Chapter Ten: The Rescue.
Mark was on his own again.
Ferdia and Kiva had left a few hours earlier, and his mum wasn’t speaking to him. That didn’t bother him too much, though - his mum’s wobblers never lasted long. Also, he sensed that Bree was more upset by how Kiva had spoken to her in the car than she was with Mark lying to her. Still, he felt bad about deceiving her over the trip to Bray. He had tried to apologize but she just kept her face in the book she was reading and said “Not now, Mark. I’m not ready to talk to you yet. Just go to your room and stay there.”
And he had.
Now, alone in his room, he had the opportunity to take stock of all that had happened over the previous few days. Between the comic-book page, the puzzle-boxes and the connection between his dad and Ferdia’s granddad, it was all a bit much to take. How did my life get this complicated? he wondered. Little did he know how much more complicated it was about to get.
At that moment, the door of his bedroom opened and Bree stood there wearing an expression he’d never seen before. Wow, she must be really pissed off; she usually knocks, he thought. Before he had a chance to ask her what was wrong she said:
“The police are on their way up the avenue and they want to talk to you. What have you been up to?”
The color drained from Mark’s face. The police? Why did they want to speak to him? He mentally flicked through all that had happened over the previous few days: Sure, it was weird but there was nothing that should involve the police, was there? Then a horrible thought occurred to him.
“You don’t think it’s about Dad, do you?”
Bree shook her head. He could tell she’d already considered this.
“If it was about your father they’d have asked for me.”
She wagged her finger at him.
“If you’ve been up to something, you need to tell me right now.”
Thoughts of telling Bree about the events of recent days made Mark’s stomach churn. He had no idea where he would start or how she would react. And he still had no idea why the police were involved. Then he remembered seeing the police car at Niamh’s house.
Oh man, I bet it’s just something to do with the gym window. I was there when it happened. They just want a statement or something.
Now that he had a plausible explanation for the police calling he felt a lot better. Had he considered the time of night, he might have realized the police would never call that late over something so trivial but, in his anxious state of mind, his subconscious overlooked this.
“Mum, I’ve not been up to anything dodgy. If it’s not about Dad, I don’t know why the police are here.”
“Hmm. Okay, wash your face and brush your hair and come down to the living room. I’ll let them in.”
People in uniform always look out of place inside a house - this was the first thing that struck Mark as he walked into the living room. Detective Fiona Kelly and Officer Pat Ryan were youngish and neither was tall or well built but their presence made the room seem smaller. Despite his own rationale about their visit, he started to feel nervous.
Bree invited them to sit down. She sat beside Mark and put her arm around him. The arm felt strange to Mark; not motherly and soft but stiff and awkward, like a metal bar draped around his shoulders.
“This is my son Mark. What’s this all about?”
Detective Kelly smiled at Mark.
“Hi Mark, we’re investigating a report of a missing girl – Niamh Kinnear. Do you know her?”
A rushing sound filled Mark’s ears and his head grew light. He felt Bree’s arm relax and she pulled him protectively towards her. Her other hand went to her mouth. Mark’s head spun. Niamh? Missing? Detective Kelly pressed him:
“Mark? Niamh Kinnear; do you know her?”
He nodded. “She’s a friend from school.”
“Did she call you two nights ago?”
He nodded again. Detective Kelly looked at her companion. His face was unreadable.
“What did you talk about?”
“Well, we didn’t get a chance to talk. My battery died before I could answer and I then I fell asleep.”
“Did she leave a message?”
Mark’s mind raced. He didn’t want to hand over the mystery he was involved in to the adults but the police were here and Niamh seemed to be missing. It was time to fess up.
He opened his mouth with every intention of telling them about Niamh’s message about the lighthouse but what came out was:
“No. She didn’t leave any message.”
He startled himself. It was almost as if one half of his brain was misleading the other. He had no idea on a conscious level why he had lied to the police and his mother but now the lie was out there.
“Are you sure?” asked Detective Kelly. “You’re not covering for her, are you?”
