obviously in shape, and she was a good couple of inches taller than Scarlett who always felt short at a mere five foot three. But for all that, Scarlett saw the woman was one of those girls who was always more athletically built but often thought of as less womanly. It was evident that Scarlett was using everything within her recesses to build herself up in the situation and she hoped that the woman was doing the same.
“The men that were after you were looking for something. Do you have it?” asked the woman in black.
“No, no, no!” said Scarlett. “Where do you get off asking these questions? I’ve been assaulted, I’ve been grabbed but you just ask me about some bloody object? I think the least you could do is ask ‘Are you okay?’”
“Okay, are you okay?”
“I think so, thank you,” retorted Scarlett.
“Good. Now may I know what they were looking and if they found it?” asked the woman in black again.
“No, no, no!” said Scarlett. “You tell me who you are first of all before I say anything to you.”
“I am the woman who just came in here and saved your butt,” retorted the woman in black, “but if you wanna call me something then it’s Calandra and the man in front is Rodriguez, and we are here to help.”
“It’s funny that everyone always seems ready to help when they need something from you,” said Scarlett. “Those people are looking for something from me, and I don’t have anything.”
Calandra looked at her quizzically before turning to Rodriguez. He was standing up on the seat looking over the top at both of them. There seemed to be a moment when they were sizing up each other’s opinions before Calandra turned back.
“Has anything unusual happened, any moments in the last few hours that you thought were strange?”
“You mean apart from the attack just now, actually people constantly seem to be having a go at me.” Calandra raised her eyebrows.
“Having a go? What and where and how?” she asked.
“Just that man who tried to grab something from inside my blouse, but it was like he was searching for something. It wasn’t like he was trying to grab hold of things, so to speak,” said Scarlett. “Not that that made it any better.”
Calandra nodded. “Was there any other time when someone tried to grab you in such a way? I mean recently.”
“I was at a motorway services earlier on today,” replied Scarlett, “and this man ran into me as I came out of the restrooms. He fell on top of me and reached down inside my blouse again but he was up and away. Before I could get up another man ran past me, desperately looking for the other man.”
“And did he reach inside your blouse too?”
“No, not the second one but the first one, he wasn’t acting like he was looking for something, more like he was almost placing something.”
“Did he leave anything there? Was there anything left around your neck? Did he attach anything to you?” asked the woman in black.
“Not that I know of,” said Scarlett.
The woman reached forward and grabbed Scarlett by the shoulders with one arm. She looked into her eyes. “Forgive me.” Scarlett felt the hand of the woman drop inside her blouse and search around her breastbone. Again the touch was chilly, almost extreme but not to the point where her skin burned. After a few seconds of delving around the hand was removed.
“There’s nothing there,” said Calandra. “I need you to do me a favour, girl. Rodriguez turn your back a minute.”
Rodriguez raised his eyebrows but turned and sat back down in his seat.
“Can you reach down inside? We need to see if anything is located in there. I think it is preferable you do it rather than me,” said Calandra.
Scarlett looked suspicious at the bizarre request but the woman just nodded, her black hair delicately dancing round the edges of the face. Scarlett was worried that there was another option. If she didn’t do it, it would no doubt be done for her.
“But if you don’t mind,” said Scarlett, “It would be better if neither of you was watching.” The woman in black turned away leaving Scarlett happy that she would be the only one viewing. She reached down inside her underwear, searching for anything that might be there. She did find it odd to be subjected to looking for things in such a private area where surely things would be felt. After a few moments search it was evident there was nothing.
“There was nothing there. Nothing left, nothing given to me.”
“But they must have left it on your person because they certainly believe it has been left with you,” said Calandra, her face becoming more intense.
“I haven’t got it! Now just drop me back at the hotel, I’ll be on my way, and you can continue looking for whatever it is you need.”
“I don’t think you get it,” said Calandra. “These people are looking for things from you. These people who believe you have something won’t just turn up, ask for a quick search and disappear, because they think you do have it. They will take you, they will torture you until you give them what they think you have. And if you die before they can find it, it won’t bother them one bit. They will search you to make sure you don’t have it, just in case you didn’t realise you had it, and then they’ll dump your lifeless corpse by the side of the road. Is that what you want?”
Scarlett betrayed a worried face at the mention of death, but she was still confused. “What am I meant to have? What is it that is so important that I shouldn’t have it?”
“I’m not totally sure. People I work for believe a certain artefact is missing. The said artefact is precious enough and dangerous enough that certain parties within this world will look to commandeer it. We believe it gives the bearer power over animals. Also over beasts a type of control. The groups that I work with, or against, can use this to gain an advantage, an advantage that might just tip the balance.”
Scarlett’s head was in a whirl. What’s this you’ve got into? She looked down at her hands and they were trembling. The question she’d been asking previously seemed to drift away. The woman said they would torture her, the woman said they would kill her even if she didn’t know anything. And yet she only just met this woman, albeit she had rescued her from those thugs.
“Rodriguez,” said Calandra, “we need to get going back to this lady’s hotel. We will need to search the rooms. If it’s not on her, it must have been on some other part of the clothing.” Calandra turned to Scarlett. “Are you wearing something different to what you were wearing earlier?”
Scarlett nodded. At the nod from Calandra, Rodriguez turned the engine on and Scarlett felt the van reversing back down the track they had driven into. She tried to lean back against the side of the van as it bounced along but it was uncomfortable as her head bounced off the side. She decided it was better to sit forward in a tense position. She looked up at the woman in black who was looking back at the scene, a smile on her face. Yet the worrying concern behind it was evident. What am I into thought Scarlett, What is this?
As the van drove along, presumably back to the hotel, Scarlett watched the woman in black open up a small trunk in the far corner of the van. From it she took what appeared to be a long stick. Carefully, she looked it over with her eyes and then touched the edge of it as if making sure something was working. She also removed two long knives from the trunk, fastened them to her person and tucked away a number of small objects, which appeared to be throwing items.
“Is that really necessary?” Asked Scarlett.
“Yes,” said the woman in black, “very necessary. I don’t believe you fully understand the people you’re dealing with here. To be honest, I haven’t been a minute with these people so I don’t understand either. But you should see what Rodriguez packs.”
This did nothing to allay Scarlett’s fears. Looking out the front window of the van from her position at the rear, she could see trees passing by before recognising some of the scenery that was close to the hotel. Her stomach became a knot, and she remembered the governmental black cars she’d seen in on her way out. Those people are already there, so how do we find anything? Surely the best thing to do would be to leave, get as far away as possible from the scene.
