Chanter's Hide

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SEVENTEEN

I hadn’t thought about the old chap for a while, apart from to curse him for leaving us his cottage, in the first place. Now though, I admired him for standing up to Drake, especially considering his age. Here was me, less than half his age, still fighting the urge to turn and flee. I vowed that I would avenge the poor old chap. I would make Drake pay for whatever it was he did to him.

“What was he really like?” I asked Efram. “I only met him briefly a couple of times.”

“He was fearless” Efram replied. “Put me to shame. He was a proud man, with the heart of a lion.”

“And you have no idea at all how he died?”

“Like I told you before, Drake took care of everything. Said to me – oh by the way, Ted died of a heart attack, last night.”

“You never saw his body?”

Efram sighed. “No, I didn’t. I went back into my cottage and closed the door. The look in Drake’s eye was enough. I still regret not being able to say goodbye to him.”

“I liked Ted,” said Peter.

“Yes, I know you did; and he liked you too, son. Mind you, I would have preferred it if he had made sure you were out of earshot, when he effed and blinded.”

“He used to make me laugh,” Peter recalled.

I wondered if we were talking about the same man. My most enduring memory of Ted was how miserable and cantankerous he had been. Still, he had never had much to do with the family; Efram was, after all, his friend.

“It’s beginning to level out,” I said.

“Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” Efram asked.

“Not yet, I’m afraid,” I replied apologetically.

“We are really close,” said Peter. The tone of his voice indicating the disgust he felt. “I can practically smell the stink.”

I sniffed the air, but, obviously, didn’t possess Peter’s olfactory skills, when it came to rooting out evil. I was about to ask him if anything was occurring in the opposite direction but stopped myself. It was not helpful for any of us, for me to keep pestering the lad. Instead, I listened to Efram puffing and blowing and prepared myself, as best I could, for whatever lay ahead. I tried to recall some of the manuscripts I’d read in the past, centring on the black arts. Unfortunately, all I could remember was the constant bringing forth of the devil, in various guises. The most popular being a goat. I was beginning to regret not taking those subscriptions more seriously, even though the composition, in most cases, had been horrendous. Some had seemed like textbooks on the occult, even though they were submitted as fictional. Those were the ones I was trying to dredge up. The problem was – I’d only read the first few pages, made the decision, and rejected them. Unless I decreed that the author showed promise, my P.A. Jenny would have sent out the usual – thank you, but no thank you letter. Now, I was wishing I’d been less hasty. But hey, we all have regrets. Efram dragged me from my thoughts.

“Has anybody got any idea how much longer this damned tunnel is?” He hissed. “I’ll have no skin left.”

Even though I could see no light, other than that of the torch, Peter answered him. “Not too much further now, Dad.”

Efram sighed. “Thank God for that,”

I was about to ask Peter how he knew, when the light at the end of the tunnel began to make an appearance.

“However long the tunnel,” I said. “We will all, eventually, see the light.”

“Very profound, I’m sure,” said Efram. “Just get a move on, will you?”

I pushed on, the moonlight becoming more accessible again. My undiscerning sense of smell was, suddenly, on red alert. The stink that Peter had mentioned earlier was starting to penetrate my heathen nostrils. There was a burnt, coppery aroma that almost made me wretch.

As we emerged from the tunnel, Efram’s sigh of relief was followed by a gagging cough. “That’s awful,” he spluttered.

The moonlight showed several irregular stone slabs, surrounding something that resembled an altar. There were various markings in the grass and soil, some painted, some sliced and dug out. Although I’d never smelled it before, I knew the reek that was suffocating me was that of blood and burnt flesh. I retched, Efram threw up, Peter stood with his lip curled in disgust.

Now there was no avoiding the question. I needed positivity.

“Peter,” I said, a little more forcefully than intended. “Anything?”

There were tears in his eyes. “There is so much evil in this place,” he said in a whimper. “So many have suffered here.”

I didn’t possess Peter’s gift, but even I could feel the corruption, emanating from the very soil beneath our feet. This was little more than a slaughterhouse. I looked at the altar and imagined young babies lying there crying in terror, just before their short lives were ended. I didn’t try to stop the tears; they were all I had to give.

“Good God in Heaven,” whispered Efram, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “This is a terrible place.”

I regained a little of my composure and asked the question again.

“Are you feeling anything that might help us, Peter.”

He shook his head. “It’s smothering everything,” he moaned. “It’s everywhere.”

I knew what he meant. The stench seemed to seep into my pores, claw at my throat. This was only a couple of steps up from hell itself.

Efram retched again. He held up his hand. “I’m sorry,” he spluttered. “That awful stink just gets down you.”

“We have to do something,” I said, my cheeks wet with sorrow. “We have to find what we came for. We have to stop this.”

Peter cleared his throat and straightened his back. “You’re right, Ben,” he agreed, a steely determination in his young voice. “Standing here feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t going to get us anywhere. This foul business has to be ended, once and for all.”

Efram looked at his son, his pride shining like a beacon. “Where do we start?”

“I guess we do the same as we did before Peter found the tunnel down to this abattoir,” I suggested.

