It only takes a couple of visits to convince Dr. Elizabeth Bancroft that Adam Hunter is not just having bad dreams. He's a child possessed.
His father is desperate: adamant that his son's affliction is the result of a curse he incurred in the depths of the Amazon, where a badly misguided military operation ended in a terrifying and macabre encounter. There he met two women—one who placed the curse and the other with whom any hope of saving his son resides.
Mark Hunter leaves the Scottish Highlands to beg help from the mysterious woman, leaving his son in the care of Elizabeth—who is about to discover there are equally dark secrets on their own doorstep.
And in her blood . . .
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|File size:||312 KB|
About the Author
F. G. COTTAM lives in Kingston-upon-Thames, England. After a career in the magazine world, he is now a full-time novelist. He is also author of The House of Lost Souls and Dark Echo.
F.G. Cottam was born and brought up in Southport in Lancashire, attending the University of Kent at Canterbury where he took a degree in history before embarking on a career in journalism in London. He lived for 20 years in North Lambeth and during the 1990s was prominent in the lad-mag revolution, launch editing FHM, inventing Total Sport magazine and then launching the UK edition of Men's Health. He is the father of two and lives in Kingston-upon-Thames. His fiction is thought up over daily runs along the towpath between Kingston and Hampton Court Bridges.
Read an Excerpt
The Magdalena Curse
Chapter OneIn his bedroom on the floor above her, she heard the boy shift in his sleep and murmur or sigh to himself. She looked up at the thick beams and rough plaster of the low sitting-room ceiling. The boy's room, small and once a cosy refuge for him, was over to the right. She had become very alert to sound in the night. The boy's torment had made her so. She looked at her watch and saw that it was close to one in the morning. She got up and poked at the embers of the dying fire, then returned to the armchair and made a shawl again of her blanket, around her shoulders. She made a pillow of the cushion at her back. There was no more noise from above. She could hear the sound of wood greying into ash in the hearth before which she sat. It was a trickle, infinitely faint. She could hear her own heart. That was a steady, rhythmic thump. She could hear the wind soft on the slope of heather outside, harsher through the branches of the yew tree beyond the kitchen door. So sensitive to noise had she become, that she could no longer bear to light the room at night with the scented candles she had packed before coming here. The hiss of wax and the guttering of wicks were sounds she could no longer comfortably endure.She smiled to herself, huddling under her blanket. She was probably as alert to sound as all his military training had made the owner of this house. He was away, had left two days ago, pursuing the most urgent mission of his life. He was retired now. He had retired a full colonel but had done so early. He was still relatively young, still fit, a formidable man.But she did not think that any of his dangerous skills would help him very much in trying to save the son he loved. She very much hoped, in this, that she was wrong.She looked at the little table next to where she sat. Her laptop lay open on the table. She left it there, she thought sometimes, simply to remind herself of who and what she was. There were two lines of italics centred on the screen. They emerged white out of the blackness surrounding them. This computer is the property of Dr Elizabeth Bancroft. That much, she knew. That much, she was certain of. But the last few days, lived in this high and remote place, had left her sure about very little else.She thought about picking the laptop up and searching the internet again to establish what more she could about the symptoms manifested by the poor child upstairs whose father had entrusted him to her care. But after the most recent episode, she knew she would merely be going through the motions. That event, witnessing it, had finally put paid to all her high-flown theories. There had been various theories. They had ranged from food intolerance, to delayed shock and deferred grief, to the effect of over-exposure to violent video games. She had entertained all of them to varying degrees. And in their way, in their elegance and plausibility, they had entertained her. But they had proven to be nothing to do with what was happening to the boy.It was what doctors did, wasn't it? It was not dissembling and it wasn't avoidance. It was diagnostic discipline. Without an effective diagnosis, you could not treat illness effectively and therefore you were useless to your patient. She had looked for a rational explanation as to what was wrong with the child, compelled by instinct and professional habit, and if she was really honest also by professional pride. But now her instinct was strongly at odds with her discipline. It had been since the events in the boy's bedroom, the night thatprovoked his father's departure. Since then, for two days, she had been in turmoil over it. She realised how deluded and complaisant she had been before. She was not complaisant now. She wanted to call the boy's father, ask him what progress he was making. But he might answer, hoping for comfort from home, for encouraging news. And she could offer none. Remote from the last person left in the world whom he loved, Elizabeth did not want to make matters any worse for him.She looked around the room. It was lit by a desk lamp sharing the table with her laptop and a standard lamp over against the wall next to the door that led to the stairs. There was no noticeable light from her feeble log fire. The walls were of exposed brick between supporting beams and the floor was flagged in stone. The windows were uneven in size and latticed with lead and looked gratifyingly sturdy. The house had been here since the fifteenth century and the room reflected the fact. There were rugs on the floor. The furniture was old and plain and of a piece with the building that housed it. They had brought no artefacts with them, Mark Hunter and his ten-year-old boy, Adam. They had brought no pictures or keepsakes to remind them of Mark's dead wife and daughter, the mother and sister lost to his son. There was nothing on display, anyway. She assumed it was all locked away in their hearts.