“Calandra,” said Scarlett, “what am I going to do? Do I just stay in the van while you two run off to look for my stuff, their stuff, whatever stuff is?”
“No,” said Calandra, “you’re coming with me. I can’t afford to leave you here, not with all the people that are about. You wouldn’t be able to protect yourself, and I have orders to above all else keep civilians protected.”
“Civilians?” asked Scarlett.
“Yes, this is a war,” Calandra said.
“Nearly there,” called Rodriguez, “time to start looking frisky.”
Scarlett had to reach for support as Rodriguez swung the van. It screeched into the car park in front of the hotel, swung sideways, and Calandra was already opening the door to see what was beyond. Bizarrely, there was an eerie silence. Scarlett expected any number of shots and shapes of people running about, given Rodriguez’s warning. But as Calandra stood at the door looking out there was nothing. No motion… It was as if they’d walked into the start of a horror movie, the low for the arrival of the monster. Scarlett watched Calandra’s hand beckon her to move from the back of the van to sit beside Calandra. There was a sharp click clunk from the front of the van. Scarlett looked over and saw Rodriguez with the pump action shotgun raised to his face and aimed at the window. Scarlett swooned, feeling slightly faint. There was also something inside of that feeling which said she needed to keep going, that these people offered her the best protection. So she shuffled forward and took Calandra’s cold and somewhat clammy hand.
As she stepped down from the van, Scarlett saw Calandra give the wooden stick she’d taken from the trunk a hard shake with her other hand. The stick expanded before her eyes until it was the height of Calandra herself, and Scarlett was amazed as she began to twirl it around the left hand only.
Looking back, Calandra commented, “It’s not as good as my old one.”
Scarlett stared forward across the open car park. Not once did Calandra look back at Scarlett but instead her eyes examined their surroundings, head turning all directions, scanning and then scanning some more. Rodriguez could be heard getting out of the van but was not seen. Scarlett knew the man was small, but surely she would have noticed him. As they approached the hotel entrance, it was obvious something was wrong. There were several panes of glass broken in the door, inside there was an eerie quiet. Over the reception desk was a body slumped face down on it with some redness dripped onto the sign-in book.
“I hope he’s all right,” said Scarlett.
“Silence,” said Calandra. “Don’t think, just do. Where’s your room?”
“Upstairs,” said Scarlett and pointed to the rather obvious staircase with its ornate wooden banister. Calandra glided along on her feet making no noise, Scarlett stuttering behind. They moved along the upper corridor towards Scarlett room which she occasionally had to point out the directions to. Other rooms were open, all the doors smashed to pieces. It seemed there had been some sort of a war going on inside the hotel, but this was all that remained afterwards. Scarlett turned her head away several times when she saw people who had been on the coach trip, people she didn’t know well. Indeed, people she’d barely met but whose faces and bodies looked distinctly different to the way that she remembered. The things that Calandra had said about torture began to ring true in mind. She grasped Calandra’s hand more tightly than she had before.
“Is this the room?” Asked Calandra.
“Yes,” said Scarlett noting the number 15 on the front of the door. The door looked intact but was unusual as most of the others had some sort of significant damage on them at least if not totally destroyed. It was a surprise when Calandra simply lashed out with a left foot, kicking the door wide open. Inside, sitting in the chair by the bed, was a man. He had an eye patch across his left eye and scars on his face. The other immediately obvious thing was his left-hand, composed of metal. He stood and smiled a rather cheeky grin.
“Thank you for bringing her here as we’ve looked everywhere for the bitch.”
Scarlett looked at the man in horror, eyes wide. Deep within, she felt her panic rise. She was aware that she was sweating profusely and her hands were clammy. Surely this woman, the saviour who had pulled her from the other men, had not brought her back to the people who were looking for her? This had been a mistake. Coming to her room may have led to her demise.
A large stick in Calandra’s left hand began to twirl. She quickly swung it forward, connecting with the head of the man. Not waiting to see how much damage had been inflicted, she pulled Scarlett out of the room and back down the corridor, retracing their steps. There were already other men there with an assortment of weapons, and all keenly looking at Scarlett. Scarlett felt the hand that held her let go, and she heard the whispered words “just stay close”.
One of the men stepped forward with a large cudgel in his hand. As he swung it at head height, Calandra ducked, swinging her stick at his ankles, then bending and turning before driving her stick into his chest. Scarlett looked away as she was certain it was penetrating the skin. She wasn’t built for this sort of thing. Looking away from more sounds of thuds and cracking skulls, she felt her hand being grabbed again, and she was being dragged back down the stairs.
“We need to be out of here,” said Calandra. “Whatever happens, don’t leave my side. I can protect you only if you stay close.”
As she descended the stairs, Scarlett heard footsteps from behind. Flicking her head, she saw her pursuers, three to four men, all armed, all focusing on her. Then in the melee, something occurred to her. They were man-sized, they looked like men but something was wrong with their faces. The shape of the head, every one of them, was not rounded enough. It was almost as if the face had been squashed in, forcing the top of the head upwards and the chin downwards giving a kind of elliptical quality. She didn’t have time to ponder as she heard Calandra take out another one of the men at the foot of the stairs.
“This way,” shouted Calandra, dragging Scarlett towards the door. There then came a gunshot. At least, Scarlett thought it was a gunshot. Truth be told, this had only been a guess, for she had never heard a real gunshot in her entire life. It was loud, incredibly loud. Her ears began to ring and part of her felt like feeling over her body in case anything had been hit. But before she could even think about doing it, Calandra grabbed her hand tight, taking her away from the main door and deep into the hotel itself.
“Rodriquez,” muttered Calandra to herself, “Rodriguez, where the hell are you?”
Although the hotel itself was not that big, it did seem to be larger on the lower floor, as the corridor cut this way and that, little rooms here and there. Calandra dragged her along the corridor at a rate which Scarlett’s mind could not keep up with. A door was opened, Scarlett was flung in followed by Calandra, and the door shut behind them.
“Don’t say a word. Keep quiet.” And then under her breath Calandra complained once more, “Where the hell is Rodriguez?”
