WiP: Oakfield – chapter ten

Work in Progress

Here’s one I finished last night.  Apologies for any 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 Ten

David and Briggs got back at nearly five o’clock in the afternoon.  They arrived in a taxi which they proceeded to unload with half the contents of a supermarket.  Annabelle stood in the hall; she was furious and struggled to hide it.  David noticed and gave James a weary look. Then explained:

“The shops in Oakfield were terrible. They had almost nothing you wanted Bela.”

James smirked. Aware of how particular Annabelle was when she asked people to fetch her things. Annabelle grabbed some of the bags and began inspecting inside each one.

David stopped what he was doing and watched her. James saw the fury flash to the surface and then sink away out of sight.  “So we found somebody to give us a lift to Bodmin.  Found what you wanted there and got the taxi back.”  David explained patiently and then turned to James.  “Took us a bloody age to find a ride out of Oakfield. People didn’t seem to want to talk to us. It was like we were breaking some law asking for a lift.”

“I think it’s probably the other way around.” James said dryly.

“Huh?” David queried.

“Tell you later.  Here, let’s get this stuff into the kitchen and packed away.”  James told him, and plucked away a bag that his sister was plucking through the contents of.

“Hey!” She complained.

“Come on sis,” James called over his shoulder as he strode with more bags towards the kitchen. “One jar of olive paste is like any other jar of olive paste. It’s got olives in it and it looks like a paste.”

In the kitchen Briggs helped James get things into cupboards and loaded up the fridge. From the hall came the harshly whispered sounds of an argument verging on a full-scale blow-up.

“Did you get a net connection?” he quietly asked the portly older man.

“It was adequate, thank you.” Briggs responded brusquely without reflection.

“Is that your work done now or are you going to be dragging David away again?”

Briggs stopped, a bag of basmati rice clenched in one hand, the handle of an open cupboard in the other.  “I know you don’t approve but you have no idea how critical this period of time is for David and I.”

James paused to consider that.  And to judge the outcome of what he was about to say next.  In the quick and final analysis he decided to back his sister rather than remain the silent peace-keeper.

“No, you’re right Robert.  You’re dead right.  I don’t. And neither does Annabelle. You can’t explain it to her. So why don’t you try and consider her a little more when you decide to treat this like a business trip.”

A frown darkened Brigg’s face.  “This isn’t just business, James. There are lives at stake here. The lives of people like you, on the ground – who are relying on the security of funding to make essential hardware acquisitions.”

James clenched his teeth together. Briggs had cleverly looped in his empathy.

Briggs saw it and his red-veined, overly fleshy cheeks widened with a quick predatory smile. “This is just where you can help. Don’t you see? Stop dithering, get yourself involved. You may be able to give David the support where he can get to spend more time with Annabelle and stop this kind of friction happening.”

A momentary pause to allow the sound of David and Annabelle’s raised voices from the hall to reinforce the point.

James didn’t enjoy the swivel of the conversation.  He’d wanted to make a statement that closed down the one  thing that was irritating Annabelle on this trip: instead he found himself standing on a clever little trap.  He nodded indifferently and his eyes slipped focus; stepping away he pointed at the few things that were left to unpack. “Make yourself useful Robert.  And don’t ask me about taking this job again. I’m well aware of what it brings.  I’ll let you know my answer when I’m ready.”

Briggs gave a non-committal shrug and resumed what he was doing. His expression oozed disappointment.  James ignored it and walked out through the rear doors into the back garden.

* * *

It took a while for the mood in the house to settle back towards civility; after his entanglement with Briggs and the short-lived but blazing shouting match between David and Annabelle.  James used the interlude to take a hot shower in the en-suite that was part of the isolated first floor room.   He noted that  the clutter of partly-used gel products and personal objects, including toothbrush and razor, suggested Eustace might also have been using this bathroom on a regular basis.  It made him ponder, once again, what his grandfather was doing up here. Working on something with Hiram Sykes.  The flow of thoughts took him naturally back to the conversation he’d had with Mariana in the café.  And then his mind settled firmly on her.  The physical reaction was immediate; blood started pumping and his emotions veered off on a giddy teenage tangent.  Despite closing down whatever opportunity had existed earlier in the day, the memory of the encounter made him smirk with secret pleasure.  Let it just be that, he affirmed to himself. Just a memory of a flattering encounter with an insanely attractive young woman.