'Call me Mark,' he had said, extending his hand on her first visit here, after the early episodes of Adam's affliction. She had arrived in the morning, at 7 a.m., at the beginning of her working day. She was aware of course of the concern he felt for his son. That had been obvious from his tone of voice when he reached her at the surgery. But meeting him, she had seen something else. She did not think of herself as an intuitive woman. Here, she did not need to be. She wasfamiliar with the story. Everyone in the locality had heard about the tragedy. And when she met him, she saw more than worry over the nightmares afflicting the boy. Her first impression was of how handsome a man Mark Hunter was. But grief marked him. He wore his loss as starkly as a shadow cast in strong sunlight.Adam was asleep when first she saw him. He was lying on his back. His head rested on his pillow and his face was raised to the milky morning light. It was unlined of course and framed by wavy blond hair worn long. She knew that children were often seductive little creatures in repose, their features innocent of mischief while they slept. But he was not merely cute. Adam Hunter was extraordinary. There was no other word adequate to describe him than the one that came into her mind. He was neither cute nor angelic nor exotic. He was simply the most beautiful boy Elizabeth had ever seen.'Fine-featured,' Mark Hunter said, from behind her, reading her thoughts. 'He's fortunate in that he takes after his mother in his looks. But he's been a tormented little soul these past couple of weeks.' He edged past her and reached for his son, brushing the hair away from Adam's forehead where the damp of perspiration had stuck it in strands. He did this tenderly. And then he stooped and kissed his son there.Elizabeth had put her doctor's bag on the bed. She opened it with a click that was Mark Hunter's cue to leave her with her patient. He took the hint. 'I'll see you downstairs, doctor,' he said.'Please call me Elizabeth. He's sleeping deeply. I won't wake him just to ask questions. If he wakes of his own accord, I'll interrogate very gently.''Do what you must.''I'll examine him. I'll take his temperature and gauge hisblood pressure. I will need to speak to the child. We may require a referral and can't refer without a thorough examination, which means an assessment of his emotional state.''I'm gratified you have the time.'Elizabeth looked at her watch. She lifted Adam's wrist, feeling for his pulse. She smiled at his father. 'I don't,' she said.Adam's room had a view through its single window of the heather descending in green and purple swathes down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the stream glimmered in the morning mist she had climbed out of on the drive up there. She looked around the room, impressed by how much his father had done in making it a den for his boy. She supposed he had been mostly away at his various clandestine wars until the deaths of his wife and daughter. She guessed it had been pretty much his wife's job entirely to carry out the domestic commitments. But it was his now, and in the fabric and furnishings of the child's room, in its posters and shelves of books and toys, it had been thoughtfully accomplished.After the examination, while she waited for the child to wake, he made her tea.'How long have you been keeping him out of school?''Just for these last few days. It's caught up with him. He hasn't the concentration.' He looked at his watch. 'You must have other house calls to make.''Let's give him twenty minutes. If he doesn't stir in that time I'll come back tomorrow.''How does he seem to you?''He's slightly underweight. He's perhaps very slightly anaemic. His pulse is rapid for a sleeping ten-year-old. But generally he is healthy.'Mark Hunter looked at her. His hair was greying. He had blue eyes. Their pale clarity belied the things she supposed they must have seen in a bloody career.'When did it start?''The nightmares began about three weeks ago. At least, that's when he started to complain about them, to fear his room and his bed. It would get to eight o'clock and the approach of bedtime and I'd see the trepidation on his face. But it began before then. I'd heard him mumbling before that, Adam talking to himself.''It's normal for children to talk to themselves.''Not to argue with themselves it isn't, doctor. Not to indulge in ferocious debate.'She thought it interesting that he reverted to the formality of her title when he felt his judgement challenged. 'He has a computer in his room.''Equipped with a firewall and all the other safeguards you'd expect. You've seen the pictures stuck up on his walls. He likes Manchester United and listens to Girls Aloud.''No monsters, then.''No monsters.''At least, no monsters to your knowledge.'Hunter frowned. He sipped tea.'After the accident, did Adam sleep with you?''For a while he did, yes. And it was as much for my comfort as for his. But crying one another to sleep each night was not healthy for either of us. That stopped when we moved here.''Abruptly?''You will not think this a case of separation anxiety when my son wakes, doctor,' he said.She framed another question in her mind. She felt she was gaining valuable insights. But the question never got asked. There was a keening cry from above. It was a sound of such abject terror that it caused the hairs to rise and prickle coldly on the back of Elizabeth's neck.Mark Hunter was on his feet. 'I'll introduce you and thenleave you with him. The dreams scare him but he wakes from them lucid and with only a vague conscious memory of what he dreamed of. But they leave something for a few hours. They leave a residue.''They leave a what?''You will see.''Dad?' The voice from above them was plaintive.Mark hesitated.'What?' Elizabeth asked.He looked at her and the look was hard. 'Please remember your promise to question my son gently.'It was cold when he left her with Adam. The boy sat up in his striped pyjamas, pale and alert. It felt so cold to her in his room that she was surprised she could not see his breath when he exhaled. She extended a hand to the radiator. The metal was hot under her fingers. And the window was open only a fraction. Outside, it was a mild November morning. It was warmer out than in and that made no sense. She smiled at Adam and he tried to smile back as she poured him a glass of water from the carafe on his bedside table. She looked at the posters on the walls. His team posed confident and grinning for their formal start-of-season photograph, various players grinning and triumphant, parading trophies in grainier, blown-up shots placed around it.'Is Rooney your favourite player?''Paul Scholes,' he said. His voice was shaky. He tried to smile again. He could not will away the desperation in his face.'What did you dream about, Adam?'He raised his glass between both hands and drank. 