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Volume X

To See the Sun

 

You want tales of an improbable romance and young men whose skin glitters in the sun? We don’t sell those types of books in here...

 

Balthazar is a curiosity, a man who lives by the sea in Whitby and gives readings of classic novels to anyone who wishes to listen in the backroom of an antique bookstore.  His readings are unique and attract an ever burgeoning crowd.  The readings often drift from the original text and into parallel stories that suggest he has a firm grasp of history, as if he has actually lived through the creation of these classic novels, yet he has no memory of this… in fact, Balthazar has no memory at all.  He has no idea who or what he actually is or where he came from beyond waking up with a circular stab wound to his chest in the bowels of Fountains Abbey.  That wound has never healed and he now finds himself wandering the North Yorkshire moors searching for an answer to his true identity.

 

Claire and Prudence are two mildly intentioned Goths who like to experience the more bizarre things in life.  Whitby has much to offer them outside of their more mundane existence.  One chill April night they step across the threshold of Balthazar’s antique bookstore, joining dozens of other curiosity seekers.  Intrigued by the deep pools of loss that are his eyes they follow him to his daytime existence where he is the feature character attraction at the Dracula Experience, and from that moment their lives are never quite the same.

 

All the while the scattered remains of sheep pile up on the wilds of the North Yorkshire moors… a beast is a foot and Claire, Balthazar and Prudence are about to come face to face with it…

 

Currently undergoing a re-vamp with intent to publish… watch this space!

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Prologue

Tonic

 

Long ago the hopeless peasant

Left his sheep all buried there

Sheep that through the summer pleasant

He had watched with fondest care

 

Now no more a cheerful ranger

Following pathways known of yore

Sad he stood a wildered stranger

On his own unbounded moor 2.

 

 

There was a time I can still remember on a windswept moor.  I don’t remember exactly where that was or quite when, but I remember the bite of the wind as it cut through the thin cotton shirt that I wore.  I remember how the sun held its poise on horizon’s edge, with the promise of a sailor’s delight on the morrow behind a fearsome looking bank of clouds.

They trudged on unsuspecting, through the thick undergrowth.

I could see their pale faces, flushed with the blood that coursed through their veins, as they pushed on towards a warmer destination.  Blood that pumped steadily through the expanding, contracting, expanding and contracting veins in their exposed wrists as they rolled back their sleeves and checked their watches.  They were desperate to make it in before sunset petered out… as they should have been.

The couple kept to the shelter of the valley below the ridge, all windswept and wild… while the ridge was mine!  I could see their precautions quite clearly; their solid boots strapped up to the ankles with just the slightest hint of their cozy woolen socks.  The waterproof anoraks, zipped up to their chins, one slightly over-grown and the other over made-up for the tramp that they were attempting, protected them against the howl of the wind.  They had yet to experience mine…

They trudged on unsuspecting, through the thick undergrowth.

I could see their frigid faces quite clearly through the worsening light, flushed with blood at the cheeks.  I crept along the ridge above them, another menacing pale cloud on the horizon, another tempest that they were tragically unprepared for.  What time was it anyway… oh that’s right, dinner time!

The sun had now made its way Down Under and the underworld came to life around me in the undergrowth that kept itself low on the moor.  Each insect stepped in line behind me, six at a time, as I swept silently across the moor, while others slithered lower in the sodden turf with only my direction in mind.  The moor felt ominously serene despite the tempest that was brewing and the hunger that ached and racked my body.

They moved on steadily below, torches strapped to their wrists, with caution in mind.  The whites of their eyes flashed like a slot machine as their eyes darted left and right, up and down… the veins within straining with the activity.

A final desperate effort was required; they could now see the smoke from one of the three lonely chimneys of their destination on the horizon.  The track was narrow and steep here as they climbed out of the vale.  It was really only fit for a goat, but it was currently riddled with fat little black faced sheep and their slippery fertilization.

I could hear the cheer rise up with the smoke through that lonely distant chimney, warmed by the fire and the expectation of company.  Warmed by the hot soup that sickened me to the pit of my stomach… warmed by the thick English stout that stood awaiting its fate on the ancient wood of the bar.  Wood that had aged with the ale that had been spilt so carelessly there over many years… wood that had seen calendar dates that I paled into insignificance.

This cozy little outpost, on the moors, triggered a memory of a place so oft used by the walkers that liked to follow in Alfred Wainwright’s footsteps, whilst making their way in a week or two or three across the narrow northern reaches of England.  This desolate moor was somewhere below Hadrian’s Wall… and this North Yorkshire moor was where I found myself as I swooped down upon the unsuspecting walkers.

Now that I knew where I was and why, I suddenly developed a distinct purpose… oh how the hunger burned inside of me… and oh how I yearned for a drink…

What was stopping me?

Nothing!

I stood before them, all grand and mocking.  The whites of their eyes had vanished, populated by fearful pupils.  As had mine, if I had ever had any to begin with… I couldn’t really remember; that was so long ago.

I reached out to them as the rain followed me in on a maniacal trajectory.  I reached out to that pale over made up chin with its pulsating veins just below… how I hated the taste of cheap artificial powder.  I could feel her heart pounding through her fragile neck as I caressed it.

I waited for the inevitable scream…

There was no scream… just a whimper from her unshaven mate who stood frozen in fear… and she collapsed into my arms, but I let her fall gently to the ground.  I watched as the fear paralyzed him, as the fresh smell of warm urine mingled with the smell of the sheep droppings.  His trousers were steaming now as a globule of drool hung precariously from his lips.  I stepped in closer and with a flash of my tongue it disappeared…

“Lovely night for a walk… I don’t think you’re quite cooked yet… best you make a run for it and warm yourself up a bit.  I much prefer a rising temperature… and don’t forget your lovely lady friend.  Fortunately for you, I think it’s the season for a tender spring lamb… don’t you? Baaa…baaa… a ha!”

