Work in Progress
Finished this chapter tonight. So apologies for typos. Straight off the machine. Oakfield. It’s a cyberpunk / horror story set in the South West of England and is a direct prequel to the epic novel God Seed. Enjoy!
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1 here
He was woken by a hazy light seeping in through the wide bay window and the smaller window that sat above the porch below. James sat upright in the large bed and stared. The light was unusual and it took a moment to realise that a dense fog was crowding against the glass outside. He half-frowned, half-smiled, perplexed and delighted. He checked the time on his PA, a small lozenge of black carbo-plastic with a small, very tough hardscreen: it was just past five thirty in the morning. About normal for him. He climbed out of bed wearing just a plain white T-shirt and stepped into the underpants he’d thrown onto the carpet. Going to the window barefoot confirmed what he was seeing. Or not seeing. The fog was dense and obscured sight of anything beyond a few metres of the gravel driveway in front of the house.
“Wow,” he croaked.
Getting dressed, he threw on a pair of fresh jeans but kept on the T-shirt he’d slept in. His eyes continually darted around the room. Adjusting to the fact this was now his space for the next six nights. Small details soaked in. The wallpaper was dark green and red, and held a kind of weirdly organic design with intertwining vines and thorns. It suited the colour of the carpet, which was brown. The furniture in the room was mismatched, all of it antique, but worked together. Unlike downstairs, there were no framed photographs of Eustace. Strange to think of the man dying in the house. Heart-attack. James wondered where. Maybe Annabelle knew, although maybe it was poor taste to ask. He filed the thought away as he hopped around on one leg pulling a sock onto his other foot. Like most of the rooms on the ground and first floor, there was a lot of artwork on the walls: landscapes from different places around the world, some of which looked like they had been painted from photographs. The frames held a lot of dust but the room itself was reasonably clean and tidy. There was a chrome figurine on a dressing table. It lacked much in the way of detail, but looked like a partially melted human with large wings folded behind his back and… snakes, or something, for hair. James paused to scrutinise it with an uncertain expression.
He quietly left his room and discovered sunlight streaming down into the hall from an atrium window above. Peering up, James saw blue sky. He twisted round to look back into his room. Fog rolled against the glass.
An idea struck him. He took the smaller, single staircase that led from the balcony enclosing the hall, up to the top of the house. One of the small rooms up there was directly above his. Empty apart from a rocking chair. Stepping inside, the square latticed window revealed blue sky and sunlight. He crossed the bare floorboards and smiled.
“Well I’ll be damned.” He muttered. The fog stretched away from the house like a creamy lake, all the way out to sea and the distant horizon where it met the blue edge of the sky. The roof of Hiram’s house was lost beneath the surface. It reminded James of the west coast of California, of the fog that rolled in most mornings.
He looked back at the rocking chair and contemplated going downstairs to make coffee and bringing it up here to enjoy the view. But looking back outside he thought about Hiram, an odd old man, their immediate neighbour and somebody who might know what was locked in the basement – or certainly how to get into it. Yet he was mindful of the incredibly early hour. He decided to go for a walk.
* * *
The walk took him behind the house, through the dense fog to the forest that hemmed in the back garden. He found the trail Anthony had mentioned, leading up between the trees. Climbing the steep, rocky incline he quickly found himself coming up above the level of the fog and was able to just make out the house through the trees; just the top level was visible. He came back down, pleased by the dramatic visuals the place had already offered him; then followed the edge of the house round to the front and began to walk across the wild grass and moorland towards the nearby ridge. The air was damp and chilly against his face and bare arms. He liked it.
Hiram Sykes house was a single story, barn-like structure; white-painted weatherboarding and a crazy, ramshackle cast iron chimney poking out the near-side. Decking, stained a dark brown, wrapped around the front of the building and no doubt provided an amazing view when the fog was gone. He sensed the edge of the sea cliffs were only a few metres beyond the lines of the garden. He could hear waves pounding against rock far below, the sounds muffled by the all-pervasive fog.
A dog barked.
Damn. It was still early and he hadn’t wanted to wake the old man up.
Then a white shape came streaking out of the fog towards him. James instinctively raised his hands and stepped back. It was Hiram’s Siberian husky. It dugs its paws in to skitter to a stop on the ground. It barked once; more excited than threatened. Then it reared up on its hind legs and seemed to grin, tongue lolling, panting, before dropping down and inching forward with a bowed head. James chuckled and moved towards it, crouched down and started rubbing vigorously at its snow white fur.
“Bloody useless as a guard dog,” a familiar voice chirped laconically from the direction of the house.
James looked over and saw the slender, wiry figure of Hiram Sykes emerging from the fog. He was wearing a faded blue denim shirt, left to hang over a pair of baggy army fatigues; tanned feet jutted out from a pair of well-worn leather sandals. James gave the dog another rub and then stood upright to greet the man, extending a hand. “Friendly though.”
Hiram took the offered hand and gave a firm shake. “Yeah. Pretty to look at too. Gets me all the girls.”
James laughed. Hiram grinned back.
“What’s the dog called?”
“You don’t like the name?” Hiram’s face darkened.