'I don't remember. It was a cold place, I think. I think there was snow and ice. I think there were big icicles there, pointed in the cold. But there were no people or buildings or cars or anything.''Was it scary?'He looked down at the glass in his hands. 'It's always scary,' he said.She opened her bag, reached for her thermometer. He had not been running a fever before the dream. But in the chilly room, in its aftermath, she would have bet money he was running a fever now.She was with Adam for twenty minutes. It was long enough with a ten-year-old child. She did not want to exhaust him. He was getting a lot of sleep, but little apparent rest. When she had said goodbye to him, his father walked her across the gravel spread outside his house to the stand of conifers where she had parked her car on the bony, hilltop earth.'He speaks fluent Russian, Mark. I'm impressed. It's an unusual accomplishment in a child. He must be very bright. How long has he been studying the language?'Mark bit his lip and looked at the ground. 'He doesn't speak a word of Russian, Elizabeth. In a few hours, he won't remember a single syllable.''I don't understand.''It's what I told you about. It's the residue the dreams leave. After a few hours, it vanishes like dew.''How can that be?''The dreams belong to someone else. My son is possessed by them.''Does he know what you did in the military?''No.''You were in the SAS.''Was I?''You were involved in covert operations. You were awarded medals for gallantry.''Was I?''It was in the paper, Mark. When you came here and bought this place, it was in the Chronicle.''If it was in the Chronicle, then it must be true.''You must be open with me if I am to help your son.''And I shall be, doctor. But you asked me about what Adam knows. Being open to you is not the same as bragging to my son about the men I've killed.'Elizabeth got into her car. She was gifted at languages. She spoke only a smattering of Russian from a voluntary stint a few years earlier gained during the second Chechen conflict. She had not had the time to learn the complex subtleties of the Russian tongue. Events had intervened. Adam had spoken it with much profanity in a strong Siberian dialect.The dreams belonged to someone else.She had made a fool of herself in front of Mark Hunter. She was not sure of very much about the morning's events, but she was certain of that. Driving away from him, she did not think she had ever felt more foolish in her adult life.He called her that afternoon. She had given him her mobile number in case of emergency. Her practice was largely rural, far flung. Isolation itself was a problem, a cause of anxiety, for some of her elderly patients in particular. Giving them the mobile number could allay that. What it cost her in privacy she thought a worthy sacrifice to their peace of mind. Healing was a vocation to Elizabeth Bancroft. She thought that being a general practitioner was a sometimes rewarding, sometimes difficult, profession. But her compulsion to do it was a deep and instinctive desire.'I've rung to apologise,' he said. 'I was high-handed, arrogant with you.''And I was the village busybody gossiping at the parish pump,' she said.He laughed.'How is Adam?''No longer bilingual. Okay. Subdued. This morning you mentioned the possibility of a referral?''I don't think the need is acute. But we should not discuss his case over the phone. I'll call in tomorrow evening, on my way home. I can chat to Adam before he goes to bed and then outline my thoughts afterwards with you.''You work long hours.''Yes, Mark. I do.'She felt relieved that he had called. She was concerned about Adam's case. She wanted no unnecessary obstacles to bringing a happy conclusion to his ordeal. Thankfully, that appeared to be his father's only priority too. It was why he had phoned her. He was pretty desperate, she thought, under the English, officer-class poise he affected. His son was all he had and Colonel Mark Hunter MC, GC loved the boy very much. She did not think it was the first time he had needed to apologise for his arrogance. It was an inclination in his character he had to struggle to overcome. That was as clear to her as it must be to him. But she was still ashamed of reciting hearsay gleaned from the local free-sheet. That remark she had made about the shrew at the parish pump had come from the heart. Her own family had been victims of cruel gossip down the years. At times it had amounted to persecution. On a couple of occasions it had provoked actual violence. On one occasion, a long time ago, the violence had been terrible. She believed rumour to be pernicious. The way to establish what Adam Hunter knew about his father was to ask Mark, who would tell her truthfully. He had admitted to being a killer to her. But the killing was contingent, had been done in the cause of Queen and Country. Anyway, Elizabeth did not believe his father's dubious exploits the cause of Adam's nightmares. She had seen the way the boy looked at his father. The look was open, adoring. 'Dad' had been the first wordon his lips when he woke from his dream, seeking refuge from the fears that haunted his sleep.She wondered how much Mark knew about the history of his house. All old houses had some pain or tragedy attached to them in this part of the world, she thought. The Highlands had endured some bloody periods down the centuries. Nowhere around here had been immune. Mark's house had been home to a witch finder sent from Westminster by order of Parliament in the time of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's imperialist adventures in Ireland were well chronicled. But he had been just as harsh in Scotland. The witch finder had been one more symbol of the brutal oppression England could inflict, on a whim, on its self-styled Commonwealth. He had come and he had found his witches. Of course he had. He had probably been given a quota to meet back in London. He had conducted his trials and got his confessions using the iron heated in the forge and the drowning bucket and the thumbscrews. And he had inflicted his burnings on his poor innocent culprits. And he had been cursed savagely for it all. And he had lived in that very house until felled by the stroke that killed him. It was said that the smell of singed flesh clung to the hills for decades after. But Elizabeth believed only the factual part of the story. And she did not think Judge Josiah Jerusalem Smith, or the curse under which he laboured, responsible for the dreams afflicting Adam Hunter now. Puritans frowned even at Latin. Men like Cromwell's witch finders did not generally inspire anyone to speak Russian.