And with that parting shot I swept up the nearest sheep and vanished into the rain that swept across the moor.  It was not a moment I was bound to remember… yet I was certain that they would for the remainder of their miserable lives…

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

Better Days

 

Tell me tell me smiling child

What the past is like to thee?

An Autumn evening soft and mild

With a wind that sighs mournfully

 

Tell me what is the present hour?

A green and flowery spray

Where a young bird sits gathering its power

To mount and fly away

 

And what is the future happy one?

A sea beneath a cloudless sun

A mighty glorious dazzling sea

Stretching into infinity 3.

 

 

“How do I look, Pru… don’t answer that, just wait here…”

 Claire made her way over to a conveniently large shop window to check herself out.  Prudence didn’t follow, she could see herself from a distance and she was much as she had been when she left home; mostly black with a shock of bleached blonde on top and that was just about right.

“Let’s see… hair suitably long and black, eat your heart out Morticia.  Dress, slinky and black and about mid thigh over black fishnets; suitably Goth.  Boobs, disappointing but well pushed up and suitably exposed to a hint of a tease.  Glasses, narrow and thickly black-rimmed… I think you’ve just about got it my dear Claire, let’s hope the punters inside think so.”

“You finished admiring yourself there, Claire?  You know you’re feckin’ gorgeous.  Kind’ve fancy you myself, except for the bits that are obviously missing!”

“Just wondering if I was Goth enough.  There was a time… I can still remember that look… but no matter.  Do you think this’ll be as good as they say?”

“Social network rumours never lie… you should know that by now?  If you want to know anything… if you want to catch on to the latest thing… if you want to know where to hang out on a Sat’dy night… you’ve gotta look it up on line!”

Claire embraced Prudence warmly.  She loved Pru’s look; it was more of a Punk Goth… bleached blonde hair with purple strands here and red bits there.  She had curious collection of piercings; eleven earrings, a nose ring and a stud through her tongue.  Claire actually found that oddly alluring, although she would never go there herself.  She knew that she was more of a makeup Goth, but then she was like that with life in general.  She knew how to present herself correctly for any given occasion... she knew just how to fit in, yet still be who she wanted to be when she so desired.

“Come on then, Pru… Time may be eternal, but it doesn’t mean we should waste it admiring ourselves.  We were put on this Earth to be admired and I feel in the mood for a hunt.  You know how I like to get what I want… and I have an insatiable hunger tonight.”

“God I love it when you thirst.  Come on then, these pumps are making me thirsty!”

Claire caught Prudence by the hand and dragged her down the steep and narrow cobbled lane.  Whitby was like that, nestled as it was between the North Sea cliffs and the North Yorkshire Moors.  There was little space here for space and what space there was formed the protective harbour at the mouth of the River Esk.  The rest of Whitby nestled into the cliffs, with only the more modern and Victorian areas braving the windswept cliff tops.

Despite the nearby moors and the wind that swept in from the sea, Whitby was a seaside resort in summer.  There were a couple of sandy beaches, fun rides and a games arcade, but there was also a decidedly Gothic underbelly lurking here.  Tales from Bram Stoker, and the ruined presence of Whitby Abbey, hung over the town, drawing a decidedly dark subculture… and this was right where Claire and Prudence came in tonight.

Thanks to Pru’s reliance on a more modern mode of communicating, the two young women were destined to find themselves participating in a reading at a local antique book store.  It was a weekly Wednesday night event and there weren’t too many events in these parts.  Claire was eager for something new in her life as it had dragged out so lately… and there was that hunger within her and she felt it keenly now as she dragged Prudence down the final narrow lane to a lonely weather-beaten door.

Claire drew in a deep breath and placed her hand flat on the chipped paint that mocked the door.  She could feel the coarse edges of the curled up paint pieces on her palm as she pushed gently and the door gave way with a distinct click.  Claire could tell that this was not a conventional shop, it wasn’t actually opened for business as such; it was just open.  All that spelt ominous and she could feel the reluctant tug of Pru’s hand, yet she pulled against it and stepped inside with an incurable lust for adventure.

The passageway beyond the door was dimly lit and piled on either side with dusty tomes; labelled here and there with little tongues that seemed to form some semblance of order.  The passage was quite long and opened up with two narrow doorways on the left that led into the book store proper, but these rooms were dark and foreboding tonight; they were a daytime concern.  Claire ignored these and gravitated towards a murmur of voices at the far end.  The room there flickered with a light that ebbed and flowed with the tide of the conversation.

Prudence was emboldened by the seeming presence of others and led the way now with a bravado that clipped several books en route… books that Claire kicked lightly back in place as she followed Prudence further into the depths of the store.  They found a small candlelit room at the end of the passageway.  It was also piled with musty books in no particular order.  There were about twenty people of distinctly Goth profiles either sitting cross-legged on the floor or leaning precariously against the crags of books that lined the walls.

Claire did a quick head count and a quick summary of the various guises assembled here.  They were mostly women, no older than 30, just as she was, and no younger than 16.  They shared various elements of the clothes that she and Prudence wore, along with bat earrings, cobweb fishnets, purple and black strands of hair, hefty boots and various facial piercings that dominated their disguises.  Claire knew that she was in the right place and with kindred spirits, yet the man who dominated the attention of those gathered here looked oddly out of place in comparison.

