WiP: Oakfield – chapter eight

Work in Progress

One I finished this morning. It’s actually warped a major plank of the book – the plans I had for the plot. So, much thinking to be done now.  Again, 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

Chapter Eight

He walked into town. The sun was up and the morning was already hot, but a procession of large, fluffy clouds provided periods of relief. A good half of the walk was in shadow, too.  The light- dappled shade of the trees lining Rose Brooke Lane as he followed it down the steep incline of Camel Heath; past the small collection of cottages and farm buildings, over the broad stream via the ancient-looking stone bridge and then up the steep incline to come back out into glaring sunlight at the edge of town, at the start of Moritz Parade.  The place was so quiet it could have been deserted.  He moved forward, arms loose by his side, and tuned in.  A solitary car was cruising out towards the far side of town.   Hammering, very distant, building work or DIY.  The flutter of wings as a bird darted above him.  A middle-aged woman behind the counter of a bakery: cakes, sausage rolls, pasties. A hand-painted advertisement for home-made ice cream.  The woman noticed him, gave him a few seconds of her attention and then went back to what she was doing.

He knew it was too soon to make a judgement on the place but his initial impression was that they didn’t have a lot of visitors.

James squinted as the sun moved from behind a cloud.  The idea of stopping for an ice-cream was replaced by the idea of an ice cold drink. Café: a sign mid-way along the street jutted out above the door of what was partially a residential house, the lower floor converted into a business.  1930’s style structure, with worn stone steps leading off the pavement through steep terraces of a well-tended garden.  A large bay with old-fashioned sash windows overlooked the garden and the street.  Gold-leaf lettering stencilled on the glass stated: LOCKHEART’S.  There was also a small creamy white oval logo stuck to the bottom of one pane, with the familiar red S and bold black lettering. His favourite cafes in the Eurofederation always had this coffee brand.  He saw it as a positive omen and walked up the steps.

Inside was small.  Varnished wooden floors, old wooden tables and eclectic chairs, potted plants and a nice light from the windows.  Most of the space taken up by a serving counter and a long chilled cabinet holding freshly made sandwiches and hydrogel bottles of drink. There were only five tables.  A radio was playing from an open doorway behind the counter – a dance beat mixed with a growing chorus of electric guitars, muttered whispering with digital effects and growling lyrics – and he sensed somebody working there.  He cleared his throat.

A woman leant into view.  James nearly stopped breathing.  Early twenties, she looked like some kind of gypsy. Long black hair cascading in wild curls around a small, round face that was deeply tanned.  Large eyes, almond-shaped and intensely brown in colour, projected a penetrating stare that James couldn’t look away from. He was vaguely aware of her naked shoulders.  The white fabric of a loose fitting top starting around her upper arms, across her chest.

Her eyebrows lifted, part enquiring, part mocking.  “Yes?”

He blinked, snapped away his gaze and looked intently at the chilled cabinet. “Err.”

“I recommend the Scandinavian.” Her voice was light and playful, a mixture of English and something else. Gentle West-country burr with a foreign edge on the ‘o’ and ‘the’.  He eased his eyes back onto her.  Tattoos on her bare forearms; complex designs with circles and snakes, it seemed, all green and blue ink and shading.  She walked forward, nodding at the cabinet and then pointing.  “It’s this one. Fresh herring and onion. The secret is the roe paste I use for the base. Do you want to try one?”

He stuck out his bottom lip to frame a deeply pleased smile.  Gave a single slow nod.  “Sure. Sounds my kind of thing.”

She twisted her lips, gave him a crooked smile that suggested she’d guessed correctly.  He stared, soaked in the image of her.  Thin, elfish mouth, with a single chrome stud to the upper right.  Small button nose.  Her skin glowed with health, gleamed with perspiration.  She gestured at the tables.  “Grab a seat I’ll bring it right over.”

He ordered an ice cold Coke and a coffee to go with it and then took a seat at the largest table, placed within the bay. The bottom window was cracked open and an easy breeze drifted through.  His hands were sweating and he rubbed his palms on the thighs of his jeans. He tried to gaze nonchalantly out the window but his eyes kept dragging him back to the girl where she worked the machine.

