Wednesday 1 November 2023

Map of Fictional Place Names

It is rare that I am blown away by the mainstream press, but The Londonist has achieved something truly extraordinary. They have created a map of fictional locations and they have gathered hundreds. The map displays a geographical area roughly parallel with real life Great Britain and its surrounding islands; and it includes imaginary places from ancient mythology and classic literature to modern soap operas and children's TV. So you can clearly see Cantre'r Gwaelod, an island kingdom from Welsh folklore; along with buzzwords from today's prolefeed like Emmerdale, Wetherfield, Walford, Ambridge and Hollyoaks. Sodor is an island loosely analogous to the Isle of Man where Thomas the tank engine and the other sentient railway vehicles of Rev. W Awdry's books is set. Some places cannot be mapped like the mysterious vanishing and reappearing Scottish village of Brigadoon; and they are marked by a spiral in their rough positions. The same goes for the otherworld of Harry Potter's school, Hogwarts. Source: The Londonist has also published a gazetteer to accompany the map, see: Detailed prints can be purchased from the source page. The creators know that their work is incomplete and have put out an appeal for additional names from anybody who has come across settings in the endless wastes of literature. Well, my readers and I can help them out there, can't we? There's Lancombe Pond; two in fact. The town in Bedfordshire where Evan Hughes begins his hero's journey; and the microstate in the East Midlands central to The Obscurati Chronicles. Evan's Land contains other fictional towns and villages in North Wales such as Llangeri, Nantmawr, Llanigmur and Nagelluw. There are many other real places in the story that I have changed in size and nature. I have done the same to Rockall. This is a real island in the Atlantic, but I have changed it in my novel of that name into a much larger land five miles across. I post my adjusted map below.

Thursday 25 May 2023

York Sketch

I have written a sketch inspired by my trip to York last year, see: It is an idea that came to me very suddenly and I wrote the whole thing within about two hours. It comes across as an extract from a much longer piece of prose, but it actually is not. That being said, I may end up adapting it at some point. Either way, I had great fun writing it.
Lewis stopped. He stood at the end of Cromwell Road and looked up at Baile Hill. The squat grey stone tower jutted modestly out into the street, more cuddlesome and less imposing that its fellow structures. He shifted his case over to his other shoulder. Despite its lack of weight, it felt heavy. He looked at the ducks and geese chattering as they paddled on the Ouse, and he took comfort in the innocuous natural vista. The evening sun cast glowing shadows deep into the dark water, tinted green by weeds. The summer trees were upholstered with foliage. He put a call through to Mallory. The man picked up immediately. "Lewis? How's it going?"
    "Are we on the encrypted line?"
    "As always."
    He paused. "I'm going to do it, this evening."
    "You can't now! It's Sunday!"
    "Not where I'm standing."
    Mallory chuckled. "Sorry, mate. Forgot the time zones... Are you sure? You know this is a hundred percent voluntary..."
    "McGreig must be stopped! It's now or never."
    "Not true, we'll have other chances. Don't sacrifice yourself, Lewis!"
    "There's no time, Maz! If not me, who? If not now, when?"
    Mallory sighed. "Alright, Lew... Just play it cool if you get nicked. You know the lines."
    Lewis briefly put his hand through one of the arrow slits as he entered the turret. He closed one eye and squinted, imagining himself as one of the city's defenders; which he actually was, he reminded himself; although in the modern age, not medieval. Times move on, the world has superficially changed so much, yet some things remain the same. The cycle of history is an uncorrupted file. He walked up the steps to the City Wall and paused again. Even on a mission of such urgency, he couldn't help but be moved every time he looked out over the rooftops of York. It was like looking down from a godlike position, as if the city had created the very means to know itself through divine eyes. Walking along the flagstone pathway behind the battlements always felt precarious. The bottom parts of the battlement outer wall felt too low to stop one falling off, but there was no inner wall at all for most of the walkway. There was just a sheer drop of eight to ten feet down onto earthen slopes covered in thick stinging nettles. He felt the urge to crouch for stability every time he had to pass somebody coming the other way because they forced him to walk closer to either one of those precipices. He descended to cross over Lendal Bridge and briefly entered the Museum Gardens. Lewis was aware that he was driven by many subconscious urges that he didn't necessarily understand and that one of the tasks of his egoic mind was continuously to unpick the riddles his subconscious constantly tried to bamboozle him with. He decided that deep down he was worried that he would never be able to enjoy the lush beauty of the gardens again. The Minster loomed over the skyline. Even after a millennium it still dominated the vista of York. "Look upon my works and despair." Lewis mumbled to himself as he did every time he beheld the Minster. He felt tears budding in his eyes. He blinked and turned his gaze away.
    He returned to the wall as the crowd began to gather. He didn't want to stand out by arriving up there early. To them he must have looked like a student, dressed as he was in denims, with uncut blonde hair and small spectacles. The case he was carrying was made of hard corrugated plastic reinforced by a steel frame. It looked as if it contained some kind of musical instrument, or at least that's what he hoped people would think. The sun was a crimson haze between the trees and as the twilight deepened; floodlights were switched on in the Memorial Gardens. The laundered white marquees has been pitched several hours ago and suited servants circulated carrying boxes of supplies for the party that was about to begin. A motorcade of Rolls Royces pulled up and people emerged, men in black tie and women in sumptuous dresses. Gold Rolexes and bracelets glinted at every wrist, diamonds shone out from necks and earlobes. Lewis had no idea who these people were. He was only interested in one of the guests, the guest of honour, and he knew who that was only too well. The man arrived escorted by the Lord Mayor of York in his tarmac-crushing limousine. The Lord Mayor circled his guest as they walked up to the Gardens, talking to him in a manner that skilfully combined informality with sycophancy. The guest looked straight ahead of himself as he walked, seeming unimpressed by his companion. The short rotund man waddled with confidence, unashamed of his huge belly. His hair was brown and stuck out of the sides of his head like un-styled cinnamon buns. His beard, by contrast was immaculately sculpted into lines and patches on various parts of his face. Lewis frowned, hardly believing that he was so close to the bane of his life. James Harold McGreig. Lewis felt his teeth grind. He had given up on the idea losing his hate. He had really become very tired of those life coaches who keep saying things like "let go of your hatred!" "Hate only destroys!" Lewis had come to accept that hate is a natural and healthy human emotion. It is a good man's involuntary reaction to evil. If he could not hate then he would be incapable of loving. Hate does not have to be destructive, it can sometimes be creative. He hoped that it would be tonight.
    This would not be easy. He was surrounded by fellow onlookers, they were almost touching his shoulders and there were a few of them stacked up behind him. He just banked on them panicking once it all started.
    The crowd had gathered in front of the podium awaiting their mentor. McGreig approached the podium, pausing every few steps to build up the tension. He knew how to manipulate an audience. He accepted a shot of single malt from a waiting servant with a silver tray. He was quite content to let the audience and TV cameras see this action; it was just another part of "Wee Jimmy" McGreig's" individuality.
    Lewis looked furtively to one side and then the other. There was a row of police bodyguards below in the Memorial Gardens, but only two on that segment of the City Wall; one at each end of the crowd. McGreig finally stepped up to the podium. A hoot of feedback cleared as the microphone was switched on. As per his normal manner, he had insisted on speaking first, refusing the Lord Mayor's offer to introduce him. Amazingly, just before he spoke, he made the salute of his organization with his left hand; first and second finger extended, ring and little finger crossed. He did it covertly, almost hidden by the podium. Lewis had to stop himself gasping aloud at the arrogance of the man, and then felt an added motive of satisfaction over what was to happen next.
    "Ladies and gentlemen." began McGreig in his educated Edinburgh tones. "People of York. Thank you for inviting me here." He said these words in such a low voice that it was almost a mutter. As usual, he expressed no emotion and kept his gaze downwards at the podium, even though he had no written notes. "This is my first visit to York since being elected First Minister of Scotland; however, I have been here a few times before then..."