The room they were in appeared to be a store cupboard. Several toilet rolls and other small bottles of chemicals on the shelf, mop at the back of a large collection of hand tiles on the floor. Struggling to know why they were in a dead-end, Scarlett thought that surely the only thing that could happen was that they would be discovered. She looked at the woman who had brought her into the situation. Scarlett saw there was a frosty tinge to Calandra’s face and wondered if she was turning to glass. It wasn’t that she looked like a statue, but there was a sheen on the skin which was reflecting the light and the images of things around them. Calandra turned and briefly looked at Scarlett, evidently aware of what her eyes were focused on. There was a silent laugh on her lips before she turned back to the door. Scarlett’s mind was reeling. Then the strange heads of the men attacking people came back to her mind—a midget and now this lady, this woman whose flesh could reflect images around due to its glassy quality.
Scarlett saw Calandra look inside her jacket and remove a very small transceiver. There were a number of buttons on the device. Scarlett was unaware of what they did, but she watched some sort of code being input on the different buttons by Calandra before the item was replaced. Calandra then motioned for Scarlett to stand back and a hand was placed upon the door they had entered. Scarlett watched a frost form over the door, freezing it into position. The skin on the hands of Calandra turned completely glassy for a moment, and Scarlett could see right through them to the door.
Calandra turned back and saw Scarlett’s face. She muttered, “Never seen an Ice Maiden before?” It was just another thing to set Scarlett’s mind racing.
Scarlett became aware of something beneath her feet. The room was tiled with large squares of carpet, the sort that are glued on to resist any wear and tear. Scarlett saw Calandra start to smile before pushing Scarlett back into the corner of the small room. Going down on a knee, Calandra started to rip up the tiles on the floor, exposing wooden floorboards underneath. Scarlett could see a hot circle forming on the floorboards before they fell into the dark below Scarlett. She drew a shaky breath, waiting for something else to come up from the dark, but was then surprised by the head of the small man who had driven the van.
“Rodriguez,” whispered Calandra, “where the hell have you been?”
Rodriguez didn’t answer. He gave a look, shaking his head in the process. He then ducked down back into the black, and Scarlett saw Calandra point that direction. There was nothing to do except follow these people, no chance to stand and have a debate about what would happen. Remembering the faces of the men chasing them, she did not want to meet them again. Scarlett manoeuvred herself into the dark below.
Scarlett squeezed into the hole in the floor and cursed her unknown mother for blessing her with the curves she had. Although not overweight, she had always felt self-conscious about the largeness of her hips, hips she thought she would be better off without. Those hips were now struggling to get through the hole in the floor. She felt Calandra put a hand onto her shoulder and shove down. She anticipated a long drop as Rodriguez’s seemed to disappear quickly, but instead the floor arrived almost instantaneously, and she found her own head still stuck above the level of the floorboards.
“Go on your knees,” whispered Calandra and drove Scarlett down further. As her eyes entered the dark, Scarlett saw something like a head and assumed it was Rodriguez, and made her way towards it. Her head cracked off some sort of timber beam, and she lowered herself, becoming snugger to the dusty, seemingly concrete floor beneath. She felt someone prodding her back, pushing her bottom further forward. Calandra, seemingly, was not in the mood to hang about.
The situation improved after several minutes, and Scarlett became aware of a larger hole in the distance where light was flooding in. She raced towards it. Unfortunately, she ran into the small man who was her rescuer. She felt Calandra tap on her rear and squeeze past. Gingerly, Calandra approached the light, remaining to one side, and stared out for some time. Then she retreated until she was alongside Scarlett.
“Listen up, little lady, what’s about to happen is going to take place very quickly. I’m expecting some backup to arrive in a very fast vehicle to get us out of here. I need you to stay close as I need both hands free. Rodriquez will help, but don’t wait for us when you see it. Just run and get on board. Don’t look back, don’t wait for us, just get on board.”
Scarlett could do nothing but nod. At the end of the day, she was stuck with these people until they got to a place and time where the other people were not after her. Scarlett’s knees were sore. She had been crawling across what seemed like concrete, that underside of all buildings you never see unless you happen to be unfortunate enough to be setting up the plumbing, or wiring, or other features that were always hidden from view. As they waited in the darkness, her mind reeled back to seeing Calandra’s frozen hands, the man in the room with the eyepatch, the elliptical and very, very strange heads.
From their current position, they could hear people moving about, both in the hotel and from the area outside. Scarlett looked ahead to the hole and thought that it led out to the car park of the hotel. The plan must be to get a car, something very close she felt. There would be a time to run hard. Running wasn’t her strong point. In that regard she had always hated cross country running. Being somewhat buxom, she always endured stares from the boys when she’d gone on any of the outdoor runs. It wasn’t that she was unfit, as she was a strong swimmer and somebody who enjoyed walks, but the body just wasn’t built for the jogging motion. Hence, every time she did want to run, she ran alone. But this time she wouldn’t be some figure to be laughed at. Still, it was probably better to be laughed at than hunted down.
Scarlett saw Calandra’s face light up as the sound of an aircraft could be heard in the distance. Scarlett wondered why she was so excited for how could an aeroplane help? Clearly, it wasn’t a helicopter as it didn’t make that constant, repetitive sound, indicative of all helicopters. But the arrival of the sound caused Calandra to move to the hole and cautiously peer out. After a few seconds, her hand waved Scarlett and the small man forward. She watched Calandra break her staff down, place it inside her jacket and then remove two handguns. She leaned over to Scarlett.
“We’ll step outside to give you cover. Run between me and Rodriguez. Don’t look back, just go straight to the plane.”
“Plane? How you going to land the plane here?” whispered Scarlett. “There’s no room to land a bloody plane.”
Calandra smiled. “Just get on the plane.”
Rodriguez exited the hole first. Before Calandra had followed, he was firing off shots.
Scarlett saw Calandra rise to full figure with a single, smooth motion, graceful as a cat. The sound of handguns firing at distant targets caused Scarlett’s body to jump, but she managed to force herself to crawl out and was aghast at the sight before. There was a plane sitting at the far end of the car park, but it was not like a plane she’d seen before. Sure, there were tiny wings at the back and the main body, and even the large wings, but the engines she was looking at were facing the wrong way. As far as she knew, most planes, especially the ones with propellers, had the engines in the front. Occasionally, she saw propellers at the rear of the big wings, facing the other direction. But never had she seen propellers that face the sky. How does it fly? Does it go forward?
The questions in her head immediately dissipated as a bullet struck the wall behind her. Focusing her mind, she pushed her body into a run. She fixed her eyes on the aircraft, drove her legs to carry her hips but this time there would be no eyes that gave a damn about how she looked. From the corner of her eye, she saw Calandra firing off rounds with a gun but also starting to receive undue attention from a large number of people getting closer. She had lost sight of Rodriguez, but there was a figure at the aircraft who had emerged from a door in the side.