Mark shook his head. Detective Kelly peered at him with an expression only teachers and police officers can muster.
“You see Mark, in the majority of these cases, particularly with young women, the alleged victim has actually run away. Has she run away, Mark? Did she tell you where she was going?”
“No; look, I told you, I didn’t speak to her and she didn’t leave a message. She texted me to see if I was awake and I texted her back, then the phone rang and my battery died. That’s it”
“Does she often call you at that hour of the night?”
“Well, no - I guess that is pretty weird.”
“And did you try to call her back?”
“Uh, yeah I did, but not ‘til the next day. Her phone rang out and went to voicemail.”
“What time would that have been?”
“Um, after lunch sometime – half-two, or something.”
The two police officers looked at each other for a moment. Officer Ryan stood up and took something out of his pocket. It was a sealed plastic evidence bag. In it was a small pink cellphone with a Japanese cartoon cat on it.
“We found this in the gutter of the Kinnears’ house,” he said. “It seems she dropped it when she climbed out the skylight. Now that you know we have her phone, do you want to change your story, at all?”
Mark shook his head.
“OK, fair enough. I had to check; you’re the last person she spoke to before she disappeared. Well, your story tallies with the call and text logs on Miss Kinnear’s phone,” said Officer Ryan, “so I suppose that’ll be all for now. If you think of anything else, or if you hear from her, give Wicklow police station a call and report it. Will you do that?”
Mark nodded. His voice came out dry and raspy:
“Yes. Yes I will.”
“Good lad. OK, sorry to have bothered you so late, Mrs McMurnagh. We’ll leave you to it.”
Bree saw the police officers out and came back upstairs. She walked straight over to Mark and threw her arms around him.
“I’m so sorry I suspected you. It’s just you hear of so many teenagers getting into trouble. My imagination got the better of me.”
Normally Mark hated lying and now the lies were mounting. He hugged her back for a moment then pulled away. He felt wretched and couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Ah Mum, it’s all right. I did lie to you about where Ferd and I were going, so I suppose I deserved it.”
He stared at the floor as he said this. Bree took this to mean he was annoyed with her or disappointed that she’d suspected him of something. She burst into tears.
“Mark, I’m so, so sorry. I should have known you’d never do anything to get into trouble with the police. And poor Niamh; I hope she’s all right - and her poor parents.”
Mark wanted to be sick. He’d never felt as low or as shameful in his life. Oh God, this was terrible. He could hardly bear it. He forced himself to look her in the eye and dredged up a watery smile.
“It’s OK, Mum. I’m sure Niamh will be all right. Knowing her, she just threw a strop and went off to stay with a friend. And I’m really sorry about the Bray thing. I lied to you and I’d never do that normally so I’m not surprised you thought I was in trouble when the police arrived. Mum, I’m really, really sorry.”
Bree hugged him tightly then held him by both shoulders at arm’s length. She looked him up and down for a moment then kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re growing up to be just like your dad – the good bits of your dad, I mean.” She smiled tightly at this then gestured towards the kitchen with a tilt of her head. “Go and make us both some hot chocolate. I’m going to call Martha and Kenny and see if I can do anything to help.”
Mark made the drinks then went up to his room. He sat on the edge of his bed with the steaming drink cupped in his hands. He was exhausted and felt like a lying rat. Jesus, the look on his mother’s face after the police left, and the way she kept apologizing to him…
He put the hot chocolate on his bedside locker – he couldn’t stomach it. Things were getting out of control and he had some serious decisions to make. He couldn’t keep lying to everyone - well, he could but he didn’t feel good about it. Still, he had to get to the bottom of the mystery that was unfolding around him. On an instinctive level, he knew that if he told his mum about it, other adults – maybe even the police - would get involved and he would be side-lined. And that wasn’t how it was supposed to play out; his gut told him that too.