    The waiting was over. Lewis had felt strangely relaxed during these last few minutes. He felt as if he were being carried along by a warm, cosy tide. What took place next was of no consequence really. He calmly removed the case from his shoulder and opened it. He took out the carbon shafted bow and pressed it against the flagstone to loop the string. Already he could hear some curious murmuring from the people standing beside him, but none of them sounded alarmed. He grasped one of the four tungsten tipped arrows and stood up. Now a few people exclaimed in concern as he fitted the arrow to the bow and took aim. Nobody below the Wall reacted; they couldn't hear the people near him. He didn't even look to see if the police were doing anything. Lewis pulled back the string and glanced down the shaft of the arrow at his target. This was exactly as he had always imagined it would be. Playing this moment over and over again in his mind for months, following the news that McGreig would be visiting York in the summer. He shut one eye. McGreig was oblivious, still rapping to his adoring posse. Mallory had been right when he told Lewis that "the Loomies have lost the sense of being stared at." The string bit into Lewis fingers. He lifted the bow slightly to account for the range. There was no wind and McGreig was stationary, so there was no need for lead. He released it and felt the orgasmic recoil as the arrow departed the bow and began its brief voyage to its target. It was forty or fifty yards, but the bow was powerful and the arrow hard. He heard people around him scream with alarm at the very same moment he saw McGreig falter and collapse at the podium. A second later everybody was screaming, both on the wall and below in the Memorial Gardens. People were pouring off the Wall like lemmings, jumping, braving nettle stings and rolling down the grass embankments to the street inside the Wall. Lewis was the only person in the vicinity who remained calm. Down at the podium, a huge crowd of helpers surrounded the fallen McGreig and Lewis couldn't see what was going on. An emergency vehicle siren sounded in the distance. The two policemen minding the Wall had vanished, but two others appeared at the southern end, running towards him. They had drawn pistols from their holsters and as they reached Lewis they levelled them at him. "Drop your weapon! Drop it now!" one of them yelled. Lewis smiled in a genial manner as he slowly held the bow out at arms length and tossed it away. The policemen put away their guns and lunged at him like a pair of wrestlers. Lewis grunted as the wind was knocked out of him. He fell to the stone floor under the weight of the two police officers. He was rolled onto his front and the men wrenched his arms behind his back. Handcuffs closed on his wrist. "I'm arresting you on suspicion of attempted murder!" one of them shouted. "You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."
    Lewis chuckled. "Only attempted murder? Is he still alive then?"
    "Come on, sonny! On your feet!" They craned him up into a standing position, almost dislocating his shoulders.
    "Take off these handcuffs and de-arrest me!" Lewis shouted back. "Do it now!"
    The policemen scowled. "What!? What are you talking about?"
    Lewis stared at them hard, shuttling his glare from one of them to the other. "Bylaw 323 of 1297; defence of the city from possible attacks by the army of William Wallace! It's on the statute books; check it if you don't believe me."
    The policemen guffawed with a mixture of disbelief and amusement.
    "I can lawfully shoot and kill a Scottish person in this city, including one outside these Walls so long as I am on the Wall and my weapon is a bow and arrow."
    There was a volcanic pause. Nobody moved or spoke. One of the officers broke it. "A likely story, lad. Come on, let's sort it out down the station!"

Friday 10 March 2023

The Obscurati Chronicles- Chapter 7

This is Chapter 7 of The Obscurati Chronicles, a novel I am currently serializing. See here for Chapter 6:

Robin Ursall turned away from the armoured glass with disgust. "Good grief!" he muttered.
    Farthing looked at him sympathetically. "Not easy is it?" He escorted Robin up the stairs out of the subterranean compound. "May I ask you a question, Mr Ursall?" he asked when he and Robin were in the reception room drinking cups of tea. "We've had another gentleman with your name here, a few months ago; around New Year I think."
    "My name?"
    "Ursall. Any relation?"
    Robin shrugged. "I am unique, Dr Farthing. Accept no cheap imitations... Time for me to leave." He stood up and walked towards the front door.
    "One moment, Mr Ursall... Wait!" Dr Farthing jumped to his feet and leapt to Robin's side, almost pleading.
    "What is it?" Robin raised his head so that he could look down his nose at the scientist.
    "You haven't said whether your company would be interested in a development contract."
    "No... I haven't" Robin walked out of the building to where his car was waiting in the driveway. He ordered the chauffeur to take him to Newbury; the car was from a luxury hire company and had been organized entirely from the office. It dropped him off at the goods entrance and he boarded a first class coach. He seemed to be travelling all the time these days. His next stop was home to Lancombe Pond, although he no longer thought of it as his home. He changed into his uniform for the last time and headed straight from the station to Fort Meltan. General Blake and his staff were strangely forewarned. As Robin was shown into the top office, his commander-in-chief was standing in front of a desk with all his staff. The prepared paperwork was laid out in front of him.
    "Attention!" yelled the Sergeant-of-the-guard.
    Robin stood upright with his arms at his sides, as he had been trained.
    Blake beckoned. "Come forward, Lieutenant Ursall."
    Robin obeyed.
    Blake was a tight-eyed man with a swarthy crop of hair and sparse beard. "I must say, Mr Ursall; I'm disappointed that you have chosen to resign your commission. You've been a splendid officer."
    "It's time for me to move on, General." Robin signed his name on the form as he spoke.
    "What are your plans?"
    "I have accepted an appointment as an executive of Dewlove Associates."
    "What does that involve?"
    Robin shrugged. "All sorts of things."
    The General signed Robin's discharge papers and handed them to Robin, rolled up like a university degree. "Lieutenant Ursall, you are hereby honourably discharged from the Lancombe Pond Defence Force. Thank you for your service."
    The other officers in the room gave him a round of applause. Robin dispassionately shook his former commanding officer's hand and strutted out of the room and out of Fort Meltan.
    Robin's private luxury caboose was waiting for him at Lancombe Pond station, ready to be added to any train he chose. He knew he had to be back in London by that evening, but still felt the need to visit his father, if only to say hello. "Robin!" Francis Ursall smiled as his son walked in through the front door.
    "Hello, father."
    The maid made Francis and Robin a pot of tea which she served to them in the drawing room. Robin told his father about his discharge from the LPDF. Francis shrugged. "I'm not disappointed, Robin. As you said, it's time for you to move on. And..." He paused and shivered. A rhapsodic smile broke out on his face and his eyes glinted with passion. "I can't tell you how pleased I am that you are working with Cassius. I'm so, so happy you're now on good terms with him."
    Robin felt a strange sense of relief at his father's words. "So am I, father."
    Francis glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were alone in the room and he leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Between you and me, Robin. I'm not sure that Cassius is really a mortal human. I've thought a lot about this and... I think he might be the Messiah. He is divine!"
    After they had finished tea it was time for Robin to leave for the station. His father showed him to the door. "Are you going to see your grandmother while you're here?"
    Robin shook his head vigourously. "No."
    Francis shrugged. "Well, she is a strange lady, my mother."
    "More than strange." muttered Robin as he left. He glanced nervously around himself as the chauffeur drove him to the station in the City. He walked hastily onto the platform, worried that he might bump into his grandmother by chance. There was a woman in his caboose of course; a dark skinned one this time, probably a Levantine or Libyan he mused. She stood up obediently as he entered. "Good afternoon, Mr Ursall. Dr Dewlove sends his compliments. Can I make you some refreshments?" She had a strong accent. "A drink?"
    "Yes; tea." Robin snapped.
    "Yes, Mr Ursall." she smiled, showing no offence at Robin's abrupt tone. She was well trained. After she returned from the caboose's private catering nook with a cup of steaming tea she took off her jacket and skirt, exposing a far more revealing outfit. She was slender and smooth, probably about nineteen or twenty years old; slightly older than most of them. Cassius had an almost telepathic way of sending women Robin found attractive. He relaxed on the comfortable settee. The woman stood obediently by the door like a military guard, waiting to be summoned forward. The blast of a whistle came from outside and the train jerked into motion. There was a copy of the Evening Standard on the coffee table. He picked it up; it was that day's issue, one of the first off the press sent specially for him from London. He flicked casually through the pages until he reached the classifieds. There was a new Signum post: Beware of false profits. Stay close to your family and friends. Trust them first. WYAGIGA. Signum. Robin spotted the spelling mistake, probably deliberate; a pun. The second sentence triggered a memory. He was reminded of the worry he felt on his journey to the station. The worry was mixed with a tinge of sadness; but he chided himself for it, knowing it was misplaced. He recalled his parting conversation with his grandmother, over eighteen months ago. He realized he had been subconsciously delaying the inevitable. It had been on a day in the summer of 1921 when she had joined the family on an outing to Skegness. Cassius Dewlove had accompanied them too and when Loyl looked at him and Robin together the dismayed look on her face was unmistakable. She made no comment during the trip, but the following day when Robin went to see her, everything was different. She opened the front door and stared at him; the usual loving smile and "an tless" was absent. After a few seconds of frowning she looked away and walked slowly back inside. Robin followed. She swung round and stared again. "Talk to me, Robin."
    He opened his mouth to speak, but could think of no words. He shrugged like an embarrassed child.
    "What's going on?"
    "Nothing bad, grandma." he mumbled.
    "Nothing bad?... What the hell are you doing canoodling with Cassius Dewlove!?"
    "He's not a bad man, grandma. I've changed my mind about him."
    Loyl paused and ran a trembling hand over her forehead. "I knew something was wrong with you; I've known for months, but I never suspected it was as bad as this! You need to come with me this week to the church. I'll find somebody to give you healing..."
    "No!" shouted Robin. "I will never go to that place again."
    She glared at him quizzically, as if she could read his thoughts. "Where has he been taking you?"
    Loyl turned her back and there was a tense silence. "Get out of here, Robin. Stay away from me."
