The Stone Circle
"Etienne," she whispered, seemingly unaware that her lips formed any word.
Now, as it happens, Dr Swift was already acquainted with the man, and he knew he was not the mysterious French lover who nearly drove the susceptible Miss Nuland to a Tibetan monastery or to jolly life in a trailer park. But her involuntary exclamation made him understand that the visitor looked like that Frenchman, and he couldn't say this pleased him.
"Come in," he called nevertheless.
The door swung open, and the man walked in. He was the type of tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered Irishman that is not at all uncommon, but looks striking all the same.
"Good day to you, Dr Swift. I hope I don't come at a very inconvenient time," said the young man, with every air of confidence in being cordially received. His eyes lingered, curious, on Kate Nuland, who was not there last time he visited. Nicholas didn't fail to notice this look.
"Mr. O'Keeffe, this is Kate Nuland, my new research assistant." Kate nodded, calm and composed again – but her breath was still quick, as of someone who narrowly escaped a grave danger. "Kate, this is Jim O'Keeffe, a reporter who is fond of wasting his time – and the time of others," he added with savage pleasure.
"I can return in the afternoon, if you prefer," said the unabashed Jim.
"I believe I have already told you it would be better if you didn't return at all," said Nicholas. "You are not looking for professional opinion. You are looking for a headline. Mr. O'Keeffe," he turned to give an explanation to the curious-looking Kate, "works for one of those shallow little papers which supply their readers with a constant stream of fabricated myths, supposedly-true urban legends, UFO sightings, and other such unfortunately popular nonsense."
"I work for The Oyster," explained Jim O'Keeffe with a charming smile.
"The Oyster?" Kate looked confused.
"Our name hints at our confidence of being able to pry open any mystery," Jim supplied in a phrase that was obviously recited many times before.
Dr Swift snorted. "The less a man claims to know for certain, the more reliable he is," he said. "And therefore – "
"Well, I consider you a reliable man, Dr Swift," said Jim O'Keeffe, "and if you consented to accompany me to the Stone Circle, it would lend credibility to my article."
"I have not the least bit of interest to give credibility to an establishment such as the paper you work for," said Nicholas with icy courtesy.
"What is the Stone Circle?" interjected Kate.
"It is a place not far from here," explained Nicholas. "And as its name implies, it consists of a small mountain clearing with several reasonably even-looking rocks encircling it. No one knows precisely when and why it was built, but local legend attributes magical properties to the place, in particular during nights of full moon in May. Of course, there is no sound basis whatsoever to such claims. Do not get me wrong," he raised a finger, "I love the way history is always spiced with myths, legends, tales, details that may or may not be true, but lend flesh to the cold bones of the past. However, it is not, strictly speaking, my province. I deal with fact, Mr. O'Keeffe," he raised his voice slightly, "with solid, reasonable, proven fact."
"The fact," said Jim O'Keeffe, "is that now we're in the month of May."
"What do they tell about the Stone Circle?" asked Kate.
"According to the country folk legend," began Jim O'Keeffe, seizing the opportunity to speak, "if one stands in the middle of the Stone Circle on a night of full moon in May, in particular when the moon is not obscured by clouds, that person will experience… curious things. Last year, for example, a local farmer named Bob Tanner tried to do just that. He waited just outside the Stone Circle until midnight, and then stepped in. He claims he felt as though the air began shimmering all around him, as in a haze of heat, although it wasn't particularly warm… and he heard voices saying things he could not make out, and saw things – among them, an open gate which seemed to lead someplace which was definitely not Willow Creek, in the direction of which it supposedly stood."
"Why didn’t he walk through the gate, then?" Nicholas demanded in tones of derision. "Oh, but wait. I think I know the answer. He probably stumbled backwards, fell, and found his way to the village pub for another pint."
"The man swears he wasn't drunk."