And then there was Niamh. What had happened to her? He didn’t believe she’d run away to stay with a friend – it wasn’t her style. He tried to remember her message – the message he’d lied so blatantly about. She’d said there was something going on at the lighthouse and she wanted to sneak out and take a look. What if she’d gone up there and something had happened to her? Should he go up there and check? He shied away from the thought – it terrified him. It was creepy enough up there during the day; at night … ughh! He shuddered. The hair on the back of his neck stood up just thinking about it. Then a far worse thought surfaced: Niamh could be injured or trapped up there on her own. His stomach lurched. Why did he torture himself with these thoughts? Oh God; what to do? He should probably wait until morning but the thoughts of Niamh in danger were too much to bear. There was no avoiding it, he had to check it out. He’d wait until his mum went to bed then head up there and take a look. With the decision made, a strange sense of inevitability came over him; as if he’d always known he’d have to do it.
He knew his mum wouldn’t go to bed for a while so he kicked off his trainers and lay down. He set his alarm for 1am in case he fell asleep, then switched off his bedside lamp and waited.
Niamh hunched over the telescope. She could see Mark sitting on the edge of his bed. She whispered a mantra to herself:
“Turn off the light; turn off the light; turn off the light.”
After a moment he leaned back and disappeared from sight. A moment after that his light went out.
Niamh switched on the big yellow flashlight and pointed it towards Mark’s room.
Mark lay in the dark staring at the ceiling. There was no chance of falling asleep – he was terrified.
A sudden light from outside illuminated the opposite wall of his bedroom. It moved around, then went off and on and moved around some more. This repeated a few more times and then the light settled and stayed on.
What the hell was that?
He stood up and looked out his window. A light was shining from the top of the old lighthouse right into his room. What the…?
The light started to flash. The flashing continued for quite some time then stopped. After a moment it started again. He realized there was a pattern to the flashes. It was Morse code!
… AMH – SOS – NIAMH – SOS – NIAMH - SOS
Niamh! She was in the old lighthouse!
He reached for his LED flashlight and signaled in response:
NIAMH – YOU – OK?
There was a pause from the lighthouse then:
YES – BUT – TRAPPED – 2 – DAYS. GET – ME – OUT. HAVE – KEY – BUT – CANT – REACH – LOCK.
Mark thought for a moment then signaled:
ANYONE – ELSE – THERE?
NO. HURRY – PLEASE.
ON – MY – WAY.
Ten minutes later Mark was cycling down the avenue of Almha in bright moonlight. In his rucksack he had a flashlight and a sharp knife he’d taken from the kitchen. He had no idea what he might do with the knife but the thoughts of going up to Wicklow Head unarmed in the dead of night didn’t appeal to him. In fact, the idea of going up at all was scaring the heck out of him but Niamh was in trouble and that overrode all other concerns.
When he got to the end of the avenue, he dropped his bike over the wall then clambered over and lowered himself down to the road. Opening the gates would have set off an alarm in the house and he didn’t want to annoy his mother any further. She’d really blow a gasket if she knew he was sneaking around at night.
Back on his bike, he turned towards Wicklow and pedaled hard. To reach the Old Lighthouse he had to ride three kilometers to the entrance, then another two kilometers over the hilly, pitted surface of the access road. It was going to take quite some time and he didn’t want Niamh to be trapped any longer than necessary. With his moon-shadow stretching out in front of him, he pumped the pedals, not even noticing the long uphill stretches. Soon he barreled around a sharp corner and onto the straight that would take him past Niamh’s house. The moonlight picked out something in the road ahead. At first he thought it was a paper bag, then a rabbit, then he realized:
It’s a cat! Move out of the way, cat!
The cat was sitting in the middle of the road looking at him. It made no attempt to move.
Stupid death-wish cat!
Without slowing, he moved to the other side of the road. As he did, the cat ran in front of him. He gasped and swerved, his hands clenching the brake levers. The bike went out of control and shimmied left and right then careened into a field entrance that was barred by a gate. The front wheel caught in a tire track and Mark flew off the bike into the overgrown hedge lining the road. The hedge was deep and it cushioned his landing but was full of brambles. As he came to a stop, his hands and face scratched by the thorns, the bike flipped over and landed against the gate.