This was unexpected.  He looked down at his hands and stopped rubbing. Flipped them over and gazed at his palms.

Killing hands.  They should have been cracked and creased but like all the molecular fibre in his body, they were as smooth as new.   But he wasn’t new.  He was much older than this girl and damaged.  It was crazy to think of being attracted to her. It was dumb to hope she might even pause consider him attractive.

He flexed his fingers and lifted his gaze back to her. She was focussed on lifting his sandwich onto a plate.  He sensed her about to notice his attention so looked away.

A dirt-encrusted jeep pulled up outside, it braked hard with the squeak of an abused suspension system.  James craned his neck to peer through the window and watched the solitary occupant get out: a mountain of sweaty muscle wrapped in a filthy T-shirt, sun-bleached and frayed to the point of falling apart.  A hard, unfriendly face framed by a greasy black mullet and a wiry tangle of black beard.   The man saw him looking and seemed to take immediate offence; the block of his head jerking back with a sour sneer.  James sighed and twisted to face the other way. Hoped the bloke wasn’t planning on a quiet coffee.

The girl arrived beside him and placed everything on the table, then walked away, calling over her shoulder: “Pay when you’re finished.”

James nodded.  Yup. No way is she even remotely interested.

More likely she’d find his younger brother to her liking.  Odd to feel the edge of jealousy against the soft vulnerable fabric of his thoughts.  He pushed all the notions away and tucked into the sandwich – which was very good.

Stomp of boots on the wooden floor. James glanced up from his food to see the big figure walking in. James didn’t look for eye-contact. Just went back to eating.

“Hi Caleb,”  the girl greeted, sounding less friendly and less relaxed than when she’d been talking earlier. James dialled-in, listening.

“Damn, babe, you look good enough to eat. Are you on the menu today?”  A rough accent.  The voice of a man used to the company of thugs.

“What’ll you have Caleb.”

“You know what I want.” A sick chuckle.

“Are we going to have the same fucking conversation every time you come in? If you want a drink or some food, then talk, otherwise turn around and walk back out.”

The pause made James wonder if the big hairy lump called Caleb was looking in his direction, not enjoying the audience to his brush with humiliation. He took another big mouthful and made it look like eating the sandwich was the most important, most interesting thing going on in his world.

As if to confirm his instincts, he heard a muttered curse from Caleb. “Don’t be talking like that. I’m a paying customer like that fuck over there.”

Don’t try and pull me into this mate. James thought. He twisted his head and peered out the window.

“You’ve not paid for anything Caleb. So right now, as of this moment, you’re just a waste of my time. And you’re not a good customer. You’re not good for anything but causing trouble.” Then she lowered her voice but James was tuned in. He heard her mutter: “You leave him alone Caleb or I swear to god you’ll be banned.”

James could feel the adrenaline kicking into his system. Preparing for the fight he suspected might come. He hoped not. But he could read this bloke like a children’s book.  His eyes went to the jeep and picked out a company logo:

Kenzo Con-AG.

Great.

“Yeah-yeah. Hot air blowing. You don’t tell me to do nothing. Not round here babe. You know the score. You know what I do and what I can do.”

Cold exasperation flowed from her voice: “Do you want anything?”

“Give me a beer.”

James chewed, reached over and grabbed the cold Coke, took a careful sip – savoured the caramel flavours and the fizzy coldness of it.  Peripheral vision showed him Caleb standing looking right at him, itching for an opening to start a conversation. Or start something.  He saw the girl hand Caleb a bottle, who tipped his head back for a long guzzle. The girl told him the price.  Caleb chuckled, turned, paused, “Put it on my tab.”

Caleb swung his shoulders, twisting his body at the waist and continued to stare at him again. James could feel his blood starting to boil. He hated piss-takers like this.  A slow sigh escaped from his nose. He shifted his gaze and found himself locking eyes with the bloke.  There was a knowing look in the other man’s small, swarthy features.  Cunning and smugness wrapped around an aggressive glare.

