I gripped the doorknob and prayed. I took a deep breath and turned it. The door swung inwards silently. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, what did Drake have to fear from the villagers he controlled. The house was in darkness, the only light, the glimmer of the moon trying to penetrate it through the open door. I took out my phone, turned on the flashlight and closed the door behind me. It was then I realised that I’d been holding my breath and let it out slowly, my heart still racing. Breaking and entering wasn’t something I was familiar with, although, technically, there had been no breaking. I wondered if you could be charged with just entering. I shook my head and set my mind back to the job in hand. I crept up the hallway, wondering where to look first. I thought back to our dinner date and remembered a large oak desk in the library, where we were supposed to have our aperitifs. I shone the torch onto the wooden panelling along the hall until the beam reached the library door. I turned the handle and entered. The curtains were drawn back, and the moonlight cast an eerie glow about the room. Once more I felt as if I was in one of those old Hammer horror films, where Dracula lurked in the next room, about to wake and rise from his coffin. I shivered and padded over to the desk. As I expected, the drawers were all unlocked. In one I found several charcoal drawings, six of which were of a naked Shona. They were very explicit but also exceptionally good. The rest were drawings of Chanter’s Hide from a variety of viewpoints. It seemed that Drake was a talented artist. The last sketch was disturbing, to say the least. It showed a figure with the body of a well-endowed male and the head of a goat. Something sprang into my mind, probably from one of the Dennis Wheatley novels I’d read, about the ‘Goat of Mendes’. I think it was either supposed to be the Devil or one of his henchmen. I wished I were more knowledgeable in the black arts, not that it would have done me much good, I guess. The rest of the drawers held documents listing weird transactions between Drake and the villagers. Had I more time, I would have liked to study them in more detail. As it was, I was here for one reason and one reason only.
I left the library, no further forward. The rest of the downstairs rooms revealed nothing of importance either. A plush lounge, the dining room, the kitchen, and conservatory were, more or less, what you would expect.
I returned to the staircase, to the left of the entrance. It swept up in a crimson curve, the moonlight dribbling through the front door’s picture window. I’ve never been one for feelings of foreboding before but, as I put my foot on the first stair, I have no other way of describing my emotions. I climbed slowly, gripping the mahogany banister tightly. My fight or flight responses at that precise moment were veering ever closer to flight.
“Come on, you have to do this,” I said to myself, my throat dry as sand. I urged myself on, focusing on Jan’s beautiful face and the bump she was carrying. I reached the landing, legs trembling, heart beating like Keith Moon on speed. I took a deep breath and stepped up to the door to my right. It was slightly ajar. I pushed it and it swung in without a sound. I almost turned and ran, but, instead, I held my ground and mumbled a prayer to a God I’d never really believed in.
The head moved slowly from side to side, its tongue darting in and out. The yellow eyes held me; the hood extended. I was face to face with a King Cobra. It was coiled on the desk in front of me, the head and top third of the body erect, the forked tongue flicking in my direction. I had never had much experience of snakes and had never been bothered either way, but this thing was huge. It began to hiss, its hood lengthening and I felt warm urine soaking my pants and jeans. I stared into those eyes, unable to move, my lips trembling as I prayed. I saw it draw its head back to strike and let out a terrified whimper and closed my eyes, resigned to my fate.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” I wept like a child, wondering where the brave, protective husband and father had gone. I stood there, waiting for the Cobra’s fangs to latch on and debilitate me with its venom. “Oh God, please help me,” I whispered.
Suddenly I was grabbed from behind and slung to my left, where I went sprawling on the landing floor. “Stay there,” I heard Efram snarl. I looked up to see him throw a jar of some kind into the room. I heard the snake scream in my head, and Efram slumped to the floor beside me.
I slung my arms around him and hugged him tight, tears running down my face.
“I…thought I was d…dead,” I managed between sobs. “What the fuck was that?”
“I think it was one of Drake’s familiars,” he mumbled. “According to Ted these Satanists have certain species they can control or conjure up. I’m not too sure how it works.”