Walking back to his room with a towel wrapped around his waist, he noted the stark bareness of the long passageway wall.  He slowed his pace, feeling a need to dwell on the wall for a moment.  He wasn’t sure why.  On the other side was the en-suite bathroom he’d just used and the long bedroom adjoining it – with the door at the far westerly end.

“James?”

It was Annabelle, calling loudly from the ground floor of the large central hall.

“Yeah?” He tossed his head to respond, then eyed the wall for a moment longer before frowning, puzzled, and padding along the rest of the passage onto the first floor balcony overlooking the hall below. His brow lifted as he saw his sister was standing there, a comedy apron covering her summer dress.

She smiled: “Do you want to help David and I prepare dinner?”

“Sure.”

* * *

They made an effort.  All of them smartly dressed, including Anthony who had removed the polychrome headband and put on a freshly ironed-shirt.  Conversations were kept non-confrontational.  Everyone sitting around the large, dark, highly polished dining table appeared genuinely relaxed.  Contented smiles.  Friendly eye-contact.  The room glowed.  Silverware and cut-crystal sparkled in the slow sloping rays of the evening sun.  It was a glimpse of how things could be if all the lines of tension were ignored.

Annabelle served up a feast.  Insalata Caprese to start, then a Cioppino with freshly caught lobster and a spicy twist; this she followed with Pollo con Salsa al Mascarpone e Marsala – that’s what she called it but then confessed they had no Marsala wine so she’d used a 30-year-old bottle of port from Eustace’s collection. She finished it off with ricotta cheesecake drizzled in a rich, dark chocolate espresso sauce.

“A good enough reason to open such an excellent bottle,” Robert chortled, referring to the exquisitely cooked chicken dish. No doubt he was looking forward to after-dinner drinks.

Each course was served with a different wine which David brought up from the basement. Earlier, before diner started, James had encountered him coming up into the hallway blowing dust from one bottle. They’d exchanged glances, both moving in opposite directions.

“It’s like a treasure trove down there.” David had stated briskly.

The comment settled into James’ thoughts like a troublesome visitor. Placed itself right alongside his recurring recollections of Mariana Lockheart.

James waited until David had served after dinner coffee with thin sticks of dark chocolate, before he raised the subject of the house – and what the family was going to do with it in light of the past twenty-four hours.

The focus of attention went to Annabelle.  It was her house. Her inheritance.

Annabelle pulled a faux-cringe and shrugged one shoulder.  “I don’t know.  I do know I really love the place.  And I just have to wonder if what’s happened today isn’t just my imagination working overtime.”

David looked between Annabelle and James.  “What happened today?”

James pouted his lips, drummed fingers on the edge of the glossy table. “I guess Bella didn’t put you in the picture during all that shouting earlier.”

His sister fired a daggers-look at him but it was meant in jest.

David cleared his throat. James smiled for a moment, and then explained how Bella had been frightened by several men standing in the gateway to the drive.   He twisted a glance at Anthony, “I think they were probably the same men who had been looking for you.”

David raised his eyebrows.  Anthony leant forwards and explained at length what had happened to him earlier.

Annabelle reached over and grabbed the bottle of port.  Tipped a glance towards James as she poured an uncharacteristically large glass: she almost never drank alcohol. “Tell them about what the locals say about the area above here.”

James recounted the story as he had heard it, but without mentioning Mariana and as earlier, leaving out the part about bodies being found with damaged heads.

The revelation had a surprisingly sobering effect on everybody. The mood around the table became sombre and serious, causing James to regret bringing it up.  But at the same time, it was a discussion that needed to be had.

“Hiram Sykes told me the same thing when I swung by his place this morning.” He added.

Annabelle rested her forehead against her fingertips, elbow propped against the table.  “I don’t like that man.”

