DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
TEL. mobile 07982 032974
text and images throughout copyright
The Brotherhood of the Hand, a small society, dedicated to mystery, consists of four elderly men, in equally elderly grey suits, who correspond to the fingers of the human hand. Simon and Annie, brother and sister, have become members of the Brotherhood, as have their friends, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko. There is also Adrian the seagull and Sniffer the dog, the eyes and nose of the Brotherhood. A new member is Morag, half-policewoman, half-faery. Together they fight a war against their arch-enemy, Doctor Wrist, and his associate, Venoma. The scene is the seaside city of Brighton.
‘How is she?’
‘I still don’t know. She won’t speak to anybody. She just lies there and stares out of the window’.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Of course you can. You might be able to get her to say something’.
Morag, the half-faery policewoman, followed Simon into the hallway.
‘Where is she?’ Morag asked quietly. The house seemed unnaturally quiet, apart from a low conversation behind a panelled door opening off the hall.
‘She’s upstairs, in her bedroom’. Simon saw Morag’s glance at the door. ‘Our parents are in there. They’re very upset. They’ve tried to talk to her, over and over, and got nowhere. Mum’s been in tears for ages now’.
‘Shall I go and try to talk to her?’
‘It might help, Morag’.
She followed Simon up the stairs. Simon tapped gently on a door on the landing and pushed it open.
‘Annie? Morag’s here’.
Morag went over and sat down on the bed, next to Simon’s sister. She stroked Annie’s short dark hair. Annie lay on her side, looking at the open window, her hands raised on the pillow, close to her face, half-clenched. Her face was still, impassive, but empty. She gazed at the sunlight outside, but made no movement, or said anything. Morag pressed the duvet that half-covered Annie, feeling how thin her shoulders were. She stood up, and looked back at Simon.
‘Is she eating?’
Simon shook his head.
‘Is she drinking? Taking liquids?’ Morag asked urgently.
‘She’s drinking plenty of water’.
Morag heaved a sigh of relief. ‘That’s good news at least’. She looked down at Annie and affectionately stroked her forehead. ‘See you later, Annie’.
Simon and Morag sat around the table in the kitchen together. Simon set down his mug of tea hard on the wooden surface, spilling it on the surface.
‘Look, Morag, do you know what’s wrong with my sister? Is there anything at all I can do about it?’
Morag caught the tremble of despair in his voice, and leant over to ruffle his hair. She felt compassion for Simon, noting his drawn face, and the lines of tension around the corners of his mouth. Oh, no, she thought. This one’s close to the edge as well.
‘What did the doctor say?’
‘He just said that she was in some form of shock, or other, and that she might come back on her own. He didn’t want to put her in hospital, because it probably wouldn’t do any good. He’s going to check on her, but thinks she’d be better off in her own surroundings’.
Morag remembered the small china figures that she had seen in Annie’s bedroom, that were her pride and joy.
‘I think the doctor’s right. But what I will say, Simon, is only from my own experience’.
I think your sister is in a state of catatonic shock. She feels betrayed by everybody, her friends, her parents, even you. Please, let me finish’, before Simon could protest. ‘She’s in a deep dark hole, where nothing can get to her. She’s retreated from a world which she cannot understand, as yet. She has to make sense of it, to come to terms with things that she is frightened of. She’s gone into a world where only basic things matter – warmth and shelter. At this moment, those are the only things that she can be sure of’.
Simon was silent, staring at the table.
‘You two have been through so many terrible things together. Those, alone, would cause you terrible grief and sorrow. They call it post-traumatic stress disorder these days, and not surprisingly, taking into account your experience of war and battle. It used to be called shell-shock, before they realised what it really was. It affects you, too, Simon. I can see it in you’.
Simon raised his head and stared at her.
‘How does that help Annie? How do you know all this?’
‘Because I’ve been there myself’.
Morag swallowed hard. Simon could tell that she felt emotional. He fell silent again, and listened.
‘When my Mum was killed. I thought my world had come to an end. I couldn’t function any more. I just felt helpless, and crawled into a hole. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe in anything any more. She was more than a mother to me. She was my friend, my companion, my mentor. The light went out of my world when I knew she had gone. I didn’t want to live any more. But there was one thing that dragged me out into the daylight, and made me come back. Do you really want to know what that was?’
Simon nodded. He had, without realising, moved his chair closer to Morag’s. He noticed two tears splashing onto the table, from Morag, but ignored them.
‘The desire to avenge my mother’s death. Just so that I knew she hadn’t died in vain. It’s what kept me going when I decided to join the police. All the insults, all the sexist jokes, all the furtive gropes. I’m a good cop. I care. My faery side gave me strength. I want to find out who killed my mother, and why!’
Morag’s hands were clasped together, tightly, the knuckles of her hand white.
Simon put his hand over hers. For once, he knew what he wanted to say.
‘Morag’, he began softly, ‘Shall I tell you something?’
He felt excited. Something that Morag had said had given him some hope.
‘What you’ve just told me means that your mother is speaking through you. Perhaps she’s still inside you, I don’t know. That means that she still lives in you. You mustn’t be sad. She’s still there!’
Morag was listening.
‘The other thing is that perhaps, just perhaps, something might happen that makes Annie come back. I don’t know what it might be. But you’ve given me hope! If you can get out of whatever dark place you were in, then so can Annie! You wonderful policewoman, you!’
‘Wait! Simon! I can’t get your hopes up! I don’t know, if or when….’
‘”If” is a variable, and “when” is a possibility! All right, all right’. Simon began to calm down. “I know I’m talking rubbish, but it might happen’. Something, that might suddenly bring her back. Look, Morag, I’ve been in the Brotherhood of the Hand long enough to know that the unexpected can always occur. I just hadn’t thought of it’.
Morag looked at him despairingly. What have I done, she thought.
Simon had realised what was going through her mind.