"If I had a penny for every drunkard in the country who swears he wasn't drunk on a particular occasion – "
"I should like to see the Stone Circle," Kate interrupted their discourse in a dreamy voice. Upon seeing his expression, she hastened to add: "I'm not saying I believe this legend. It sounds bizarre, to be sure… but I love old places that have strange tales connected to them. And it isn't far, is it?" she turned to Jim.
"No more than an hour's drive from here," O'Keeffe said firmly. "I'm writing an article about the place, and I hoped to obtain Dr Swift's assistance in some background materials… but if he refuses," he added with a half smile, "so be it. Full moon is two nights from now, and you can be sure that if it doesn't rain, I will be standing right in the middle of the Stone Circle, waiting for the gate to open," his grin was almost wolfish. "If you would like to accompany me, Miss Nuland, I will be delighted."
Nicholas looked from Kate to Jim O'Keeffe, and a terrible realization bolted into his brain. She would go with him, he knew. And the foolishness of the suggested expedition didn't matter one bit. This young woman, who was - despite her obvious intelligence, her good head and gentle heart - still an innocent, trusting child, would gain another Etienne in her life. This smug, arrogant, vain little jackanapes would carry her off as a prize.
And he should be damned if he let this happen.
He cleared his throat. "On second thought," he told Jim O'Keeffe, "I believe I will join you on your little excursion as well. You can put my name in your article, but don't you dare to make it sound as though I agree with a single word you say."
"Let me get this straight," said Andrew next time they talked. "You are going to take Kate for a moonlit stroll in the Stone Circle?"
"It isn't what you think," Nicholas said defensively. "If I didn't volunteer to visit the wretched legendary site, she would have gone with Jim O'Keeffe, and we both know how this would likely have ended."
"Of course. And you couldn't permit that, could you?" the smirk in Andrew's voice was audible. Nicholas fought the urge to tell him to get lost.
"You placed your niece under my charge. I believe it is my duty to keep an eye on her, and this O'Keeffe type looks like a rascal."
"Kate is of age," Andrew pointed out, but it was obvious he was pleased, and this, perhaps, was what annoyed Nicholas the most.
"If you prefer, I might not take part in this… expedition after all," he said through gritted teeth, "I will be quite glad to remain behind."
"I would rather that O'Keeffe remained behind."
And that was precisely why, as much as he tried, he could never be angry with Andrew.
The unlikely trio of a Middle Ages scholar, a UFO chaser and a college graduate who very nearly joined a hippie community set out next evening. In a fit of politeness Dr Swift suggested that they all go in his car, but as he didn't know the way, he had to admit Jim O'Keeffe as navigator. Jim sat next to him, and Kate in the back seat – an arrangement the honorable doctor would very much like to reverse. Fortunately, O'Keeffe didn't lie about the length of the drive. Scarcely more than an hour after they set out, the country road they have been following reached an abrupt end at the edge of a forest, and Dr Swift, not expecting this, stopped the car rather abruptly.
"It seems we have reached a dead end," he said, fixing O'Keeffe with an accusing stare.
"No, this is just right," said the ever-confident O'Keeffe. "There's a path right in front of us, see? It leads through Pinewood forest, and is supposed to bring us to the Stone Circle within five minutes."
"Did you bring a flashlight, then?" asked Dr Swift rather less sourly than he normally would have done. "Because I did not, and I certainly don't intend to drag Miss Nuland and myself through a dark forest, following the trail of some crackpot story."
"I have a flashlight right here, Dr Swift," Jim declared triumphantly, taking one out of the pocket of his coat and brandishing it in the air.
When they got out of the car, Nicholas immediately wished he had brought a coat as well. It was a chilly night for May, and although he zipped his light jacked to the top, it was not enough to ward off the sudden gusts of wind that sneaked between the trees. The sky was clear, though, and the moon swam above their heads, huge and luminous, a perfect circle of solid gold.
