Adam Kelly loved to play in the derelict houses, loved the musty smell of the old rooms, the way they creaked and groaned as he moved around inside them, the way the sunlight shone through the laths, casting striped shadows on the walls. He loved to leap the gaps between the broken stairs, heart in his mouth, and hop from rafter to rafter, kicking up plaster dust and watching the motes dance in the filtered light.
This afternoon, Adam had a whole village to play in.
He stood at the rim of the shallow valley, staring at the ruins below and anticipating the adventure to come. This was the day he had been waiting for. Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Anything could happen down there. The future of the universe depended on Adam today; the village was a test, one of the things he had to conquer before advancing to the Seventh Level.
The only other people in sight stood at the far end, near the old flax mill: a man in jeans and a red T-shirt and a woman all dressed in white. They were pretending to be tourists, pointing their video camera here and there, but Adam suspected they might be after the same thing he was. He had played the game often enough on his computer to know that deception was everywhere and things were never what they seemed. Heaven help us, he thought, if they got to it first.
He half-slid and half-ran down the dirt slope, skidding to a halt when he reached the red, baked earth at the bottom. There were still patches of mud around; all that water, he supposed, wouldn't just evaporate over a few weeks.
Adam paused and listened. Even the birds were silent. The sun beat down and made him sweat behind his ears, at the back of his neck and in the crack of his bum. His glasses kept slipping down his nose. The dark, ruined cottages wavered in the heat like a wall behind a workman's brazier.
Anything could happen now. The Talisman was here somewhere, and it was Adam's job to find it. But where to begin? He didn't even know what it looked like, only that he would know it when he found it and that there must be clues somewhere.
He crossed the old stone bridge and walked into one of the half-demolished cottages, aware of the moist, cool darkness gathering around him like a cloak. It smelled like a bad toilet, or as if some gigantic alien creature had lain down to die in a hot, fetid swamp.
Sunlight slanted in through the space where the roof had been, lighting the far wall. The dark stones looked as slick and greasy as an oil spill. In places, the heavy stone flags that formed the floor had shifted and cracked, and thick gobbets of mud oozed up between them. Some of the slabs wobbled when Adam stood on them. He felt poised over a quicksand ready to suck him down to the earth's core if he made one wrong move.
There was nothing in this house. Time to move on.
Outside, he could still see no one. The two tourists seemed to have left now, unless they were hiding, lying in wait for him behind the ruined mill.
Adam noticed an outbuilding near the bridge, the kind of place that had perhaps once been used to store coal or keep food cold. He had heard about the old days before electric fires and fridges. It might even have been a toilet. Hard to believe, he knew, but once people had to go outside to the toilet, even in winter.
Whatever it had been, The Destructors had left it largely alone. About seven feet high, with a slanting flagstone roof still intact, it seemed to beckon him to come and vanquish it. Here, at least, was a structure he could mount to get a clear view. If the pretend-tourists were hiding nearby, he would see them from up there.
Adam walked around the outbuilding and was pleased to see that on one side a number of stones stuck out farther than others, like steps. Carefully, he rested his weight on the first one. It was slippy, but it held fast. He started to climb. Every step seemed solid enough, and soon he was at the top.
He pulled himself onto the roof. It only slanted at a slight angle, so it was easy enough to walk on. First, he stood near the edge, cupped his hand over his eyes to shield out the harsh sun and looked in every direction.
To the west stood the flax mill, and the strangers were now nowhere in sight. The land to both the north and south was covered in woods, so it was hard to see anything through the dense green foliage. To the east lay the teardrop shape of Harksmere Reservoir. On The Edge, which ran along the south side of Harksmere, a couple of car windscreens flashed in the sun. Other than that, there was hardly any movement in the world at all, hardly a leaf trembling.
Satisfied he wasn't being watched, Adam struck out over the roof. It was only about four or five feet wide, but when he got to the middle he felt the faintest tremor, then, before he could dash the short distance to the other side, the thick stone slabs gave way beneath him. For a moment, he hung suspended in air, as if he might float there forever. He stuck his arms out and flapped them like wings, but to no avail. With a scream, he plunged down into the darkness.