‘Don’t worry, Morag. It’s not you. It’s just that I have an instinct. I think, and don’t ask me how or why, because I just don’t know, but I have a feeling that there might be something different the next day. Just call it brotherly intuition’.
Morag shut her mouth, which had fallen open.
‘Well, at least, can you call me tomorrow, if anything’s changed?’
‘I promise, Morag. I’ve got to see the Brotherhood tonight. They’re anxious to hear any news’.
Morag opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat. She stared through the windscreen, her mind in turmoil. Have I done more harm than good, she felt, guiltily. Have I made a real mess of it?
Simon pushed the bell at the side of the studded black garden gate that led to the headquarters of the Brotherhood of the Hand, and walked through he overgrown garden, past the ancient fig tree, gnarled and bent with age, and through the big front entrance. The fig tree reminded him that many years ago, when Brighton was still a small town, this whole area had been covered with gardens and glasshouses, all the way down to the sea. The old tree was a remnant of all the vegetables and fruit that had grown here, even oranges and grapes. He tramped up the stairs and entered the big vaulted room that was their meeting-place. There were already several figures there, seated around the long narrow refectory table that stood crosswise at the end. They rose and greeted him quietly.
The Four Fingers sat behind the table, four elderly grey men in black. Their heights differed like the fingers of the hand, with Middle Finger as the tallest. At the end of the table, on the left, sat Pat, the Irish scholar, wearing his normal panama hat. Next to him, half-turned on the bench, was a huge figure, almost blocking out the candlelight. Dressed from head to foot in voluminous robes, her dark face smiled with a brightness of a lighthouse. She raised her right hand towards him in blessing.
At the other end of the table, were three girls of his own age, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko, also members and close friends. They smiled encouragingly at him. Beyond them, waddling nervously on the table-top, was Adrian the seagull, who cocked his head in Simon’s direction. There was always a friendly exchange of insults between them, born out of mutual respect, but for the moment, Adrian seemed too nervous for that. As Simon sat down in the middle, facing the Four Fingers, his foot kicked against something soft and hairy.
‘Sorry Sniffer. I didn’t know you were down there’.
Sniffer grunted. In reality he claimed to be an Old English Sheepdog, famous for his tracking skills, and, if he was to be believed, a ex-French Foreign Legionnaire. This was still a subject of debate in the Brotherhood. In appearance, he looked more like an extremely filthy hearthrug, with matted hair, and a woeful lack of personal hygiene. But he had proved both courageous and wise in the past, in his usual dry manner.
‘Is there any further news…..of Annie?’ asked Middle Finger anxiously.
Simon shook his head,
‘We are very concerned about her. We have telephoned your home every day, as you know. Some have also visited her,’ looking towards the girls. ‘I need hardly tell you that our best wishes for a speedy recovery go out to her’. Everyone nodded and bowed their heads.
‘A pity that you couldn’t tell us about our parents being Watchers!’
Everyone stiffened, except the three girls, Sister Teresa and Pat. Simon’s anger had struck home.
Index Finger spoke first. ‘We are truly sorry about that. We desperately wanted to tell you, but we were under oath at the time. We simply could not tell you that they had been charged with observing your actions. We could not dare! It might have caused terrible damage!’
‘You’re right. It did to Annie!’
Simon sat glaring at them. Nobody said anything, but sat in a frozen tableaux.
From underneath the table, a voice spoke in a muffled voice.
‘You’re dead right, lad. But there’s no use in ‘aving an argument. It’s not going to help your sister. We’re all wrong and we know it. Best now to say what you came to say’.
The atmosphere relaxed visibly. Simon heaved a deep sigh. Both Pat and Sister Teresa were looking at him intently, as if they were willing him to go on.
‘I don’t know whether any of this will make any sense to you at all. I’d be grateful for your help. To be honest, I’m close to despair, and I’m frightened, not just for Annie, but for me as well’.
He paused, feeling rather emotional and foolish. There was silence around the table.
‘Go on, child’. said Sister Teresa, in her deep voice. The kindness in her voice encouraged Simon.
‘I just think that, if, and only if, Annie had something to make her angry, or rather, to make her feel angry about, she might come back to us. I just don’t know. I wish I did’.
Sister Teresa spoke next, but in a deeper, quieter voice.
‘Your sister is walking through the vale of tears. It is the valley of the shadow of death. She is trying to cleanse herself from all the anger and sorrow that she has been through. “To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”
Sister Teresa became quiet for a moment. then finally said, ‘She has had to go away from us all, to try to understand what she has gone through’.
‘But I’ve tried to help her! What else can I do!’
‘Nothing, for the time being. Leave her, and let her confront her own challenges. When they come. Annie will decide’.
‘Be of good cheer, Simon’, Pat said, trying to be light-hearted. ‘After all, is she “no a bonny fighter?”
He caught the Sister’s severe eye. ‘Just a quotation’, he said hastily.
Sister Teresa sniffed, but looked at Simon gently. ‘Let things take their course. I have a strong belief that they will happen before very long. But she has a talisman close to her. It may be that it is watching over her. Think about it, Simon’.
Simon had to take comfort from that, but he felt no relief as he walked home. As he got into bed that night, however, he suddenly began to wonder about the talisman. What other powers did it have? Could they be connected with the ideas about alchemy that Mr Cuttle’s library had contained? Would it be able to help Annie, lying on her bedside table near her, amidst her little porcelain figures, forever locked in a frozen dance? Tired and worried, he fell asleep.
The mobile phone on Annie’s bedside table rang just once at midnight. A voice sounded, calling her. It called her name again. Annie’s eyes flew open. She knew that voice. She didn’t move from her curled position under her blankets, but she was suddenly awake, and felt fear, as she heard the soft, vicious tone.