Her journey to the Hunters' house was slow and difficult the following night. Fog was common in the Highlands in the autumn. But it clung most tenaciously to the gullies and vales and stream banks, and to the forested land. Generally it thinned as you ascended in altitude. But it did not do soon this night. Darkness came very early, conjured prematurely by the mist. Elizabeth was not that familiar with the road. Mist wrapped the car in pale tendrils, an opaque blanket of grey smothering her windscreen as her headlights failed to pick out landmarks and she was filled with the weird impression that the car was no longer anchored beneath her to the earth. She crawled in a kind of limbo along the road for a while, aware of the steep banks descending sharply to either side only when the car canted and the tyres juddered and she corrected her steering. She had hoped to arrive at 7.30. But it was past 8 p.m. when she finally made out the light above her, climbing the hill towards it.Hunter met her by the door, where he must have been listening out for the approaching noise of her engine.'There's been a development,' he said, ushering her in, before she could apologise for her lateness. He looked worried. He looked tormented.She unbuttoned her coat and he took it from her and hung it on a peg beside the door.'What kind of development?''Things have escalated. It has got worse. He's talking now in his sleep. I tried to keep him awake for you. We were playing chess. But he fell asleep over the board, poor little fellow. He's exhausted. I'd carried him up and was tucking him in when the muttering started. I don't know whether to rouse him or leave him. It's gone beyond the conventions of nightmare. He's living the dreams. He's whispering in languages that were dead a thousand years ago.'Elizabeth put a hand on Hunter's arm. She squeezed. He was close to tears, almost unmanned by what was happening upstairs to his son.'Have you anything strong to drink?''I've whisky.''Pour two inches into a glass and swallow it down.'He tried to smile. 'That's your prescription?''Do it. I'll go up,' she said.Adam was lying peacefully on his back. His breathing seemed regular but slow. His mouth was slightly open and there was a bluish tinge to his complexion that Elizabeth did not like very much. Once again it felt bitterly cold in the room despite a radiator too hot for her to touch for more than a couple of seconds. He was talking. But it wasn't in his own clear, piping tone. There were separate voices. It was like some skilled act of ventriloquism. The voices emanated from his chest and their words were articulated without the boy moving his lips even a fraction. It was uncanny, like a radio broadcast of stories recounted in biblical times, and the very remoteness of the tongues made her shiver in the chill of the room.Elizabeth had an involuntary memory then, recalling with perfect clarity seeing a ventriloquist perform in a variety show broadcast on television when she had been a little girl of about four or five. The dummy sitting on its master's lap had sung a song while the ventriloquist himself had very deliberately drunk a tall glass of milk empty. She remembered the song. It was, 'I Belong to Glasgow'. She had been puzzled, wondering how it was done. Now, more than a quarter of a century on, she puzzled again, wondering how this squall of dead voices was emerging from the mouth of the sleeping boy.Some of it was in Latin. Some of it was Classical Greek. She thought some of it was from St Luke's Gospel, recited in Hebrew. She recognised quite a long passage from Milton's Paradise Lost, sonorously intoned in an English dialect she had never heard spoken. The really unnerving thing was when two voices spoke at the same time. One rising babble of voices almost forced her to flee from where she stood. There was anger and mockery there in the chill room andshe could equate none of it with Adam. She lifted one of his eyelids and then measured his pulse. His heart rate was regular and his sleep deep, even if it wasn't restful. The voices subsided for a moment and she crept out in the charged silence. They were no more alive, the voices, she thought, than had been the ventriloquist's doll. If they had been, they would have addressed her. She did not think she could have endured that. This was bad. But she thought there was some explanation that the science of her calling could accommodate. Had the voices addressed her, had they acknowledged her presence, she would have been staring at the void.Hunter was seated in one of two armchairs angled to face the hearth when she descended the stairs. She could smell the peaty aroma of whisky. An open bottle and two glasses occupied a small table placed between the chairs. She would not join him in a drink. The unfamiliar road would require total sobriety even if the fog had lifted. Elizabeth had seen the carnage caused by vodka-fuelled driving in her time in Russia. She had seen the victims thrown through windscreens on arctic nights, pasted by their innards and then welded by them, frozen to the bark of the conifers their cars had collided with. Such sights offered no encouragement to drink and drive. A decade on, the gory images of accidental death still stayed with her.'I think he is undergoing some kind of nervous trauma,' she said. She sat down. 