It became apparent Hiram was toying with him. The eye-twinkling smile came back. He turned and gestured towards the house. “Come inside and join me for a coffee. Or a tea, if that’s your poison.”
“Thanks. Coffee’s perfect.” He looked down at the Siberian Husky. It started panting and inched forward, licked his hand. “Dog. Really? No way.”
“Nah. He’s called Wendigo. Sometimes changed to ‘where-d-i-go’, when the bugger scarpers off for the day.”
James chuckled. They started walking. “And don’t worry. You didn’t wake me. I’m so old I barely sleep these days. Figure I’ll do plenty of that when I’m dead.”
* * *
The main entrance was a solid-looking slab of glass that slid effortlessly to one side. The entire front of the structure was made of the same material, creating a Wendy-house effect that created a staggering sense of light and space. Right now the quality of the light made him think it was like being inside of a giant hydrogel sandwich box. There was obviously no issue with being overlooked. Unless you didn’t like fog, or the sea. The main room, where they were standing, was vast. It served as a kitchen, breakfast area, lounge and dining room. Hiram seemed to enjoy the fact James was so palpably impressed. James couldn’t stop twisting his head around, peering at all the angles. Dozens of paintings crowded the walls. Almost all of them were identical in style to what he’d seen in Eustace’s house: landscapes from around the world, some photorealistic, many others given an abstract twist through perspective and shading. He spotted an open doorway leading into a separate, medium sized room that served as some kind of art studio.
“Is all this work yours?”
Hiram was pouring thick black coffee from a large thermos which had been resting on one of the granite work surfaces. “Yup. Terrible aren’t they.”
James guffawed but sensed Hiram was being self-depreciative.
“Nobody buys them so they just pile up and take over the place. Poor old Eustace eventually took pity and allowed me to use the place as overspill.” He closed the thermos and took a sip from one of the small, hand-made mugs. He swiftly moved over to James and handed him the mug. “Like a sewage outlet.”
“Eustace letting me use the house. Not the coffee.”
“Oh!” James grinned and gestured thanks with the mug. Took a sip. His brain instantly began to tingle. “Damn.”
“You like it strong?”
“Good. Won’t have to shoot you and dump your body over the cliff.”
James snorted a laugh. He took another sip. Then he gestured at the paintings. “Do you sell them?”
“Yeah. I do actually. Mainly through my website. You can see from this place I don’t really do visitors. Sometimes a client wants to come out and paw through the things. I don’t stop them. But I like my privacy.”
James looked uncomfortable for a moment.
Hiram gave him a friendly look. “I didn’t meant I don’t enjoy a visit now and then. Besides, you’re kind of family. Eustace was my best friend. He was, I suppose, like a brother to me. So, that makes you kind of something by association.”
James chuckled again. “Thanks.”
“Doesn’t mean I’ll give you a discount. You can tell me which one you want to buy before you leave. How are you enjoying the house?”
James wasn’t sure if Hiram was actually serious. He suspected not and focussed on the question. “Eustace’s place?”
Hiram nodded. Indicated James should take a seat in one of the deep leather armchairs that sat either side of a low table formed from slab of dark slate. James moved across and sat down. The wall of glass dominated the view in front of them.
“Eustace’s house. It’s… very impressive. No other words for it really. Took us all by surprise when we pulled up in the taxi. I can see why he moved here?”
A flicker of some reaction passed across Hiram’s features; something quietly, easily tucked back out of sight. A whimsical smile took its place. “The house actually used to be mine.”
That was news to James. He wasn’t sure Annabelle knew either. Not that it was important; but it was interesting. “What made you sell?”
“Eustace wanted to move here. Well. To be honest I wanted him to move here and it suited him. His wife had died. He didn’t have any family he was especially close to. His son – your dad – and him. Well, they weren’t especially close. We shared for a couple of years, long enough for me to get this place built. Then I sold up and he paid. In cash!”
James smiled with the incredulous tone Hiram added at the end. But there was something off-kilter. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe it was the mention of Jonas, his father? It had only just struck him that Hiram and Eustace probably discussed his father in the way that friends talk about their kids. Hiram probably knew more about his father than James did. He took a sip of coffee to cover his thoughts.
Hiram obviously sensed an internal dialogue was going on. His piercing blue eyes regarded him thoughtfully for a brief moment. Then Hiram rolled his lips together and looked down into his coffee mug. “I miss him.”
The segue into emotional terrain made James feel uneasy. Yet he could relate to Hiram’s state of mind. He displayed a sympathetic and honest smile. “I actually didn’t know him very well.”
“No. I know. Eustace said as much. I think it bothered him. Not knowing you, or your sister. And there’s a younger one too, isn’t there.”
“That’s right.” Hiram took a sip. “Eustace always meant to get in touch. Invite you folks over for a long weekend. But his interests, well, let’s just say there was plenty to keep him busy.”
James frowned. “What were you and he working on?”
Hiram patted at the air with one hand. “Pah. Nothing of any note. Two old men peering into ancient history and only discovering ancient history peering back.”
A smile took the edge off his frown but he wasn’t convinced. He didn’t want to cause offence by looking sceptical so carried the frown forward and tried to make it look like the basis of his next question. “If you used to live there, perhaps you can tell me what’s in the basement?”