As they followed the path clearly visible in the white beam cast by Jim O'Keeffe's flashlight, Nicholas wondered why anyone would name this place Pinewood forest, as it was obvious pine was among the few trees that did not grow here at all. The wood was a mix of oak and elm and birch, no tree too old and gnarled and imposing, and the growth was not too dense, almost like in a park. It seemed to be a young forest. Perhaps there was an older one before; perhaps it was a forest of pine.
The path started uphill. It was not very steep, nor very long, and just as promised, within minutes a circle of smooth rocks loomed before them at the hilltop, enclosing a small clearing overgrown with soft grass and bluebells. The grass was springy under their feet, the earth damp with dew or the residue of the last rain – Nicholas couldn't tell. Finally, he stopped right in the middle of the clearing and looked about him.
Kate's face was solemn as she ran her hand over one of the rocks. "This place looks ancient," she murmured.
"It's like a miniature Stonehenge, isn't it?" Jim said brightly.
"I might as well throw a few pebbles in a circle and call is Stonehenge," snapped Dr Swift. He walked slowly around the clearing. Over the other side of the hill – the opposite to the one they came from – the lights of a village twinkled invitingly. It wasn't too late yet, and no doubt the first clear night after a week of almost incessant rain lured people outside. If one listened carefully, a murmur of indistinct voices could be heard from the direction of the village. There were a few solitary scattered lights here and there across the valley, too – no doubt the thriving farms of this fertile area. Nicholas would probably have appreciated the view if he were brought here during a fine day and without the unwelcome company of the young Irishman.
"Well," he said with badly disguised irony, looking about him, "we're standing in the middle of the Stone Circle, and it's the night of full moon in May. Shouldn't something happen now? A giant fire-breathing dragon soar from the sky? The earth open up its mouth and swallow us? The headlines will be magnificent. "Three people disappear in the middle of the famous Stone Circle." Intriguing, isn't it? A pity we won't be here to read the papers."
The derision wasn't lost on Jim O'Keeffe, but as always, he did not let it bother him. "I never said something would actually happen," he put in. "And anyway, Bob Tanner's evidence spoke of a much later hour, if I remember correctly," he added with a swift glance at his watch.
"Oh, certainly. Midnight is the proper time for fairies and leprechauns, isn't it? So why don't we wait here another four hours or so, and then we'll be in much better position to asses the truthfulness of this local farmer's," he snorted, "testimony."
"We don't have to stay here," said Jim O'Keeffe, in an obvious effort to make peace. "We can go down to the village and see what we can learn from a visit to the local pub. People usually like to talk to investigators about unnatural phenomena, and who knows, we might even meet Bob Tanner himself."
Dr Swift's lip curled as he heard the word "investigators", and he was about to say something along the lines of not coming here for a pint in the local pub – but then Kate, who appeared to have a slight head cold, chimed in and mentioned that it would be nice to get something hot to drink.
"Do we have to walk?" asked Dr Swift, appraising the distance from the hilltop to the village, which seemed to be a good deal longer than the walk they took from the road to the Circle.
"Oh, no," said O'Keeffe. "It will make much better sense if we go down to the car again, turn around and take the little fork left that we passed on the way here. It should run around the bottom of the hill and take us straight to the village."
The local pub and inn, "The Red Rooster", greeted them by a breath of warm air and a raucous laughter that froze on someone's lips, trailing into an unconvincing cough. A gentle murmur of voices and more than their fair share of curious looks followed them as they made their way to the bar. Jim smiled genially, taking it all as his due, but Nicholas's shoulders stiffened. He wasn't any more comfortable in the presence of strangers than the local patrons of "The Rooster."
The landlord, a portly, balding man was just filling a large mug with ice-cold foaming beer when they approached. He neatly slid the mug in the direction of a gruff-looking villager, casually accepted a few coins in payment, and looked at them without the least sign of curiosity.
"How may I help you?" he asked.
"A beer for me," said Jim in his friendly manner. "What about you, Doc?"
"A whisky," Nicholas consented dryly. "And for the young lady… what would you like to drink, Kate?"
"Some hot tea," she said, smiling apologetically at the barman. If he was at all disappointed by her order, he didn't let it show.