He lay in the hedge groaning for a few moments then began the slow process of freeing himself from the brambles. Once back on his feet he went to examine the bike for damage. It seemed OK and he was just about to remount when he heard a loud meow from the other side of the gate. The cat was in the field, eyeing him intently.
“You dumb cat, you’re lucky I wasn’t a car. You’re lucky I don’t wring your neck too – you nearly killed me!”
The cat just stared with ice-blue eyes.
“Hey, I recognize you – you’re Niamh’s cat. Are you out looking for her too?”
As if to answer his question, Mira meowed loudly, ran a short distance into the field then stopped. She looked back at him then meowed again.
“Stupid animal! I don’t have time to play, I have to go. Ah, these scratches sting. Oww! Stupid cat.”
He picked up the bike and stepped astride it. He was about to continue on his way when Mira ran back towards the entrance, climbed up the bars of the gate, until she was level with his face and meowed several times. She then jumped back down, ran a good distance into the field and stopped. He shook his head in amazement then realized she was running directly towards the Old Lighthouse.
“Is that what you’re trying to tell me – it’s shorter this way?”
Mira put her tail up and ran back towards the gate. She meowed once more then walked around in circles purring loudly.
“I don’t believe this. I’m getting directions from a cat.”
It does look shorter though. I guess I’ll follow her. Jeez, I must be going mental.
Mark lifted the bike over the gate and hid it in the hedge. Mira purred around his feet and rubbed her face on his jeans then took off across the field like a greyhound. Shaking his head, Mark adjusted his rucksack then ran after her.
Niamh had no idea how long she’d been waiting on the bottom step of the lighthouse stairs but she was starting to get uneasy.
Is he coming? How long does it take to get from his house to here? Oh, why isn’t he here yet?
The questions weighed on her mind but evaporated when Mira suddenly ran through the bars of the gate and up onto her lap.
“Oh my God! Oh Mira, it’s so good to see you! I was so afraid you were dead.”
She picked up the cat and cuddled her against her neck. Mira struggled to escape but Niamh held her tight, tears streaming down her cheeks. The cat gave up the struggle and relaxed into Niamh’s shoulder, purring.
“Oh puss, I’ve been so scared. I hope Mark gets here soon.”
“I already am.”
Mark stood outside the gate grinning. Niamh gasped and jumped up, letting Mira drop to the floor. The cat ran back through the gate and into the night. Niamh put her arms out through the gate and pulled Mark to her. His head banged against the bars.
“Whoa! Ouch! Hey, easy there – I’ve only got one head!”
“Oh Mark; I’m so glad … I’m, I’m …”
But the tears had come again and she couldn’t talk through them.
“Hey, hey – it’s OK. I can get you out now. Where’s the key?”
She sniffled and pulled the key from her pocket. Mark took it and found the keyhole. For a moment, Niamh was terrified the key wouldn’t work but it slipped into the lock and turned easily.
Mark swung the gate open and Niamh was free.
She ran out of the lighthouse and threw her arms around him again. She hugged him tightly and held him for what seemed to Mark like several minutes.
“Thank you. Thank you so, so much for coming to get me. You’re a hero.”
She kissed his cheek then kissed it again. After a moment she slid her check across his and kissed him softly on the lips.
I think I love you, she thought. She knew what Martha would say: Don’t be so stupid; you’re only a kid. A tear ran down her cheek. Mark held the kiss for a moment then pulled away. It wasn’t that he didn’t like it – he did; it made his head spin and he thought his heart was going to leap out of his chest but he’d never really thought of Niamh in that way and he felt strangely out of his depth. Unfamiliar feelings welled up inside him and he didn’t know quite how to deal with them.
“Um, how… how did you get locked in there?” asked Mark.
Niamh told him the story from where she saw the bright lights from her room, right up to where she signaled to him with the flashlight.”