‘Annie. Annie. I know you can hear me. Are you all curled up like a soft little kitten, hiding in your warm bed? Oh, dear, Annie, you’re such a frightened little thing, aren’t you, hiding away under your blankets? What a shame, Annie, because you know you’re going to have to get up and face me. I will find you, if you don’t. I have a small challenge for you, and your little brother, too. You’ll have to listen to me, because you have no choice any more. You pay attention now, very carefully……’
Simon awoke, still feeling groggy with sleep. The sound that he had heard was still overhead. It was a steady thrump-thrump of wings. He sat up and listened. He thought he heard a sharp noise of something hitting the ground in the garden outside his window. The sound of wings was fainter now, and was dying away. Suddenly feeling anxious about his sister, he sat up in bed, still straining his ears. Then he decided to get up and investigate, and see if Annie was all right. Pulling on his dressing-gown, he went out and tapped gently on Annie’s bedroom door.
‘Annie, are you all right?’ he called gently. There was no answer. He opened the door and peered in. She still seemed to be lying in bed, curled up, as she had been for several days. He closed the door and went downstairs to the kitchen, picking up a torch on the way. Unlocking the garden door, he walked outside in his bare feet, and looked up at the dark night sky. There was no sound or shape out there. But, shining his torch around the grass lawn, he saw something lying there, something long, thin and narrow. Bending down, he picked it up, and knew exactly what it was.
The following morning was bright and sunny, already warm at ten o’clock. Simon got up with a groan, and slowly got dressed. As he had been doing for some time, he walked along the landing, and tapped on Annie’s door.
‘Annie, would you like some breakfast?’ he called, as he always did, though she never replied. He opened the door and walked in, and stopped dead in front of the bed..
Annie was not there. The blankets had been thrown back, and the imprint of her body was still there on the sheets. But there was no sign of her, or the talisman. Simon stared in horror, and then turned and ran down the stairs. ‘Annie!’ he shouted desperately. Frantically, he threw open all the doors in the hall. There was still no sign of her. He ran into the kitchen and stopped.
Annie was sitting at the other end of the kitchen table, cradling a mug of tea between her hands. She looked up, and smiled gently at him.
‘Hallo, Simon. Are you going to make me some breakfast?’
Simon sat down heavily at the other end of the table, overwhelmed with emotion. He put his hands to his face, and burst into tears. He heard Annie get up and stand next to him. She leant down and kissed his forehead.
‘I’m back, Simon’.
Through his tears, Simon whispered ‘I thought I’d lost you!’
Annie stroked his hair affectionately.
‘Not any more. Not now. Especially now. We both have very urgent things to do. Have some of my tea, and I’ll tell you’.
She sat down next to him. Simon wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, realising as he did that Annie was fully dressed in jeans and light sweater. She waited a few seconds and then began.
‘Last night I got a phone call from someone we both know, and that we both thought was dead, except she isn’t. Can you guess who I mean?’
‘Exactly. She’s challenged me to a duel. Today at three o’clock, at one of the gateways next to the Royal Pavilion, right in the centre of Brighton! I think she wants to kill me’.
‘You’re not going, Annie! It’s a trap!’
‘Oh yes I am, Simon. She taunted me! She insulted me! I’m not going to let that filthy vamp treat me like that! Wait’, she added, before Simon could protest, ‘It also means that we can flush her out, and finish her before she does any more evil’.
‘I’m coming with you!’
‘No, Simon you’re not! This is my fight! Let me finish! She challenged you as well. You’re going to the underground car park on North Street at the same time! She said, and I quote, your brother’s going to meet my dollies!’
‘Listen to me Simon, because I am really serious. You might walk into a trap as well. She wants to kill you also! I think I know why! Please listen to me. It is really important!’
Annie’s face was set and tight. She moved closer to Simon, and put her hand on his arm.
‘After I received this message from Venoma, I lay awake, and tried to make some sense of it all. Then I began to ask myself some questions. Why is she so determined to kill me? Who is she, really? Why is she like she is? I think I know, but I’ll have to find out’.
‘How?’ asked Simon, practically.
‘By asking her’.
‘Annie I don’t want to state the obvious, but why is she meeting you this afternoon, in broad daylight, in the middle of Brighton? For a Starbucks and a cosy chat? I doubt it!’
‘I’m going to do this, Simon, whatever you say…’
‘Wait! I’ve got something for you’.
Simon got up and walked out of the kitchen. Annie heard him go up the stairs to his bedroom. She was deeply puzzled. This was no time for presents. Simon came back into the kitchen again, carrying something in his arms, which he laid on the table in front of her.
‘I heard wings in the night. They dropped this in the garden. This was brought for you, Annie’.
Annie stared at it in amazement and delight. She ran her fingers gently over the dark leather scabbard, inlaid with strange figures and symbols. Her hand grasped the broad grip, long enough for two hands, rough to the touch, below the metal hilt. It felt warm and light under her touch.
‘It’s a faery sword! Just like what we used in the battle! It’s so beautiful!
Se held the grip and withdrew the shining blade a few inches. It was razor-sharp, and glistened with a hunger for combat.
‘It was made by the faeries, and delivered by the dragons. That’s what I think. At least, you won’t face Venoma without any weapon’.
Annie caressed the grip, lovingly. Then suddenly a fearful thought came to her.
‘You don’t have a weapon, Simon! What are you going to do?’
‘Oh, I’ve got a few things of my own. I can handle a few dollies’.
Annie stared at him. (I know he’s got some good ideas at times, but how is he going to cope with something devious that Venoma will have planned?) She still felt anxious about him.
That afternoon, they set off into town. Annie carried the sword in a long sports bag that Simon had lent her. Simon didn’t carry anything, but both his pockets bulged suspiciously. At the bottom of North Road, they stopped and looked at each other. Both knew that this might be the last time they saw each other. Neither of them said anything, but simply put their arms out to each other and hugged. Then they turned and walked away, Annie to the south towards the Royal Pavilion, and Simon northwards, up the street.