'I think he has downloaded something, some game involving magic or possession or demonology or a stew of those things. It's overwhelmed him. We should check if any of his schoolmates are similarly afflicted.''They're not. You would know. They would be your patients. And you know it isn't that.''You should have his computer's hard drive examined and find out what is on it. And find out what he's deleted from it. It isn't just download sites. Check your credit and debitcard bills. See if he has bought something on eBay, some hardcore Death Metal-inspired thing, some game involving the Apocalypse. Or one of the occult series shown on television in America and available here as a box set of DVDs. Some of those shows are heavy stuff.''You think my son was reduced to this by watching episodes of Buffy?''Check whether he's subscribed to an online fraternity. The Goth subculture can be very dark.''It isn't that. You know bloody well it isn't.'It was quiet, now. The murmurs from above had ceased. Adam lay quietly and apparently still in his bed. She heard something large caper by outside. It brushed the wall of the house with a coarse flank. A deer, she thought, befuddled, made clumsy by the mist.'There's something I didn't tell you, Mark.'Hunter drained his glass. 'I'm just going to have a look at him. Make sure he's okay.'He came back down half a minute later. There was relief on his face, which was slightly flushed by the whisky.'There's something I need to tell you,' she said again.'And there's something I need to tell you. But by all means, ladies first.'She paused. And then she began. 'I told you Adam spoke yesterday morning in fluent Russian.''In a strong Siberian accent.''And in the persona of a man who recited his name. I did not tell you that part. He was speaking in character.''He told you who he was?''He stated who he was. He did not engage with me at all. It was not a conversation. It was a speech, a recitation. His voice was raised no louder when I turned my back on him to discover whether it would be. It was not communication. It was impersonation.''It was possession. What was the name he gave?'Again, Elizabeth paused. 'He stated that his name was Grigori Yefimovich Novy. Does that mean anything to you?''Yes. Novy was born in Pokrovskoye, in Siberia. The date of his birth was probably 1869. The world knew him better as Grigori Rasputin.''Don't you see, Mark? You can just picture some Californian cyber-geek game designer namechecking Rasputin for level three of his warlocks and wizards conspiracy fest. And it has affected a boy, too young to play the game, in the traumatic way we see upstairs. Adam needs psychiatric help, Mark. He has downloaded and been exposed to something he shouldn't have and has frightened himself out of his wits. You are right that the condition has worsened. I know a really good man in Edinburgh. He's expensive, but he will prioritise a case as unusual as this. And he's a kind man with kids of his own.'Hunter poured himself an inch of whisky. It was the single malt, Oban, she saw from the label, paler than any blend Elizabeth was familiar with, even in the firelight in front of which they sat. She was not a whisky drinker herself. But she had once been very close to someone who was. He raised the glass. The liquor had an oily sheen and moved with an almost viscous laziness as he swirled it in front of his face. She could smell the whisky and she could smell the resin from the pine logs burning in the grate. And there was something else, some rather more esoteric scent she could not place. Perhaps Mark Hunter wore cologne. Military men could be as vain as peacocks. It would not require premeditation to dab on a bit of scent. Quite the opposite, if it was his general habit.'A psychiatrist.''A brilliant man. A compassionate man, also.'Hunter nodded. He downed his drink. He stood and wentacross to an oak chest positioned against the far wall and took some items from a drawer there. They chinked when he put them on the top of the chest. Then he scooped them up and brought them back and they fell from his hands on to their little shared table. She saw his Military Cross and his George Cross on their crisp coloured ribbons. So it was true. He was a hero. There was a medal with the citation scored in French. There was another with an American eagle impressed on the polished bronze. He sat heavily back in his chair and gestured at the decorations.'Baubles,' he said.She wondered, was it the whisky talking? She did not think it was. A man with his background would have a good head for the stuff. Discretion had been the basic prerequisite of his entire military career. Drink might have made him more open to her, less inhibited. But the margin would be slight.'I have lost my wife and daughter. If I lose my son, my life amounts to the trinkets on that table. Do you know the line from Eliot, Elizabeth?'She believed she did. It came from The Waste Land. It was the famous line about shoring fragments against one's ruins in a bleak attempt at some sort of consolation. She quoted it. Hunter listened as she did so and then sighed.'Well. These fragments are not enough. I want my boy to have his chance at life. He is my legacy and my gift to the world and my gift to him is his chance at living. I will not willingly have him denied it. Do you understand?'He was crying. He was doing so silently. But the tears tracked glistening down his face in the orange cast of the firelight.'You said you had something to tell me.'He sniffed. 