“Wow!” said Mark with some admiration. “Fair play to you with the Morse code trick. I’m not sure I’d have come up with that.”
“Of course you would! You’re a genius – just like me!”
“I guess. You know I was coming up here tonight to look for you anyway?”
“Yeah, I was waiting for my mum to go to bed when I saw your signal.”
“Well, if you’d figured it out, why did you leave me in there so long, you git?”
“I only found out you were missing tonight when the police told us! I lied to them about you leaving me a message and then figured you must have come up here and gotten into trouble. Well, I was right, wasn’t I?”
She laughed and kissed him again. Mark was still uneasy with the closeness and he was eager to leave.
“Right, this place gives me the creeps; let’s get the heck out of here,” he said.
Niamh grabbed his arm.
“No, before we go there’s something you need to see.”
“What? You’re nuts! You’ve been stuck in there for days and now you want to hang around?”
“Seriously, Mark; there’s something in the cellar you really need to see.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not telling you. If I did, you wouldn’t go down there but you really, really need to see it.”
If she told him, he wouldn’t want to go? This didn’t sound like a good idea to Mark, at all. Niamh handed him the big yellow flashlight and lifted the cellar trapdoor. She gestured at the steps and fixed him with her eyes. Oh, what the heck. Mark shrugged and started down the steps. Then Niamh remembered the dodgy second step and started to say: “Don’t stand on the second step …” when there was an almighty cracking sound, a shout of surprise from Mark, then the sounds of him tumbling down the steps and landing on the cellar floor.
“Mark!” she shrieked, and tore down the steps forgetting her fear. Mark was already on his feet and brushing himself down when she got to him.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah – just grazed my elbow and shin a bit.”
“Ooh; does it hurt?”
“Nah, it’s grand. Look, let’s just get out of here, OK?”
He started back up the steps but Niamh said “No!” and grabbed his arm. She looked around for the flashlight and saw it lying near the cellar wall, still on. Pulling Mark after her, she picked it up and shone the beam under the steps.
Her breath caught in her chest and her nails sank into Mark’s arm.
“Owwwwww! Niamh! What…?”
“What? Who’s gone?”
“The… the Kung-Fu Priest! He was here. I saw him. I spoke to him then he died.”
Niamh was crying now, her voice rising.
“The Kung-Fu Priest. The first night I was here, he was trapped in here same as me, then he died and now he’s gone!”
“The Kung-Fu Priest?” You mean that priest I told you about with the ponytail?”
She sniffled and nodded.
“He was here? And he died? Are you sure? I mean, you had a bad fright when that guy in the hat locked you in here, and you told me you had really bad dreams. You could have …”
“I didn’t bloody dream it, Mark,” she shouted. “I saw the priest in here and he bloody-well spoke to me. “
“Well, he’s not here now. Are you sure he died? Maybe he was only unconscious and he woke up.”
Niamh looked around uneasily and shone the flashlight around the cellar. There was no-one else there. She aimed it back under the stairs again as if to double-check the body really wasn’t there. Mark noticed something glinting in the dirt of the cellar floor. He walked forward and picked it up. It was a large gold earring.
“He was wearing that!” exclaimed Niamh. “I knew I hadn’t dreamt it.”
Mark was nodding. “Yeah, when I saw him last year he was wearing this – or something very like it. But where is he now? He must’ve woken up and let himself out.”
Niamh said nothing. She knew what she’d seen but she couldn’t explain why the body was no longer there. At least they’d found the earring so Mark knew she wasn’t making it up. Mark was still studying the earring. Almost absentmindedly, he asked:
“What did he say to you – before he died … or whatever?”
“He flipping did die!”
“OK, OK; he died. What did he say before he died?”
“He was kind of rambling but he kept saying something about a guild, and everyone except a builder being killed, and something about pieces of a key, and a third something and a ninth something else, and a church.”
“Well, that makes no sense at all. Can you remember any more?”