“What did you throw at it?”
His face fell and the tears ran freely over his cheeks. “Kathy’s ashes,” he croaked. “They were all I possessed that were blessed.”
I felt his pain. “Oh Efram, I’m so sorry.” I hugged him tighter, letting his tears fall on my shoulder. He pulled away. “Let’s just do what we came to do, shall we,” he said flatly, drying his eyes.
I nodded and we both got to our feet. I peered into the study. The cobra was gone. I rushed over to the other side of the desk and yanked opened the top left-hand drawer. It was empty. I grabbed the handle on the right and pulled. It was locked. “For Christ’s sake,” I hissed. “The bastard’s locked. The manuscript has to be in there.”
“Get out of the way, “said Efram, rushing forward, reaching inside his jacket. I moved back and he pulled out a wheel iron. He jammed the end in the gap between the desk and the drawer and pushed down. The front of the drawer splintered and fell to the floor. I shone my flashlight in and reached forward. I pulled out a thin sheaf of foolscap sheets and was just about to peruse them, when Efram punched my shoulder. “Look at them later,” he snapped. “Let’s get out of here.”
We ran down the stairs and out of the front door. I couldn’t get the cobra out of my mind, its fangs, the hypnotic eyes. I imagined the venom seeping into my bloodstream as my skin was pierced. If it hadn’t been for Efram, I would probably be a dead man now. Plus, he’d sacrificed his wife’s ashes to save my life. This was a man I’d known for a couple of days.
We reached the road, and both glanced, automatically, towards the beach. There was no sign of Drake. We both breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“Come on, we’ll go back to my place and see if Ted was right about those pages you’ve got,” Efram said.
I put my hand on his arm. “I can never thank you enough,” I said, unable to stop the tears. “What you did in there....well....it breaks my heart.”
He looked at his feet, to hide his emotion, but his voice betrayed him. “It was the right thing to do,” he replied shakily. “Kathy would have wanted me to do it.”
“It was all you had left of her,” I said softly.
“I still have my memories,” he almost whispered. He coughed, took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “Now, let’s go, before the bastard comes back.”
It suddenly occurred to me that my visit to Drake’s house hadn’t been planned and Efram could have had no idea I was there.
“How did you know I was in there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you and Jan and your baby. Peter kept on as well, saying we had to do something. It was his idea to take his Mum’s ashes. I know they make numerous trips to that bloody rock, so I thought I’d try my luck. I was on the beach when they went off to the island. It wasn’t until I was in there, I realised I wasn’t alone. I thought he might have left one of his followers on guard. I nearly left, but I thought I’d try and see who it was. It seems, two great minds think alike.”
“And I’m grateful they do,” I said, as we hurried down the drive.
Walking back to Efram’s, a thought occurred to me. “Can he see through that snake’s eyes?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. In any case, he won’t have to look far for suspects if he can’t, will he?”
I nodded. “I suppose not. Unless, of course, there are other rebels in the village.”
“I can assure you there aren’t,” said Efram confidently. “They’re all just sheep, hanging on his every word; terrified of him.”
“What do you think he’ll do, when he gets back?”
“Put it this way; we’re going to be off his Christmas card list, that’s for sure.”
Despite ourselves, and what was now hanging over our heads, we both burst out laughing. Minutes later we were going through Efram’s front door. Peter was waiting, chewing his fingernails.
“Where have you been, Dad?” He asked anxiously.
Efram held up his hand. “Calm down son. We’ve paid Mr. Drake a visit.”
“What? Did you get the manuscript?”
“Have you read it?”
“We haven’t really had the time,” I said. “One thing I will tell you though – your dad is a hero. Tonight, he saved my life.”
Efram looked down at his feet. “It was your mum that saved his life. Not me.”
Peter hobbled up to his dad and they hugged, both unable to hide their grief.
“It worked then,” said Peter, into his father’s shoulder.
“Yes, I’m sorry son.”