He had the pale Gothic features common amongst those in the room.  He had luscious black hair that he brushed back off his forehead to conceal its length, but it was surprisingly cropped quite short at the back.  His dark eyes were intense and she feared they were fierce, but there was an underlying warmth and an experience behind them that drew her in as they had drawn everyone else in the room.  They seemed to be asking her to come in and sit down, yet he didn’t speak the actual words.  Claire defied the implied kindness and leant up against a teetering stack at the rear of the room, in the relative darkness beyond the candlelight.

Claire liked to watch.  She felt that this gave her control and she liked to be in control.  She was on the hunt for knowledge to quench a thirst… she did not like to be merely meekly informed.

Prudence sat amongst those on the floor as Claire continued her appraisal of their odd host.  He could have been anyone, but he didn’t really look like anyone that should be here.  He wore fairly late model ASICS trainers, a nondescript pair of denims, with not a rip in sight, and a grey t-shirt with long black sleeves, emblazoned with the U2 Vertigo tour 2006 target!  Claire was dying to ask him how he enjoyed the concert, but decided that it was more prudent to keep her questions to herself… and if she did ask about music, she would prefer to ask him about HIM!  However, tonight was about books and their host picked up a moth eaten tome now, blew off the dust it had collected forlornly, and opened it up to chapter one.

“Chapter One… Recalled to life… It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom…”4.

Their host sighed and ran his free hand through his hair scratching the top of his scalp as he finished.  He closed his eyes and stroked his chin thoughtfully, all the while closing Dicken’s tale and placing it back on the floor beside him… he continued on…

“…it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”5.

Their host sighed again and paused, seemingly thinking his way through the prose he was now reciting from memory.  Claire looked about the room; each member of the audience was as equally enthralled as she was.  What kind of man kept an entire novel in his head… and if he did this every Wednesday night, as she had been told he did, where did he have the room for so many novels?  Claire was certainly taken in; this was not the Gothic experience she was expecting… but it certainly was something…

“Probably not what you lot were expecting.  You probably want tales of young men whose skin glitters in the sun with an accompanying improbable romance, but we don’t sell those kind of books in here… so where was I, ah yes… it was the best of times6., what a time it was… so extreme.  If only Louis had realized what he had begun with the calling of Les États généraux… do you think he ever had the capacity to imagine it would lead to all this?  I never did.  Surprisingly, you are not so different from them, so pale of skin and so uniformly dressed in your style.  We are all a member of one group or another.  They were not so heavily made up about the eyes, but they did have their beauty spots, as you have your piercings, and their hair was just as grand in their own way – a little less Billy Idol, a little more period drama… and oh, the drama!

“They kept to themselves mercifully and ruled by night… the masses, the Third Estate, they had no idea for many years and it was only the upwardly mobile amongst them who understood the implications.  The world around us is so clueless, so unaware of its own surroundings… don’t mock, you would be surprised by what you did not know yourselves, what darkness lies about you… amongst you.  Louis and Marie, such a lovely couple, so beautifully anaemic... they took it upon themselves to lead, but they chose a poor generation to lead and Louis was weak-willed... given to experiences instead of steering his flock!  We were born to lead and each was given his chance, but after 700 years of isolation and decadence we had grown slovenly with our charge.  It was our right to lead and it was an ordered existence, not that the First Estate had any idea what or whom they were supposedly supporting.

“The Third Estate, bless their over-reliance on St. Christopher; they had but to fulfill their birthright, to remain in their houses at night and to keep within their boundaries.  We respected their right to be who they were, with their petty superstitions, and we occasionally brought some of them into our order – a privilege it was – a privilege I tell you… ah, but liberty, they already possessed it unbeknownst to them and by cutting off the head that fed them they unleashed a terrible beast.  There was so much blood in those transitional days.  The streets ran red with it and yet order has never truly been restored – our streets suffer at night with its death - to this very day…

“I remember the smell of Madame Guillotine, so fresh, so tasty, so finger-licking good, but so remote out there in the sun… such a waste of good flesh.  One wonders how many of us, the Second Estate, joined the masses to turn the tide, to create such a feeding frenzy; something we would not allow ourselves today.  How they must have supped on those frenzied attacks.  How they must have quenched their thirsts, caressed the hunger… so pale in the night, so pale with delight… Louis and his aristocrats were naturally pale.  They did not partake of the sun and if they did they were heavily made up.  In an age before the digital image, damn the invention of the reflective lens, their caricatures were widely circulated and commonly mimicked by the lower classes.  However, the fashion became outdated with the Revolution and we were easy to espy in the streets.  The night became our domain and the refuse of the streets our fodder.  It was such a change in lifestyle… the worst of times.  How we yearned for the comfort of the hunt in the King’s forest at Versailles; a forest so vast that no one would bother us in our erstwhile pursuits… we still yearn.  I so loved Marie.  I miss the way she was – the woman she was and her fine neck so horribly severed… let them eat cake, we certainly did not want it… I miss her terribly.

“Life on those streets, in those revolutionary days, was difficult to eke out.  We were no longer a part of society; despised for our order, and left with only the night and the cold echoes of lonely footfalls on putrid cobblestones.  You know, the Romans had sanitation two millennia ago… perhaps the Third Estate required their education.

.