"A beer and a whisky, and tea for the young lady," he repeated, just as Kate hastily reached into her handbag, pulled out a tissue and muffled a violent sneeze in it. "And may I suggest a shot of cognac in your tea?" he asked politely. "May is chilly this year – quite unseasonable." Kate accepted with a grateful nod.
They took the table nearest to the bar, and when the landlord himself came over, carrying a tray with their drinks, Jim gave him his most ingratiating smile.
"On second thought," he said, "I'm feeling somewhat hungry. Do you serve fish and chips?"
"The best you'll find in the county," the landlord said warmly.
"I'll have that, then," nodded Jim. With a surprisingly energetic stride, the man shuffled off, empty tray under his arm, to bellow orders at his kitchen workers. Before long, a plate of crisp fried fish and potato chips was placed before Jim. The portion was big, and he offered to share, but both Nicholas and Kate declined, saying they weren't hungry. Jim shrugged and, with the healthy appetite of a young man, crunched vigorously into a wedge of potato. He didn't talk again until his plate was clean, which didn't take a very long time. After he had eaten, he got up, hands in his pockets, and sauntered in the direction of the bar, which was now empty. He leaned his elbows on the reasonably clean counter. Since the bar was so close to the table, Nicholas and Kate were able to hear every word of Jim's conversation with the landlord.
"Everything's to your taste, I hope?"
"Oh, excellent," Jim said enthusiastically. "You have a fine establishment here."
"Thank you, sir. I'm not a man to work by halves," the landlord said with a touch of pride. "I put my heart and soul into this place."
"You aren't from around here," noted the landlord, sizing Jim up and down in the first display of his curiosity. "We don't get many visitors this time of year."
It was doubtful that the little village got many visitors at any time of year, but O'Keeffe did not remark on that. "I'm a reporter," he said. He wisely omitted the name of the paper he worked for. "We came to see the Stone Circle."
"Ah," the dawn of understanding loomed over the man's pudgy face. "Yes, of course. Many are interested in seeing it, and tonight's the full moon of May. There are many tales surrounding that place, there are."
"Such as?" Jim prompted eagerly.
"For example, young girls from the village believe that if they step into the Circle on a night such as this one, the face of their future husband will appear in front of them," the man permitted himself a chuckle. "I never saw much sense in superstitions such as that, but there you go. You visited the place already?"
"On our way here," said Jim, making it sound as though the chief purpose of their evening drive through the country was to stop and have a drink at "The Red Rooster".
"And you met no one?"
"Not a soul."
"That's strange," the landlord said ponderously. "On May's full moon, if it doesn't rain, one's almost certain to meet a girl or three wandering around that hill."
"Are you familiar with a man named Bob Tanner?" Jim inquired casually. The proprietor grinned.
"Yes, of course I know him. I know everyone in the area. And now you mention it, last year Bob came out with some cock-and-bull story about what happened to him at the Circle. I don't remember exactly what he said, but we all laughed him down, and old Bob has been keeping real quiet ever since, which no doubt was a relief to his wife. Actually, come to think of it," the man screwed up his face in concentration, "I don't recall seeing Bob ever since. Seeing him here, I mean. I passed him at the market a time or two, but he just nodded and walked off. I could have thought he was angry with me for mocking him, but no, it was clear he just wants to do nothing with no one."
"Is there a way for me to speak to Mr. Tanner? He lives on one of the farms in the area, doesn't he?"
"Yes, but Bob also keeps a little shop around here. He sells mainly building supplies, paint and brushes, things like that, but also fishing rods and some odds and ends. Three times a week he comes himself, on other days his missus. You can find the shop if you drive down the main street."
"Thank you," Jim said courteously, "you have been most helpful." When he came back to the table, Nicholas discovered with annoyance that the bill had already been paid.
"You needn't have," he said dryly.