Annie still felt desperately worried about Simon, but she was strangely relaxed. She had not told him how she had curled her hand around the talisman earlier that afternoon. She had felt a tremendous surge of energy and such knowledge that she never dreamt of. Tactics, fighting experience, sword-play. I may not look like a warrior, she told herself, but now I feel like one. Annie felt that she was walking on air, as if she could fly at any moment. She had tried to persuade Simon to do the same, but he had refused outright. She walked past the Pavilion entrance, through the gardens towards the southern gateway, praying that Simon would be all right.
Simon walked into the car park and downwards to the underground storey.
He jumped and turned around. Three figures had come up behind him. I’m about to be mugged, he thought, and then recognised them immediately.
‘Mariko, Indira, Pei-Ying! What are you doing here?’
‘You tell us! It was you who phoned us to meet you here!’
Simon gaped at them. ‘I didn’t! Who was it?’
‘I don’t know. But it sounded just like you’. Indira said uneasily.
‘I thought you were asking me out for a date’. said Pei-Ying, mischievously. ‘I didn’t know you meant a foursome’.
All three girls giggled.
‘If you must know, I’ve been asked to come here to meet some dollies’.
They all burst out laughing.
‘I know you’re a bit weird, Simon, but do you want us to believe that!’ sniggered Indira.
‘Yes. They’re Venoma’s dollies’.
They immediately fell silent. Then Indira said quietly, ‘I know this is a silly question, Simon, but why are you meeting these, these dollies in an underground car park? It’s the last place you’d find them’.
‘Simon’s right’. Mariko spoke for the first time. ‘Look over there’.
She pointed. Against the entrance walls of the underground storey of the car park were propped a number of small figures.
‘They’re dolls! gasped Pei-Ying.
‘They’re those baby dolls, those big ones! The ones that stand up and walk towards you to be hugged! And there’s one of those old-fashioned teddy-bears that you always see in old pictures! What’s the other one?’
‘It’s a musha, a Japanese warrior doll. Look, it’s got a bow and arrows’. replied Mariko, nervously.
It was Pei-Ying, who was staring wide-eyed at the dolls.
The small figures, one by one, were slowly and awkwardly rising to their feet. They moved in a strangely jerky way, as if they were mechanical. The Japanese doll had slowly risen upright, dressed in a long, brightly patterned kimono. Its white, polished face, framed with thick black hair, slowly turned its expressionless face towards them. Then the dolls all began to walk clumsily forwards, their eyes fixed unseeingly on the four figures in front of them in the underground car park..
Simon and the others instinctively stepped back.
‘They’re only dolls’. whispered Simon uncertainly.
The doll on their left turned its innocent little face towards them, opened its pink rosebud lips, and fired, smoke wreathing its head!
Annie walked slowly through the crowds of people taking photographs of the Pavilion, past the groups sitting or lying on the grass in the Pavilion gardens. There was a chatter of voices and laughter. She looked right and left as she went, but saw no sign of Venoma. She walked very carefully under the great Indian style south gate, with its domed roof. There was still no sign of her adversary.
‘Looking for me, are you, kitten?’
She turned quickly. There was Venoma, leaning with her arms folded against the column of the gate. Annie knew her immediately – the same feline face, and vicious little smile. Just like a cat about to kill a bird, Annie thought.
‘What a surprise, Venoma’. Annie replied in a level voice. She noticed that Venoma carried a sword, strapped behind her back. She was wearing a dark red jump-suit, with matching boots. Her luxuriant red hair was drawn tightly back from her face, making it look even more cat-like. Annie slowly put her bag down and unzipped it. How strange, she thought, that at moments like this, you remember every detail, as if it was the most important thing in the world. She pulled out her sword, in its scabbard, and slung it over her back, so that it was within easy reach of her right hand.
‘I see the faeries have given you a toy sword to play with! That makes it more interesting’.
(Make her angry, Annie. Always stay calm, but make your enemy angry. That’s when they make mistakes. Then you might get a chance)
‘I feel sorry for you, Venoma. I really do’.
Venoma’s smile disappeared
‘It’s just such a pity. I always thought evil vamps had a better dress sense than that’.
The smile returned, but this time more as a snarl.
‘You really are an insolent little brat’.
(Good, Annie. You’re beginning to annoy her. But why here. amongst all these people?)
Annie quickly looked right and left, at the people strolling by, sitting outside, eating a late lunch, or enjoying a coffee.
‘Oh, don’t worry about them. They can’t see us at all. It’s just you and me, Annie’.
(Annie, she’s tricked you! She knows that you don’t want to risk hurting anybody else! She wants you to be uncertain, worried! Just concentrate, Annie! Just concentrate on her sword! Make her more angry!)
‘It doesn’t matter. I can always find you, by the smell of cheap perfume’.
Annie was almost caught unprepared by the vicious slash of Venoma’s blade. She parried it just in time, and attacked back. They fought savagely, back through the gate and onto the lawns outdside the Pavilion, amidst the picnickers and sunbathers, hacking and slashing, circling each other to find a vital weakness.
(Do it, Annie! Do it! Concentrate! Focus on her shining blade! Nothing else! Nothing but that shining blade as it flashes in the sun! Close your mind to everything but that!)
Venoma suddenly leapt into the air and landed on the roof of the entrance to the Pavilion and leapt up again to the roof. Without thinking, Annie leapt too, and found herself amongst the minarets and spires, just in time to avoid another savage cut from Venoma’s blade. They fought on savagely cutting and thrusting, their swords ringing with the impact, across the roof.
If any one of the people on the eastern side of the Pavilion, watching the wedding reception below, could have seen them, they would have seen two small black figures, silhouetted against the sun, engaged in a deadly dance of the swordfight, slashing and hacking at each other. The wedding party below, the smiling groom and his happy bride, with all their guests, being photographed, were unaware of the deadly combat above and behind them. Nor would it be recorded on the photographic image of the happiest day of their life.