    Robin felt as if she had stabbed him. His face tightened and glowed. He walked out of his grandmother's house. After a few minutes he began to feel guilty. He knew that his feelings were wrong. Cassius had told him so. In fact when Robin shared the news with Dewlove a few days later, the latter laughed. "Well done, Robin! Your grandmother is a twisted worshiper of the deviant creation. She is a very negative influence on you and your family. I'm glad you're now rid of her."
    Robin sighed with relief. Cassius Dewlove's words made his discomfort and regret evaporate like dew in sunlight. Cassius had used to term "deviant creation" several times, but had never explained what it meant; and Robin had never asked.
    He had only seen Dirk Walsander once since breaking with his grandmother. He had bumped into him a few days afterwards, apparently by chance; although he suspected the hospital porter had tracked him down and had been following him. "Robin." he said as he started walking side-by-side with him on a busy street in Nottingham.
    "Dirk?" Robin instinctively moved away from him.
    "Robin, your grandma has told me everything. She's not really angry with you. We want to help you. Let us help you! Please!" The Dutchman was flushed, almost in tears.
    "I don't need any help, Dirk."
    "Dewlove has done something to your mind, Robin. You're not thinking straight!"
    "Go away!" Robin bolted. By the time he stopped running Dirk was nowhere in sight.
    Robin wiped his chin and sighed. He put the Evening Standard back down on the table. The train blew its whistle as it entered a tunnel. The sunlight vanished. He looked up at the girl and nodded at her. She smiled and put her hands on her hips in a seductive manner; then she stepped forward and began stripping off the meagre vestiges of her clothing.
The headquarters of Dewlove Associates was in a grand redbrick building in Wapping. It had originally been a warehouse attached to the London docks, but had been extensively converted to the point that even its architecture had been altered. Robin walked in through the front door swinging his umbrella confidently. The receptionist stood up respectfully and said: "Good morning, Mr Ursall." Robin ignored her. He went to his office and ordered his secretary to prepare his morning coffee and bring it to the conference room. All the executives entered the room together and stood at their seats until the boss walked in. Cassius Dewlove entered like a judge in court from a side door to his own office. As he took his seat, the others followed. The meeting lasted around half and hour. When it ended Robin remained in his seat. The others all departed the chamber as quickly as possible without saying a word. They knew their places and they knew that Robin was special. When they were alone Cassius and Robin smiled knowingly as each other and Robin moved to the seat beside his former teacher. "So, Robin; how did you get on at Peasemore?"
    Despite Dewlove's informality, Robin knew that he was still obliged to present a good report. He opened his briefcase and removed some papers. "Well, Dr Farthing told me his team no longer believes that the creature is from Mars."
    "How do they know that?"
    "It's all to do with its build and body chemistry. They suspect its natural habitat has a stronger gravitational field than Mars, as well as a different atmosphere."
    "Any idea which other planet it comes from?"
    "The team suspect it's one that orbits another star and is not in the solar system."
    "Well." Dewlove looked pensive for a moment. "Any news on the airship?"
    "They still haven't worked out its engine yet."
    "Right, well that's a clincher when it comes to our involvement."
    "Why should we be interested when we will be keeping it from the public?"
    Cassius raised his eyebrows as if disappointed that his young ward didn't already know the answer. "There are organizations and state actors who will pay us for it. What's more when we know how the engine works we will be alerted and can take action should it be invented independently by an earthly man. Such action is essential for the Great Work... And while we're on the subject, we have a major SBS to do. Have you ever been to America, Robin?"
    Robin had shrunk back slightly at his mentor's disapproval so hesitated before replying. "No, Cass."
    "Would you like to?"
    "Yes, very much."
    Cassius grinned and held up a small card folder. "First class ticket on the SS Morocco, departing Southampton for New York City on Tuesday."
    "Great!" Robin smiled back.
    "While you're in the States you can make contact with our affiliates over there. The trip might last a month or so."
"Dinner will be served in twenty minutes, ladies and gentlemen!" The steward banging his gong as he walked up and down the passageway woke Robin up. He sat up in his bed and looked around himself at the first class cabin that had been his home for the last three days. The shadows drifted across the bulkheads and deckhead as the ship rolled. He puffed out his cheeks and swung his feet off the bed. He was fully dressed, having only taken an afternoon nap. The woman stood up from her small chair in the corner. "Can I get you anything, Mr Ursall?" she smiled.
    He shook his head, looking at his lap. He then turned towards her. She was as well-trained as them all, one of two women Dewlove had provided for him during the voyage. She was a negress, but with a different accent from the Caribbean sailors who crowded out the pubs around the London docks. She must have been African. "What's your name?"
    "Kemi." She responded after a pause, clearly surprised at his question.
    Robin felt embarrassed. Cassius had advised him not to ask the women their names or become familiar with them in any way. "Oh." he muttered and got up to leave the cabin. He walked down the oak panelled passageway and out onto the promenade deck. The salty cool wind blasted his hair. It was a fine sunny day. Thin white clouds reeled across the blue sky and the sea hissed as the ship passed through it. The sun sparkled on the briny surface. In the distance the clouds cast Turneresque shadows on the ocean. Many of the other passengers were also topside enjoying the nice weather, playing quoits or laid back on deckchairs reading. Robin leaned over the rail and looked down at the sea. The Atlantic was bright blue with patches of white. The waves rose and fell in the gentle swell. The sight was hypnotic and he began to daydream. His mind dawdled from memory to memory, but settled on one that also involved being on a ship looking down at the sea. He winced and groaned. This was a memory he wished he could forget. Nine years earlier he had been on a ship staring down at the sea on a sunny day just like this one, except that time he had been pressed against the rail by a hundred other bodies, everybody desperately searching the foamy waves for a glimpse of a floating human body.
    It was the last summer before the War. The Greyguides fourth form had been on an action-adventure holiday in central France. They had spent a week boating, fishing, rock-climbing and horse riding and were on their way home across the English Channel. The ship had an indoor lounge area where the alpha boys had set up a temporary territory around a table. Clustered round a nearby table were the envious betas who had a habit of orbiting the alphas in the hope that some of their status would rub off them like a positive virus. For some reason he couldn't recall, Robin had been sitting with those beta boys. The mood was light and cheerful until Gregory Spotley walked in. He approached them all in his characteristic way, with an affable grin on his face. "Hello." he said.
    The response from the alphas and their most sycophantic betas was instantaneous. They were like ants when their nest is broken. Adam Northwood was the worst. "GET OUT!" he bellowed. "Get out of here, you horrid little nancy turd!" He was so angry, his face contorted with rage, his teeth bared, his eyes blazing. The other boys made similar outbursts, slightly tempered by comparison.
    Spotley shrank back, but kept his composure. "Sam?" He was addressing Samuel Corr, one of the few boys who came close what might be called his friend.
    Corr never looked at him. He stared straight ahead, gritting his teeth. Then he said in a venomous tone: "Sod off and die, Spotley."
    Spotley reacted as he always did. His checks blanched slightly and he looked down, and then he turned around and walked out of the room.
    The boys in the lounge made infuriated angry noises. "God, he's so stupid!"... "I wish he just wasn't here!"
    It was literally less than two minutes later. There was a long blast on the ship's whistle that echoed through the hull. The vessel then lurched violently as the rudder was put over. At the same time the engine noise dropped. Robin heard a voice from the deck yelling as loud as possible: "MAN OVERBOARD!... MAN OVERBOARD!... STARBOARD SIDE!" Everybody rushed out on deck and crowded against the rail. The ship had arced around and slowed as the engines were cut. "There!" somebody shouted and pointed. Robin followed his finger and saw a head bobbing in and out of the waves. In the background he heard voices clamouring. Among them he kept hearing the same phrase as the news was passed along to people who hadn't seen what had happened: "Spotley jumped in the sea!" A gang of crewmen were hastily unlocking a davit. As soon as they could, some of them leapt aboard a lifeboat while another lowered it down to the waterline. Robin watched as the sailors rigged out the oars and began rowing as fast as they could. Another crewman up on deck watched the sea with binoculars and shouted directions to them with a loudhailer. Spotley was clearly still alive at this point because as the boat closed on him he deliberately submerged himself. He bobbed up a few seconds later about ten feet away. The boat crew spotted him and rowed towards him again, but he upended and dived again, swimming underwater as far as he could. He appeared again and the boat once again tried to reach him. He disappeared below the surface once more as the boat rowed towards him. This time he did not resurface. Twenty seconds went past, thirty, forty, a minute, two minutes. The passengers and crew on the ship were silent. They scanned the sea below, leaning over as far as they could. Anybody who had binoculars was using them. The boat rowed in circles, its occupants staring at the waves. The reality that there was nothing more they could do rose to awareness slowly among the watchers. After about five minutes with no sign of Spotley the nature of the vigil tacitly changed. Everybody had realized that they were now just going through the motions. It was a heartbreaking moment when the boat crew yelled up for permission to return to the ship. An officer shouted down the affirmative. The passengers left the rail one by one, some of them weeping softly. The Greyguides pupils were struck dumb. They all went back to the lounge, sitting in the same seats they had been sitting in before. Not a word was spoken. Northwood's face was blank. After about half an hour Corr began crying. Nobody tried to stop him. The engines fired up as the ship resumed its voyage.