Peter pulled back. “We’re all in this together – including Mum.”
I had never felt so humble, but also, so blessed to have these two on my side. The question was – would we, and the manuscript, be enough to stop Drake?
“Look,” I said. “It’s late. I’ll take this home and go through it tomorrow. We’re all knackered and if Jan wakes up, she’ll think I’ve been abducted by aliens.” I gave Efram a hug of my own. “I can’t thank you enough,” I whispered in his ear. “I’m grateful to have you as a friend and an ally, as, I’m sure, Ted was.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and eased me back, until he was looking into my eyes. “I let Ted down, and I’ll always regret that” he said. “We can’t live in fear anymore. We’re the good guys.......aren’t we?”
I nodded. “You know we are.”
“We’ve got God on our side,” said Peter. “Although, if you listen to Bob Dylan, so did Hitler. I believe He lets us get on with things unless we call him.”
“Who? Bob Dylan or God?” I was feeling more myself. “In any case, what’s a young lad like you doing listening to Bob Dylan?”
“He loves Bob Dylan,” Efram said. “I was never really a fan. I prefer Abba.”
I couldn’t stop a smile. I have nothing against Abba, they produced some wonderful pop records but to compare them to his Bobness was like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Volvo. No disrespect to Abba or Volvo, of course.
I left them to their slumber, although I didn’t think any of us would sleep particularly well that night. I’d stuck the manuscript under my T shirt, as if it were a bullet-proof vest and, as I walked home, I started to yawn. I really was exhausted. I suppose being confronted by a huge, metaphysical snake that was ready to sink its fangs into your throat does that to a person. I looked at my watch and saw it was almost two in the morning. It had been a long night. As I turned left into our street, I couldn’t help looking towards the beach and the road towards Drake’s place, wondering if he and Shona were back yet. There was a slight chill in the air, a sign that summertime didn’t go on forever, even in Dorset. I looked up into the night sky, the stars, diamonds, and crystal in their black, velvet, unpolluted home. This was a beautiful part of England, without a doubt. Why did it have to be spoilt by the likes of Drake?
I reached our cottage, let myself in quietly and settled myself down on the sofa. The urine had dried, and I made a mental note to throw my jeans into the linen bin in the morning. I didn’t want to wake Jan; she and Charlie needed their sleep. Although I was burnt out, I couldn’t stop thinking about that cobra. I still couldn’t believe that Efram had thrown his wife’s ashes to save me. I lay there for about two hours before I finally dropped off. My sleep was troubled, to say the least, but relatively normal until Drake and Shona barged their way in. They cavorted, copulated, grinned at me, whilst giving me the thumbs down and slicing their hands across their throats. I tried so hard to wake up but was unable to. I finally managed to escape the arms of Morpheus in a sweat, with Drake telling me that what I’d stolen from him would do me no good. As my eyes opened, I could still hear his mocking laughter. I looked at my watch – it was six thirty. The manuscript was on the floor by my side. I picked it up, tried to read it and groaned.
It was Greek to me. It resembled some kind of weird hieroglyphics. I kept staring at the first page, all hope I’d managed to sustain, dashed. I, suddenly, felt empty and totally powerless. Efram and I had risked our lives for nothing. Drake had won and there was nothing we could do to stop whatever plans he had in place bearing fruit. Although I knew it would be pointless, I took out my phone, photographed the text and uploaded it to the laptop. If there was internet access, I might have been able to find an app that translated the text into English. I wondered why I kept picking the damned computer up in the first place.
I nearly threw it across the room. I refrained and, instead, buried my head in my hands and wept. Whatever I had done in my life, I’d always been in charge. Sure, I’d made some bad decisions – but they were my decisions, made by me. Not by some power mad devil worshipper. I’d had some low points in my life, but this had gone beyond the cocked hat. I shut the laptop in case our unfriendly vicar decided to make another of his gloating appearances. I was devastated. I’d pinned all my hopes on that manuscript, and it had let me down. And I wondered why Drake had bothered to steal it from Ted, if there was nothing my uncle could do with it. It didn’t make any sense. My head was full of weary resignation and my heart wasn’t far behind.