Venoma suddenly leapt again, but this time Annie was ready for it. They spun together towards the ground, turning over and over, still attacking each other. Both landed on their feet as lightly as cats, but Venoma broke away and ran into the old Steine. She leapt lightly across the main road across the metal boundaries. Annie leaped behind her, using the fences as stepping stones above the noisy traffic below. Venoma splashed into the pool of the war memorial, then turned and attacked again. They were both in the water now, still fighting.
(Stop, Annie! This is a war memorial to people who were killed! It’s wrong to fight in this! What would the dead say!)
Venoma took advantage of Annie’s hesitation, and broke away again. She ran to a metal cover on the eastern side of the greta fountain, with its entwined dolphins, pulled it open, and dropped inside. Without thinking again, Annie jumped after her, her sword upright. Both disappeared into the sewers of Brighton. The cover fell back into place with a clang.
The bullet from the dolly’s mouth hit the concrete floor, a foot away from Simon, and whined off into the car park.
‘Run!’ shouted Simon. ‘Behind one of the cars!’ They ran together and crouched, breathless and frightened behind one of the few cars parked there. The dollies began to advance. More of them began to fire, the smoke of gunshot issuing from their mouths. The glass in the side windows of the car where they were sheltered, shattered in fragments. Indira yelled, as the rear tyre in front of her punctured and collapsed. The air was filled with smoke and the smell of cordite.
‘Keep down!’ panted Simon. He desperately hunted his pockets for his weapon. At last he found it. A catapult, and in his other pocket, small glass marbles, from his secret drawer at home. The dollies advanced slowly, walking in a slow mechanical way. The Japanese doll seemed to be directing their attack. It moved it’s head slowly back and forth. As if on a signal, the teddy bear opened it’s mouth wide, revealing a dark object. There was a sudden gasp of smoke and the object flew with a fiery trail, and hit the car they were sheltering behind.
The car rocked under the impact. The driver’s door flew off and crashed on the floor next to Simon. Fragments of metal whistled through the air. The car’s interior caught fire. The heat was intense, too hot for them to bear.
‘Get back to the next car!’ yelled Simon. ‘I’ll cover you!’ ‘Hopefully’, he said under his breath. He peered over the burning bonnet of the car as far as he dared, saw one of the dollies, took aim and fired. The dolly’s head fell off, but it’s body continued to move forwards.
‘Go on! Now!’
The others ran towards the shelter of the car behind. Mariko was small and slender enough to slide under its chassis. Simon decided to try another shot. As he raised his head again, he felt, rather than heard, the soft whistle of bullets around him. They thudded into their next car, leaving neat holes. He tried again, and then screamed with pain as something whizzed past, and creased his right cheek. He sat down suddenly, putting his hand against the side of the car to steady himself.
Another missile for the teddy bear hit the car behind. It caught fire. The car that Simon was still crouched behind, already in flames, was too hot to touch. He yelled again as his hand touched it. Simon decided to make a run for it.
‘Simon! Get out of there!’
He half-crawled, half ran to the shelter of the next car. Miraculously, the bullets missed him. One smashed into the floor only a few inches from his left foot, and whistled into the far corner of the car-park. He reached the others, crouched behind the next car, already burning, their hands covering their ears as more and more shots rang out. There was a sudden crash as the side windows were blown out, showering them with fragments of glass. Then there was a moment of silence.
‘Simon, you’re hurt!’ gasped Pei-Ying. ‘Your face is bleeding badly!’
‘Simon, your right hand is hurt also’. said Mariko softly.
‘I know. I burnt it on that car!
‘Give me your catapult. I will try to fight them off’.
‘You are wounded. Give me the catapult’.
‘They’ve driven us into a corner of this car-park. They’re just waiting to finish us off. That Japanese doll, that Musha, is the leader!’
‘I know. It brings shame on me’.
Mariko stood up suddenly and fired the catapult directly at the Japanese doll. It reeled for a moment and then made a motion. One of the dollies fired through her little pink mouth. The shot hit Mariko just under her left shoulder, spinning her around, down into Pei-Ying’s arms. Mariko was crying with pain, blood seeping through her fingers as she clutched at her wound.
More bullets began to hit their car. The teddy-bear began to amble forwards for another strike. The Japanese doll, in her long flowing robe, remained impassive. Simon, and the others, lay trapped helpless, behind the blazing car.
A sudden screech of tyres, and another car roared in, crushing one of the dollies as it came into the car-park. Then it slewed on sideways. It stopped, and a familiar figure opened the driver’s door and got out.
‘ You know, I’ve always wanted to do that. What’s going on here?’
‘MORAG, GET DOWN NOW!’ Simon yelled.
The arrow that the Japanese doll unleashed, hit Morag in the back, between her shoulder-blades. She fell forward, on her knees, her eyes wide with surprise and horror. Then she collapsed onto the floor of the car-park, curled up as if she was a child, the arrow still in her back.
‘Morag!’ screamed Simon. This time nothing was going to stop him.
‘Look after Mariko! Please!’
Without even thinking, he crawled out towards the dollies that were beginning to surround them. He collided into the fallen car door, and then had an idea. He pulled it up by it’s built-in door handle and knew it would make some kind of shield. The handle made a grip that he could hold onto with his left hand. He hoped that it would not give way.
Inch by inch, he moved towards Morag, hoping it would not be too late. He felt the thud, thud , thud of bullets hitting the door. Then there was a pause, and without warning an arrow-bolt almost went through. Another and another followed, each penetrating further than before, and dangerously close to his stomach as he crawled forwards. That Japanese doll must be firing as well.
He reached Morag at last. He dumped the car door on the floor to shelter both of them. Her eyes were wide open, but her breath was gasping and hoarse. ‘Simon, take the talisman! From my finger! It’s your hope!’ Do it, now! It trusts you! Morag’s face turned grey. Simon, for some reason, knew that this was the last face of death. He couldn’t bear it.