    The journey only had an hour's duration left. The ship docked at Southampton and the pupils trooped sheep-like to the railway station and boarded the train for Bournemouth. When they entered the school they were summoned to assembly in the great hall. Dr Gluckman, the history master, walked up onto the stage and addressed the subdued pupils. Robin wondered why it wasn't the headmaster. Gluckman struggled to control himself. "We here at Greyguides have suffered an extreme tragedy today. We have to bid our fellow, Gregory Spotley, a deep farewell. Let us take a moment of fervent prayer in memory of him..." After the speech, Gluckman came to their dormitory and spoke to them less formally. "Boys... This is nobody's fault. None of us knew how bad he was. None of us can be blamed for what he did." He walked straight out of the room after speaking. The dormitory remained quiet all evening as the pupils kept themselves in the world of their own thoughts.
    A few days later, Dr Dewlove called Robin to his study. "Robin, how are you?" He was smiling and unruffled, completely normal. "Take a seat... I have some news about Gregory Spotley; thought I'd tell you first as you appear to have been one of the closest to him. His body was found today, washed up on the beach at Sandown, over on the Isle of Wight." Dewlove's tone of voice and facial expression never changed as he delivered this news.
    Robin felt his stomach drop and his head tremble. He never realized it until that moment, but he had been holding on to a forlorn hope that somehow Spotley had survived. Maybe the watchers had simply missed him and when the ship was once more underway he swan to the shore; which was only a couple of miles away, visible above the horizon. "Thank you for letting me know, Dr Dewlove. Has anybody told his parents?"
    Dewlove nodded. "Yes, the police telephoned them."
    There was a long silence. "I just wish..." muttered Robin.
    Robin felt alarmed by Dewlove's tone, even though his one word question had been uttered in its usual soft tenor. "I wish... I had done something, sir. Said something, on the ship, when the others were tormenting him."
    "He suffered in silence. How could you know?"
    "Well..." Robin almost stopped himself. He had never told anybody except the school nurse what he was about to tell Dewlove. "He almost did the same thing a few months ago, sir."
    "What do you mean?"
    Robin thought back to the last winter term. It had been late one Sunday evening, just before lights out. Robin noticed Spotley's absence and went to find him. After scouring the upper floors of the Granville boarding house, He felt a cold draught and instinctively suspected that it was connected to Spotley's disappearance. He followed it to a kitchenette with an open window; then Robin gasped shock. Spotley was standing on the eaves outside the window. This was on the third floor; just a foot in front of him was a sheer forty foot drop onto a gravel tennis court. Robin leaned out. "Greg! What are you doing? Come back inside!"
    Spotley had his face turned downwards. His sandy hair whipped slightly in the cold wind. He turned his face very slightly at the sound of Robin's voice. His sad brown eyes were glinting with tears. "I'm glad it's you who's here, Robin." he said almost inaudibly. "You're one of only a handful who treats me well."
    "Greg, come back inside! Quickly!"
    He shook his head. "No, Robin. I have to die. I have to die because I'm worth nothing. Everybody says so. Everybody treats me like dirt. The thing is... I deserve it."
    "No, Greg! They treat you like that 'cos they're idiots!"
    "They can't all be idiots, Robin. The only conclusion possible is that I am a worthless person, a waste of space, a useless lump of flesh, eating food and breathing air that could be spent on a person worthy of life. This is why I have to die."
    Robin didn't know how he did it. He started reminding his friend about the games they played, the books they both read, the cheerful and funny thing that had happened during the two years they had known each other. Greg smiled and joined in. "So, you see, Greg." concluded Robin. "Your life is very valuable to me. It must be to many others as well. They just don't tell you. They just act silly because they are silly kids. One person is nasty to you and they all jump on the bandwagon." After ten more minutes of this banter, a switch seemed to flick in Greg's head and he suddenly recoiled in fear from his precarious perch. His hands flailed and Robin reached out to grab them. Greg gingerly stepped onto the windowsill and down onto the kitchenette floor and safety. Robin silently thanked whatever angel he had channelled to be able to say exactly the right words to save his friend from suicide. They arrived back at the dormitory with just minutes to spare before lights out. This was not the first time Greg had exhibited worrying behaviour. A few weeks earlier at luncheon he had stabbed the back of his hand with a knife. The other boys on the table gasped: "Spotley, what are you doing!?" yelled one.
    Greg shrugged. "I just wondered what it felt like." Blood dripped onto the tablecloth and they all gave him serviettes to stop the flow.
    Gregory Spotley's life at Greyguides was an endless journey from one scene of abuse to the next. He was, without exception, the most inoffensive and gentle person in the school, yet he experienced more hostility and violence than anybody else. Every day, as the morning bell rang one of the alphas would push him off his feet while they were walking to the showers. The others would all laugh. In the dinner queue somebody would twist his nipples or stamp on his toes. In class, his workbooks would go missing or be defaced with obscene words and drawings. Greg never objected. He would moan with pain, rub his bruises and just carry on. Once, while lying on the floor with his nose bleeding from a punch, he asked his worst tormentor, Northwood, "Why are you treating me like this?" Northwood stood over him with a contemptuous sneer and replied: "Because you're krunno, Spotley." Robin didn't know what krunno meant, but he guessed it was a general insult used only by the fourth form alpha community. Spotley wasn't mentally handicapped in any way. He was of average height and build. He was actually quite intelligent; but he was just very very nice. He was kind and polite to everybody. He spoke to everybody as if they were his friends, even when they were beating and humiliating him. He appeared not to be bothered, but Robin knew that he really was bothered. It was only because Robin and Greg knew each other better than most that Robin could pick up the subtle suppressed grimace of agony on Greg's face that he gave every time somebody maltreated him. As the terms passed this harassment got worse as more and more boys learned about his passivity. Some new pupils would sense within minutes of meeting him that he was such a pushover and would join in with the culture of torment that followed him around for all his school days. Robin sometimes challenged Greg. "Why don't you stand up to them?" Greg just shrugged. "Greg, have you thought about telling one of the Lymps, or a master?" Another shrug. Robin realized as he spoke that sharing his troubles with an authority figure at the school would probably get Greg nowhere. There was not only a tradition at Greyguides that "you never tell tales!" Pupil welfare was generally of very low priority. Robin once asked one of the alphas why they picked on Greg so much. The boy scoffed and gave the defiant answer: "It's his fault; he lets us do it." This was an ethical equation that everybody in the school was very familiar with and accepted. Robin noticed that after the incident on the roof, although he had reported it to the school nurse the following day, Dr Dewlove knew nothing about it; which meant she had not passed on his concerns to the teachers. Robin told Will, knowing that his older brother loathed bullies and believed people like Greg Spotley should be protected; but there was a limit to what Will could do being a senior boy. Greyguides was a very age segregated society and boys from different forms rarely mixed. Gregory Spotley burned up internally, hiding his trauma from the world, like a building on fire when its inside structure is collapsing, but its outer walls remain steadfastly standing; that is until, as the fire continues raging, they also eventually crumbled and the thirteen year old boy jumped to his death from the deck of a cross-Channel ferry.
    Robin felt tears in his eyes. He wiped them away as his reverie broke. He realized that Dr Dewlove had been talking to him. "...his parents of course want answers. Robin. We hoped that you might be able to help us provide them."
    "I doubt if I could tell you anything you don't already know, sir. Everybody knows Spotley was the school punchbag. I wish somebody had helped him."
    Dewlove paused. "Robin, I'm going to share something with you now, something I'd like us to keep private between us for now... Spotley's death may well be a blessing in disguise."
    Robin looked up and glared at him. "What did you say?"
    "Have you ever heard the catchphrase 'a chain is only as strong as its weakest link'? Well our chain here at Greyguides has lost its weakest link. Perhaps the society we have here, in which boys like Spotley are ostracized, is the ideal one. It acts as a filter to expunge the ineffectual and useless."
    Robin's disbelief turned to rage. He stamped hard down on his temper. "May I return to class now, sir?"
    "Yes... And could you ask Northwood to come and see me next?"
    Since Spotley's suicide, Adam Northwood had been a walking statue. His face was a waxwork and he rarely spoke. If he felt any remorse for his significant role in Greg's breakdown he didn't express it, but at the same time it was clear that he had been affected considerably as a result. When Robin passed on Dewlove's instructions he stood up and went to the master's study without a word. He emerged twenty minutes later transformed. He held his head high and had a grin on his face. He looked as if the emotional weight he had been carrying had vanished. Curious faces met him as he entered the common room. "Adam, what did he say?" one of the other boys asked.
    Northwood breathed a deep sigh of relief. "He told me... I had done the right thing."