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“These same cobbled lanes are far easier to live in now for all that occurred back then, but oh - what a time it was.  I had my own Marie too, with the loveliest flowing black hair below her pompous white wig.  She loved the hunt, as did I, and her decadence was irresistible.  I could have sacrificed myself for her.  I watched as they held her down below Madame Guillotine that cloud-covered day.  I watched across the crowd as her eyes pleaded for assistance… save me Balthazar, I am forever yours… I read on her lips just before her head rolled off the platform and into the mob.  One wonders how they knew about the severing of the head.  They said it seemed more humane, but I knew better as did many others… as do some of you…”

Their host paused for a moment.  Was that a tear in his eye?  It certainly was some sort of act he had put across, but he was lost now… lost in the Sutcliffe sepias that hung precariously around the walls.  They were filled with faces from more than 100 years ago; faces whose eyes seemed to sympathize with their hosts’ story… with the hardships of life as it was so long ago… with the brutality of the guillotine.  Claire watched the eyes carefully as they followed her around the room, for while the room was silent with reflection she had made her way to where Prudence sat on the floor, quite mesmerized.  The whites of the eyes in the photos were vivid despite the sepia tones of the photography.  It was a disconcerting moment, not unlike the demonstrative stares one received from the stain-glassed images in the Gothic Cathedrals that leered over Europe’s most ancient cities.

Prudence shivered a little as Claire draped her arms around her shoulders.  Their host remained silent as the audience leant forward in anticipation.  He did not seem to mind the lapse in proceedings.  In fact, he may have designed it that way.  It certainly had an effect and it drew every one of them in, just as his eyes had during the story.  Those deep dark eyes, whose iris’s had expanded in the dim light and flickered with the candles that lit the room.  He sighed again and picked up his musty Dickens…

“Not quite the Tale of Two Cities you might remember, but that’s how I remember it.  There were many martyrs and many hard luck stories… and not so many sacrifices.  We tend to like to survive… that is something we all have in common.  Of course as Dickens told it there was a beautiful young lady, Lucie, and there were two likely suitors, Charles and Sydney.  Of course she had to choose one while for the other as that was the far, far better thing…7. yet somehow I doubt that sentiment, considering the way we tend to live our lives now, so self-centred, so… shall we return to the final chapter… The footsteps die out forever… Along the Paris streets the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh.  Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine.  All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself and are infused in the one realisation, Guillotine.  And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror.  Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.  Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind…8.

Their host did not open his musty tome again as he recited it to its conclusion from memory, skipping the more verbose sections, due to time constraints and an obvious knack for drama.  He merely fingered his book lightly, almost lovingly.  Claire thought it was of a love lost in a similar circumstance and she was dying to find out, but when he concluded with those most famous of lines, he placed his Dickens down on the floor beside him, stood up and walked calmly out of the candlelit room.  Claire and Prudence thought this quite odd of him and unlike the rest of the gathering, who were now applauding wildly, they just stared at each other.

“So that’s it then?”

“No, Luv… he’s just off to get some tea and coffee and biscuits… you can go help if you like, he likes to toy with the nubiles?”

“I don’t mind being a nubile, and I did come for the experience.”

“You’ll get one then, um…?”

“Claire.”

“Well then Claire, I like to know the names, in case they don’t return… or incase I have to escort them home.”

“The hunter always returns, um…?”

“Liz… like our Queen… and careful what you desire, luv… it can be hard to get any blood out of a stone.”

“Oh, I’m more than handy in that regard.”

“Best you follow him quick smart, then.  It’s just around the corner there and it is quite dark, so mind your step.”

The light switch was at the rear of the room which didn’t help matters, but Claire’s mysterious host seemed to find it easily enough.  The switch was bulbous and Bakelite, almost sepia in tone, and switched on with a thunk.  Claire adjusted her eyes to the brightness of the shade-free globe.  She watched her host carefully as he prepared the supper, strangely enthralled by a scene that was ridiculously domestic and mundane.  There were a stack of plastic cups, a couple of plates of finger food and a large stainless steel urn that he emptied into a more convenient jug.  Claire didn’t assist him, he seemed to know what he was doing and she knew that she was just a convenient packhorse.  Her eyes burned into the back of his head and her silence drew him out, just as she hoped it would.  He eventually turned to her and handed her a couple of plates before falling for her silent yearning gaze…

“You can ask your questions if you like, I don’t mind.  I do realize that I am a little odd and probably not quite what you expected.  This is your first time, is it not?”

“There’s always a first time… and first times are always quite breathtaking, don’t you think?”

“So you’re not in an enquiring mood?”

“Not really.”

Claire’s host paused as if there was more that he wanted to know, but he seemed to think better of it…

“Best you follow me back in then… and don’t drop anything, we’re a bit short tonight.  More punters than expected, so we can’t afford to waste anything.”

Claire followed her host dutifully, and most carefully, back into the rear reading room.  She delivered up her tasty treats and then retreated to the shadows to watch how the evening transpired.  The room was full of chatter, but most of this was low.  There were only two topics, their unusual host and his equally unusual reading of Dickens’ masterpiece.  Claire watched carefully as each member of the audience inched their way into their hosts’ sphere of influence.  It was as if each was drawn to him, yet only two or three at a time.  He seemed quite private in his own way, despite the public adulation, and the gregarious female fawning… how pathetic!  Claire would never sell herself so loosely, but she knew someone who would and Claire caught her out of the corner of her eye as she made her move.

Prudence approached their evening’s host from the rear.  She waited patiently, until he had finished with two other women who had thrown him a number of intellectual probabilities based on his reading of Dickens.  He had been polite and humble, yet he didn’t really engage them in depth and this was something that Prudence was determined to rectify.