‘What do I do with it, Morag!’ he asked despairingly.
‘Use it’. the last came out in a whisper. ‘My mum said….’
Simon slipped it onto the middle finger of his right hand. The talisman glowed brightly, as if telling him what to do.
‘Right’, he said to himself, and then stood up.
The sound of running water echoed continuously through the dark tunnels that Annie now stood in. There was no sign of Venoma. She cautiously began to make her way down the circular passage. Oddly enough, it was dry, though she could still hear the sound of water in the near distance. The walls were built of brick, that was dry to the touch, though she guessed that these tunnels would fill with water after heavy rain. She turned occasionally, to check that she wasn’t being followed.
She stopped at a point, where the tunnel she was in, joined up with two others. The sound of rushing water seemed louder in the one to the right, so she decided to follow that. There seemed to be more light. As she cautiously began to move along it, she stopped suddenly and whirled around, sword upright in readiness. She realised that it was only her shadow, long and dark, stretching along the tunnel from which she had come. She began to walk forwards again, sword poised in front of her.
The tunnel were dark, but with enough light for her to see her way. The brickwork glistened with moisture around her. How amazing, she thought to herself, how people could create such architecture, right underneath Brighton itself! It seemed like a subterranean world, unknown to the people who trod the pavements above. But she still listened intently for any kind of sound that might tell her where Venoma was lurking.
She emerged from the tunnel into a much bigger space, where she realised the sound of swirling water had come from. Above her was a great vaulted ceiling of brick, as were the walls. She had to climb up a number of brick steps to a wide, long, concrete platform that ran alongside a broad open sewer, full of brown water that rushed towards some unknown outlet. This was the sound that she had heard. A metal guard rail ran along the edge. On the other side, two doors were set into the brick wall, for access to the outside world. But this was a world of underground Brighton. Annie paused in the tunnel opening to make sure of the potential battlefield.
Moving slowly along the platform, alongside the rushing stream, she looked for any dark corners, any source of ambush. She was almost caught by the flash of Venoma’s sword as it swept down in a cutting arc!
Annie parried desperately and fought back. Their swords whirled in shining arcs and loops, as they struggled for control. The struggle moved backwards and forwards, the ring and clash of steel echoing through the vaulted chamber. Then disaster struck. Annie’s foot skidded on a wet patch of floor, throwing her backward. Caught off balance, Annie lowered her sword. Venoma’s foot lashed out. There was a loud crack as she stamped on Annie’s blade, snapping it in two. Annie found herself on her back, with the tip of Venoma’s blade barely an inch above her throat.
‘Dear me, kitten, what a shame! And you were doing so well!’
Annie looked up at Venoma’s glittering eyes, closed like slits, Instinctively she began to crawl backwards, using her feet for leverage. She still clutched the broken sword in her right hand.
‘Venoma, why do you hate me so much?’
‘I just do’. replied Venoma, with that same vicious little smile.
(Good, Annie. Good. She’s evading you! Take the initiative!)
‘I think I know, Venoma. It’s because I’m a sister, isn’t it? Isn’t it!’ Annie shouted, desperately.
Venoma said nothing, but her eyes narrowed even further. Annie slowly crawled backwards, the blade still at her throat.
‘You had a sister, once, didn’t you, Venoma? A long time ago. What happened to her, Venoma?’ Her voice echoed around the ceiling.
Venoma said nothing, but her hands were white around the sword.
‘You still remember her, don’t you, Venoma/ Your little sister! Only she was taken away from you wasn’t she? The only thing you really loved! And she was taken away from you! Annie’s voice still echoed.
‘Be quiet’, hissed Venoma.
‘And that’s when you became evil, wasn’t it? You loved her, and she was taken away from you. She wasn’t just one of your dollies, was she? She was real, a living human thing! And you lost her!’
‘Be quiet!’ It now came out as a low scream.
Annie felt her back was against the far wall. There was no more retreating.
‘What did he do? Doctor Wrist! Did he drown her like a new-born kitten, in a bucket of water?
‘How did you feel, Venoma? How did it feel?’
Venoma’s voice rose to a scream. ‘Die, you filthy brat!’
She moved her sword back slightly to deliver the killing thrust.
Just for a moment, she hesitated.
Annie whipped her broken sword around and thrust deeply into Venoma’s body, almost up to the hilt!
Venoma’s eyes bulged with horror and pain. She staggered back, her left hand clutching her side, where Annie had struck. Blood began to trickle through her fingers. Her right hand still clutched her sword, that now trailed uselessly along the ground. She staggered back towards the guard rail above the rushing stream. The sword dropped with a clatter, as she backed into it. Venoma pulled herself upright. Her green eyes were wide now. She reached out a bloodstained hand towards Annie.
She fell backwards over the guard rail and disappeared with barely a splash into the water below.
Annie painfully got to her feet, and walked across to the rail and stared down, for what seemed a long time, at the brown, swirling water, on its way to the sea. She bent down and picked up Venoma’s sword. The hilt was still warm from her hands. Without a word to herself, she tossed it into the water, and then turned to look for a way out.
Torrents of yellow fire poured out of the talisman as Simon held his clenched right fist outwards. They curved and snaked towards each dolly. A ball of flame encircled each one. Slowly, but inexorably they began to melt. Their heads crumpled inwards, as they slowly sank into liquid plastic. The teddy bear burst into flames as it stood. Then it exploded with a sudden Whooomph. The Japanese doll slowly sank into the ground, its kimono spreading out, until it’s head fell off and rolled along the floor. Within seconds, all that was left of Venoma’s dollies were molten pools of plastic, with small golden mops of hair floating on top.
The talisman dimmed. Simon stared at the scene before him.
‘Did I really do that?’