James scrunched his lips up. “Well, he’s going to be coming round here tomorrow or the day after. He wants to meet with you.  He wants to make an offer on the house.”

Everyone made comments about that.

James made a calming motion with his hands held out, palms down. “I think Bella should give the man a listen to. He’s probably going to make a genuine offer and I think it would mean a lot to him to get his old place back.”

Robert, who had been contemplating his glass of port, entered the fray: “You seem to be very confident about a man you barely know.”

“Did you pay for that painting he gave you James?” Annabelle asked in a tone that insinuated everything she didn’t say.

James bit back his irritation. He didn’t enjoy feeling like he had to defend his point of view. Instead, he shrugged and showed his palms. “Okay. Just sharing how I see it. Take it or leave it.”

Annabelle seemed to regret her verbal swipe at him. She leant forward eager to speak. “I think it’s good that we all do share what we see. And what we feel.  This house was allocated to me by Eustace in his will but I believe it’s a family decision on whether we keep it or sell it. And if we sell it, then who we sell it to.  James – you obviously vouch for Mr Sykes.  He wouldn’t be my choice but if that’s what the family decide then I won’t argue.  But I also think we haven’t really given this place a proper chance yet. Mr Josh McKenzie has been a little persistent but hopefully he’s walked away with the message: leave us alone.”

James looked at her.

Annabelle conceded to what he was intimating by saying: “Well, for now at least.”  She took a deep breath and mustered a smile.  “Tomorrow then… let’s all just spend the day here. We have more than enough for what we need in the fridge and the cupboards.  There’s no need for us to go anywhere else.”

David caught James’ eye and they exchanged a fleeting glance. Both knew what that tone of hers meant. It meant: that was how she saw it – that was how she wanted it to be – that was how it was going to be.

Anthony clapped his hands together and then locked them around each other. “Well. My mission tomorrow is to get that basement door open.”

“Good luck.” James quipped.

“Ye of little faith, brother.” Anthony retorted in good humour.

“I don’t want you breaking the walls down, Ant.”  Annabelle warned him.

Anthony lifted his hands up by his shoulders in a gesture of surrender: “Not a scratch… on the walls.” Then he slowly lowered his hands whilst a mischievous grin played around his lips. “But the state of that door I can’t vouch for.”

“I might help out,” James suggested, finding Anthony’s eyes.

His brother met the gaze for a beat and then nodded. “Yeah? Okay. That might be cool.”

James pulled a wry smile.

Robert tapped his glass with the side of gold band on his finger.  “I’d like to say an enormous and heart-felt thank you for the meal and for the company. I have thoroughly enjoyed tonight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must retire.”

That ended dinner.

* * *

Annabelle went into the kitchen with Anthony who had decided to help her wash up.  David and James cracked open a bottle of cognac in the snug and settled into the two enormous Zero-Gee leather recliners.  Occasional lighting gave the room an incredible atmosphere: scene of a 1920s murder mystery meets lair of an erudite explorer.  The effect was made more dramatic by the fog now rolling up against the windows outside.

The movie-star looks of David fitted right in.

“What was that about earlier?” James asked, allowing the question to drift from his lips.

David harrumphed, flapped fingers across the arm of his recliner in a show of mild discontent. “The bloody usual.”

James nodded quietly.  His eyes remained unfocussed, absorbing random splotches of soft light amongst the shadows.

David sighed out the first few words. “I don’t make enough effort. I am too selfish. Too self-centred.”

An ironic smile creased the sides of James’ face. “She doesn’t get it. Does she?”

It was rhetorical. David shook his head. “No.  But… She’s always been like this.  You could say I knew what I was getting into. Thanks for warning me.”

The last statement had a tone of mock accusation. James coughed a laugh. “Like you said, you knew what you were getting into.”

“Do love the mad old boot, though.”

James pressed his lips together. “Yeah. So do I.”

A silence formed.  They both supped cognac with their thoughts.  James wanted to ask what Briggs was doing – working, probably – but didn’t want to give David an opportunity to turn the conversation to the potential job offer with Vigilant Venture.