    A loud voice finally broke though Robin's daydream. "Sir! Would you like to come to dinner today?"
   Robin jerked his head upright. He had become dizzy staring at the ocean water. He swung round to see the steward standing beside him. His white tunic with the words SS Morocco embroidered on it came into focus. "Er... yes."
    "Then we're serving first class passengers in the aft salon now."
    "Right. I'm coming." Robin shook his head as he walked down the promenade deck. His double flashback was still reverberating in his mind. It had taken him almost all these last nine years to realize that Dewlove was right. He recalled the words his mentor had uttered during one of their private meetings just a few weeks ago, words that filled him with pain; pain because he hated them, but he knew they were the truth: There is no good or bad, Robin. No right or wrong. Morality is an illusion... nay, a hoax. It's a trick invented by the weak to oppress the strong. Spotley deserved to die. He saved somebody else the bother of doing the world a service and murdering him.
SS Morocco docked at New York City early on a Wednesday morning. Like most of the passengers, Robin got up to watch the arrival. He stood on the forward deck among the crowd. They were oohing and ahhing as the skyscrapers and Statue of Liberty became visible above the dawn mist. Robin was impressed, but remained composed. For many of these passengers, this was the voyage of a lifetime; in some cases literally because they were immigrants. For Robin, travelling the world should be routine and Cassius always instilled in him the need to make gestures in front of others to display his superiority. The ship came alongside in the shadows of midtown Manhattan and the first class passengers were allowed to disembark as soon as the gangway was attached. A chauffeur was standing beside a shiny Daimler and greeted him, obviously having been sent specially, however Robin declined his ride; after eight days at sea he needed exercise and preferred to walk to his hotel. The concrete canyons of New York City kept making him look upwards at the skyscrapers, far bigger than any other building he'd seen. A thousand windows stared down at him. It had been Mayday the previous day and the broken decorations of a street party lay in the gutters. Horses, buses and cars roared past, sounding their horns to make an ambient noise louder than that of London. He had become accustomed to American accents on board the ship, but was surprised how New Yorkers all seemed to speak so loudly; almost every word was shouted. He had a reservation at the St Regis, one of New York's finest hotels. His suite was one of the best in the hotel and came with its own attendants, including another woman; arranged by Cassius of course. He went to the hotel's own post office and wrote a telegram to his mentor: ARRIVED STOP READY TO BEGIN STOP ROBIN. He sent it by the priority wireless service, which was expensive; however for Robin Ursall, nothing was really expensive. He received a reply just an hour later. It was brought up to his room by a porter, in a scented envelope on a silver tray. EXCELLENT STOP MEET WITH JDR AT THREE PM STOP CASSIUS.
    The same chauffeur in the same Daimler arrived at the St Regis promptly at two PM and sat in silence as he drove northwards through the boulevards of New York City. Robin reclined on the velvet back seat; a tray of finest chocolate truffles had been placed on the side table, wrapped in a silk bow. The grey of the city gradually thinned out and was replaced by the woods and fields of upstate New York which looked no different to the landscape of England. The Rockefeller estate was about an hour's drive away just outside a town with the strange name of Sleepy Hollow. The sky was dark and cloudy, threatening rain. The road ran along beside a stone wall draped in ivy until it turned off through a gate. In the distance Robin could hear a solitary church bell ringing over and over in regular intervals. The car passed along a smoothly paved drive to a magnificent cuboid mansion with ivy coursing down its walls like a lime waterfall. Penguin suited butlers approached the car like tugboats around a ship and accompanied Robin as he mounted the steps to the entrance archway. He was escorted to a drawing room where he was served with coffee. After ten minutes a set of double doors swung wide and in walked John D Rockefeller. "Mr Ursall." he did not look directly at Robin straight away and shifted uncomfortably with one hand in his pocket.
    "Mr Rockefeller. It's an honour." He held out his hand.
    Rockefeller finally looked at him. "Thank you for coming, Mr Ursall. How is Mr Dewlove?" He had quite a high and feeble voice with a slight German accent.
    "Very well, sir. He's sorry he couldn't come himself."
    "Did you have a pleasant journey?"
    "Very, sir. The ship was comfortable and the weather very calm."
    "Let us get down to business." He gestured to a nearby desk and the two men sat opposite each other. Rockefeller glanced over his shoulder at the staff. This was the only instruction they needed and they exited the room immediately, shutting the doors and leaving their master and his guest alone. The billionaire had a long thin face with a slightly sunken mouth, as if he had no teeth; however he spoke normally, indicating he had a full set. His eyes were brown and beady, sparkling with intelligence. His grey hair was well combed, but looked strangely detached from his scalp, as if it were a toupee. "We have an individual in New Jersey who appears to be entering into the same line of business as the erstwhile Mr Tesla."
    Robin frowned at the name. He had heard it somewhere before, but he couldn't remember where.
    Rockefeller gave Robin his instructions and then leaned back with a sigh. "I'm a generous man, Mr Ursall. I have provided almost unlimited funds to medical research, education and spiritual nourishment. However I must take care of myself if I am to help others, I'm sure you understand."
    Robin nodded.
    "Nobody benefits if the oil and coal industries are destroyed. Sometimes to be kind one must be cruel; one is faced with dilemmas continuously, difficult decisions. I have considered all the options, including moral ones, before taking this action." He smiled benevolently.
    Robin sensed that Rockefeller was trying to persuade him ideologically. There was no need of course. The two men ate a light dinner together and made small talk. Rockefeller asked: "Later in the month I'm going hunting in California with some friends. Would you like to join us, Mr Ursall? The great outdoors! It's an American tradition."
    "Yes, thank you, Mr Rockefeller. I'd enjoy that." Robin then said goodbye to his host and returned to New York City.
    Back in his suite in St Regis, Robin read through a list of intelligence and instructions that Cassius had given him in a locked briefcase that had been lying at the bottom of his trunk since he'd left England. The following morning he made some telephone calls and then travelled first class to Trenton, New Jersey. Another Daimler avec chauffeur drove him to a hotel where he had a large room overlooking the river Delaware. He then made final preparations for his "SBS". This was a nickname Robin and Cassius had invented for this kind of job one evening after a drunken dinner at a London club. It stood for "scare the bugger senseless." Robin had done three SBS' back in Britain; this was his first abroad. He dressed in a dark suit; "makes you look more intimidating", said Cassius. He picked up his briefcase, double-checking he had all the necessary paperwork, and left the hotel in the Daimler. His destination was in a small town about half an hour outside Trenton. The chauffeur nudged the car slowly along a dark lane punctuated by small houses built of wooden planks in a typical American way. He parked. Robin decamped and approached the front door. The word welcome was spelled out on it in brass strips nailed to the wood. He pulled a chain and heard bells tinkle inside the building. The door creaked open and the frowning face of a woman appeared. Her messy ginger hair stood up as if statically charged. "Mrs Fraser?"
    She nodded.
    "My name is Robin Ursall..."
    "You here for my husband?" she interrupted. A pair of children appeared from behind her skirt, gazing up at Robin curiously with little black eyes.
    "He's out the back. Go through the gate over there." She pointed and then slammed the door.
    Robin trudged along a rather muddy gravel path through the back garden towards a large shed with tiny windows inside of which came a flickering light and a strange rattling noise. He knocked on the door. It was opened immediately by a short rotund man with black curly hair. His face was split by an enthusiastic smile. "Mr Ursall? Joseph Fraser."
    "Yes, Mr Fraser. We spoke on the 'phone." Robin shook his hand.
    "Thank you so much for coming." He had a soft Irish accent. "Do come in!" He beckoned vigorously. The interior of the shed was a mess of mechanical equipment and tools. "Here she is!" He pointed proudly to a structure that dominated the centre of the room. "I've been working on her for three years."
    Robin feigned interest, like he had during his long telephone calls with Fraser. "Now, show me how this... what did you call it?"
    "The Magnotorque Loop."
    "That's it. Show me how it works."
    Over the next fifteen minutes Fraser detailed the workings of the extraordinary device he had designed. "This rotating section is a twenty-five inch disk of chromium steel alloy. It is driven by these electromagnets, see." he pointed. "The hub shaft drives a dynamo that powers this secondary dynamo along these wires, see... That then induces a four ampere current in these wires that I've meshed around these quartz electrodes. As you can see, I've cut a groove in the three quartz pieces through which runs the rim of the metal disk." He grinned theatrically. "This is the clever bit. You might argue that this power circuit has to be fed by the battery over here... But look." He held up a disconnected terminal clip. "You may not have noticed, but I've disconnected it from the battery. I've had it running isolated for four hours, since you called earlier."
    Robin pretended to gasp in delight. "But... but then what does power it?"
    "Itself... The energy is fed back from each module to the next until it circulates in a closed loop."
    "And it maintains its power level?"
    "Yes. Indefinitely."
    "How is that possible?
    Fraser chucked. "That's the million dollar question."