Then he remembered Morag with a sudden stab of horror. He knelt down next to her, and felt for a pulse in her neck. It was there, but only faintly. The back of her white shirt was red with blood. Not knowing what else to do he gave a silent prayer, and pressed the warm talisman into her back. Morag’s body suddenly jerked, as if she had just had an electric shock. Then it relaxed again. Simon was amazed. Her wound slowly closed up as if it had never been there. The talisman had healed it. The arrow that had done the damage, lay on the ground beside her. He tried her pulse. Yes, no, yes! It was much stronger! Morag moaned, and began to move slightly.
‘SIMON!’ It was Indira, who had run over to him. ‘Simon, its Mariko! We’ve tried but we can’t stop the bleeding! She’s in a lot of pain!’
‘Right! Indira, stay here with Morag! She’s coming round, so she should be all right’.
He ran over to Mariko, who was lying against the side of the car they had sheltered behind. Pei-Ying was supporting her, holding a wad of tissues against her shoulder. They were already soaked with Mariko’s blood. Simon sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. ‘Mariko, this might hurt at first. But the talisman will heal you’.
Mariko opened her eyes, that had been squeezed tight with pain.
‘Do it, Simon. I don’t mind’.
He pressed the talisman against her wound. Mariko screamed with pain, and then began to gasp heavily. ‘It’s soothing me, now. I’m all right, Simon. Really, I am’.
Simon stood up, still anxious. He looked around at Morag. She was standing now, leaning against one of the cars. She was very pale against her dark hair, but she looked composed at least. Behind him Mariko was on her feet, walking shakily, with Pei-Ying supporting her. He felt, at last, an overwhelming sense of relief. But Pei-Ying gave a shout.
‘There’s another one of them!’
A long shadow swept across them. A small figure had appeared at the entrance, black against the bright sunlight outside. It came closer.
‘Have I missed anything?’
Then Annie stopped, her face frozen in shock and horror. She took in the whole scene – the small group of bloodstained figures, the burning cars, others with bullet holes and shattered windscreens, the concrete floor littered with fragments of glass, the atmosphere still acrid with smoke.
She sank to her knees and burst into tears, her hands to her face.
‘What have I done! No! No!’
Simon rushed to comfort her, embracing her tightly.
This is too much, thought Morag. I’m the copper. Time to take control.
‘Get up at once, Annie’. she said sternly. ‘I think you’ve been very selfish’.
Annie looked up at her, suddenly bewildered.
‘It’s just not fair of you. You go off and try and keep all the fun to yourself, and we have to end up finding our own’.
It worked. Everybody burst out laughing. Even Annie began to laugh through her tears.
Morag, however rather spoilt her brave act, by suddenly turning rather green, muttered ‘sorry but I think I’m going to be sick’ and disappeared between the surviving cars. Annie gasped as she saw Morag’s shirt, still stained with blood. They waited for her. She reappeared wiping her mouth with her sleeve.
‘Sorry about that. I always feel a bit queasy when I have near-death experiences’.
‘Where’s Venoma, Annie?’ Simon asked quietly.
Annie looked steadily back at him.
‘I killed her’.
Everybody felt a sudden apprehensive chill. Simon moved over to Annie, and took her hand. Morag felt cold inside. What must it have been like, to have to fight a mortal combat? To find that kind of courage? She suddenly felt weak and vulnerable.
Mariko broke the silence. ‘What happens to all this, now?’ she gestured towards the broken wreckage around them.
‘I think I know’. replied Indira. ‘We’re still in another dimension. I felt it when we came down here. It’ll all probably be back as it was, when we leave here. There’ll be no trace’.
‘Look at my car!’ groaned Morag. It was a sorry mess. There were bullet-holes in one side and the side windows had been smashed, Three more starred bullet-holes were in the windscreen. ‘Look at us! What a mess we look’. She looked at Simon and gave a guilty start. One side of his face was still covered in blood. She realised that he’d healed others but not himself. He must be in pain. She marched over to him, not very convincingly.
‘You’ve still got some property of mine. Hand it over’. Simon looked surprised, then realised what Morag meant. He took the talisman from his finger and passed it to her without a word. Without warning, Morag slid her hand behind his head, and pressed the talisman against his bleeding cheek. Simon gave a yelp of pain, and then relaxed, as the talisman began to heal him.
‘There’. said Morag. ‘Now you look almost presentable’.
Annie looked hard at Morag. She knew that it was Morag’s way of thanking Simon for bringing her back.
‘Thank you, Morag’. she said sincerely.
Morag pretended not to hear. ‘Now, I’m going to drive out of here to see if my car really is all right, then I can take you all home. We need to clean ourselves up. I can take Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko back to my flat, so that I can lend Mariko something else to wear’.
‘Wait!’ said Annie sharply. ‘We need to do something else. We must meet the rest of the Brotherhood. I have important things to tell them. It won’t take long, but if you can bring everybody back, it would be great. Usual place, in about an hour’.
Simon was already talking on his mobile. He switched off, and nodded. Morag drove carefully out of the car-park. She shivered as she felt a slight wave of cold, and then stopped the car in amazement. She hadn’t even realised it, but her car was exactly as it was before. She looked back into the car-park. Everything looked the same. It was as if the battle had never happened. She wound down the window, as Simon and Annie came up alongside.
‘Do you think, if I asked it nicely, that the talisman might give it a wash and polish as well?’
Simon grinned. ‘You never know’. he said.
The Four Fingers were already sitting there, as were Pat, the Irish scholar, Sister Teresa, who’s large bulk already filled one of the seats, Sniffer the incredibly filthy tracker dog, lying on the ground, sipping at a bowl, and Adrian the seagull, shuffling his webbed feet at the end of the table. They rose up and applauded.
‘Cut it out!’ snapped Annie.
She and Simon sat down, as Morag, Mariko, Indira and Pei-Ying joined them, now looking better than they were after the battle in the car-park.