He turned towards her seemingly unaware of her presence, but he caught her full in the face with a look that drew her in so closely that their lips almost met.  Prudence’s lips parted slightly, in anticipation, as she lost herself in the flicker of her hosts’ dark eyes…

“And you would be wanting to ask, Miss…”

“Prudence… but my friends call me Pru.”

“Dear Prudence, would you like some tea or have you come out to play?”

“I, um… just…”

“We have a number of fine selections and I would be most pleased to share them with you… call it an indulgence.”

Claire watched on from a respectable distance as their host slipped lightly by Prudence and left her lips dangling in anticipation.  She gathered herself quickly having been released from her momentary spell and turned on him quickly so as not to lose the moment.

“I didn’t catch your name…”

“I did not throw it.”

“You are odd, aren’t you – just like you said or is that just a convenient front?  Do you always do things alone and do you ever do private readings?”

“Do you desire a private reading my dear Prudence?”

“It’s Pru… and why, are you offering one?”

“Quite… so it’s Pru, to your friends… and it seems that you desire me to fill that void.”

“I…”

“You should be careful whom you invite into your house, Prudence.  You should be certain of such a man and be certain that he knows himself, for this is no certainty in my case.”

“I thought Thursday night might be nice.”

Prudence seemed to be dangling on the edge of the conversation as her host closed in on her again.  His fingers tangled loosely in her bleach-blonde hair, yet she seemed to have no recollection of him sliding them in there until she noticed them in a state of shock.  His voice seemed low and alluring and Prudence seemed to dangle from his fingers, as if in mid air.

Claire bit her bottom lip as she watched her adventurous friend draw in close to their host.  She had seen Prudence make many similar manoeuvres and she smiled a little wickedly to herself behind her hand as Prudence hung limp from the hand that held her head back.  Prudence was inviting him to caress the neck that she had bared to his lips and he seemed to accept the invitation.  Claire thought she caught a flash of their hosts’ eyes in her direction as he leant in to Prudence’s neck, but before she could double check her vision across the dimly lit room, their host was serving out more tea and Prudence was staggering in her direction.

Claire opened her arms out wide and let Prudence fall into them.  She was shaking and that didn’t surprise Claire.  Prudence was apt to be excitable, especially following a conquest, but as she regained her composure Claire was less sure.

“I didn’t know he smelt that good, Pru… and I like the smell of a good man just as much as you do.  Did he have such a way with his words whispered so closely in your ear?”

“Yes… I’ve got to go… home… too much to drink…”

“Pru… wait…”

Prudence was gone, but the terrified look on her face remained imprinted on the back of Claire’s eyes… and she drank it in with relish.  Then she quickly turned towards their host and although he seemed to be elsewhere, Claire knew better…

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Feeler

 

 

All day I’ve toiled but not with pain

In learning’s golden mine

And now at eventide again

The moonbeams softly shine 9.

 

 

The wharf area was always peaceful at this time of night and it was especially luminous tonight due to a favourable full moon and the absence of the clouds that had dogged the sun earlier in the day.  Only a solitary cloud, narrow and long with the wind, faded across the moon now, its edges illuminated fancifully as if it was lit from within.

He had gone too far earlier in the evening, yet the thought of it brought a wry smile to his face.  He hadn’t asked for the attention, he just liked the smell of old books, the tales they told and the images they wrought out of his subconscious.  He never knew quite what he would say on any given evening.  The images just sort of blossomed with the story and that made it as exciting for him as it was for his audience.

He kicked winsomely at the old sea wall and its more modern concrete footings as he let the sea breeze blow back the uncontrollable mop that perched on top of his head.  He had attempted to curtail its wildness, but it seemed destined to flop in its own direction and that seemed to be part of his attraction.  He raked his fingers through his hair with a touch of annoyance.  He loved the salt air, but he wasn’t sure why.  It was cold and corroding, it was destructive and stunning in waves, and it was transforming in so many ways.  It transformed him every night as it brought him a peace that he didn’t understand, yet he could feel it course through him now as he paddled through the puddles its fury had dumped on the old sea wall.  It was a sea wall built to protect Whitby from the ever-encroaching North Sea and it had served its time here well with its rusted concrete, its peeling stone paving slabs and its ancient timbers, but tonight it was merely an avenue out to sea… an avenue where he could walk peacefully in the sea breeze and allow his unruly hair to have its way.

He made his way slowly out over the sweeping arc of the old Whitby sea wall.  The moon lit his way, unimpeded, as that final rogue cloud had slipped out across The Channel towards The Netherlands.  He felt Cook’s eyes burning into the back of his head as he reached the final safety rail and he felt as if Cook was pointing with intent to that lone cloud.  Fair weather was a sailor’s friend in these parts and that may have been his meaning, but Cook’s pointed finger may well have been intended for him personally as he stood there soaking in the breeze and contemplating another night alone.  He knew that Whitby had not really changed that dramatically since Cook’s time… it just had a little more tourism, a little more indulgence, and a good deal more colour.  He wondered if Cook and Sutcliffe could have imagined the colour of modern times as he now saw them… if they could have imagined the pace of life as it flew by… flying to the Great Southern Land in a day instead of sailing for three years on a return trip… video taping the world as it raced by, without the convenience of time to pose, and the time to develop the times with warmth and care… we were all so digital and pixilated and high definition; Facebook yourself and send it to a friend, but don’t bother conversing, no one did that anymore…

“Did our impetuous Prudence want to be your friend, Balthazar?  That is your name, isn’t it?  I have been reliably informed of that fact, even if you do like to keep it close.”