Peter nodded. “Spread out. I don’t know what we’re looking for but, I’m sure we will, when we find it.”

I was devastated that we were no further forward than that, but it was what it was. I don’t think any of us were too keen on splitting up, but when the devil drives, and all that. An unfortunate turn of phrase, under the circumstances. I glanced at Efram. He was still looking a little green around the gills.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“Not really,” he replied. “You?”

“I’ve been better,” I said, trying to muster a grin but failing miserably.

“What is he?”

It was obvious who he was talking about. “I don’t know. All I do know is that before coming to this village, the devil was a myth and the jury was still out regarding the man upstairs.”

He nodded. “Well, we’d better get on with it, I suppose.”

Reluctantly, we gave each other the thumbs up and parted company.

As we walked amongst the stained, stone slabs, pictures sprang into my mind. Drake conducting his disciples in an orgy of disgusting degradation, whipping them into a frenzy before the main event. I stopped the film show there and then. I could not envisage what would happen to Jan and Charlie if we failed.

In fact, failure was not an option. My wife and child were depending on me, even if, at the moment, they didn’t know it. Ignorance, in Jan’s case, was definitely bliss. I despised the vicar more than I had ever hated anyone or anything else before but, for the time being, I was happy for Jan to think he was one step down from the Almighty.

“Oh God, this is disgusting,” Efram groaned. “I don’t know what I’m stepping in, half of the time.”

I nodded grimly. The ground was splattered with excrement and bodily fluids. More images tried to leap into my mind, but I forced them back. I had to stay focused and not let Drake or any of his abhorrent practices get into my head. I gagged a couple of times but managed to keep the contents of my stomach intact. The same, however, couldn’t be said for poor, old Efram. He was retching every couple of minutes.

“What was that?” I heard him say. I looked over to where he was standing, about twenty yards away. He was peering into the gloom. As I was trying to see what was concerning him, I heard a rustling sound behind me. I turned around quickly, my heart rate quickening. A bank of cloud had decided to creep across the moon. I flicked on the torch and gasped.

A line of spiders, the size of rats was creeping towards us, their eyes white and lifeless. Strings of repulsive drool hung from their gaping maws. I shone the torch, in an arc, over to where Efram was standing. He leapt back when the beam revealed the reason for his disquiet.

“Jesus,” he exclaimed. “They’re huge. I hate spiders.”

Peter was at the apex of our little triangle and still searching. He heard his father and turned.

“What’s wrong?” He asked.

“We’re not on our own,” I said, shuffling backwards, shining the torch back and forth. Efram began to move back too, muttering ‘oh my God, oh my God’ over and over to himself. I have to say that spiders had never bothered me before I came to this damned rock; in fact, if ever I’d found one in the house, I’d always used the ‘glass and card’ business to release it into the wild. These monstrosities, however, were a different kettle of fish. As we moved back, they kept pace with us. There were hundreds of them. I wondered why they didn’t scurry all over us; we’d be helpless if they did.

“Keep moving this way,” said Peter. “Are you okay, Dad?”

”Not really, son,” he replied quietly.

“Don’t make any sudden movements,” Peter said. “Slowly does it. I may have found a way out.”

If those last words were music to my ears, they must have been a full-blown symphony to Efram’s.

We both backed slowly to where Peter was standing, neither of us taking our eyes off our arachnid friends. Efram shivered.

“Filthy little beggars,” he said. I think the similarity to Humphrey Bogart in ‘The African Queen’ was accidental. He was, certainly, in no mood for impressions.

“What have you found?” I asked Peter, not turning my head.

“It’s another tunnel,” he replied.

“This rock is a bloody maze,” I said. I suddenly had a flashback to our dinner date at Drake’s house. “Which way does it go?”

“I’m not sure,” Peter said slowly. “But I think it’d heading back towards where we moored the dinghy.”

“Or, maybe back to the village?”

“What do you mean – back to the village?” Efram chimed in.

“When we went to Drake’s for dinner,” I said. “He mentioned that there was supposed to be a tunnel under the sea from Chanter House to Smugglers’ Rock.”

“Supposed to be?”

I shrugged. “That’s what he said.”

Efram sighed. “Are you saying we could be going from the frying pan, into the fire?”

I waved a hand to the army of eight legged monstrosities moving seamlessly forward. “Unless you have a better idea. Maybe they’ll still be with Jan.” I didn’t know how long we’d been on this disgusting rock but, I think I was clutching at straws, hoping that Drake and Shona would still be with my wife.

We were only a few yards away from Peter.

Efram let out a heavier sigh this time. “This has been a complete waste of time,” he moaned. “And look where we are now.”

“I thought I was the negative one,” I reminded him.

“I don’t think whatever we’re looking for is on the island anymore,” said Peter. “I think he might have found it and moved it.”

“What makes you think that?” I asked him.

“I’m feeling absolutely nothing,” he replied. “If it was here, even with all of this.” He waved his hand in a general direction. “I’m sure I would feel something.”