    "Perhaps literally." Robin quipped and was pleased to see his host's eyes light up.
    "It must be some unknown property of the quartz, Mr Ursall. I'm not sure how; it's perfectly ordinary quartz that I got from a quarry up in Allentown. I didn't have to buy it; it was on the spoil tip. It seems somehow to combine with the rotation of the disk to release more power to the system than I use to charge it from the outside dynamo... I know; that's supposed to be impossible."
    "Where did you get the idea for this?"
    "I'm part of a... community... We write to each other, keep ourselves abreast of breakthroughs in this field." He appeared evasive about the question.
    Robin considered pressing him, but then changed his mind. Fraser's network could be dealt with at a later date. Right now his priority was to lock down this one particular unit. "Right, I see..." He paused.
    Fraser nervously broke the silence. "So, er... Would Dewlove Associates be interested in the Magnotorque Loop?"
    Robin gave him a half smile. "I understand you've applied for a patent?"
    "Of course."
    "Would you be willing to cancel your application?"
    Fraser took a step back. "No... Why?"
    "If you didn't it could make things... unpleasing to my organization."
    "I don't see why. I thought you had come here to talk about development rights."
    "Of course, of course!" Robin exclaimed in a reassuring tone, as if humouring a child. "In fact I have brought the contract with me." He opened his briefcase and handed Fraser a folder. He also passed over a fountain pen. "Maybe we could close the deal now."
    Fraser's eyes glazed as he read through the opening page. "Four hundred and fifty thousand dollars!?"
    "Tax free!... I'm sure you could do a lot with that money, Mr Fraser."
    "Not half!" He glanced at the shed wall facing his house. "My missus... She's fed up with all this. She says she and the kids never see me. Every day for the last three years I've been in here, from when I finish work till bedtime. Weekends, holidays. I've given up so much for this thing." He gestured at his invention as if angry with it. "Yesterday, she threatened to move to her mom's with the kids... My job is over now, Mr Ursall. I just want it to be mass produced. I want to see a Magnotorque Loop in every power station on earth... Do you realize what this means, Mr Ursall?" He waved his hands passionately. "It means energy! Energy for everybody! Energy that is costless, safe and lasts forever. No more need for oil and coal! No more bills! No more squalor! No more depressions! No more famine! No more drought! My machine could revolutionize the world! Everybody could live like kings!... It would be Mr Tesla's dream come true."
    Robin once again felt his mind jerk at the mention of that name. "So will you sign?"
    Fraser opened the folder wide and held it up like a barrier so it almost hid his face. "Let me read through this carefully now, Mr Ursall. I'll 'phone you tomorrow."
    "I strongly urge you to accept our conditions, Mr Fraser." smiled Robin. "Good day." He walked back to the car.
    The following morning he received a telephone call at his hotel from Joseph Fraser. "Hello, Mr Ursall. Hope I haven't called too early. I've had a read through this entire document and... well, I have a few problems with it. Firstly, me forsaking the patent; like I said yesterday. Also, I object to this bit: I have to hand over the prototype and all design papers. No, Mr Ursall. I built that prototype with my own two hands over three years! I've sacrificed so much for it. It has historical value and it stays with me. And what's this, a 'non-disclosure agreement'? Does this mean I can't even tell anybody about my work? Why, for goodness sake?..." He rambled on for a few more minutes.
    Robin had anticipated this response and had his own riposte loaded in the chamber long before Fraser had finished ranting. "Unfortunately those elements are not negotiable, Mr Fraser. What I am authorized to do is increase our offer from four hundred and fifty to five hundred and seventy thousand dollars. How does that sound?"
    "Everything is negotiable, Mr Ursall. The answer is still no until we adjust the deal. Please reconsider or I'll have to take my business elsewhere. Get back to me soon." He hung up.
    Robin stared at the dead receiver in his hand for a few moments. "Right." he said to himself. "We'll have to go to plan B."
    That afternoon he had a meeting with two members of his team, Jennings and Carpenter, in his room. The former was an engineer with a huge moustache who always wore a black porkpie hat. The latter was a private investigator who had given up a lucrative New York practice to work for the seedier side of the Rockefeller empire. He was a chain-smoker who always wore a grey raincoat and a trilby hat. Robin opened the conversation: "So, Mr Carpenter; what dirt can you dig up on Fraser?"
    "Well, he works at a school, as a caretaker."
    "Any dalliances with the female pupils?"
    "I'm afraid not, but I did catch him chatting outside with one of the teachers' aides yesterday. Their body language was... overly informal."
    "Follow them and see if they go anywhere together... Jennings?"
    The engineer cleared his throat. "Well, we could stage a burglary, possibly a fire that burns down his workshop."
    "With him inside?"
    Jennings tittered. "Let's not ahead of ourselves."
    After the meeting Robin drafted an encrypted wire to Cassius giving him a brief update. When he was finished, he summoned room service to take the draft and send it; then he sat back and sighed. It was not often an SBS progressed to this level; the name was in fact ironic. None that Robin had been involved with before ever went further than the first stage. The inventors all signed up and took the money straight away. Most people are motivated by greed; Robin and Cassius were no worse than anybody else.
    The following day Carpenter called demanding to meet Robin urgently. "We've got him, Mr Ursall! Look!" The private eye showed him a series of photographs. They were taken through a window of a restaurant from some distance away and showed two people, a man and a woman, sitting at a table leaning close to each other and smiling. Despite the range, the man was easily identifiable as Joseph Fraser and the woman was obviously not his wife. Robin grinned. "Who took these?"
    "I did. I tailed them to Bordentown. It's an out-of-the-way kind of place; unlikely anybody from back home will see them."
    "Who is she?"
    "According to the restaurant staff her name is Joan. The two of them are regulars, dining there about three times a month. After that they went to a hotel and I caught them leaving about three PM, look." He showed Robin a photo of the clandestine couple both entering and leaving the hotel. "The hotel manager told me they regularly book a room in the afternoon, again about three times a month."
    Robin chuckled. "I think it's time we paid Mr Fraser another visit."
    The inventor's fat face flushed and his eyes widened. "What the...!?" He began tearing the photographs frantically, pulling them to shreds and stamping on them as they fell to the floor of his workshop.
    "Don't bother, Mr Fraser." Robin told him coolly. "We have the negatives and we've already made numerous prints. Say, one set for your wife, another for your church, a third for your employers at the school and maybe a fourth set for the local newspaper."
    Fraser glared at Robin and his companions. This time Robin had turned up with Jennings and three of his rather roguish assistants. "This is blackmail!" he hissed.
    Robin raised his eyebrows. "I prefer the term 'robust persuasion'."
    "What do you want?"
    "I told you what we want. Sign the contract. Accept our more than generous offer." Robin held out a pen.
    Fraser trembled and wiped his face with a sweaty hand, and then he reached out and took it. His hands were shaking so much that he had trouble signing.
    Robin gave one of his perfected smiles of satisfaction. "Well done, Mr Fraser. You know it makes sense." He handed the inventor an envelope containing a cheque.
    Fraser's mouth quivered and tears dripped from his eyelids as Jennings' team got to work on the Magnotorque Loop. Their skilled hands whipped out screwdrivers and other tools and they dismantled the prototype piece by piece. The metallic disk was cut into quarters with a hacksaw. They stuffed the components into cardboard boxes. They then pulled out every drawer and opened every cabinet in the shed, and shoved the paperwork into bags.
    Robin watched the inventor with amusement. "I must say, Mr Fraser. For a rich man you don't look very happy."
    "What happens now?" he choked.
    "Dewlove Associates will pass this material on to our scientific office in Britain and begin a process of development and marketing."
    "Where do I fit into all this? After all I did create MTL."
    Robin paused. "We'll be in touch."
    It was getting dark as Robin and his colleagues walked back down the gravel path to the garden gate, each of them with a box or bag in their hand. They had just reached the open road when they heard a voice from behind them. "Wait!" They looked round to see Fraser running after them. "My God!" puffed the inventor. "I've just worked it all out; why didn't I earlier!? Your people have no intension of developing the MTL at all... do you!?" He pointed an accusing finger. "You're just going to make it disappear! The world could benefit so much from my machine... but they will never see it! This has happened to other people in my community! This is to preserve the oil companies isn't it; and the mines!?"
    Robin walked back and stood face to face with Fraser. "Be still, Mr Fraser! The matter is now out of your hands. Just keep your mouth shut and spend the money!"
    Fraser recoiled in rage. "I'll expose you! I'll find a way to put a stop this!... Just you wait!" He stormed back to his workshop.
    The men watched him go and then turned to Robin, their eyes demanding answers and leadership. "Looks like he's not going to play ball. What now, Mr Ursall?" Jennings asked.  
    "There's nothing he can do. We have his signature..."
    "He can kick up a row; mobilize that community of his."
    "He won't risk us sending the photographs."