'Adam is possessed. He is the victim of a curse. I incurred it twelve years ago in Bolivia. It was pledged thatmy progeny would commune with the dead. The hag who cursed me was doubly right, in the event. But I don't think she was thinking of my wife and daughter. I think she was referring to this. And of course it has come to pass.'Whatever large beast capered outside, it had not left the vicinity of the house. Elizabeth heard the rough smear of its hide on stone again, the scrape of horn on the leaded window glass. There was a snort, or whinny. There was the drag and clatter of heavy hooves.'Do you think there is anything you can do?''There was white as well as black magic in that place. A kind of conflict was being waged there.''You actually believe this?''I saw it. There was a white witch. She was old and very powerful. She could help me. She could help Adam, if I could find her.''Twelve years, Mark. She was old then. She could be dead.''No,' he said. 'If she was dead, this wouldn't be happening. This is her ordeal, her test. That was how it was always meant to be played out. I see that now. And if I'm to save my son I have to find her.'Elizabeth looked at the medals on the little table between them. They shared space with the bottle of Oban and the two glasses, one used, one still free of whisky's happy contamination. The medals looked like nothing in the dull light of the fire. But she had seen combat and its aftermath. She knew something of the courage and selflessness they must have taken to earn. Fuck it, she said to herself. She poured an inch and drank it down in a gulp. 'Would you not consider the psychiatrist, Mark? At my sincere request? Would you not have someone qualified examine the boy's computer files?'He smiled, but not at her. The thing outside blundered against the door. Hinges strained and the mortise clackedloudly, but Mark ignored it. Elizabeth decided that she would too. She suspected that Mark Hunter had a large gun somewhere for use against threats like the one perhaps posed by whatever was lurking in his grounds. The metal hoard on the table told her he would use his gun coolly and well. Whatever the thing outside was, it posed no threat to Hunter and his son. Whatever slouched out there was too big and too solid a target.'Why are you smiling?''Do you not wonder what that smell is, Elizabeth?'The scent she had detected earlier had grown much stronger and more prevalent. It drowned the odour of the whisky and the fire. It was not the vain colonel's cologne, unless he had spilled a bottle of the stuff.'It's frankincense,' Hunter said. 'It smells of fresh pine and lemons, does it not?'Elizabeth nodded. It did. Richly and intensely so.'It comes from the country in Africa we now call Somalia. It was popular in the Eastern world at the time of the birth of Christ. It was brought back to Europe by the Templars, after the First Crusade. Western Christians waited a thousand years to smell the stuff brought as a gift to the Nazareth stable by one of the three attendant kings. I believe its source in my house tonight is the room occupied by my son. And I can promise you, its presence here has nothing to do with the hard drive of his computer.'She stayed the night. The mist did not dissipate and she was too unnerved to risk the road. The spare bedroom was warm and comfortable and the rest of the night passed without incident. The smell of incense was weakening even as she brushed her teeth and in the morning was entirely gone. So was the fog. She enjoyed a stroke of luck when she saw the message light on her phone flashing and discovered her first appointment of the day, a meeting with apharmaceuticals company rep, had been cancelled. It gave her the opportunity to have a chat with her patient before she was obliged to leave the house.She found him at the table in the sitting room, still in his pyjamas. He had his elbows on the table and his head rested in his hands. He was frowning, staring at the pieces on the chessboard left from the unfinished game of the previous night. His father was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. He was humming something tunelessly. It occurred to her that once upon a time, Mark Hunter had probably been a happy sort of man. She pulled out a chair and sat beside Adam.'Do you ever beat him?''Occasionally. When he lets me.''When he's in a good mood?''When he thinks I need the encouragement of a win to keep on playing. But I can tell he's losing on purpose, even when he pretends he's struggling. My dad's a really crappy actor.'She laughed.He smiled at her. 'Sorry. I'm not supposed to say crappy. I meant to say Dad's a really lousy actor.''Tea or coffee?' Hunter shouted from the kitchen.'Coffee, please.''A Coke for me, Dad.''In your dreams.'Adam turned to her. 'What is wrong with me, doctor? My dad doesn't seem to know and he usually knows everything.'She paused before replying. 'Did you dream last night? Do you remember your dream?'He frowned. 'I dreamed something was trying to get into our house in the darkness. It was a wild animal. It was a wolf, I think. But it was massive, the size of a horse.''That was the only dream?''It was the only one I remember.''If I say the word "sleep" to you, what does that make you think of?'The frown had not lifted from his face. 'Dust,' he said. 'Darkness.''I will do everything I can to make you well, Adam. I promise you that.'The frown lifted. He nodded and smiled at her. But she was aware that she had not answered the question he had asked her. And she could see that he was too.As soon as she got into the surgery, she emailed the Edinburgh man. She outlined the principal details of the case. He called her back within half an hour. It was Wednesday. He agreed to come and see Adam the following Tuesday. She called Mark Hunter to tell him. He did not seem thrilled by the development. She thought that was natural. In resorting to a succession of strangers to tend to his son, it must seem to him as though Adam and his problems were becoming remote from him. In a loving father, that would not be a pleasant notion. But he was intelligent and had been disciplined all his professional life. He needed to be objective if his son was to be helped. As their short conversation drew to its conclusion, a thought occurred to her.'When was the last time you went out, Mark?''I took Adam to see the military tattoo in Edinburgh.''That was months ago. When was the last time you went out as a grown-up?'He laughed. 