Another flicker across the old man’s features. A rigid tension that Hiram apparently found more difficult to brush away. An uneasy silence rapidly formed. Hiram knew that James had seen something in his face. The old man creased-up one side of his face and peered out at the fog that was drifting against the glass.
“I was wondering if you had the key?” James added cautiously.
“The basement. Old memories, I suppose. Eustace kept a lot of his things from his old house in there.”
“That’s right. Did you ever go there?”
James paused, trying to recall if maybe he had done as a child. He knew Annabelle had, when she’d been really young. He shook his head slowly, a little melancholic. “No. No I never did.”
“A pity. Now that, I always heard, was a fantastic place.”
James realised Hiram had deftly moved the conversation away from the question. He nodded in response but the polite smile on his lips became fixed, unresponsive, then it dropped. He inhaled, a little exasperation seeping into the sound. “Well. My sister’s picking through every drawer in the place. I’m sure the keys will turn up eventually.”
Hiram regarded him calmly. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. It’s been so long since I spent any real time in the place.”
“Of course.” For some reason James felt a pang of guilt for wanting to press the subject. There was probably nothing down there apart from some old porn movies.
Or snuff movies. A dungeon…
Don’t be ridiculous.
Why not? You didn’t actually know the man. You don’t know what the hell he might have locked up down there?
James cleared his throat to push his thoughts into a different gear. “She’ll probably give up after she gets bored.” He knew that wasn’t going to happen. Once Annabelle got an idea inside her skull she’d pursue it until the end of time.
“Are you planning to sell the house?” Hiram asked. The question didn’t come across as nonchalant as perhaps it was meant to sound.
James shrugged with his face. “That’s down to Annabelle. Too early to say right now. She has fallen in love with the place. David, her husband, he’s keen for her to sell. And we’ve had an interested party already.”
Hiram nodded once, a high head tipping movement with a sour smile pulling down his lips. “The McKenzies, no doubt.”
“Yes. Josh. The one that looks like…”
“A medieval fantasy figure.” Hiram suggested with dull humour.
James smiled quickly, “Yes. In a suit.”
“Yes. I know Josh. I know the McKenzies. They’ve been after that house for nearly a year now.”
“And it’s not been on the market?” James picked up the dislike in the older man’s voice.
“No. But that’s not something that would ever stop the McKenzies. They’re ambitious. And can be very forceful when they want something that’s not actually on the table for taking.”
James hesitated, and then spoke openly: “That sounds like a warning. Should we be worried?”
Hiram grimaced painfully, as if berating himself. He shifted his posture in the chair and James thought it resembled a man squirming. “No. I’m sure you’ll be fine. There’s a whole bunch of you and you’re what, here for a week and then gone?”
James nodded. Not certain he was entirely comfortable with what he was hearing. The subtext seeped through Hiram’s words. “Did my grandfather have trouble with them? Is that what you’re saying?”
Hiram froze, an uncertain sigh scraping the back of his throat. He took in a breath, went to speak, paused, and then continued, his tone cautious. “The McKenzies are a small family with big ideas. They own all the land behind your grandfather’s house. Right up across the hills. Dozens of square miles. All belonging to them. They only moved here thirteen years ago. So in a small amount of time they’ve acquired a lot.”
“The land behind the house,” James narrowed his eyes, recalling what Anthony and Robert had spoken about the previous night. “There are signs up there marking it property of Kenzo Con-AG. No trespassing, I think.”
“That’s right. That’s the McKenzies. They run a company supplying construction aggregates and handle small scale mining for tin, copper and lead. The hills are riddled with old mines. Hence the signs. It can be dangerous up there. Eustace did not like them. It’s as simple as that. And I think that attitude rubbed the McKenzies up the wrong way. They control the town. And the past year, I think it was a bit difficult for Eustace. That’s just my opinion. And I think they’re probably jumping at the opportunity to buy the place now that he’s gone.”
“Yeah. That’s the vibe I got.” He was surprised how sullen his voice had become.
“Your best plan is to be polite to them. Say you’ll consider their offer. And then sell the house to me after you leave.”
James looked at him. “Are you serious? You’d want it back?”
“Call it an enduring memory of my best friend for a sentimental old fart like me.”
“You wouldn’t find it… depressing?”
Hiram smiled, albeit a little sadly, then shook his head. “No.”
Both men sipped their coffee. Hiram was watching him, keen but patient. James was mildly suspicious. Was Hiram assassinating the McKenzie’s character to secure the house for himself?
“I was going to come up to the place before you folks left, to see your sister, and talk about making an offer,” Hiram added as an afterthought. “But I wanted to give it a little time so it didn’t feel like I was jumping into Eustace’s grave. Obviously the McKenzies don’t have such sensitivity. I’ll still come up and see your sister. Perhaps you could tell her about our conversation?”
“Great.” A weight seemed to shift from the mood between them. Hiram visible relaxed into the chair, as if this subject had been difficult for him. Glancing around the large open space, Hiram smiled and gestured casually with one hand. “Now. Which painting do you want?”
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