“You from the house?” Caleb asked bluntly.

James chewed a little, swallowed, put down the sandwich and wiped his hands together.  “Yeah.”

“Nice place.”

James nodded. Glanced at the girl who was now staring at him as if a light had gone on inside her head: she looked worried.  That wasn’t a good sign.

“Shame the old man croaked-it up there.” Caleb said, infusing an unpleasant tone into his voice.  James gave him a look that said: so what?  Caleb smirked. “Sure was a stubborn fucker.”

James narrowed his eyes. Felt the barbs getting under his skin. He sucked in a breath through his nose, held it.

Caleb waited for a reaction, shook his head like he was not impressed.  “Doubt you folks will be such a problem.  Seem like a bunch of fucking pussies.”

James let a tight smile drift around his jaw and dropped his gaze to the table: not interested.

Caleb reared back, turned to the girl. “Be seeing you babe.”

* * *

When Caleb left the tense atmosphere in the small room vaporised in an instant. James saw from the corner of his eye as Caleb got back into the jeep; then heard him gun the engine and roar away down the road.  The girl hurried around from her side of the counter. “I’m really sorry about that.”

James lifted his hands: it was no problem. He couldn’t help himself from smiling.

“You’re Eustace’s family?”

“Yes. He was my grandfather.”

She seemed pleased.  Wringed her hands together.  “He was such a lovely man. I can’t believe he’s gone. Oakfield just isn’t the same without him.”

James opened his mouth to speak but then let it hang for second before closing it slowly; he brought a clenched hand against his palm.  “I didn’t really know him.”

“No? Oh no that’s such a shame. He was awesome.”  James looked at her.  Aware of her scent, a musky perfume, crowding his senses.  She was leaning over the edge of the table, one slim arm propping her up, fingers spread wide, glossy black nail polish.  She looked back at him, and misread his consternation. “Hey, I’m sorry. I guess it must be kind of weird me talking about him.”

An easy smile touched his lips and he shook his head. “Nah. You’re fine.  What was all that about?”

“Caleb?”

“Hmm-hmm.”

She pushed herself upright and rolled her head to one side, disgruntled. “God. He’s such a freak.  Thinks he can just have me.”  She grinned bashfully, dragged one hand into her hair and gave it a chaotic rub – sending more locks and curls to jut out in crazy angles.  “You know how it is in a small town.  I’m used to him but since I, grew-up, you know? Ugh. And I don’t think he’s the kind of man to treat girls well. Know what I’m saying.  I think I need to get out.”

“Is he a McKenzie?”

She pulled a face.  “You’ve heard of them, huh?”

“They want to buy my grandfather’s house.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard about that. They’ve been trying a long time.”  She seemed to catch herself, as if this wasn’t a subject she really wanted to be talking about. Not with him? “You been talking with Josh?”

He nodded in response.

“Josh can be quite nice. He’s certainly the nicest out of the family.”

“What’s Caleb to them? A cousin…?”

“He’s Josh’s brother. I know. Hard to believe they came out of the same pod. Josh is the eldest.  Caleb and he don’t get along.”

“Brothers either love or hate each other.”  James said with a – don’t I know it – tone.

She chuckled, twisted side to side beside the table. “I wouldn’t know. Just me and my pop.”

“Is this his place?”

“No. This is my place. Lockheart’s.  Mariana Lockheart.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mariana.”

“Miss Lockheart to paying customers.”

He grinned. “James. James Spaulding.”

She held a fist over his hand. He made a fist to match it and they bumped top and bottom together. The touch of her sent an electric jolt through him.

“My dad runs a catering biz from our house.  Meals on wheels for the oldies.  He brought stuff to your grandpop whenever he’d been up all night with Mr Sykes and too wrecked to cook for himself. Burning the midnight oil or whatever it was they got up to. Always working on something.”  She was smiling at the memory.

He smiled back. Enjoying the sense of his grandfather in her words. “Do you know what he was working on when he died?”