'I can't remember.''Make plans for Friday night. I'll babysit. Go and have an adult conversation in the pub. Grumble about the weather with someone gnarled and local. Have a few beers. It will do you the world of good.''What about your plans for Friday night?''They're already sorted. I'm babysitting.' She hung up.If nothing happens to Adam between now and then.That had been the unspoken proviso, the precondition that neither of them alluded to, the possibility she knew both of them feared. She prayed that all would remain as it was until Tuesday and the psychiatrist. She felt that once he saw Adam, once he made his sane and fastidious suggestions concerning treatment, all would start to become well. Everything would begin to return to normal. An episode prior to that could be disastrous. It could send Hunter off on his desperate quest to find an ancient witch. What would happen to Adam in his absence? He would be obliged to take the boy with him. But Adam needed calm and comfort and routine, not the chaos of a futile search for some sorceress crone through the empty regions of Latin America.She thought again about the house. They had lived in a village in Sussex. Then one wintry morning the previous January, the accident had occurred. Lillian Hunter was walking her eight-year-old daughter Kate the half mile to the church hall where her weekly ballet class was held. The car that hit them was being driven too fast on an icy road by a local youth of seventeen who had passed his test only two weeks earlier. The collision happened after his car hit a patch of black ice and went out of control. Lillian and Kate were killed instantly. It was the sort of mundane catastrophe you read about and sighed and shook your head over in the papers in the winter months. And as a consequence, Hunter had left the army and sold up and headed north with his son to escape the past and start afresh without the reminders that would hinder their recovery.There was nothing wrong with the house. It was isolated, but it was not of itself a sinister or morbid place. It was handsome, picturesque. And in the spring and summer its surrounding countryside was spectacular. Buying it, relocating, was probably the right thing for Hunter in distracting him from his loss. But for Adam? Elizabeth couldn't helpwondering at the emotional cost of taking him away from everything familiar to him at such a distressing time. That was a parental dilemma, though, wasn't it? Who was she to judge? She did not have any children of her own. At thirty-four she was certainly young enough. But the calendar was not the whole story. She did not think it likely to happen now. She picked up her pen and scribbled a note to herself to talk to the headmistress at Adam's school. She was Mrs Blyth's GP. It would be easy enough to do. Bullying should have occurred to her as a possible cause of Adam's problems much sooner than this. But at least she could establish whether there had been any bullying before Tuesday's consultation.
The first two hours of her Friday evening child-minding stint passed uneventfully. Then she heard a rumple of sound from above as though Adam had shifted and woken. She stood to go and check on him, alert to further sound, but there was none. A feeling of dread overcame her then. There was nothing obvious to provoke it. But her skin pricked into gooseflesh and her scalp itched coldly, and it took all the willpower and resolution she possessed to make her legs climb the stairs to Adam's snug little room.She pushed open the door. Moonlight bathed the scene. It was monochromatic, bleeding the brightness from the pictures on the wall, making a drab shroud of the duvet cover on the bed, turning the water in his bedside carafe a gloomy tainted colour.He was seated upright on the bed. His mouth was stretched in a pantomimic leer. His long hair had been twisted into two careful plaits and there was a look of cunning and wariness in his eyes so dismaying on the face of a ten-year-old child that her own hand rose to cover her open mouth at the shock of it.He laughed. It was a snigger, vindictive, high-pitched. 'Hello,' he said.He had addressed her.She swallowed. She did not reply.His head jerked to one side as though in some mad impulse of sympathy. 'Are you still angry with me, pretty doctor?'The voice coming out of the child spoke English, heavily accented. 'Boom,' it said. It paused. 'The rifle I used was a Barrett Light. A Barrett Light is a sniper's weapon. It is British. And it is the best in the world.' Adam's arms jerked up like someone aiming a gun and one of his eyes closed as he looked along an imaginary sight. His tongue protruded in concentration and was then slowly withdrawn as the smile returned. A finger squeezed a phantom trigger. 'Boom,' the voice said. 'That was all it took, pretty doctor. The range was eight hundred metres. No distance for a Barrett Light. A routine shot. And your boyfriend's head exploded like a pumpkin under a hammer blow.''Adam?''Busy,' the voice said. 