He landed on his back on a cushion of mud; his left wrist cracked against a fallen flagstone and his right arm, stretched out to break his fall, sank up to the elbow.
As he lay there, winded, looking up at the square of blue sky above him, he saw two of the remaining roof slabs tilt and fall toward him. Each one was about three feet square and six inches thick, enough to smash him to a pulp if it hit him. But he couldn't move; he felt trapped there, spellbound by the falling slabs.
They seemed to drift down in slow motion, like autumn leaves on a windless day. His mind emptied of everything. He felt no panic, no fear, just a sort of acceptance, as if he had reached a turning point in his short life, and it was out of his hands now. He couldn't have explained it if he'd tried, but at that moment, lying on his cot of warm mud watching the dark stone flags wheel down across the blue of the sky, young as he was, he knew there was nothing he could do to avoid whatever fate had in store for him; whichever way it went, he could only go with it.
This must be the Seventh Level, he thought as he held his breath, waiting for the impact, waiting to feel his bones breaking, grinding against one another.
One slab fell to his left, embedded itself in the mud and tilted against the wall like an old gravestone. The other fell to his right and cracked in two against one of the floor flags. One half tipped toward him, just grazing his upper arm, which was sticking out of the mud, and raising a few drops of blood.
Adam took a few deep breaths and looked up through the roof at the sky. No more slabs. So he had been spared; he was alive. He felt light-headed. There was nothing seriously damaged, he thought, as he started to move his limbs slowly. His left wrist hurt a lot, and it would probably come up in one hell of a bruise, but it didn't feel broken. His right arm was still thrust deep in the mud, and the slab chafed against his grazed elbow. He tried to wiggle his fingers under the mud to find out if he could still feel them, and they brushed against something hard.
It felt like a cluster of smooth, hard spindles, or a bundle of short rods. Curious, he pushed his arm in deeper and grasped it tightly, the way he used to hold his mother's hand in town when he was very small and frightened of all the crowds; then he leaned his weight back over to the left, gritting his teeth as the pain seared through his injured wrist, and tugged.
Inch by inch, he dragged his arm free, keeping a firm grasp on his prize. The mud made sucking, slurping sounds as he pulled. Finally, he was able to free the object he was holding. He rested it against the slab and edged back toward the far wall to study it.
The thing lay against the flagstone in the dim light, fingers hooked over the top, as if it were trying to pull itself out of the grave. It was the skeleton of a hand, the bones crusted with moist, dark earth.
Banks stepped back to survey his handiwork, whistling along with the habanera from Carmen, which was playing loudly on the stereo: Maria Callas past her best but still sounding fine.
Not bad for an amateur, he thought, dropping the paintbrush in a bowl of turpentine, and a definite improvement over the mildewed wallpaper he had stripped from the walls of his new home yesterday.
He particularly liked the color. The man at the do-it-yourself center in Eastvale said it was calming, and after the year Banks had just suffered through, he needed all the calming he could get. The shade of blue he had chosen was supposed to resemble that of oriental tapestries, but once it was on the wall it reminded Banks more of the Greek island of Santorini, which he and his estranged wife Sandra had visited during their last holiday together. He hadn't bargained for that memory, but he thought he could live with it.
Pleased with himself, Banks pulled a packet of Silk Cut from his top pocket. First, he counted the contents. Only three gone since morning. Good. He was trying to restrict himself to ten a day or less, and he was doing well so far. He walked into the kitchen and put on the kettle for a cup of tea.
The telephone rang. Banks turned off the stereo and picked up the receiver.
"Brian, is that you? I've been trying to get in touch with you."
"Yeah, well ... we've been on the road. I didn't think you'd be in. Why aren't you at work?"
"If you didn't expect me to be in, why did you call?"
"Brian? Where are you? Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I'm staying at Andrew's flat."
"Wimbledon. Look, Dad ..."
"Isn't it about time your exam results were out?"
More silence. Christ, Banks thought, getting more than a few words in a row out of Brian was as tough as getting the truth out of a politician.