As she ran closer, the gunfire still raining, she saw that the figure was dressed in a smart suit, pinstripe trousers with black shoes and wearing a bowler hat on his head. He would have been more at home on the stock market or in a 1960’s spy movie, but he had one hand clapping his hat to his head and the other reaching for her.
“Wilson,” he said, “the name’s Wilson, please get inside.”
Scarlett gratefully took his hand, which led her inside the aircraft. The interior of the aircraft had a few seats and the piloting area to the front was open with one person sitting at the controls. Scarlett saw Rodriguez enter the aircraft behind her, his smaller frame moving a lot quieter, and she anticipated Calandra’s arrival. She found herself being placed in a seat by the Wilson character who then returned to the door and shouted loudly and politely at Calandra. Scarlett felt the aircraft begin to lift somewhat unsteadily. Gunfire was still ringing, and she was sure some were catching the body of the aircraft. From her position, she could also see Calandra in the car park outside. No longer did she have her guns out, but instead had returned to using her long stick and was dispatching several of the strange headed men who had attacked them.
The aircraft was rising. Scarlett was sure that Calandra was going to be left behind as they were well above fifty feet in the air. Wilson had remained at the rear door. Through the window Scarlett could see a rope hanging out of the aircraft. The aircraft began to move forward as well as up and Scarlett saw the engines of the aircraft rotate around the wing, coming more to the horizontal plane, but still not fully level. Looking out the window, she saw Calandra grab the rope and begin to climb. Gunfire peppered her from below. Scarlett looked on in amazement as the woman, whose body had previously gone glassy, now became fully translucent. Shots rang off her. She was a glass figure inside her clothing. Within a minute, she had climbed the rope and was inside the aircraft.
“Good job,” said Wilson, as he headed towards the cockpit. Scarlett watched Calandra take up the seat beside her and marvelled at the clear features the woman displayed. She could actually see right through her face to the other side of the cabin which was a blur. Like looking through a frozen lake or a diamond held up high. Slowly the skin became more opaque before eventually returning to her normal pale white. Now she merely looked like someone from Iceland.
Calandra turned and smiled. “Well, I did tell you I was the Ice Maiden.”
The only sign of life was her blonde hair as Scarlett submerged everything except her head under the warm water. The rather plush bathroom she was in didn’t take away the memories of the past few hours. Everything at the time seemed such a blur, but now that she had a moment to catch up, she was remembering the men and the other things that came after. Also entering her mind was the sight of the people from the coach in various states of damage in the hotel. In this moment of solitude, it was clear that the mind was taking time to adjust, taking time to soak in the situation, just as sure as her body was soaking up the warmth of the water.
After the aircraft left the scene, the windows turned strangely black and Scarlett had no idea where the aircraft had travelled. They couldn’t have travelled that far because they landed within twenty minutes of having left. For the whole of the ride, the woman who called herself Calandra had been staring at her, assessing, and Scarlett found it frankly uncomfortable. She felt inadequate beside this ice woman, and not simply because she was quite clearly the inferior when it came to handling large and quite nasty men. The woman was also an antithesis of everything Scarlett was. Where the woman was relatively tall and sleek, she also managed to have a strong and fit profile. Scarlett was plump, short, stubby and somewhat closed, with unkempt blonde hair. This was clearly unfair. Scarlett wasn’t overweight—well only a few pounds—and certainly had more curves than the other woman. Whether it was being overweight that produced each curve always played in Scarlett’s mind. Still, at least with her body concealed under the surface of the water, there could be no confirmation whether her thoughts were true or not.
How could she think like that at a time like this? People were dead, people were after her, yet some of the first things that came to her was how she looked against this strange but compelling woman. Scarlett brushed away the remaining thoughts, but then realised that the things left afterwards were more horrific. Maybe it was better to do the comparison rather than dwell on the darker matters beyond?
A knock sounded on the door, and she heard a voice tell her that the boss would like to see her as soon as possible. When she didn’t reply, the male voice on the other side said that they would be back in approximately five minutes and requested that she be in a state of dress when they arrived. Scarlett initially thought she would stay in the water and let its cleansing properties work its magic on her sore limbs, but when her brain caught hold of the idea that in five minutes time some man was going to walk into this bathroom with her still in the water, she immediately hauled herself out. Standing on a bath mat on the floor, she dried herself down before reaching for some clothing she had discarded beside the bath.
She saw a chair in the corner which held other clothing. There was a simple note on top that said wear these. The thought crossed her mind of keeping her old clothing until Scarlett realised that the clothing was rather drab, functional yes, but still rather drab. It consisted of a large, grey jumper, baggy, certainly not figure hugging, underwear, and some tracksuit bottoms. When she dressed in her clothes and caught a look at herself in the mirror, she realised just how non-descript she looked in the outfit. Again, thoughts of Calandra’s tight fitting jeans and black leather jacket and simply how stylish, elegant and, downright sexy she looked, attacked her very bland appearance.
Changing into the clothes provided, Scarlett reassessed herself. The stout boots felt awkward but the blue jeans seemed comfortable enough. The brown t-shirt felt a little tight but she felt her figure just about carried it, and the suede jacket actually was rather swish. However, her hair was a mess. There was a brush on the dresser of the bathroom and Scarlett used it to tackle her long blonde hair before finding a hair tie and finishing off her preening by collecting her hair together in a simple ponytail. Just as she finished, a knock on the door sounded.
“The boss is requesting your presence,” said the person on the other side. Realising it was now a woman speaking, Scarlett advised her to come in. It was the woman who had rescued her that entered. Calandra was still in black jeans but the leather jacket had been discarded and the figure hugging T-shirt she was now wearing made Scarlett somewhat jealous. But the woman smiled when she looked at Scarlett.
“Do you feel better for that?” asked Calandra.
“I think better is a very strange term in this situation,” said Scarlett. “Never had anything like this happen to me. It seems that my mind keeps focusing on the worse things to think about rather than what I actually saw.”
“In my time doing this sort of work,” said Calandra, “I find it never goes away. Seeing scenes of people in a state that they should not be in never gets easier, never stops hurting. I’m sorry you had to see that, but unfortunately, it goes with the territory when involved in these sort of things.”
“What sort of things are these?”