“You’re not a quitter,” I told myself and, to be fair, I never had been. The more I ran the situation through my head though, the fewer options seemed available to me. The only clear thing that was that I would die trying to save Jan and Charlie from the vicar and his evil commune. I just couldn’t see how my death was going to help either of them.
I heard Jan padding across the landing to the toilet and looked at my watch again. I was amazed to see it was now nearly 7.30. I took the manuscript and slipped out of the back door and crept down to the shed. I secreted it my man cave and returned to the cottage.
Jan had just reached the bottom of the stairs as I walked back through the back door.
“What happened to you last night?” she asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t sleep. I went for a walk,” I tried for a smile and failed. “I stayed on the couch, didn’t want to wake you two.”
“Are you all right, Ben? You don’t look too good.”
I accepted the way out. “No, I’m feeling a bit iffy. Do you mind if I go back to bed for a couple of hours?”
“’Course I don’t. Do you want me to bring you anything?”
I shook my head. “No darling. I just need to get some rest. I’ll be fine.”
With that I slouched upstairs. Knowing what I now knew, I couldn’t face Jan, without saying anything. And that was out of the question.
I took a quick shower first. I felt incredibly dirty, especially after having peed my pants. I stood under the dribble, trying to clear my head. I still couldn’t understand why Drake would bother stealing Ted’s manuscript when it was obvious that it was useless. The more I thought about it, the more confused I became. The bogus vicar was not a stupid man, not by any stretch of the imagination, and not the type to waste his time and energy on fruitless tasks. And why have his pet cobra guard it. It was ridiculous. I got out of the shower, towelled myself down and padded back to the bedroom. When I’d told Jan I needed to rest, that had been the furthest thing from my mind. There was no way I could even consider sleep. Now, however, I felt exhausted – drained, and the idea of closing my eyes was turning into a need. I slipped beneath the duvet and listened to Jan singing along softly to her iPod as she made her breakfast. I smiled and vowed to record her before I got any deeper into this mess. In the past, the choice of funeral songs or pieces of music had been discussed, with friends and acquaintances and I could never come up with anything for mine. Now I knew. When my coffin slid towards the flames, I wanted Jan’s dulcet tones sending me on my way. My eyes closed, the trauma of the previous night taking its toll, my brain needing to shut down before it blew a gasket. I floated away to Jan singing the Mamas and Papas old hit ‘California Dreamin’. She loved sixties’ music, especially the American bands. Over the years she’d introduced me to The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and Papas and many more. Although not as enthusiastic as her, I saw why these groups had stood the test of time. As Denny Doherty’s vocals mixed with Jan’s, backed by Cass Elliot and Michelle Philips, I sank deeper, like a stone in quicksand. I welcomed the oblivion as the fanciful fathoms of slumber drowned me in waves of somnolence. That’s a flowery way of saying – I slept – and I dreamt.
I was at a concert, my arms above my head, swinging, a lighter in my hand. The music was indistinguishable, the band invisible, but I could feel the beat of the bass drum in my chest, an additional heartbeat. As I swayed, I was aware of my fellow concert goers slowly disappearing, until I was on my own in a huge venue, the noise in my head dissipating, my mouth becoming drier. I turned away, glad of the peace. The venue became a forest, the trees painted with frost. I could see my breath and feel the chill in my bones. I felt lost and overwhelmed, a stranger ignored and discounted, banished. I curled myself into a ball and tried to shut out the impending surge I knew was coming.
‘The ankh,’ a soft whisper in the dark. I saw a shadowy figure being dragged away, through the fog. I had time to see the face of Ted before it was replaced with the evil, grinning features of Simon Drake. I may have been mistaken, but I thought I detected a hint of consternation.
I awoke with a start, a strange sense of optimism coursing through my veins.
I had just been given a sign; I was sure of it.