Thursday, 21 May 2009

Chapter Two

2 : Everything the Finders Found (Part One)

A cold coming they had of it, through hard travelling and a blizzard which bit into their cheeks and stung their eyes, the snow made violent by the more violent winds.

The two Finders came slowly up the incline of the mountainside and their tread was weary and left deep dark prints in the white for only moments before being covered again. Their wide hats were pulled low to protect their faces as best they could, their long coats drawn tight to their bodies, and they travelled with the stiff-backed determination of men who have never been so cold.

For the most part, their journeying had been in silence, all of it in darkness, but now the smaller of them spoke, his voice raised to make himself heard above the screaming of the wind.

“Fuck me, I hate the North,” said Flynn and he brushed gathered snow and ice from his moustache with a gloved hand. “I hate it in so many ways I’ve never had time to count them all.”

Beside him, Lucas nodded and said nothing.

Flynn continued:

“And on our way back, I do hope we run into that hostler who sold us his two finest terminally-ill horses. That’d be fulfilling.”

They moved on, higher up the side of the mountain at the same slow determined pace. Long minutes and many steps brought them eventually to a high stone wall, nearly nine feet tall, looming out of the blackness between the squalls of snow.

They stopped and Flynn looked up at the top of the wall.

“Oh good,” he said. “Well, you can get over it but I’ll have to find the gate.”

“We should stay together,” said Lucas with emphasis.

Flynn considered him for a moment.

“Did they ever bring you this far up?”

Lucas was also studying the top of the wall.

“No,” he said.

Another silence fell between them, filled by wind and snow.

“That’s it,” Flynn said. “After this, no more jobs in the North. It just gives you the fear.”

He rubbed his chin.

“Okay, we find the gate, go in, show the paperwork, retrieve our guy and the three of us get out of here.”

Lucas nodded.

So they followed the wall, hugging it even though it gave them almost no protection, and before long encountered two pillars holding up a pair of tall iron gates, closed shut. A sign, decorated with an old and rich filigree of ice, read:


and below that:


Through the gaps in the railings and through the raging blizzard, a large building could be seen almost at the top of the mountain.

It was wider than it was tall, and it was very tall, built of red brick most likely imported from the West. At the front and in the centre a wide stone staircase led up to a pair of heavy twin-doors. The windows, empty and unlit like lifeless eyes, were too numerous to count and looked blackly into the blizzard and down on the Finders.

“Why are there are no lights on,” Lucas said.

“What time is it?” asked Flynn. “I can never work out what time it is up here.”

Lucas pulled back his sleeve and looked at his wrist.


“In the morning?”

“At night.”

“Ah, right.”

Flynn trudged across to the gates and worked with lock and handle for a few moments. He turned back to Lucas and called through the storm:

“It’s unlocked.”

“Was it unlocked before, or was that you?”

“Already unlocked,” said Flynn.

Lucas said:

“This is all wrong.”

He reached down to his hip, under his coat, and produced a heavy black pistol. Flynn did the same, then with his free hand pushed hard against the rightmost gate, forcing it with difficulty through a foot-deep of snow until there was enough of a gap to for them to walk through.

Flynn and Lucas walked through, and into the grounds.

There was little cover, only a few low bushes unevenly cast across the landscape that lay within the wall’s circumference. The snow tore through the dark air and across the open ground, mixing up the darkness with brief squalls of white. Lucas and Flynn did not even attempt concealment. They trudged up what they guessed to be the driveway, making for the twin front-doors.

They went up the few stone steps and stood by the entrance, taking advantage of the porch’s shelter. This time Lucas tried the doors, found them locked. They looked at one another, then Flynn said:

“This is definitely all wrong.”

“Yes,” said Lucas, his voice just audible above the wind.

“You want to forget this?”

Lucas shook his head.

“Our reputation,” Flynn agreed.

“Can you do your thing?” said Lucas, nodding at the doors.

“’Fraid not,” said Flynn. “It either works or it doesn’t.” He thought for a moment:

“You head left, I’ll go right, we’ll circle the place and see if we can find another way in. Every good sanatorium has to have a fire escape. Health and safety. Well, not so much health in this sort of place, as safety.”