“If that’s the case, we have to hope this tunnel does go back to the rectory. It’s the only chance we’ve got.” I was tired of getting slapped in the face. Whenever we thought we were close, the goal posts were moved again. It seemed like Drake knew our every move and was just playing with us.

“Shine the torch down here,” Peter said.

I turned and swung the beam. Sure enough, going downwards, carved roughly into the rock, was a crude tunnel.

“Right, quickly,” hissed Peter. “I don’t think they’ll follow.”

I would have liked a more positive statement; I must admit. Nevertheless, we turned and plunged headlong into the cavern, Efram helping Peter along.

I took the lead, shining the torch ahead. The temperature inside the tunnel was much lower than on the island. There were puddles of sea water on the floor, some of them quite deep. Water dripped from various points along the roof of the cavern.

“This lot could come down at any minute,” said Efram. “We’d be drowned like rats.”

“If what Drake told me is true,” I replied. “This tunnel has been here for many years.”

“Well, it doesn’t look too safe to me,” he muttered.

I couldn’t argue with him. The fact that it had been here for so long could be more a cause for concern, rather than a testament to its continuing durability. After all, nothing lasts forever.

“I’m afraid we’ve just got to take our chances,” I told him. “Unless you want to go back and party with our eight-legged friends.” I could imagine his expression as I heard his exclamation of disgust.

“We’re doing the right thing, Dad,” Peter said. “Try and stop being so negative.”

I had to smile. I was glad the boot was on the other foot. I carried on, avoiding most of the deeper puddles, but unable to dodge the drips and trickles completely. Strangely enough, I felt calm and focused. I didn’t know how or why my demeanour had altered, but I was pleased it had. In my former state, I would have been of no use to Jan and Charlie. Now, at least, I knew I would fight this bastard until I took my last breath. To say I was no longer afraid would have been a lie; I was still terrified. As most soldiers going into battle for the first time are, I would assume. A phrase my dad used to use from time to time came to mind – a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. That just about hit the nail on the head.

I hoped Peter was right about Drake finding the last piece of our particular puzzle and taking it back to Chanter House. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be easily accessible, that was for sure. I’m sure he didn’t consider the three of us a terrible threat anyway, especially me. I had shown him nothing but fear since we moved to the village and, I’m sure, he’d enjoyed playing his little mind games with me. Maybe that was in our favour; underestimation is always a factor in any battle.

“There are fish and eels in here,” Efram blurted.

“Don’t tell me – you hate those as well.” I said.

“There’s no need to take the Mick,” he replied. “I was just saying, that’s all. I mean it doesn’t say much for this tunnel, if the holes are big enough for bloody eels to get through.”

“Dad,” Peter said sharply.

He sighed. “I know, stop being so negative.”

“Yes, take a leaf out of Ben’s book.”

“Oh, that’s rich, that is,” he said glumly. I smiled again.

I tried to figure out how long it would take us to get to the rectory, assuming the tunnel was the one Drake had talked about. I had to admit, when he was telling us, I had thought it more of a myth than reality. Now, however, I prayed it was true.

“What time is it?” Efram asked. “I can’t see anything in this murk.”

I shone the beam on my own watch. It was almost ten thirty.

“Coming up to half past ten,” I said.

“So – do you think that Drake, pretending to be the wonderful vicar, is going to keep a pregnant woman up this late, when he knows she’s got to do all of the clearing up before she can go to bed?”

“Maybe he and Shona offered to wash up,” I said.

“And, if they did, what would Jan say?”

I admitted defeat. Jan would never allow guests anywhere near the kitchen, never mind letting them wash up. It had always been an unwritten rule amongst most people of our age. According to Jan, some of the younger mothers she’d encountered, however, hadn’t been so fussy.

It seemed clear that we were going to be entering the lion’s den.

“I would think they’re probably back at the rectory,” I said. “And, in more than one way, that’s a good thing. The element of surprise is one of our greatest battle plans.”

“You’ve turned into Winston Churchill, now, have you?”

Efram was starting to irritate me, and I was about to inform him of this fact, when Peter chimed in.

“Leave it Dad, will you? Ben has managed to get Drake and his girlfriend to his house for dinner, hasn’t he? He’s even slipped away while they were still there. He’s done his bit, tonight, wouldn’t you say?”

Efram was about to speak when I held up my hand.

“Look, we’re all stressed out,” I said. “This is not the time for bickering.” I grabbed Pete’s arm. “And that goes for you too – understood?”

His primary expression was one of hurt; after all, he had been defending me, but then he saw the bigger picture. He nodded and sighed.

“Like you said, we’re all stressed out. Come on, we’re the three musketeers.” He patted his Dad on the back. “You’re Porthos,” he added.

“Hold on, wasn’t he the fat one?”

Peter and I laughed out loud. The sound echoed eerily around the tunnel, as if mocking us.

“You’re supposed to be on your father’s side,” Efram said, grinning.

“There are only two sides,” I pointed out. “Us and them. The good and the bad.”

“Who’s the ugly?” Efram asked.

We both looked at him and smiled. He shook his head.

“Let’s get on with it.”

“And remember,” I said. “To quote Mr. Dylan – God’s on our side.”

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