"Yeah, well, that's why I was calling you. You know ... I thought I'd just leave a message."
"I see." Banks knew what was going on now. He looked around in vain for an ashtray and ended up using the hearth. "Go on," he prompted.
"About the exams, like ..."
"How bad is it? What did you get?"
"Well, that's it ... I mean ... you won't like it."
"You did pass, didn't you?"
"Course I did."
"It's just that I didn't do as well as I expected. It was really hard, Dad. Everyone says so."
"What did you get?"
Brian almost whispered. "A third."
"A third? That's a bit of a disappointment, isn't it? I'd have thought you could have done better than that."
"Yeah, well, it's more than you ever got."
Banks took a deep breath. "It doesn't matter a damn what I did or didn't get. It's you we're talking about. Your future. You'll never get a decent job with a third-class degree."
"What if I don't want a decent job?"
"What do you want to be then? Another statistic? Another cliche? Another unemployed yobbo?"
"Thanks a lot, Dad. Nice to you know you believe in me. Anyway, as a matter of fact, I'm not on the dole. We're going to try and make a go of it. Me and the band."
"We're going to make a go of it. Andrew knows this bloke who runs an indie label, and he's got a studio, like, and he's said we can go down and make a demo of some of my songs. You might not believe it, but people actually like us. We've got gigs coming out of our ears."
"Have you any idea how tough it is to succeed in the music business?"
"The Spice Girls did it, and look how much talent they've got."
"So did Tiny Tim, but that's not the point. Talent's got nothing to do with it. For every one that makes it, there's thousands who get trampled on the way."
"We're making plenty of money."
"Money's not everything. What about the future? What are you going to do when you've peaked at twenty-five and you don't have a penny in the bank?"
"What makes you an expert on the music business all of a sudden?"
"Is that why you got such a poor degree? Because you were too busy wasting your time rehearsing and going out on the road?"
"I was getting pretty bored with architecture anyway."
Banks flicked his cigarette butt in the hearth. It scattered sparks against the dark stone. "Have you talked to your mother about this?"
"Well, I sort of thought, maybe ... you know ... you could do that."
That's a laugh, Banks thought. Him talk to Sandra? They couldn't even discuss the weather these days without it turning into an argument.
"I think you'd better ring her yourself," he said. "Better still, why don't you pay her a visit? She's only in Camden Town."
"But she'll go spare?
"Serves you right. You should have thought of that before."
The kettle started whistling.
"Thanks a lot, Dad," Brian said, his voice hard-edged with bitterness. "I thought you'd understand. I thought I could depend on you. I thought you liked music. But you're just like the rest. Go see to your fucking kettle!"
But Brian hung up. Hard.
The blue of the living room did nothing to soothe Banks's mood. Pretty sad, he thought, when you turn to DIY as therapy, house-decoration to keep the darkness at bay. He sat for a moment staring at a brush hair stuck to the paint above the mantelpiece, then he stormed into the kitchen and turned off the kettle. He didn't even feel like a cup of tea anymore.
"Money isn't everything. What about your future?" Banks couldn't believe he had said those things. Not because he thought that money was everything, but because that was exactly what his parents had said to him when he told them he wanted a weekend job in the supermarket to earn some extra money. It frightened him how deeply instinctive his whole response to Brian's news was, as if someone elsehis own parentshad spoken the words and he was only the ventriloquist's dummy. Some people say that the older we get, the more we come to resemble our parents, and Banks was beginning to wonder if they were right. If so, it was a frightening idea.
Money isn't everything, his father had said, though in a way it was everything to him because he had never had any. What about your future? his mother had said, her way of telling him that he would be far better off staying home studying for his exams than wasting his weekends making money he would only use to go hanging around billiard halls or bowling alleys. They wanted him to go into a nice, respectable, secure white-collar job like banking or insurance, just like his older brother Roy. With a good degree behind him, they said, he could better himself, which meant he could do better than they had done. He was bright, and that was what bright working-class kids were supposed to do back in the sixties.