“That is best left for the boss to explain. He’s looking to speak with you.”
With that, Calandra took herself out of the room, then stopped momentarily to look around the rather ornate country style bathroom, presumably checking there was nothing else still in the room. Clearly, this was just a chance to slow things down as Scarlett’s old clothes were still on the floor yet she made no attempt to either regain them or do anything with them.
Once she had exited the room, she found herself following Calandra like some schoolchild going to the headmaster’s office. This lady was silent, but she had a gait that was annoying Scarlett. Someone that trim shouldn’t be able to swing her hips like that, looking as though she were on parade, moving about whatever secret headquarters they were in now. Again the absurdity of a comparison, the need to bring down this woman struck. Scarlett realised the defence mechanisms must have been kicking in again.
Scarlett was led along many corridors and up a few stairs on the passage to the boss. Occasionally, a person would go past, sometimes in very smart office wear, and at other times wearing very casual outdoor clothing. Most gave a brief smile, a personable front presented, but she got the idea that behind there was a defence, some sort of wall which said she might get the weather from them but she wouldn’t get a lot else. The building seemed to be some sort of country house with many pictures on the walls showing people in very regal poses, but Scarlett didn’t recognise any of the faces. Sideboards ran along every corridor, items of crockery placed on them. She had never watched the Antiques Roadshow or any other program about grand items from previous centuries, and Scarlett was unable to identify any of the pieces.
She was much happier when she was at home watching a nature programme of the animals that occupy so much of our world. She seemed to understand the animals more than people. Maybe it was just the way the programmes showed them. When she got the chance, she enjoyed going along to zoos, or indeed any wildlife parks, to stop and stare at the animals. She often spent most of the day there without conversing with any other human, but instead stopped at whatever fence, wall or viewing platform was given and watched the animals work, rest and play. Sometimes they seemed to move closer to her, and she thought they were staring back at her. But perhaps her mind just invented this idea to make up for her lack of human interaction.
They approached a wooden door, and Calandra knocked on it. A simple word to enter could be heard, and Calandra opened the door to a small but very grand looking office. There was a cabinet placed beside the only window. It contained many paintings and other artefacts in small cases. The floor itself was wooden, made up of very stylish boards and looked somewhat worn down and aged. The single window in the office occupied most of one wall and the view beyond was of mountains, green with snow-capped summits. Scarlett drew a breath at the sight before a figure suddenly appeared beside them.
“It’s quite a view ma’am, and yes, that’s why it’s my office.”
Scarlett then realised the man before her was the same man that had welcomed her onto the aircraft. He was dressed extremely smartly, still in his trousers and black shoes that he had on before, but now he was in a waistcoat, shirt and tie underneath. She fought for the word to describe him. He reminded her of those businessmen in the city, but unlike their official garb, there was a different strain to this man. As he smiled and extended a hand towards her, she thought of those dancers twirling women around the floor and the ballrooms. Dapper—that was the word—extremely dapper.
“I think I said to you before, but it’s probably worth reminding you, the name is Wilson. And very pleased to meet you, Miss O’Meara.”
Scarlett got the distinct impression that this man knew a lot already. Even the words Miss O’Meara managed to convey that he was being polite, but that he knew everything about her. This was rather unnerving, and she felt her heart rate climbing up, sweat beginning as she thought out a reply. She was walking into a conversation she was very much second-best in. It felt like one of those parties during which she stood at the side and then someone would find her and she wouldn’t know what to say. Instead she’d dip her head and withdraw. And hence she found men were just staring at her instead of conversing with her. Was she just not conversing with them?
“Hi. I’m Scarlett. Scarlett O’Meara. But I guess you knew that.”
“Indeed, Miss O’Meara, indeed I did, and I know a lot more, but there’s nothing for you to be nervous about. In essence, you have been quite lucky. I realise that you did not ask to be in this situation, yet that doesn’t change the fact that you’re up to your neck in it. Thankfully for yourself, we were able to get you, to keep you safe from the other parties who were interested in what you had.”
“What do I have?” asked Scarlett. “After all this, do I actually have anything? We never found anything. I thought it was still back in the hotel, whatever it is that I supposedly possess.”
“I doubt that,” said Wilson, “as they were all over the place and, unlike Miss Calandra, I do believe they are equal to searching a building in the same way that we are.”
“We? Who is we?” asked Scarlett.
“We, as in the organisation I work for. It is a secret government organisation which monitors threats—bizarre threats from places that most people do not know even exist. We deal with the strange, we deal with that which people don’t want to think about, that their minds often struggle to comprehend. We are like the clean-up crew for the terrible, monstrous things that go bump in the night.”
Scarlett’s face fell somewhat. She realised things were getting a bit odd, but this was a different level. Standing there slightly amazed, she had her hand taken by Wilson who led her gently to a chair in front of his desk. Having deposited her there, he turned, poured a small cup of tea which he then handed to her. Scarlett became aware that Calandra moved into flanking position just off her right shoulder. She looked very different, but she felt like a guard.
“What is it they are after?” asked Scarlett. “Mr. Wilson, do you actually know what they wanted? Because your colleague behind me didn’t seem to.”
“In fairness to Miss Calandra, at the time we were rather in the dark, but since then we have managed to collect slightly more intel and I believe I know what they were looking for.”
Scarlett waited for the man to continue, but he just sat there looking at her “Are you going to tell me?” asked Scarlett.
“Oh,” said Wilson, “I thought you just wanted to know if I knew. That’s what you asked. I’m kind of programmed to answer only what I’m asked.”
“I want you to answer, too,” said Calandra.
Wilson at first looked slightly amused, then gave a glance that showed annoyance before breaking into a gentle laugh at the comment. “Please forgive Miss Calandra, as she is getting used to the idea of me running the organisation. My former boss was a good friend of hers, and she worked very closely with him. I’m a somewhat different character. He was very by the book, extremely professional, demanding but didn’t have a sense of humour like myself. Sometimes I believe Miss Calandra thinks I’m the light version. She is, of course, entirely wrong in that surmise, and I’m sure time will explain that to her”.
Scarlett ignored what politics was going on and instead reiterated the question. “Are you going to tell me what they were looking for?”
“Indeed, dear lady, indeed. It seems that when you had your little skirmish, the one at the service station, it wasn’t some sort of sexual assault. I believe the man in question had his hand inside of your clothing for good reason, in that he dropped something, an item of considerable value.” Wilson rose to his feet and turned to look out the window. “It’s an old item, very old.”