"It's nothing," Jim waved an airy hand. "You drove us here, Dr Swift, didn't you? And just saying I toured the place together with you will give a much better ring to anything I write. I believe I will pay a visit to Bob Tanner's shop tomorrow morning."
"Then you will have to drive yourself," Nicholas warned him.
"Oh, there will be no need of that, I think," said Jim. "The inn has free rooms, I believe. Wait a minute," he went back to the bar and made proper inquiries. Yes, there was a room, the pleased proprietor said. It hasn't been occupied in a while, but if he just consents to wait a bit, he'll send the lad for some clean bed linen.
"That's settled, then," said Jim with unsurpassed cheerfulness as he turned back to his companions. "It's lucky experience taught me to always have the necessities with me, in case I don't come home for the night," he indicated his small black briefcase. "A clean shirt, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a razor – and I'm good to go," he smiled.
"I applaud your foresight," said Nicholas. Jim yawned unashamedly.
"I hope the room is ready soon," he said. "I could sleep on my feet, and I don't want Bob Tanner to close for lunch before I even have the chance to drop by."
Soon enough it was announced to Jim, with polite wishes for a comfortable stay, that his room is ready and he may go upstairs. He took leave of his companions, and for the first time in the course of the whole evening, Nicholas found himself alone with Miss Catherine Nuland.
"I hope you didn't find the whole affair too tiresome," he said solicitously.
"Oh, not at all," she said. "As a matter of fact…" she hesitated."Do you think we might pass through the Stone Circle again, before we had back? Even if none of what is said about the place is true, it feels – it's hard to explain, but it feels magical. I'd like to see it once more."
"Are you sure?" Nicholas frowned. "The chill is deeper now, and you already have a cold."
"I feel fine now," Kate assured him. "The shot of cognac in my tea was an excellent suggestion."
"Well, then…" Nicholas trailed off and shrugged. He would not, of course, argue with her.
The place's eerie beauty was even more obvious now that they stood in the middle of the Circle alone, without Jim O'Keeffe. The moon floated high above their heads, bright and clear, accentuated by the wisps of silvery clouds that ran over part of its face from time to time. It was a still and beautiful night, and Kate let out a sigh of contentment as she looked about her.
"To think," she mused, "that these stones stood here for many centuries before either of us was born, and will continue to stand here long after we are gone from this world…"
Such sentiments were not altogether foreign to Dr Swift, but just at that moment, something more urgent captured his attention. Without warning, he felt unsteady on his feet; it was almost as though the earth moved underneath them. He had to spread his arms to steady himself.
"Did you feel it?" he asked Kate. "Or was it just me?"
"Feel what?" she seemed confused.
But there it was again. This eerie, unsteady feeling; and just as the uncouth farmer Bob described, the air swam before him as on a hot summer day, fashioning itself into shapes his eye could not quite capture. He fell to his knees.
"Dr Swift!" Kate cried urgently, and then, "Nicholas! Nicholas, what's going on?" But her voice sounded as though it reached him from a great distance, and even her shape was growing distant, as though he was on a train that was speeding away, and she was left behind on the platform. And yet he couldn’t say he was moving. Rather, something grabbed hold of him, took him, decided it won't let go of him, and plunged him into something that was more than air but less than water, so that he could breathe, but just barely, and then not at all… a heart attack, was his last coherent thought. He was dying, and that was all there was to it.
And like many times in his life, Dr Nicholas Swift was wrong.
The queer, disconcerting, almost painful sensation was gone. He could stand up on his feet again, and look about him. He turned around, expecting to see Kate, to assure her that he felt fine – but she was not there… nor were any of the Circle's massive rocks. He stood on a flat grassy plain, and heard the sound of waves breaking against a rocky shore. But no, it was impossible, he reminded himself sternly. Willow Creek was many miles away from the sea.
Only, as he walked his first few uncertain steps in this unknown place, the impossibility presented itself determinedly, in all its mass of salty, foamy, black water.
Nicholas Swift had to face the inevitable. He was as far away from Willow Creek as he could possibly be.