Before Banks had a chance to think any further, the phone rang again. Hoping it was Brian ringing back to apologize, he dashed into the living room and picked up the receiver.
This time it was Chief Constable Jeremiah "Jimmy" Riddle. Must be my lucky day, Banks thought. Not only was it not Brian, the new call also meant that Banks couldn't even dial 1471 to get Brian's Wimbledon phone number, which he had neglected to ask for. 1471 only worked for the last one call you received. He cursed and reached for his cigarettes again. At this rate he'd never stop. Bugger it. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. He lit up.
"Skiving off again, are you, Banks?"
"Holiday," said Banks. "It's official. You can check."
"Doesn't matter. I've got a job for you to do."
"I'll be back in the morning."
Banks wondered what kind of job Jimmy Riddle would call him off his holidays for. Ever since Riddle had had to reinstate him reluctantly after dishing out a hasty suspension the previous year, Banks had been in career Siberia, his life a treadmill of reports, statistics and more reports. Everything short of going around to the schools giving road-safety talks. Not one active investigation in nine months. He was so far out of the loop he might as well have been on Pluto; even the few informers he had cultivated since arriving in Eastvale had deserted him. Surely the situation wasn't going to change this easily? There had to be more to it; Riddle never made a move without a hidden agenda.
"We've just got a report in from Harkside," Riddle went on. "A young lad found some bones at the bottom of Thornfield Reservoir. It's one of the ones that dried up over the summer. Used to be a village there, I gather. Anyway, there's nothing but a section station in Harkside, and all they've got is a lowly DS. I want you down there as senior investigating officer."
"Old bones? Can't it wait?"
"Probably. But I'd rather you get started right away. Any problem with that?"
"What about Harrogate or Ripon?"
"Too busy. Don't be such an ungrateful bastard, Banks. Here's the perfect opportunity for you to drag your career out of the slump it's fallen into."
Sure, Banks thought, and pigs can fly. He hadn't fallen into the slump, he had been pushed, and, knowing Jimmy Riddle, this case was only going to push him even deeper into it. "Human bones?"
"We don't know yet. In fact, we know nothing at all so far. That's why I want you to get down there and find out."
"No. Thornfield bloody Reservoir. You'll find the local DS already at the scene. Cabbot's the name."
Banks stopped to think. What the hell was going on here? Riddle was clearly not doing him any favors; he must have got tired of confining Banks to the station and thought up some new and interesting way to torture him.
A skeleton in a dried-up reservoir?
A detective chief inspector would not, under normal circumstances, be dispatched to the remote borders of the county simply to examine a pile of old bones. Also, chief constables never assigned cases to detectives. That was a job for the superintendent or chief superintendent. In Banks's experience, CCs usually restricted their activities to waffling on the telly, opening farm shows and judging brass-band competitions. Except for bloody Jimmy Riddle, of course, Mr. Hands-On himself, who would never miss an opportunity to rub salt in Banks's wounds.
However busy Harrogate and Ripon were, Banks was certain they could spare someone qualified to do the job. Riddle obviously thought the case would be boring and unpleasant, or both, and that it would lead to certain failure and embarrassment; otherwise, why give it to Banks? And this DS Cabbot, whoever he was, was probably as thick as pigshit or he would have been left to handle things himself. Besides, why else was a detective sergeant stuck in a section station in Harkside, of all places? Hardly the crime capital of the north.
"Don't forget your wellies."
Banks could have sworn he heard Riddle snicker like a school bully.
He dug out a map of the Yorkshire Dales and checked the lie of the land. Thornfield was the westernmost in a chain of three linked reservoirs built along the River Rowan, which ran more or less east from its source high in the Pennines until it turned south and joined the River Wharfe near Otley. Though Thornfield was only about twenty-five miles away as the crow flies, there was no fast way, only minor unfenced roads for the most part. Banks traced a route on the map with his forefinger. He would probably be best heading south over the moors and along Langstrothdale Chase to Grassington, then east toward Pateley Bridge. Even then it would probably take an hour or more.