The mention of his death rubbed the smile away. She shook her head sadly. “No. I could ask pop’s but I doubt he’d know either.  I don’t think Eustace trusted him.”

“Your father?”

She nodded, made a face to explain: “Or rather, I don’t think Eustace could let himself trust him because pop’s was doing a lot of work for the mines. Up behind your house, see?”

“The mines are McKenzie owned.” He stated, showing he understood.

“Right. And McKenzie run. Caleb, he’s like a big bad boss up there. A lot of men up there need feeding.  Pop’s delivers food.  A lot of food.  Never see them in town, though. Foreign types, so pop says. Caleb keeps them on a tight leash, I’m guessing; like they’re not supposed to be telling anybody about the mines.  I just figure it’s because the area has got such a bad reputation. Caleb doesn’t want to be paying for funerals and stuff.”

James frowned, shook his head slightly from side to side to show he didn’t understand.

Her expression widened. “Oh wow. You don’t know?”

“Nope.”  He didn’t like the sound of that.

She stepped back from the table and bit down on one glossy-black fingernail for a moment, before moving it to one side and saying: “Can I ask you a question?”

Was she changing the subject?  He shrugged, a little uneasy. “Depends. You were telling me about the bad reputation around the mines.”

She grinned.  It made her look adorable.  The finger came away and went into a tangle of hair by her face, started curling it round and round.  “I am! Impatient. But I wanted to ask you if you were married. Or had a girlfriend?”

“Err, no. Neither.”

“Okay. Just curious,” the grin became a smirk, playful. She tilted her head to one side for a moment, then she became serious. “Okay. No joke. Folks go missing up there. All the time.  It’s seriously dangerous.”

His brain was whirling. Two flows of information were sweeping in to create emotional turbulence.  He needed to ring Anthony on his PA and tell him to get the heck away from the area – if that’s where he’d gone.  And this girl was flirting with him. Maybe.

No maybe about it.

                Wait, all she asked was if you were married or single.

                And?

Focus on what she’s actually telling you.

“What do you mean missing? And quantify what you mean by all the time.”

“Whoa. Yessir.”

He realised he’d been a little harsh.  “Sorry.”

“It’s OK.  I can relate. I mean, it’s weird enough hearing these stories and I live here. I grew up with them. You know? But your grandpop. That house. Well it’s right on the doorstep there.”  She shifted herself bodily to perch her backside on the edge of the table, heels of her palms resting on the edges. “The whole area gets this fog, right?”

“I’ve seen it. Saw it this morning.”

“Comes in most mornings. Doesn’t tend to affect the town because of the hills that rise up around the coastline. But sometimes the fog comes in at night. And it comes in from the hills behind your house. Which doesn’t make sense.  So I’m told.”

“Okay.” He was frowning.  The way she was explaining the story sounded more like she was trying to make sense of it herself.  She probably didn’t get a lot of chance to talk it through with people not from Oakfield.

“And folks just go missing.  They’re either never found again.  Like they fell down an old mine shaft or something. Or sometimes they are found. And that’s when it’s the worst. Because it’s like they’ve fallen.  But sometimes they’re found nowhere near the cliffs.  They’re just lying there on the ground, all broken and mangled. And there’s always something wrong with their heads.”

“Wrong…?”

She shrugged and brought her hands away from the table. As if she was struggling to explain what she was thinking.  “I’ve never seen it myself. Just what people have said when they’ve found them.  Eustace and Hiram said the same.  In fact, they probably said it best.  It’s as if they had landed on their heads or their heads took the full force of the fall.  Like there was almost nothing left.  Just… mess, you know?”

James winced as he recalled images of several decapitated corpses he’d experienced in recent months; victims of the war.  And then his mind clenched around the crumbling ledge of his sanity, as a shadowy, murky memory came into view: burning bodies hanging by their necks and hacked to pieces.

“Oh my God I’m really sorry.”

Her concerned voice snapped him out of the downward plunge.  He blinked and rubbed the tips of his fingers roughly against his face.  She was standing away from the table, looking at him with genuine concern.