“You mean like the things on those antique programmes?”
“Ah, well, Miss, certainly not from those programmes. I doubt anyone on those programmes would realise its true worth. The item in question is a necklace, and at its centre is a small gem, a sort of emerald. But its worth isn’t in its monetary value, its worth is in what it enables the bearer to do.”
“Are you sure about this one?” asked Calandra. “After all, we had no confirmation, visual or any other means. Are you definitely following these lines, because to my mind, we should be a lot more open and sceptical about what it is and what it’s going to be used for?”
“Miss O’Meara, I always value the contributions of my employees, and I always value any input at any time from those around me, but do believe me, I have an understanding here that a lot of others have not reached. And that understanding places you at the centre of all of this.”
“Mr. Wilson, could you please tell me what the hell you’re going on about? I’m sitting here listening to you prattle on about what is and what isn’t, and I’m none the wiser from the time spent with you.”
“My apologies, Miss O’Meara, I realise this may be a little strange for a girl from the valleys. By the way that Welsh accent is quite lovely.”
“Yes, well, this girl from the valleys is going to get up and walk in a minute,” said Scarlett, “because at the moment, as glad as I am that you rescued me from those men, I don’t see what this all has to do with me apart from being someone who you believed had something, which I clearly don’t.”
“Well, they definitely knew you had it. However, I don’t think they, or you, understand it. In truth, I don’t fully understand this object, I just know a little more than others.”
“How am I wearing it? From my underwear to this outfit you seem to have given me, I know everything I’ve got on at the moment. I’ve just come from the bath, and I guarantee when I looked around there was nothing on me. As you can tell, I don’t even wear jewellery so I think I would notice any new addition.”
Wilson sniffed slightly, Scarlett thought rather indignantly, before he walked off to a bookcase in the corner of the room. He drew out a book that had the old stale cover on it, one without pictures whose leather, in which it was clad, was looking the worse for wear.
“You really should look after your books, Mr. Wilson,” said Scarlett. “My own back home look a lot better than that.”
“Indeed they may, but I doubt you have any books like this. He returned with the large volume, facing Scarlett from the lower side of the table and opened the book to the first page. Scarlett looked and saw some rather old writing and recognised it as English even if it was slightly old English, a form she had never spoken and certainly never spelled like that even with her own dodgy ability with words.
“What’s this?” asked Calandra.
“This is one of the oldest books I have in my collection and work that does not come from this world. Don’t be fooled by the leather binding around it, which was applied some six to seven hundred years ago in a monastery high in the Alps. This book might be called an encyclopaedia, but that really doesn’t justify what it is. This book is quite special. Behold!”
Wilson traced lines in the book three times and then spoke some words that Scarlett struggled to understand. He sounded like he was grunting and it certainly wasn’t English. In fact, it didn’t sound like a language that came from anywhere near England or Wales for that matter. Scarlett nearly jumped as the pages of the book began to flip before suddenly stopping open at a page approximately one-third of the way through the book. Scarlett leant forward to see what was there but the pages were blank.
“What was the point of that?” asked Scarlett. “There’s nothing there, like some sort of parlour trick.”
Wilson smiled, reached forward and tapped the page three more times and there appeared on the page a picture of a rather ornate looking necklace with an emerald at its centre. Beneath the picture was writing. This time the writing was not English; instead, it was a series of hieroglyphs, but not Egyptian hieroglyphs, something similar yet completely different. Scarlett held back a laugh, rather bemused at the whole show.
“Don’t worry about the language,” said Wilson, “it’s a language that even I struggle to read. But we have people who can deal with these things, and they pointed me in the right direction.”
“Austerley?” asked Calandra.
Wilson nodded. “Yes, sorry, our walking occultist encyclopaedia, Mr. Austerley, confirmed what was on this page and why we should look for it. It’s a very interesting item indeed. Miss O’Meara, may I ask you to stand and come forward to the desk.”
Scarlett looked at him, felt a little awkward, but did she was asked. On reaching the desk, she found Wilson leaning over, grabbing her shoulders and pulling forward until she was at a slight tilt.
“Can you remove your jumper for me please?” asked Wilson.
Scarlett looked at him. “I’m expected to just take it off here for all to see.”
“I understand the hesitation, Miss O’Meara, trust me there’s nothing sexual about what I’m asking. I need you to do this.” His eyes were insistent. Scarlett had the feeling that whatever was going to happen was going to happen, so slowly and rather embarrassingly she removed the jumper, dropping it on the floor. She shivered as Wilson reach forward and touched her breast bone murmuring a few words. One moment she was shivering from the touch of a man asking her to do something rather strange, and then the next she was shivering from the sight appearing on her breastbone. Within her skin was forming a green glow and from the green glow emerged a line, a line of gold snaking around her neck. On her skin was the mirror-image of the necklace in the book.
The Last Remaining Beastmaster
Scarlett clutched at the necklace. It wasn’t separate from her body but rather, was integral with the skin, pronounced but somehow embedded into her person. Both hands ran desperately across her breastbone. How did this get there? Where did it come from and how could she get it off? And what would these people think? All along she had maintained that she knew nothing about concealing anything. She felt her body begin to shudder as a fear and panic ran through. Her vision became unclear as tears ran from her eyes, and she looked up desperately in the direction of Wilson.
“Has she been hiding this all this time?” asked Calandra. Scarlett felt the cold touch of a hand on her shoulder and turned to look into a face that was not showing any mercy.
“I think we should give her our guest room,” said Wilson. “I don’t believe that Miss O’Meara has been hiding anything but rather that the item itself was hiding, even from her. It is most unusual for it to hide, most unusual indeed, but it will do so in certain circumstances according to my investigator.”
“Certain circumstances?” blurted Scarlett. “What the hell do you mean certain circumstances?”
“Calm down. This will be a shock too, as you are going to learn something about yourself that you never knew,” said Wilson. “According to Mr. Austerley, the necklace itself bestows power on anyone to assist with the control of beasts and almost any creature. But to some, and it is a very, very select few, it binds with an ability they already have. For those who can already communicate, those who can already connect with these creatures, it binds itself to them.”
“Binds itself? Well, get it off! Just get the thing off me!”
“I’m not sure it’ll ever do that,” said Wilson. “Indeed, if I were actually able to do that, I’m not sure I would. You see, you’re really quite blessed in all this. In fact, this may be a comfort for you, in that you are beginning to see and understand what your role in this life might be.”