After a quick shower, Banks picked up his jacket and tapped his pockets by habit to make certain he had car keys and wallet, then walked out into the afternoon sunshine.
Before setting off, he stood for a moment, resting his hands on the warm stone wall and looked down at the bare rocks where Gratly waterfalls should be. A quote from a T. S. Eliot poem he had read the previous evening came to his mind: "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season." Very apt. It had been a long drought; everything was dry that summer, including Banks's thoughts.
His conversation with Brian still nagged on his mind; he wished it hadn't ended the way it had. Though Banks knew he fretted more about his daughter Tracy, who was at present traveling around France in an old van with a couple of girlfriends, that didn't mean he wasn't concerned about Brian.
Because of his job, Banks had seen so many kids go wrong, that it was beyond a joke. Drugs. Vandalism. Mugging. Burglary. Violent crime. Brian was too sensible to do anything like that, Banks had always told himself; he had been given every possible middle-class advantage. More than Banks had ever got. Which was probably why he felt more hurt than anything by his son's comments.
A couple of ramblers passed by the front of the cottage, heavy rucksacks on their backs, knotted leg muscles, shorts, sturdy hiking boots, Ordnance Survey maps hanging in little plastic holders around their necks in case it rained. Some hope. Banks said hello, remarked on the good weather and got into the Cavalier. The upholstery was so hot he almost jumped out again.
Well, he thought, fumbling for a cassette to play, Brian was old enough to make his own decisions. If he wanted to chuck everything in for a shot at fame and fortune, that was up to him, wasn't it?
At least Banks had a real job to do. Jimmy Riddle had made a mistake this time. No doubt he believed he had given Banks a filthy, dead-end job, full of opportunities for cock-ups; no doubt the dice were loaded against him; but anything was better than sitting in his office. Riddle had overlooked the one overriding characteristic Banks possessed, even at his lowest ebb: curiosity.
Feeling, for a moment, like a grounded pilot suddenly given permission to fly again, Banks slipped Love's Forever Changes in the cassette player and drove off, spraying gravel.
The book-signing started at half past six, but Vivian Elmsley had told her publicist, Wendi, that she liked to arrive early, get familiar with the place and have a chat with the staff.
There was already a crowd at quarter past. Still, it was only to be expected. All of a sudden, after twenty novels in as many years, Vivian Elmsley was a success.
Though her reputation and her sales had grown steadily over the years, her Detective Inspector Niven series, which accounted for fifteen of the twenty books, had recently made it to the small screen with a handsome lead actor, glossy production values and a big budget. The first three episodes had been shown, to great critical acclaim---especially given how bored many television critics had become with police dramas recentlyand as a result Vivian had become, over the past month or so, about as familiar a face to the general public as a writer ever is.
She had been on the cover of Night & Day, had been interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on the "South Bank Show" and featured prominently in Woman's Own magazine. After all, becoming an "overnight success" in one's seventies was quite newsworthy. Some people even recognized her in the street.
Adrian, the event organizer, gave her a glass of red wine, while Thalia arranged the books on the low table in front of the settee. At half past six on the dot, Adrian introduced her by saying that she needed no introduction, and to a smattering of applause she picked up her copy of the latest Inspector Niven story, Traces of Sin, and began to read from the opening section.
About five minutes was enough, Vivian reckoned. Anything less made her look as if she couldn't wait to get away; anything more risked losing the audience's attention. The settee was so soft and deep that it seemed to enfold her as she read. She wondered how she would ever get out of it. She was hardly a spry young thing anymore.
After the reading, people formed an orderly queue, and Vivian signed their books, pausing to chat briefly with everyone, asking if they wanted any specific sort of dedication and making sure she spelled their names right. It was all very well if someone said he was called "John," but how were you to know it wasn't spelled "Jon"? Then there were the more complex variations: "Donna," or "Dawna"? "Janice," or "Janis"?
Vivian looked down at her hand as she signed. Talon-like, she thought, almost skeletal, dotted with liver spots, skin shriveled and wrinkled over the knuckle joints, puffs of flesh around the wedding ring she could never remove even if she wanted to.