They went down the steps and set off in opposite directions, back into the blizzard, guns drawn and ready.

Flynn skirted the building, hugging the wall. Whenever he came to an unshuttered window, he would glance through the bars to what lay inside. But all of Bethlehem was in darkness and he could discern little detail of the interior. Furniture mostly, the occasional trolley or gurney abandoned, no people, no motion.

He went from the front, around the side, to the rear of the building. The blizzard was more violent here, the wind’s shrieks high and threatening. Swarms of snowflakes stung his face and eyes and ears and made it difficult to see. Nevertheless, he pressed on, following the wall. And then, in the near-distance, almost invisible in the whirling snow, he saw a black shape ahead of him. Flynn made ready his gun and squinted through the storm.

The shape called something but the sounds were unclear, ripped away by the wind. Flynn moved forward more easily now and found Lucas standing beside a narrow iron staircase which ran up the side of the building to a narrow iron landing and a narrow iron door set into the wall.

Flynn went first, closely followed by Lucas, both of them carrying their guns expectantly. When they reached the door, Flynn tried the handle and pulled the door slowly ajar.

“Ha,” he said, smiling to himself. “What were the odds of that?” Then, all business again, he glanced inside. “Can’t see a damn thing in there. It’s pitch black.”

“I’ll be all right,” said Lucas. “I’ll go first.”

Flynn nodded and they changed positions.

Lucas opened the door wider and went inside and Flynn followed him, pulling the door closed behind him and shutting out the wind.

They were in a corridor, long and low and narrow. All was silence. Flynn could just make out Lucas ahead of him, his black shape more solid than the rest of the darkness around them. Lucas was moving forward, cautious but unperturbed by the lightlessness. Flynn edged along behind him, blind, one hand feeling his way along the wall.

And then Lucas’ foot struck something on the floor. It rolled sideways a short distance.

Lucas pulled up short. He was silent for a moment, then murmured something inaudible.

“What?” whispered Flynn from just behind him.

“It’s a head,” said Lucas.

“What’s ahead?”

“No. It’s a fuckin’ head.”

Neither spoke or moved for several moments. Then Flynn said:

“That’s upsetting.”

There was another long silence.

“As much as I don’t want to know the answer to this,” said Flynn. “Where’s its former owner?”

“Hard to tell.”

“I just knew you were going to say something like that.”

“There are enough bits lying around here to make up thirty people. I can’t work out which belongs to which.”

Lucas drew a second gun from his hip.

“This is very bad,” he said in a low voice.

“Well, it’s definitely not good.”

They stood silent in the darkness for a short age, then Flynn said:

“Let’s see. This is what we know.” He paused as if doing arithmetic in his head. Then: “We’ve come to an out-of-the-way asylum where mad rich bastards come to drool, to collect our guy. The building’s locked down and everyone seems to be have been...disposed of. Have I missed anything?”

Lucas said: “The power’s been killed.”

“Been killed?” repeated Flynn and in the darkness his quick hands checked that his gun was fully loaded. “After this, it’s time for another one of those conversations about appropriate vocabulary for tense situations.”

He fell silent again, this time for much longer. Eventually he spoke and his voice was sure:

“Here’s the most probable scenario. There’s only one of them. He – or, hey, it could be a she, I’m not judging - is here for the same reason we are, and he - or she - is still here. They know we’re here and, very very soon, he - or she - is going to find us and kill us. Really quickly and with some enthusiasm, I would think.”

“You think one person did all this?”

“It’s a probability thing,” said Flynn.

He mused a moment there in the dark, tapping his chin with the fingertips of his free hand.

“So,” he said. “How does this sound as a plan? We find him – or her - and we fuck them up?”

“Okay,” said Lucas. His voice was doubtful. “What are our odds?”

“Well,” said Flynn. “They’re not great.”

In the darkness, he heard Lucas reloading his guns.

“But look on the bright side,” said Flynn. “My amicable relationship with the odds has kept us in one piece so far. If the horses hadn’t died, we might have turned up in the middle of all this. And we couldn’t get in through the front doors where he – or she – would see us, but we did get in through an emergency exit at the back. It’s looking good.”