“Role?” asked Calandra. “What her role might be in life?”
“Yes indeed, role,” said Wilson. “Calandra, dear, you are looking at one of the few remaining, in fact probably the only remaining, beast master. However, I do question if that is the correct description. I can’t remember if the female takes the masculine or indeed, simply beast mistress. I must look that up.”
“Who the hell cares what I take? I don’t take! Just what do you mean beast mistress, beast master, beast anything?”
“There are rumours, legends or… in fact, it’s a mess, an old mess, tales that are barely written down anywhere. One is a tale of people who could not speak with, converse with animals, but rather changed their minds in a certain form of telepathy. Not the simple creatures, the older ones. Creatures that are, unfortunately, more developed. And usually a lot more deadly.”
“Wilson, but you said ‘beast mistress’.” said Calandra. “I am eight hundred years old, and I have never heard of a beast mistress.”
“Individually, it is quite something, quite rare,” said Wilson, “but there are many things older than eight hundred years. Many things coming from darker times and darker places.
“Never mind where they come from, never mind what they do. How do you get this off me?” yelled Scarlett.
“In simple terms,” said Wilson, “I cannot. I genuinely cannot remove that. I’m not sure many people can. But those who seek it are coming for you, and it won’t stop them from killing you. The necklace might remove itself if its host—sorry, that’s a rather horrific term—its partner were to die.
“Die? Die? They want to kill me now?”
“No,” said Calandra. “Thinking analytically, they would have done that back at the hotel or back in the woods. They think you have something, therefore they are looking to take it back. But they had to know all this, but they didn’t understand you were one of them.”
“One of them?”
“Yes, one of them, one of whatever it is you are. Whatever it is, and we only have a name, as a description from Wilson, they don’t know that you are. Probably quite lucky that way.”
“Lucky, how the hell is this lucky?”
“I think our new friend needs a little time,” said Wilson and returned to look through the windows at the cold and crisp countryside outside. “I need to obtain something we don’t have. Information. Whatever it is that these other parties intend to do with the necklace is still unknown. And they will no doubt try to retrieve the necklace again, so I think we need to make headway ourselves. Rodriguez is capable of getting some more information. In the meantime, I think Miss O’Meara can do with developing her gift.”
“Developing? Can I develop it? I don’t speak to animals. I don’t talk to beasts. I don’t do any of this. I think it’s made a mistake.”
“I imagine it’s normal to feel this way, but there has been so few of you in history, I guess normal is probably inaccurate.” Wilson smiled. “I’m sure they felt like this, maybe felt worse as they may not have had anyone explain to them what was going on, at least you had that. No, I think that we need to explore your gift but in a conducive environment. It seems to me that trip to the North is required to see an old friend of Calandra’s.”
“What old friend?” asked Calandra.
“Don’t worry, not the boys. I mean the zoo keeper.”
“That weasel,” said Calandra. “If he tries anything this time, I will break his neck.”
Scarlett looked up to see if she was smiling and laughing, in a vain hope that they would be going to someone at least normal, if not nice. But the face was like the body, cold.
“I do not disagree, he is a strange one and certainly in normal society would probably have ended up in a few jail cells with the things he’s tried, but there is one thing he’s good at. He does run our zoo rather well.”
“Your zoo?” asked Scarlett.
“This must all seem rather weird,” said Wilson. “I’d rather have more time to brief you before immersing you into our world, but that’s not possible. We need to get you moving with using this device effectively. I’ve the feeling it’s going to become rather important. Some time off in the North of Scotland. Calandra with you as your bodyguard and guide.”
“I kept her safe from the people back at the hotel, now from the animal pervert,” sneered Calandra.
“There is no need for that,” said Wilson, “our friend has got enough on her plate. You can take the car,” said Wilson,” try keeping it low-key. Keep out of the way and keep aware. Now they know that someone else is involved, they may start to use other assets. Make sure you go packing some heat.”
“Heat? You trying to be funny?” asked Calandra.
“My wife does say I have my moments,” retaliated Wilson, “but this is not one of them.”
Scarlett lay back in the leather seat until she felt a normality in the chair’s comfort. She went back to a time when she been travelling and trying to sleep as she had been driven the length the country through the night. That journey was comfortable, and there had been no thoughts in her head of creatures, destinies and people trying to come after her. And there had certainly been no drivers beside her that felt like a refrigeration box.
After leaving Wilson, Calandra took Scarlett to get changed into a more appropriate outfit, as she put it. Scarlett wondered if the woman’s outfit of black leather jacket over the crop top, black jeans and boots was some sort of the standard issue. No one else in the building seemed to confirm her theory, indeed many were simply wearing suits, making the place look like a remote and detached Whitehall department. Rodriguez met them and Calandra explained that Wilson was wanting him in the main office. He gave a brief smile at Scarlett which was rather bizarre coming from a midget. That’s probably a derogatory term, thought Scarlett, after all it had been used on her. Pint-sized Welsh fireball was how one boyfriend described her, but then he had been such an idiot. Too many of them were idiots.
Scarlett was kitted out in a set of leather trousers with short ankle boots and a fleece jacket and a T-shirt. The T-shirt they provided was tightfitting which felt quite unusual. Scarlett had usually worn very loose fitting clothes, but Calandra said they just got in the way, especially during a fight. How did that matter? Was Scarlett going to start punching people? She needed to make sure that Calandra realised she wasn’t a combatant, but she was being looked after. “Bodyguard,” Wilson said, that was straight forward and she would be protected, not part of the fight.
They had gone down to the basement of the building and found a garage. But it was unlike any garage that Scarlett had ever seen. A number of cars, most of them were non-descript but there was one at the end. It looked like a sports car, something any boy racer would drive. There’s something else about it, Scarlett thought. It was black, the kind of black that shone, but it was more than that. It seemed to stand out for a moment in your mind, then it would be just one of those cars. However, that illusion dispersed the moment you stepped inside.
Scarlett had never known a car with so many buttons and so many screens. Yes, it was a windscreen but on the inside of the windscreen were other things, green lines, numbers and a multitude of indications on the screened area. Calandra said it was a heads up display. Scarlett wasn’t sure she could take that much information at once.
However, Calandra seemed pleased that she was getting the car and signed for the keys in a happy fashion.
The women then returned upstairs, finding a kitchen, and Scarlett dined on haggis, neeps and tatties. Passing on the haggis, Calandra explained that she didn’t really enjoy ovine stomach.