“No. It was hard to hear him, and with the shock of him dying right in front of me, it went out of my head.”
“Well, I guess that’s no surprise. Maybe it’ll come back to you later. Anyway, he’s not here now so let’s get out of here.”
Mark ushered Niamh up the cellar steps. Just as they were about to go out the lighthouse door, they heard the noise of a vehicle coming up the access road and saw the twin beams of the headlights. Niamh drew a breath and gripped Mark’s arm. Mark grabbed her hand and started to lead her out the door.
“C’mon, we can hide in those bushes and leg it out the gate when they go inside.”
But Niamh was paralyzed with fear and by the time Mark got through to her, the vehicle – a BMW SUV – was coming through the gate. Gritting his teeth, he measured the distance to the bushes versus the speed of the approaching vehicle. They’d never make it.
There was nothing for it: Mark pulled the outside gate shut and closed the inner door. He bolted the cellar trapdoor and lead Niamh up the spiral steps to the next floor. He positioned himself on the steps so that he could just see the ground floor.
Then they waited.
After several agonizing minutes, he heard two men approaching. Their voices were indistinct but became clearer as they neared the lighthouse. A key rattled in the metal security gate then the hinges creaked as it swung open. One of the men said:
“Hey, this gate was open.”
“What! Mac said he’d locked it. Damn it! They better still be here. Give me those keys.”
A key slid into the lock on the inner door then that too opened. Mark saw a flashlight play around the floor of the lighthouse and the men entered. From his vantage point, he could only see their legs. One of the men came to the bottom of the steps then stopped.
“Look, the trapdoor’s still bolted. They’re still in there. I’ll grab the girl; you get the priest. No messing; Mac wants this done clean.”
As he stepped towards the trapdoor, the man stepped on the shaving mirror Niamh had left of the floor. It crunched and shattered under his feet.”
“What the hell … Who left that there?”
“That’s seven years’ bad luck, Mate,” said the other man.
“Yeah, right. Get that trapdoor open and let’s get this sorted.”
The men’s feet disappeared as they moved towards the trapdoor. The bolt slid back with a loud thud and the trapdoor banged against the wall.
The first man shouted out:
“OK girly, we’re going to let you out. No funny stuff.”
The first step creaked, and then the man cried out as his foot flailed in mid-air trying to find a step that wasn’t there. There was a loud thud then a sickening crack as the man landed hard on the bottom of the cellar. He screamed in agony:
“My leg! Ahh, Jesus!”
The other man shouted “Jim!” then jumped down after his companion. In that instant Mark knew what he had to do. He scampered down the steps and slammed the trapdoor. A shout of surprise came from the cellar and Mark threw his weight on the trapdoor just as the man started to push on it from below. Lying on the trapdoor, he managed to get it bolted as the man heaved against it. The man hammered on the trapdoor.
“Let us out! I’ll kill you,” he bellowed.
There were several more thumps against the trapdoor then a muffled crack as another step gave way. Mark didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ran back up the steps, grabbed Niamh’s hand and led her down and out the lighthouse door. He closed the inner door, slammed the security gate shut, locked it and snapped off the key in the lock. He threw the head of the key into the undergrowth.
“That’ll hold them until we can call the police. We’d better call them soon too – I think that first guy broke his leg when he fell.”
“Good enough for him,” said Niamh in a very shaky voice. “See how he likes it down there.”
“OK, let’s go Dot. Your parents are frantic. Time to face the music.”
Niamh looked up at him, her face pale and teary-eyed.
“What are we going to tell them?”
“Exactly what happened. Tell them you went up on your roof to see what was going on at the lighthouse. Tell them Mira got out and you had to go after her. Tell them everything. Just leave out the bit about the Kung-Fu Priest dying and disappearing. They’ll never believe you.”
“You believe me though, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do. With what’s been going on in my life recently, I’d believe anything.”
“Why, what’s been going on in your life?”
And as Mark led Niamh back across the fields, Mira watching from the shadows, he told her everything.