Balthazar was near the very end of the old sea wall, so unless he was channelling a mermaid, he had suddenly found that he was no longer alone.  He turned his back on the breeze slowly and as he did his hair flopped to one side and then it fell over his forehead in a mop befitting a member of a boy-band.

“You’re a little too far east for that hair style, Balthazar.  You should be careful, you might find a hoard of screaming girls after you and you have nowhere to run!”

Balthazar peaked through the strands of his hair and found that the bollard below the lighthouse near the end of the old seawall was indeed draped with a mermaid, but one whose tail formed a perfect aerial en pointe in fishnets.  The full moon shone quite brilliantly on her pale shoulders and arms, features of flesh that were quite distinct from her black dress and her long black hair.  Her eyes reflected the dark depths of a midnight sea, the glint of the full moon like the splash of a cresting wave ebbing as she tossed her hair in the sea breeze.

Claire’s dainty Goth boots dangled suspiciously from her fingers.  She enjoyed a good hunt and with the wind in his face and fishnet stockings for shoes, Claire had always held the upper hand in this contest.  Unlike Prudence’s feeble attempt earlier in the evening, Claire had now cornered her prey.  She looked down with raised eyebrows and wiggled her toes knowingly.  Balthazar caught the reference well enough and held out his hands to help Claire down from her perch.  She accepted his hands gratefully and slid down to his eye level.  Claire was now exactly where Prudence had been a few hours before, but she didn’t invite Balthazar’s arms around her… a good hunt required an element of tension.  She brushed his hair from his forehead and invited him to step more comfortably into the breeze.

“You should do something about that.  Although, it is a bit Goth, and a bit New Romantic… sorry about the chill in my touch, it’s a bit cold out tonight and I’m not exactly dressed for it… not that the cold bothers me much.  When was the last time you had it cut?”

“Two days ago… seems the more I cut it the quicker it grows back, so this will just have to do.”

“Care for a walk… on the beach?  The tide’s out.”

“Can I trust you?”

“I’m the one who should be asking that… I’m still wondering what you said to our Pru.”

“Nothing too memorable… at least she’ll live.”

“Sure, this time… but she’s not too particular and she is quite insatiable in her girly way!”

“You’re not really good with dealing out compliments, are you, Claire?”

“Sorry, thought you would’ve had enough today.”

“Probably… it’s not really my thing, but it does seem to be the way of the world…”

Claire did not respond to this immediately.  She half expected Balthazar to continue on a tangent and perhaps in his own mind he was, but outwardly he refrained.  He was being careful with Claire and so he should.  Ironically he was the vulnerable one as he had no idea who she was beyond serving the odd supper treat… and they both knew this.

“Yes, it is a different world we live in.  Fast and insensible, always on the lookout for the next high, the next happening, the next rush of blood.  Feel like doing something wild, Balthazar… is there a nickname for that old fashioned thing, something less formal?”

“Not really.”

“Shame, it is a bit of a mouthful, a bit like Pru’s neck…”  Claire raised her eyebrows knowingly and continued on, “come on then, a girl’s gotta have some fun on a night out… I didn’t get all dressed up for nothing.”

Claire made her way back towards the slipway at the end of the old sea wall; she had a destination in mind, the lovely beach that was quite sandy at low tide.  Balthazar did not move.  He wasn’t quite sure what to make of her last comment and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her slinky walk; a walk that was obviously meant to be alluring.  Claire casually kept her eye on him over her shoulder as she disappeared along the old sea wall, but she never drifted so far away as to not remain a temptation.

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Balthazar eventually allowed his feet to lead him in Claire’s direction.  Despite his reservations about this mysterious young vixen, he soon found himself barefoot in the sand, his trainers stuffed with socks and slung over his shoulder.  Claire led him along the beach playfully, digging her stocking-clad feet into the sand to make quaint little swirls.  She left an odd trail in the sand for mammalogists to mull over, especially as she swayed her arms from side to side to accentuate the trail.  It wasn’t quite what Balthazar was expecting, but it allowed him to relax a little and he eventually began to make his own more obvious trail in the sand within Claire’s.  This was a game now and he had not expected to be playing anything tonight, let alone with anyone… it was just so unexpected… she was unexpected, yet not unwanted…

“You do the Goth thing quite well, subtle even… with a hint of normality and no piercings.”

“Oh I have piercings… I just keep them to myself… mostly.”

“The mind boggles… as do your eyes with those custom-made specs.  Do you usually dress your accessories up with cobwebs and bats like that or is that just symbolic… as in as blind as a bat?”

“These old things, merely window dressing, just as you said – an accessory.  I have wonderful vision.  I can see for miles and I usually don’t miss a thing.  Would you rather I not wear them?”

Claire spun around sharply and confronted Balthazar.  She seemed to be able to catch him off guard and he wasn’t used to that.  She peeled off her thick black-rimmed spectacles, revealling a pair of deep pools that reflected the moon deliciously.  Claire then drew him in further with a look of such fire and intensity that it pierced his very soul.  Balthazar felt the urge to drop to his knees and melt into the sand at her feet; and then into glass, just to reflect her intense beauty.  This was becoming a burning desire for him, but before he could decide to wilt she batted her eyes quickly and relaxed her stare.  Tilting her head to the side with curiosity she continued…

“There, there, Balthazar, that didn’t kill you now, did it?  A girl shouldn’t reveal too much of herself too soon, not to a complete stranger.  He might get the wrong idea.  Besides, I have other piercings as I suggested… and if you’re lucky you might just get an invitation when the hunger strikes me, but maybe not tonight… I do like a good chase… and you?”