Soon they were on the move, first along underground roads which was all very strange, especially when they emerged right through some rocks onto a road. They looked like ordinary rocks, and when she turned round and looked back at the road they had entered, it was a normal roadway, but the route they had emerged from was just a rock face. It was dark, for it was the early hours of the morning as the car roared into the Scottish night.
Calandra had obviously driven before. There seemed to be a smile, albeit a small one, across her face as she drove the car around tight corners at speed. Maybe she was just assessing the road ahead as she hadn’t used any lights so far. However, the windscreen showed a green glow bringing images to the forefront, something Calandra said was night vision. Scarlett was struggling to comprehend who she was with. It felt like one of those programmes on TV, the spy programmes from an older time of wacky gadgets.
“Best to get some shut eye,” said Calandra. “Going to be a long drive.”
“You really think I can sleep? You have to understand this is my first secret organization and ‘my first curse’.”
“Curse?” asked Calandra. “What curse?”
Scarlett instantly became indignant. “What curse? This necklace that has joined onto me. It’s unusual for devices to take a hold of people, to become part of the skin, get under the skin. I realise it might be normal to you, but this is anything but normal to me. I just really want rid of it.”
“It’s hardly a curse,” said Calandra. “You got something that can lift your powers, something to make it something better, just an extension of yourself. Bit like my staff, and the other weapons are just an extension of myself.”
“You’re just used to weird.” Scarlett saw Calandra raise her eyebrows. “Your skin changes. It beggars belief what happens to it. You turned to ice,” said Scarlett. “I saw it change, your body went clear.”
“Translucent is the word,” said Calandra, “not clear. Clear doesn’t give the full impression, so to speak.”
“I think you’ve made my case. That’s not normal. He also said you’re eight hundred years old. So like I said, you do weird, I don’t.”
“And you think that makes me immune to it? You think I don’t struggle? I just take this all in my stride as another normal day at the office? You have no idea.”
“You can turn to ice, you can become something else. It must make it a lot easier, it must make it…”
“Easier?” said Calandra. “Easier…, you have no idea. You have no idea what this cost me.”
They travelled in silence, but Scarlett kept casting a glance at the driver who was now fully focused on the road ahead. There was no indication of pain, except in the corner of her eye, in the vicinity—a tear. It seemed to be a tear, but it was held there. Looking at the amount of water within the tear, it should have spilled over but instead it seemed suspended at the duct. And then it wasn’t, as she blinked and there was the most imperceptible crunch and a little piece of ice fell to the floor.
“Who was he?”
“Who was who?”
Scarlett pressed. “Who was he?”
“It doesn’t matter and I don’t want to talk about it. Suffice it to say the price was costly, and that it cost me someone else. I don’t talk about it.”
Scarlett took the hint. Calandra wasn’t the warmest person to talk to, and she wasn’t going to be forthcoming. Scarlett tried to turn her head and bury it into the seat.
After a short while, they emerged onto the motorway. Scarlett realised the lights on the car were switched on. Calandra was also holding to the speed limit, something which she had previously not done when they had been driving along in the dark. The motorway was all but deserted, the occasional headlight coming the other way on the other side. Scarlett glanced at her watch, but it wasn’t there.
“Missing a clock?” said Calandra.
She is always watching, thought Scarlett. Guess that’s a bodyguard’s job, keep an eye on what I’m doing.
But it was a little disconcerting. Scarlett wondered if she could read faces as well. There was an awkwardness being with someone that you did not trust and did not know. She wished there was a way out of this nightmare, some way to just pack it up and head back. She felt torn, torn between heading back to the drab life that she had been cursing not that long ago, and embracing this parade of the strange.
We’re off to the zoo, she thought.
She’d never heard of one at the far north of Scotland, right at the top. But then again, it was unlikely to be a public one as everything else so far had been in the shadows. What do you keep in the shadows? It seemed to speak of higher creatures not your normal animals. It made Scarlett wonder and dream, fanciful dreams that brought forth creatures from myths and legends. When she was growing up, she had read most of the Norse, Greek, Roman and Celtic myths. She was familiar with a number of rather strange creatures, familiar in the sense of the book, not first-hand. But that’s all they were: myths and legends. She’d probably get to see a tiger, elephant and other such animals at the zoo.
The car lights on the road went out, and the windscreen changed onto night vision. The engine roared as the car suddenly sped up, and Scarlett was forced back into her seat. She turned and saw Calandra, an image of concentration. She scanned other dials and screens within the car. There seemed to be nothing, no indication that something was wrong, but quite clearly Calandra was worried. Her face was grim as she gripped the wheel holding onto the car, and Scarlett thought it must be doing at least a hundred if not a hundred and twenty mph. And then she heard it. There was a whooshing sound, something akin to a train passing by and a faint shadow as something passed over the top of the car. It was definitely a shadow, but the night vision make it awkward to understand quite how big it was or what it was, for that matter, but it came back and that train sound passed over again.
“Just hold on tight,” said Calandra, teeth gritted.
Scarlett nodded. She was amazed at the speeds they were travelling at but something kept sweeping past them. The car was struck on the roof, and Scarlett felt it rear up onto two wheels then onto one side before it clattered back onto the road and raced again. Calandra seemed to be a step ahead and reached behind for something. But then, unbelievably, there appeared giant claws in the road ahead. They were racing towards the car and each was as big as a car. Large talons ripped into the roof above Scarlett’s head, and she felt the car being flung into the air, like an out-of-control fairground ride during the spin. Scarlett heard an almighty crash and felt glass breaking in from the car windows. The car continued to spin. She felt cold and received a sprinkling of glass as the window shattered.
The car stopped spinning, and Scarlett felt herself being dragged out of the window. Unbelievably, Calandra was there and pulled her to the back of the car. Scarlett was holding one of Calandra’s hands and in the other the staff she had seen before was growing to its full height. This gave reassurance to Scarlett, but it was quickly smashed as an almighty roar went over the top of the car. Scarlett watched Calandra glance up above the car and her face changed to one of horror. But Scarlett froze, part of her did not want to move. The necklace on the breastbone seemed to be taking on a life of its own, and she could feel a second heartbeat. Curiosity took over Scarlett who glanced above the roof of the car to see what had made the almighty noise.
She saw talons as big as herself. She saw the legs, strong and leathery, and she felt the beat of the wings. Then she saw the head with the teeth, the green eyes, and she thought to herself, That’s a dragon!