    Jennings paused. "Maybe he doesn't need to. Sure we've got the prototype and all his blueprints, but the real data is in his head. He could build a new machine, sign up with somebody else."
    "Nah, it took him three years last time."
    "But that was while he was inventing it. He knows how to do it now. I reckon he could build a new prototype in less than a month."
    "Well there's nothing we can do about that." replied Robin in an irritated tone. "As you said, it's all in his head."
    Jennings breathed deeply, his face hidden by the growing darkness. "Well... there is one thing we can do."
    "Do we have your permission to achieve our objective?"
    There was a tone to Jennings' voice that chilled Robin. "Yes, of course."
    Jennings snapped his fingers at the other men. They dropped their loads and strode back into the garden towards Fraser's workshop. Robin gasped when they returned with the inventor clasped in their hands by the wrists and shoulders. "What are you doing!?" Fraser protested. "Let me go!... Marian!"
    A woman's voice called from the house: "What's going on? Joe! Where are you going?"
    "We're taking him for a walk, Mrs Fraser." replied Jennings. "Go back inside now please." Jennings' team frogmarched Fraser to their car and forced him down into the back seat. Robin was driving his own car this time and as they pulled away he followed them. They headed along a set of dark twisting roads downhill towards the river Delaware. Jennings' car seemed to be deliberately avoiding the main roads. Robin tucked in close behind, the other car's red taillights dazzling him in the descending darkness. They pulled up beside a small beach. A boat was sitting on the sand as if somebody had placed it there deliberately for a purpose, or a possible purpose. When the car engines both cut, Robin could hear the quiet swish of the water and the gentle chatter of sleepy waterfowl. The moon left a buttery path of silver across the calm waters of the river. Joseph Fraser's voice burst through the peaceful atmosphere. "I won't stand for this, I tell you! I'm calling the PD as soon as I'm home! You bloody punks, let me go now!"
    Jennings and his gang propelled him away from the cars towards a clump of bushes. Just before they vanished behind them, Robin noticed that the moonlight glinted off something in one of their hands. It was a pistol. Fraser must have spotted it just after because immediately he let out a terrified wail. This ended abruptly with a gunshot. The report echoed up and down the river valley, warping and reverberating off the landscape. A huge flock of ducks took to the air flapping their wings and quacking. Robin was frozen to the spot, trembling. His hand was resting on the car radiator. Normally the heat would have been painful, but his whole skin was numb. A few minutes later the men emerged carrying a black sack. They struggled under its weight; obviously it contained a dead body. "We need to put a few rocks in with him to make sure he sinks." ordered Jennings. "Hurry up before somebody comes along!" The men manoeuvred the body into the boat and three of them pushed it into the water. Robin listened to the rhythmic slosh of the oars growing quieter and quieter and the boat receded into the middle of the river. Then they stopped and a few seconds later there was a louder transient splash; then the oars began again and the boat returned with only the three men in it. Jennings face was invisible in the gloom, but his eyes and teeth glinted. "Well, mission accomplished, Mr Ursall. Thank you for your assistance."
    Back at the hotel in Trenton, Robin couldn't sleep. He sat on the side of the bed with confusing thoughts running through his head. His mind kept returning to the first time he had visited Joseph Fraser. He kept seeing the faces of Fraser's wife and two children, peeking round their front door looking at him.
    He was woken the following mourning by a pain in his right hand. He had sustained a minor burn where he had touched the car radiator. His temporary numbness caused it; he wouldn't normally have been burned because the radiator had not been that hot. His skin was blistering slightly. He washed it in cold water and asked reception for a first aid kit. As he was drafting another telegram to Cassius one arrived from him. Outwardly it was just a series of numbers, which was their private cipher. Robin took out his codebook and decrypted the message: JUST HEARD NEWS ABOUT SBS STOP GOOD WORK STOP SENT YOU LETTER STOP RELAX TILL THEN STOP CASSIUS. Robin shrugged to himself. A letter from the UK would take several weeks to reach him; until then the idea of some rest and recuperation was very appealing.
The train was the most luxurious Robin had ever been on. Even his private caboose back in Britain was no comparison. It was drawn by a huge behemoth of a locomotive; a wood burner with a gigantic chimney and a cowcatcher on the front. Each of the passengers, who were all male, had his own private compartment and servant. They were a surprisingly taciturn bunch, mostly much older than Robin. They sat in the lounge area, socially distancing, sipping sherry, reading and puffing on pipes. The windows of the communal coach were very large, seemly designed to allow the passengers to enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the United States of America, for this train was heading westwards. It passed across prairies, deserts and mountain ranges. It was a charter service that made very few stops and passengers only got on, not off; this indicated they were all going to the same destination. Robin was curious, pleased that he had accepted John D Rockefeller's invitation. The man himself was not on the train; presumably he was travelling a different way, maybe in one of his private aeroplanes. The journey took four days. Whenever the train stopped it took on water and logs for fuel. It also replenished its supply of the finest food and drink, and also daily newspapers. Robin was sitting contentedly in the lounge coach on the final morning of the land voyage. The mountains of northern California cruised by outside and he was casually scanning the current New York Tribune. As always, when he'd been through the news and interest pages he glanced at the classified ads. He almost laughed out loud when he saw a familiar sight: Every race starts with a bang. Have you heard one? WYAGIGA Signum. He turned to the man sitting next to him, somebody who had never introduced himself, but was comparatively chatty. "Have you seen this?"
    "What?" He put on his spectacles.
    "A Signum ad. I don't believe it! Have they actually found their way over here?"
    The man snorted gruffly. "Dunno. Never seen it before."
    "They're a bit of a curiosity in Britain. We've had them for years. I wonder who is doing them in the United States."
    "Dunno." the man repeated and took off his spectacles.
    The train terminated at a place called Santa Rosa. There was a welcoming committee on the platform consisting of suited officials, folk musicians and attractive Amerindian dancing girls, past which the travellers were escorted within seconds. A convoy of horse-drawn coaches was parked in the railway station forecourt. These carried them on the final stage of their journey. The parade of coaches left the town and traversed some narrow roads into a dense redwood forest. Eventually they pulled into a long straight road that ended in a clearing beside a smooth clean lake. Robin followed the other travellers, all of whom seemed to know what they were doing and where they were, as if they had been here before many times. He tried to mimic them, not wishing to stand out. Yet he could not withhold a gasp of surprise when he saw the object ahead of them near the lakeshore. It was a huge stone sculpture, forty or fifty feet tall, set on a plinth that had been made from the stump of a mature giant redwood tree. Its form was slightly crude and childlike, but to Robin it looked like an owl. There was no time to examine it in more detail because the party was being directed into a nearby log cabin where they all changed their clothes. At this point the atmosphere of the group suddenly and radically changed. The shyness and formality they had exhibited on the journey evaporated instantly and they began chatting and laughing. There was also no privacy here. They stripped off in one large communal locker-room. There were servants in uniform there, also all male, but their manner was also different. They weren't the stiff human automata Robin was used to. They also talked cheerfully and in an animated way amongst themselves and also, unbelievably, with their masters. The gentlemen returned their conviviality, almost as if they had all become equals. Robin knew this was against all of Cassius' training, but he thought 'when in Rome'. Their new clothing consisted of rugged outdoor trousers and jackets, heavy duty hiking boots and fur hats. The servant who helped him dress told him: "Wrap up warm, sir. It may be spring now, but it can still get mighty cold up there in the hills."
    "Thank you." replied Robin with a grin.
    "Have a good time out there, sir." he smiled back. "Wire geega!"
    Robin frowned. "I beg your pardon."
    "I said wire geega... Sorry, sir; I was kinda thinking aloud. I'm a bit of a Signum freak. Are you familiar with Signum?
    "Well, I know about it; but what is 'wire geega'?"
    "It's his motto, sir. At least that's how I think it's pronounced. WYAGIGA."
    "Oh, I see. What does it mean though?"
    The man chuckled. "Nobody knows... Sir, can I share something with you? I'm so fascinated by Signum that I make a list all his drops. Look." He took a notebook out of his pocket and opened it. Inside were his handwritten copies of every Signum ad he came across in the press.
    Robin studied the pages. "Do you have any idea who Signum is and what he wants? What do his entries mean?"
    The man shrugged broadly like a Frenchman. "Now, sir; if I had a cent for every time somebody asked that I'd be as rich as you!"
    Robin chuckled.
    "Enjoy yourself, sir."
    "Thank you."
    When they left the log cabin they were issued with weapons. Robin's was a Lee Enfield rifle not unlike the military ones he had used in the LPDF, although these were adapted for game hunting. They used similar ammunition though, centrefire .303 cartridges. Robin felt his spirits rise as the hunting party left the clearing and headed out into the woods. The leader of the group was a man of about eighty with a long white beard, but he issued his instructions with the assurance of a colonel. All these men were fit and strong, despite their advanced years.