Lucas was silent.

“Okay,” said Flynn. “Maybe not ‘good’, but things aren’t bleak.”

Lucas said nothing.

“Anyway,” said Flynn. “First, we need to get away from confined spaces.”

“There’s a door about two hundred yards ahea- in front of us.”

“We should make for that. Any idea what’s on the other side?”

“Can’t say for sure. From the outside of this place, it’s probably a large room.”

“Okay, I’ll need you to guide me. I don’t want to, y’know, step on anything.”

Lucas took Flynn’s hand and placed it on the shoulder of his coat, damp where the snow had melted. They walked together, slowly and with hesitation, Lucas occasionally telling Flynn to step to the left or to the right. When they came to the door, Lucas reached out, turned the handle and pulled the door open.

It was brighter here and faint light seeped into the corridor they were in. Flynn was careful not to look behind him. Lucas stepped through the doorway and Flynn followed.

They were on a carpeted landing. It ringed a huge, high-ceilinged vestibule from the roof of which hung an ancient atomic chandelier, now unlit and redundant. The landing ran around the walls of the vestibule and two staircases led down to the ground floor, one close to them, the other on the far side. A massive window, crossed with lattice-work, looked out across the snow and down the mountainside they had recently climbed. Below it, the twin-doors which Lucas and Flynn recognised as being the entrance to Bethlehem.

Through the window, they could see that the blizzard had died down and only the fewest snowflakes weakly stirred outside.

“Bloody typical,” murmured Flynn.

The wind, though, still had its strength and it pushed the clouds across the sky, past the moon, and away, until the whole vestibule was bathed in pale light. The place was deserted, except for more of what Flynn had seen through the windows: derelict gurneys and wheelchairs left in a random pattern across the ground floor.

There they stood, the two Finders, acclimatising to the moonlight: Lucas, tall and broad-shouldered, wolfen face and long grey-black hair, Flynn slight and with finer features.

And then all the lights came on.

Flynn screamed.

Sunday, 25 January 2009


Somebody somewhere (probably with a PhD in Writing Serious Things) would shout at me for cheating...but I do love writing to a soundtrack.

It's a great way of getting instant access to the right atmosphere, helping me pace all those scenes in my head and making my brain itch with new ideas.

Here's the music that helped me write the first few chapters. In particular, 'Storm' by godspeed you black emperor!. It's not the kind of tune you instantly fall in love with but it's got all the right bits in all the right place, and it goes on for a *long* time. That helps.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The First Chapter

1 : North

To the North came the first of the cold winds and it chased and corralled the snow before it. From the high places at the top of the world, it lifted itself and moved across the glaciers, above a river, and beneath the stars, with an icy speed and purpose. It travelled a day and a night before it came to a reef of cloud resting above a wide lake.

The first of the cold winds drove the cloud south and worked as it went, until, its strength diminishing, it came to rest and laid the cloud like a quilt half across the spine of a mountain range and half above a deep valley.

In the centre of the cloud, the first molecule of water-vapour froze and fell, six-winged and unique, to the dreaming world below. Before long, another froze and fell, and then another and another, and another. The first of the cold winds, its business complete, rested and waited for reinforcements.

At first light, the men of the North who lived in the deep valley, stood at the foot of the mountains and looked at the faint dustings of snow. They sifted the cold air with their noses, then breathed deep, and knew that half-a-year of winter had come. They had seen the days dwindling, the rivers running more quickly, the birds moving in great arcs towards the south, and knew that even the weakest and briefest light would soon dissolve to blackness altogether.

The men of the North began to prepare, driving their stock from the mountains down into the great barns in the valley and selecting those animals to be used for food, for clothing, for fuel and for tallow.

The women of the North, too, were busy with preparations, darning last winter’s hides and filling larders with vegetables and cured meat. The edges of the windows were waxed, tarpaulins staked across vegetable gardens.

That night, the Big Snows came and the men and women of the North drew closer to their fireplaces, waiting for the land to change and the ritual of engulfment.