Her hands were the first to go, she thought. The rest of her was remarkably well-preserved. For a start, she had remained tall and lean. She hadn't shrunk or run to fat like so many elderly women, or generated that thick, hard, matronly carapace.
Steel-gray hair pulled back tightly and fastened at the back created a widow's peak over her strong, thin face; her deep blue eyes, networked with crow's feet, were almost oriental in their slant, her nose was slightly hooked and her lips thin. Not a face that smiled often, people thought. And they were right, even though it had not always been so.
"A steely, unblinking gaze into the depths of evil," one reviewer had written of her. And was it Graham Greene who had noted that there is a splinter of ice in the heart of the writer? How right he was, though it hadn't always been there.
"You used to live up north, didn't you?"
Vivian looked up, startled at the question. The man appeared to be about sixty, thin to the point of emaciation, with a long, gaunt pale face and lank fair hair. He was wearing faded jeans and the kind of gaudy, short-sleeved shirt you would expect to see at a seaside resort. As he held the book out for her to sign, she noticed that his hands were unnaturally small for a man's. Something about them disturbed her.
Vivian nodded. "A long time ago." Then she looked at the book. "Who would you like me to sign this to?"
"What was the name of the place where you lived?"
"It was a long time ago."
"Did you go by the same name then?"
"Excuse me, sir." It was Adrian, politely asking the man to move along. He did as he was asked, cast one backward glance at Vivian, then he slapped her book down on a pile of John Harveys and left.
Vivian carried on signing. Adrian brought her another glass of wine, people told her how much they loved her books, and she soon forgot about the strange man and his prying questions.
When it was all over, Adrian and the staff suggested dinner, but Vivian was tired, another sign of her advancing years. All she wanted to do was go home to a long hot bath, a gin and tonic and Flaubert's Sentimental Education, but first she needed a little exercise and some air. Alone.
"I'll drive you home," said Wendi.
Vivian laid her hand on Wendi's forearm. "No, my dear," she said. "If you don't mind, I'd just like a little walk by myself first, then I'll take the tube."
"But, really, it's no trouble. That's what I'm here for."
"No. I'll be perfectly all right. I'm not over the hill yet."
Wendi blushed. She had probably been told that Vivian was prickly. Someone always warned the publicists and media escorts. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to suggest anything like that. But it's my job."
"A pretty young girl like you must have far better things to do than drive an old lady home in the London traffic. Why don't you go to the pictures with your boyfriend, go dancing, or something?"
Wendi smiled and looked at her watch. "Well, I did tell Tim I wouldn't be able to meet him until later. Perhaps if I phoned him now and went to queue at the half-price ticket booth, we could get some last-minute theater tickets. But only if you're sure."
"Quite sure, my dear. Good night."
Vivian walked out into the warm autumn dusk on Bedford Street.
London. She still sometimes found herself unable to believe that she actually lived in London. She remembered her first visithow vast, majestic and overwhelming the city had felt. She had gazed in awe at landmarks she had only heard of, read about or seen in pictures: Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, St. Paul's, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square. Of course, that was a long time ago, but even today she felt that same magic when she recited the names or walked the famous streets.
Charing Cross Road was crowded with people leaving work late or arriving early for the theaters and cinemas, meeting friends for a drink. Before getting on the tube, Vivian crossed the road carefully, waiting for the pedestrian signal, and strolled around Leicester Square.
A small choir was singing "Men of Harlech" just beside the Burger King. How it had all changed: the fast food places, the shops, even the cinemas. It wasn't far from here, on Haymarket, that she had been to her first London cinema, the Carlton. What had she seen? For Whom the Bell Tolls. Of course, that was it.
As she walked back to the Leicester Square tube entrance, Vivian thought again about the strange man in the bookshop. She didn't like to dwell on the past, but he had pushed her into a reminiscent mood, as had the recent newspaper photographs of the dried-up Thornfield Reservoir.
The ruins of Hobb's End were exposed to the light of day for the first time in over forty years, and the memories of her life there had come crowding back. Vivian shuddered as she walked down the steps to the underground.