He dry swallowed. “Erm. It’s Okay. Just, er, pretty graphic description.”

“Hmmm.” She made it obvious she wasn’t convinced; the concern lingered for another moment before she tucked it away.  “Okay well that’s enough spooky ghost stories for you today, mister.”

The intimacy of her tone caught him by surprise, hooked him in, made him look into her face and held him there.  She narrowed her eyes and pouted her lips, and he sensed her trying to read his thoughts where they bled through into his expression.   He drummed his fingers against the edge of the table.  “Caleb. He and Josh don’t get on? Why?”

Her look show surprise and dismay at the turn of the conversation. After a pause she answered: “Caleb thinks Josh is weak.  Don’t ask me why.  Like I said. It’s a brother thing. But Josh is the eldest son.”

“Tell me about the father.” James requested, trying not to make it sound like a demand.

“Jack McKenzie. Well he’s a strange old dude. Must be at least ninety or so but the man looks like he’s in his fifties. The man goes surfing every day. And he looks good.  Keeps mostly to himself otherwise.  Must have some serious money to afford that kind of surgery. Know what I’m saying?”

James pulled a tense grimace. “Yeah. I do.”

That seemed to bring the conversation to a natural, abrupt end.  It seemed right that she would turn away and go back to whatever work she’d been doing in the next room, which he assumed had to be the kitchen.

Instead, she lifted her chin and scrutinised him from behind rogue strands of wild hair. “How’s the Scandinavian?”

“It’s really good.” He tapped the edge of the plate where half the sandwich remained.  “I like to take my time.”

“Of course it’s good.” She proclaimed quietly, studying him closely.  She wiggled her fingers in front of him.  “Made by these fine hands.”

A strangled-sort-of-laugh slipped from his lips. He grinned and shook his head.  “I can see why Caleb has such a thing for you.”

That seemed to catch her off guard.

Ice-breaker or gloom-maker? 

She eased herself away from him, a blank expression on her face and his spirit started to sink. But then she rocked back on the balls of her feet and a cheeky grin split across her face.  “Well. I can only take that as the finest of compliments.”

“Please do.” Christ, don’t sound like a bloody wet handkerchief. What the hell do I say now? He stalled. Looked at his hands where his fingertips were pressing against the edge of the table.  This stuff never came naturally to him.  His gaze slanted upwards to find hers sloping down.  She was biting her bottom lip.  The moment no longer felt awkward.  She was interested.  It was a clear as daylight.  His confidence swelled. His mood soared.  He almost felt dizzy.  Don’t blow it.

                And then the deep-placed cogs of his mind clunked into an old and worn gear.  Maybe she was just desperate to leave Oakfield and was keen to grab any opportunity?  She would use him and then move on.  Live on his shirttails and then dump him, cold.  He needed to avoid that kind of pain.  On top of everything else he was going through, it would destroy him; at least that was what he feared.   The fear waxed.  Acid burned into his emotional core and ate at the roots of the joy he’d been feeling only moments ago.  The blunt reality of Caleb stalked into his thoughts.  A brute who apparently carried a sociopathic obsession for Mariana.  James fast-forwarded the scenarios tumbling out of his head.  If he started something with Mariana and Caleb found out: there would be trouble. Trouble for him. Trouble for his family.

No, he decided, getting involved with Mariana in any way involved too much risk.

She was watching him. Puzzlement was starting to seep into her expression.

James gripped the edge of the table and pushed himself up. His movements were heavy, as if he’d turned into wood.  “I better be going.”

“Oh.”

And that was that. She quickly wrapped away her feelings and folded them back behind a blank expression.  Nodding at the unfinished sandwich: “I’ll put that into a bag for you.”

“Great. Thanks.”

She did. He paid, and walked out.

“Have a nice day,” she called after him.

He lifted a hand but didn’t look back.

Outside the heat of the day slammed into him. He picked up a long, quick stride. He needed to keep moving.  He needed to get to the house.

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