David possibly had a similar idea.  “She’s royally pissed off about Briggs being here.”

“I can relate,” James replied slowly. “Was that your smart idea?”

David made a plaintive sound and looked over at him as if to exclaim: not you too!

James chuckled and pushed his head back, deep into the soft upholstery of the recliner.  “She’s my sister, dude.”

“Yes. I have noticed you’ve been much less spiky with her on this trip. You’re a changed man, James.”

He flexed his eyebrows but kept his gaze dead ahead: the irony of the statement wasn’t lost on him.  At least he was feeling a lot more comfortable about the whole experience, so it seemed.  He wasn’t certain if David actually knew about him getting hacked into chunks of horsemeat and re-zippered.  It wasn’t something you just dropped into a conversation…

David sighed over the rim of his glass. “It’s like she thinks the world owes her something.”  James pulled a grimace. He didn’t want to talk about it. Whether David saw this or sensed it, the conversation switched track: “I guess she got quite a fright today. Really scared herself. Do you know what that was about?  It can’t be just this thing with McKenzie bloke coming around a couple times.”

James could feel his eyelids growing heavy.  He exhaled cognac fumes and took another indulgent sip before offering a suggestion.  “Emotions.”

Out of the edge of his vision he saw David partially turn his head to look over at him.

James pressed the tip of his tongue against the inside of his cheek.  Formed his lips into a ‘o’. Inhaled, and then blew the air out again. “This whole trip. It’s one big mechanism for release.  She’s got us together to be a family. But I think…” He wrinkled his face as he grappled with the idea taking shape. “She got us together to act as a heat shield.  Eustace dying.  She didn’t really know him. A few trips to Germany when she was a kid and then zero.  I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely that he thought of her in his Will and left her the place but that just feels weird. Don’t ask me why. No. Coming here – it’s… it’s like she wants us to confront everything that’s wrong. About us.  About herself.”

He saw David roll his head back to a comfortable position.  No sign if David agreed with the notion or not.  James wasn’t surprised or bothered.  David didn’t do emotions.  David was all about function and making money.

A long comfortable silence elapsed.  James tuned in to the sounds of the house.  There were no clocks ticking but there was…something.  It was more of a physical feeling than a sound.  Impossible to describe or really discern.  He narrowed his eyes and languidly crumpled his lips together, thoughtful.

This house. Out here on its own. With Hiram Sykes down the bottom of the garden overlooking the sea.

A distant clatter of plates being stacked away. Annabelle laughing at something Anthony must have said – or done. Their younger brother could be trusted to play the clown when he was in a good mood.

Hiram used to own the place.

What the hell is in the basement?

David interrupted his train of thinking: “You know, if something was to ever happen out here we are totally cut off.”

“There’s a cheery idea to go to bed on.”

David chortled. “I was talking about the idea of Annabelle keeping this place.”

“You’re still against her keeping it, I take it?”

“Officially, it’s an open vote with Bella holding the veto card. I don’t care what she said tonight. Tonight’s a different day when it comes to her applying her sense of what is right. Unofficially I’m dead against it.  And why here for God’s sake? Why not the South of France?”

“Erm, because Eustace didn’t die in the South of France.”

“Har-bloody-har.  Smart-arse.  You know what I mean. There is no network coverage. There isn’t even a hard-line to connect a bloody phone to.  The McKenzies have all the land above and behind here. And never mind the fact they appear to be running a small army to chase people off their land – the entire place sounds riddled with bloody mine shafts.  You’ve got the sea in front of us. The only way out is down that road out there and down  through the town.”

“Some people would pay a premium for that kind of isolation.” James said dryly.

It seemed he’d made an interesting point because David went quiet to consider it.

James allowed his body to sink deeper into the chair as the silence resumed.  And yet, a chord of tension began to thrum along his spine.  Something just wasn’t right.  Call it a hunch. Or intuition…

Which was when they heard Robert Briggs running down the main stairs yelling words of alarm, shock and warning: somebody was outside – somebody as on the roof with coloured lights – he’d seen something from the window.

# # #

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