'Unavailable.' The child's face contrived a lascivious wink and the body reclined on the bed and the sniper closed his eyes and rested.Later, when she was sure the boy slept, Elizabeth came back to the room and unravelled the plaits in his hair and combed it out. She did not want Mark Hunter to see the physical interference inflicted on his son. Then she went back downstairs and, goaded by her memories and the grief rekindled, she wept. She was still struggling for composure when she heard Hunter's key in the lock, a few minutes after midnight.He took off his suit coat and unfastened his tie, then came and sat down in the chair facing hers. He had noticed straight away that something was wrong. He was sober and she was glad of the fact. Probably he had drunk reluctantly, glancingoften at his wristwatch, impatient for the time when he could respectably go home. She remembered that she'd felt a stab of pity for him, putting on his tie to go to the local pub. It was a few hours and a lifetime ago. The world had shifted since then. Her sympathies now were engaged with bigger things.'Should I go up?''No. He's sleeping now. He needs a long sleep, I think, or he will wake exhausted.''Something happened?''Another escalation.' It was ironic, using the terminology of war to describe what had occurred. 'How many men have you killed, Mark?'He looked at her for a long moment. 'Some would argue there's a philosophical distinction between the deaths you inflict with your own hands and those you delegate. I would not. The answer to your question is too many.''And now you're being punished for it, through your son.''Except you don't believe that, doctor.''Shortly after I qualified, I volunteered with my boyfriend, also just qualified, to do a stint with the Red Cross. We were sent to Chechnya.''Christ.''Where, as you know, things escalated. We were at the siege of Grozny. All was chaos and butchery. We could do nothing. My boyfriend was killed by a sniper bullet. They got me out in the end lashed to a pallet aboard a cargo plane. Tonight, in Adam's room, I listened as his killer bragged about murdering Peter.''Only the dead can speak through Adam,' Hunter said quietly. 'If that is any consolation.''It isn't.' She laughed, incredulous at the truth she had witnessed. 'Your son is possessed.''I'd wondered why someone who looks like you do is single.'She stared hard at him.'It's my training. I was taught to watch out for the unusual, for anomalies. The hours that you work, the absence of a ring on your finger and the fact that you were available to child-mind on a Friday evening are at odds with how you look, Elizabeth. That's all.''What did you do, in Bolivia, to incur the wrath of this black magician?''We blundered into something. It was a very confused situation, not something we were prepared for. Not something anyone could be prepared for, I don't think. But I did something wrong. Not just wrong. I did something bad.''And the white witch? She didn't feel inclined to lift the curse there and then?''I'll tell you about it. I'll tell you everything. I've never spoken of it to anyone in all the years since. But you will have to know.''Why did you call me in the first place, Mark, if you thought my skills redundant?'He looked at her. 'I hoped I was wrong. The situation has deteriorated with such awful speed.''But it has become clearer. After what I saw tonight, I can explain it in no other way. Something unwelcome and strange has occupied your son, some malevolent force. Adam really is possessed.''I know he is, Elizabeth. And it will get much worse than this. And I must find that old woman and persuade her to come back with me and use her power if I'm to have a chance of saving him.''You had better tell me about what provoked this,' she said. 'You had better tell me and tell me truthfully.'THE MAGDALENA CURSE. Copyright © 2009 by F. G. Cottam. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ten yearsold Adam Hunter suffers terrible nightmares and can speak in languages that he never heard or studied but only for short bursts. His worried father Mark takes Adam to Dr. Elizabeth Bancroft. She is amazed when her patient speaks Russian, but Mark explains he will forget the language in a few hours. Mark explains that his son's illness was caused when he and his special operations team were in Bolivia on a mission. They ran into sorceress Mrs. Mallory, who killed the unit except for him but also cursed his offspring. Elizabeth believes Adam is possessed and will try to help the child. At the same Mark leaves his offspring with her, he heads from Scotland to South America believing the death of Mrs. Mallory is the only chance he has to save his child. Her patient's plight forces Elizabeth to accept her inherited sorcery skills that she purposely ignored. This is a super supernatural horror thriller that grips readers from the beginning when they along with Elizabeth learn what ails the tweener. The story line is fast-paced, but character driven by the beleaguered son, the harried father, the dedicated doctor, and the evil sorceress. One of the most vile antagonists in years, malevolent Mrs. Mallory somewhat steals the show as the audience anticipates a confrontation between her and either or both (readers will keep changing who we expect to represent good) the parent and the shrink. Harriet Klausner
If you love a spooky supernatural story that is written so well that you feel honored to read it, then dive in! I discovered Mr. Cottam less than a year ago and what a gift! I always leave a light on when I read his books at night and it takes a lot to scare me. This British born author is truly a master at what he does and if there was an Oscar for writing, he would get one!