“Yes, the hunt is always where the rush is, the capitulation is just that… and that’s not something I willingly do.”

“So what do you do willingly?  How do you fill your day, when you’re not reading antique books and dreaming of Marie?  Tell me about Marie…”

“Marie who… I know of no Marie.”

A tear slid silently from his eye, almost burning into his skin, yet Balthazar showed no recognition of its presence and he failed to sweep it into insignificance.  His lack of action only invited Claire to question him further…

“The Marie from your recital tonight, you know, at the bookstore.”

“Oh, that Marie… that was so long ago.  I could not possibly know her… that would be impossible – just look at me… that was just a story, a re-flowering of Dickens, for the entertainment of the masses.”

Claire was not convinced… nothing about Balthazar convinced her, yet she was still curious… curious about his wild hair, his ability to terrify her friend while he seemed tame in her presence, and his odd dress sense.  The U2 tour t-shirt was one thing, especially in the chill of the night, but far below this the sand revealed an even stranger mode of dress – odd socks; one blue with images of Felix the Cat, and the other bright red with images of Top Cat.  Balthazar caught her gaze as she stared down at his feet and smiled a little wryly again – that was the second time he had done that tonight.

“I do a lot of sorting, but obviously not of my socks – I concentrate on the books, cataloguing and the like, but I like to catalogue by author and title… none of this Dewey Decimal rubbish.  A man would spend his life counting endless numbers over and over and over, instead of reading books!”

Balthazar shuddered a little while Claire smiled a little wickedly in the other direction… nerd or not a nerd she wondered.  To have loved the count would have tipped the scale into the negative, but that shudder… she wondered and she wandered on a little along the beach, listening as he meandered on...

“It is far more interesting cataloguing via a title – as they evoke so many memories…”

“Memories?”

“Of books past, of previous readings, of characters loved and lost… of lives lived when one hasn’t one of their own to enjoy.  Life can be long sometimes and wearying… but then there are walks on the beach beneath a full moon with a refreshing sea breeze.  I’ve always loved the sensation of soft sand squelching between my toes… don’t like the cleanup part afterwards, but in the moment…”

“You could still enjoy all that if you didn’t catalogue books all day.”

“All day, what makes you think that?  I don’t catalogue any books during the day!”

Claire stared at Balthazar blankly for a few seconds, until he relieved her of the mystery he had just dropped into her lap…

“Cataloguing is an evening job.”

“And during the day?”

“I do other things, Claire… what about you?”

“Yeah, me too…”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Miss Cold

 

 

Wind sink to rest in the heather

Thy wild voice suits not me

I would have dreary weather

But all devoid of thee 10.

 

 

 

“I remember a time on a windswept moor… at least I think I do or is that just a recurring dream?  Why would I find myself out here on this particular day, walking paths I’ve seen in my dreams, if I hadn’t been here before?”

Claire found herself conversing with the wind perched high on a bluff somewhere in the wilds of the North Yorkshire moors.  She was a pale beacon on a wide brown landscape.  Her less than appropriate white shirt hugged her figure sensuously and her long black hair streamed out behind her as a pennant to her untamed beauty.  The bitter taste of the wind here would have sent many indoors on such a day, but Claire did not feel the cold.  She never had.  She suspected that it was because she was a product of the North, a Mancunian by birth with keen eyesight designed for scanning windswept moors such as this.

A slightly wicked smile crept across Claire’s face as she scanned the horizon for signs of life, but even with her keen eyesight Claire found it difficult to spot anything moving.  The light had been extremely poor all day, as a thick band of clouds swept low over the North of England, and it was fading fast now with the sun sinking somewhere low in the sky.  It was not an ideal day for a tramp across these moors.  In fact, it was an excellent day for sitting by an open fire with a warm cup of soup.  The fast approaching evening demanded this, but that was not Claire’s idea of adventure.  The cold thrilled her to the bone and despite losing Pru and her other friends somewhere out here on the North Yorkshire moors, the desolation held no fear for her.

That was when she spotted them, two lone walkers, making their way against the wind below the bluff where Claire was perched.  The man and his female companion were well prepared for the freezing conditions, with day packs strapped firmly over their weather-proof anoraks, thick set boots crowned at the ankle by woolen socks, woolen mittens and matching woolen hats that were pulled down over the ears.  They seemed to be in no distress whatsoever, but their pace hinted at an urgency that Claire should have heeded, had she been concerned in the slightest.

Claire inched her way along the edge of the bluff she commanded.  She was as oblivious to the cold as the two walkers below were to her.  She could feel the squelching of the sodden earth beneath her feet and she could sense that she was not alone in the low undergrowth of the moor.  Claire remained upright in the wind, defying the usual urge to cringe before it.  Whilst out of the corner of those sharp black eyes she kept a keen lookout for her two fellow walkers.

She watched them huddle close together below the bluff as they checked their GPS waypoints and then continued on stoically into the wind.  There were few signs of the flesh that Claire bore openly besides their wary eyes and the faces that framed them; one fringed with several days of growth and the other heavily made up as if she were going out on the town.  Claire caught a glimpse of a pale wrist as one of them checked the time.  The sun had now made its way Down Under and soon they would require torches to find their way along this narrow sheep-riddled path.