    Robin had never been hunting before so he treated the experience as an infantry exercise and hoped the skills involved were similar. They were after moose and deer, with which these woods were apparently abundant. In the distance he heard shots ring out and excited shouts. "They got one!" The man next to him said excitedly. The men communicated over long distances by blowing on brass whistles, similar to those used by British policemen; different patterns of blasts meaning something different. Every so often there would be gunfire and shouting. The three men stalking beside Robin would respond by blowing their own whistles. Robin did not have a whistle; not knowing the musical language of the hunters, he would merely make a fool of himself if he tried. The trees grew close together and their trunks were thick. Their branches blended above their heads into an opaque canopy, giving him the sense of being in a verdant tunnel. Suddenly a series of long whistle blasts echoed through the woods. They were copied by other groups, including Robin's. "What does that mean?" he asked.
    "We've got to close on the original blower." one of his companions explained. "Something's happened." He looked concerned, as if it meant somebody had had an accident. However, when they got closer and met up with other groups their manner was one of thrill and surprise. "What happened?" the companion asked.
    One of the newcomers replied: "Tony's block got themselves a fuzzy-wuzzy!"
    The companion whooped with elation. "Wow! Unbelievable! My God, those are a rare catch."
    Robin wondered what a 'fuzzy-wuzzy' was. Maybe it was a rare species of deer. As they got closer to the scene of the kill the crowd got denser as the entire hunting party converged on the one spot; about a hundred men altogether, all talking excitedly. The catch was lying completely still on a patch of crushed bracken. It was clearly dead and covered with blood. Several gunshot wounds on its body still oozed. However, it was not a deer of any kind. It looked to Robin like some kind of ape, a little like those he had seen in London Zoo. It was distinct in several ways though; in particular the shape of its body which was almost the same as a human being. It was smaller than a man, more like a short woman or a young boy. It was covered completely in soft brown fur. "It's a juvenile." one of the men said. "Never seen a young one before." said another.
    Robin had a strange feeling he had seen something rather like this before. He ransacked his memory for a few seconds and then it came to him. Dirk Walsander had taken him to see the creature he called "Jeroen" which lived in the woods near Annesley Hall way back in 1918. The catch looked like this beast, although Jeroen was slightly bigger. Robin pushed to the front of the group to get a better look. He could now see the being's face. It was somewhat simian, but flatter, more human in some ways. Its eyes were closed peacefully as if it were asleep.
    "Watch out!" yelled another hunter. The men all jerked backwards in alarm as a large stone missile flew over their heads. Another followed. "It's the others!... Run!" Rock after rock was hurled at them from an unseen spot behind trees and bushes one or two hundred yards away. The men put their hands over their heads. One hunter was struck on the shoulder and yelped with pain. The power with which the rocks were thrown was astonishing, as if they had come from a catapult. Eventually the hunters were safely out of range. A sound came from the direction of the ceramic broadside; it was unlike anything Robin had ever heard before. They were voices, a combination of the baying of a beast in pain and a human choir singing a lament. "Let them have it!" shouted the white bearded leader. Immediately every hunter except Robin turned their weapon in the direction of the voices and opened fire. Their hands moved like pistons as they pulled triggers, pushed bolts and reloaded magazines. After about a minute the fusillade ended. There was silence in the forest. "Alright, I think they're gone." said the leader. "Move forward."
    "Did we get any more of 'em?" another man asked. They had. Along with the original corpse they found a second fuzzy-wuzzy, a larger one who would have stood about seven feet tall. This one had external mammary glands on its chest, like a human woman, and Robin concluded that it was female. He had never heard of any other primate apart from Homo sapiens which had feminine breasts.
    Moving the large fuzzy-wuzzy body was difficult. None of the slings and poles they had brought along to carry the deer were big enough. They adapted a moose sling by reinforcing it with a tent groundsheet and some strong tree branches. It took four men to carry the dead female. The hunt was now over and they made their way to a rendezvous in a clearing beside a broad river. There they found several hundred more men. There had clearly been other hunting parties in other areas of the wood. Among them was John D Rockefeller. He greeted Robin warmly. "Hello, Mr Ursall. Glad you decided to come along."
    "It's been a pleasure, Mr Rockefeller." Robin replied, but he found it difficult to speak. His voice was strangely weak and hoarse. The sun began to set and the hunters sat around on patches of grass swigging beer from numerous bottles. Two marquees had been pitched on the riverbank and inside were tables and chairs. The smell of cooking came from a third tent and people dressed as chefs kept coming in and out of it, collecting cans of supplies from a set of boxes. A fire pit had been dug and lined with rocks. It was being stoked by more chefs. The logistics of this giant picnic had been planned very well. The scent of hot meat wafted from the fire pit as the deer carcasses they had shot during the day were roasting. Robin was hungry and his mouth watered copiously in response to the smell. He still felt uncomfortable. For some reason the sound of the fuzzy-wuzzies crying wouldn't leave his mind. It kept circulating around his thoughts like an irritating piece of music he had heard, but didn't like. He realized that the creatures were crying because they were sad. Like humans at a funeral, they were grieving for the dead youngster, the juvenile fuzzy-wuzzy the hunters had killed. The ambiance of the campsite was lovely in the darkness when night fell. Crickets clicked in the background. Owls hooted from the trees and geese honked from the river. The glow from the fire pit illuminated everybody's face with an orange haze. Shadows were deep. When the men lifted beer bottles to their lips sometimes it looked as if the bottles were hovering below the lips of the drinker because their arm was not visible. Mosquitoes whined around Robin's head and all men slapped their cheeks repeatedly until the noise of it sounded like an avant garde percussion band. They all retired to the marquees and the banquet began. The interior of the tents was lit by a row of oil lamps preserving the outdoor feel of the occasion. Waiters doled out glasses of wine and Robin sipped his cautiously. He had become rather tipsy from all the beer and worried how it would mix with the wine. He was still ravenously hungry and polished off the starter as soon as it was served. The other men were laughing and singing raucously and Robin's ears felt sensitive to it. The arrival of the main course was somewhat theatrical, as if they were sitting in a top Parisian restaurant instead of a big tent in the middle of a forest in California USA. A chef entered and struck too saucepan lids together like a pair of cymbals and the waiters carried in the main course on giant platters as if they were pallbearers at a funeral. The deer were filleted and skinned and their greasy bodies sat on the dishes amidst a sculptured mound of carefully arranged vegetables, as if the dish was an ornamental garden. Two more deer dishes followed and then a pair of larger ones that made Robin stand up in shock. The meat portions being served were shaped like human beings. He wondered if the alcohol he had downed over the last few hours was making him hallucinate. Then he realized what should have been obvious; they were the fuzzy-wuzzies. He could see one was small and one was large. The platters were placed in the middle of the tables and the waiters began carving slices off the cooked fuzzy-wuzzy bodies as if they were a Sunday roast. The men all cheered.
    Robin dashed from the marquee. He didn't look to see if any of the others were watching him. Outside in the fresh air he dashed to the riverside and threw up violently into the water.
    The train back east was waiting at the station the following afternoon. Robin had spent an uneasy night sleeping in a hammock in a wooden hut in the grove next to the giant stone owl statue. When he boarded the train one of the crew handed him a letter. It was from Cassius Dewlove. The envelope had a London postmark and several address labels as it had been forwarded to several locations before reaching him; which nostalgically reminded him of Wilfred's letters home from Russia.
    Dear Robin. I hope my letter finds you well and you are enjoying your time in the United States. I once again must congratulate you heartily on your action in New Jersey. Joseph Fraser was a major threat that had to be eliminated. Of all the SBS' you have done, this was your finest. You have proven yourself a worthy ally in the creation of the Great Work of the Ages. For this reason I have decided you are ready to move forward to the next step. The details of this cannot be written down right now and I will have to fill you in when I next see you. I know you will be confused and are probably demanding to know "what next step?" I assure you, all this will be explained to you. For now, I will tell you that I know something that I am 90% sure you are also aware of. You are, of course, not the son of Francis and Maartikende Ursall. No doubt you are charged with curiosity over who your real parents are and why their identity was hidden from you for all your life. Again, all this information will be revealed to you very soon, the moment the time is right. I'm sorry if this revelation is a surprise to you, but I doubt very much that it is. A brilliant future awaits you, Robin; the most exciting and fulfilling life anybody could hope to lead. It is no exaggeration to say that you are one of the people who will change the world and will lead planet earth into a glorious new existence. Until we meet again. Best regards. Cassius.
    Robin put the letter down on his compartment sideboard. He sighed and lay down on his couchette. There was the sound of a train whistle and the carriage jerked into motion with a clank. Robin closed his eyes and sucked desperately at the exhilaration he should have felt at Cassius' words, exhilaration he knew was there, but seemed to be just out of reach for some reason. His mental hands clutched in vain. As soon as he relaxed from this internal struggle he heard that sound again in his mind's ear, the sound of the fuzzy-wuzzies' voices saturating the air of the forest as they keened in their sorrow.
See here for Chapter 8: (coming soon).