This was a game for Claire now.  She knew where she was, she had the advantage of the view from high on the bluff despite the low cloud that swept in and shrouded the moorland.  She could see the wisp of smoke that emanated from one of the three lonely brick chimneys belonging to the solitary establishment in these parts… a physical waypoint for so many walkers who followed Alfred Wainwright’s coast to coast trail across the north of England.  Prudence’s idea was to attempt various sections one at a time, in the worst possible conditions; she certainly chose the perfect day for this leg.  Claire suspected that Prudence would be found near the source of that lonely wisp of smoke and that her conversation contributed to the warmth that emanated there.  Prudence knew how Claire loved the night and the uncertainty of the moors; how she was far more akin to nature and the elements than anyone else she knew.  Would Prudence be worried that they had been separated in the mist earlier in the afternoon?  Momentarily perhaps, but then the good cheer of the evening spent in the warmth of the Lion Inn would distract her until the lateness dawned on her… and then it would be too late and she would have to sleep with her fears, but then she always did sleep like a log…

It was quite dark now and with her senses heightened by the night, Claire made her way fearlessly off the bluff and into the vale.  Her long black hair dropped calmly to her shoulders as she dropped out of the wind that had thrown it about so wildly all afternoon.  The undergrowth on the moor here was thicker and she felt its nettles and barbs on her fingertips as her arms dangled without a care at her sides.  Claire had only one thing on her mind now; the hunt… and she had two targets.  Two solitary beacons bobbing frantically now as the mist drifted in, closing the night into black as it did.

Their meagre torches were no match for Claire’s heightened senses.  She could feel their hearts pounding in their chests as they climbed up the narrow track that led to the final ridge and ultimate sanctuary.  She could sense their blood pounding through their veins, pumping the oxygen through their weary legs, legs that had spent 12 days pounding the fields of England, crossing three national parks en route.  Legs that bore feet so riddled with blisters that they could do with a day’s rest, but there was only one or perhaps two days remaining until they reached that hallowed East Coast at Robin Hood’s Bay just south along the coast from Whitby.  This would complete their epic journey, but there were sheep in their path and the rain now swept in on them.

The couple pulled their anoraks up around their necks, unaware that they were being systematically hunted, for sport… as common game.  Claire could see this all through those startling black eyes as she swooped in on them across the moor.  She so loved the hunt, the game, and the power of knowing what others did not know.  As such she became one with the wind and the rain, whereas they sheltered against the elements.  This was Claire at her most daring, a side that nobody ever saw, not even Prudence… and she would be shocked now if she could see this entire scene from above… as would Claire…

 

* * *

 

Claire awoke covered in blood.  The rain had stopped, but the wind still howled high above her.  She tried to lift her head, but it ached terribly and there was a hunger in the pit of her stomach that she thought would have been sated earlier.  It hadn’t and she had no idea how long she had been lying here.  She was soaked to the skin with the rain, but she didn’t shiver with the cold, it was the blood that made her shiver and quake until she regained her senses.

It was all over her, but it was not her blood.

There were no puncture wounds anywhere about her person or any discernible wounds, but her stunning white shirt was now more of a washed-out pink… or was that spilled wine?  She could do with a good glass of red right about now…

And there it was again… recollection… Prudence would be beginning to worry now; Claire had been gone far too long.  Prudence’s conversation by that warming open fire would be showing signs of strain now… she would be questioning her loyalty, her knowledge of Claire’s abilities… and questioning those two straggling walkers as they burst in out of the wind and rain… too distressed to voice what they had seen and heard on the moor… too embarrassed to admit that their timing and their ability to follow Wainwright’s instructions had failed them miserably.

Claire recalled the hunt now; those two feeble beams of light highlighting the raindrops as they swept in wildly across the moor.  The frightened little black-faced sheep that scattered before their forced march up a track that was probably only fit for goats.

Claire sat up, but she was forced to rest her head in her hands as her eyes had yet to acclimatize and focus on the night.  The spinning was something else and as good as her eyes were she could not focus beyond her own feet so black was the night.  She eventually managed to slide her fingers from her face and sit up straight.  Her confidence in her own abilities was waning… she remembered something more… a trip, a stumble, a fall…

Claire felt another sensation now, a shudder that came from deep within, but she fought the fear and widened her eyes.  She was determined to espy the lonely pub built of stone some 400 years ago and its welcoming wisp of smoke.  She knew she was close to its welcoming door and the smell of a baked dinner that drifted her way across the moor.  However, the night remained dark around her until it was illuminated in a brief surreal moment by a break in the clouds.  The full moon shed its light on a scene of which Claire had no recollection.  She found herself sitting in a pool of blood that was obviously not hers.  It belonged to the sheep that lay mangled about her.  Claire felt sick to her stomach, but she wasn’t physically ill… it was more of an awareness.  The sight of blood had never really repelled her, but the massacre of the sheep did.  That same dizziness returned and she found herself lurching towards the black face of the nearest sheep.  They eyeballed each other for a few seconds in their various faints and as the moon retreated behind the next cloud everything faded to black…

 

* * *

 

Prudence was snug under the covers of the tiny bed she was buried in.  She had been snuggled up to her pillow for an hour or so now, but she had found it difficult to get to sleep.  She knew Claire was out there somewhere, but as the storm raged about the Lion Inn she knew that the search for Claire would have to wait until morning.  She also knew that she would probably get no sleep at all unless she was so dead tired that she dropped into her usual coma.

“I’m sorry, Miss… but are you Prudence… the one whose friend wandered off on the moor this afternoon?”

Prudence sat bolt upright.  That’s generally how she was, either asleep or awake, there really was no in between for her.  The torch that flashed in her eyes was annoying, but she was more annoyed with herself… she had fallen asleep and forsaken her best friend.  How long had it been?

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