‘We’re so glad that you are safe, all of you’ said Little Finger, sincerely.
‘Tell us what you want to say, child’. said Sister Teresa in her deep, gentle voice.
If someone else had called her “child”, Annie would have been furious. But it was Sister Teresa.
She took a deep breath. ‘ I did a terrible thing today. I took a human life. I killed Venoma. I had no choice. I’ve got a conscience, and I believe that I would never have wanted to do that, ever. Simon and I talked to each other before this meeting. We can’t put our friends’ lives at risk. We want to resign from the Brotherhood of the Hand’.
There was silence around the table, despite the noise around them.
Sister Teresa leant forward. ‘What did you feel when you killed this Venoma, Annie?’
Annie looked down, and remained silent.
‘Tell me, Annie! Tell me now! Sister Teresa said sharply.
Annie looked up into Sister Teresa’s dark brown eyes.
‘I felt grief, and pity, and great, great sorrow! I never felt relief or delight! I just felt such terrible sorrow for her!’ her voice broke.
‘Why? Tell me Annie, why?’
‘Because I knew she had a sister, I just knew that, someone she had cared about, that she’d lost long ago. It was that that made her evil!’
‘Do you believe that someone can be wholly evil, from birth! Do you!’
No! I don’t! I think she became evil because of that! I think, I felt, that there was a little bit of love in her, that had been lost, long ago! I saw it in her eyes! That’s why I felt such sorrow!’
Annie was sobbing now.
Sister Teresa relaxed. ‘Annie, that has just made me realise how kind and human you are. You should not feel guilt. To feel guilt in the first place, is to recognise humanity in yourself. You acted in self-protection. You cannot help that’.
‘There’s something else I should tell you. When Venoma was just about to kill me, she hesitated. Why?’
‘You know the answer to that, Annie’. Sister Teresa said gently.
‘Annie, let me speak, not just for me, but for all the others as well. Your fight is our fight’. It was Mariko speaking. ‘I come from a samurai generation of family. Honour and love is our family motto. We stay together. We are brothers and sisters together. We fight together, whatever happens’.
Mariko sat down. The others nodded in agreement.
‘Annie. Simon’. It was Pat, who spoke urgently. ‘You can decide what you like yourselves, but the fact remains that you are now too far down your path, to decide whether or not you want to go back. Like it or not, you are committed. I wish I could say otherwise, but that is the case’.
Annie looked at Simon. ‘What do you think?’
‘I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to let people down that I care about. We’re fighters, Annie. If we can do some good in this world, then, I think we should do that. That’s what I believe. Whatever it takes, we follow the path that you and I have chosen. I don’t think there’s any question of going back now’.
Annie got up, and walked away, to stand staring at the sea, lapping gently on the pebbly shore. Then she turned around, and looked at each of them, carefully.
‘I think there’s something you should know’.
‘Venoma was Doctor Wrist’s daughter’.
There was a gasp and sharp intake of breath.
‘I think that we always suspected that’. said Middle Finger
Annie came and sat down again. ‘I’m with you. Forget about the resignation. We’re back’.
There was a cheer around the table.
‘Now that that is resolved, I can declare the meeting closed’. said Index Finger.
‘Great!’ said Adrian, sidling up to Annie. ‘I’m dead glad you’re on our side!’
‘Get off, you daft softie!’ Annie said affectionately.
Morag sat at the table, staring at her hands clasped in front of her. She felt isolated and alone, a newcomer. She didn’t realise that someone was watching her, and caring for her, someone who understood.
Simon came over to her. ‘Morag, could you take our friends home? Then could you come back and pick me and Annie up?’
‘Fine. I don’t mind being a taxi-driver’. said Morag wearily.
‘Morag, it’s not that. Annie and I just want to say some things to you’.
Everybody got up to depart, apart from Simon and Annie and..Sniffer. they both waited until everybody had gone.
Sniffer raised his head. ‘You wanted to talk to me, I guess’.
Annie knelt down beside him. ‘It was you that called me that night, wasn’t it, Sniffer? When I thought I’d lost all hope’.
Sniffer spoke softly. ‘Aye, it was. With Adrian and Pat as well’. he paused. ‘I couldn’t let you go down that dark hole by yourself. Your’e too good a lass for that. You and your brother’.
‘Thank you, Sniffer. Thank you so much. It meant a very great deal’.
‘Well that’s me. Always bringing a little ray of hope’.
There was a shout from above. It was Pat, waving his hand.
‘That’s my call to the pub’. He suddenly peered out at them, with his bright black eyes, from beneath his dirty fringe of hair. ‘You look after yourselves. I mean it’.
He shambled to his feet and began to trot away. Then he stopped, and looked back at them.
‘Look after that copper. She’s one of us. But she needs a lot of help. Remember that, for her sake’. He ambled off towards Pat.
They walked up to the promenade, where Morag was waiting for them. Simon sat in the passenger seat while Annie climbed in the back. All three drove in silence, until Morag parked neatly outside their front door. Then Annie leant over and hugged Morag firmly around her neck.
‘What’s that for?’ asked a startled Morag.
‘For looking after my brother and the others’. Annie replied simply.
Simon was puzzled. ‘I wondered Morag suddenly arrived when she did. That means….’
‘Yes. I phoned Morag to ask her to go and keep an eye on you’.
Simon glared at Annie, accusingly. ‘I can look after myself, you know!’
‘I know that. But I didn’t want you to be there on your own. I wanted someone else there. Someone who I could trust, like Morag’.
Morag suddenly felt a stab of happiness. Annie’s arms were still around her neck.
‘Go on, the both of you. Go and see your parents’.
They got out of the car and came around to her side.
‘Why don’t you come in and have supper with us?’ asked Annie,
Morag looked straight ahead. ‘Thank you, no. I need to go and talk to my Mum’.
Annie nodded. ‘So must I’.
She began to walk up the steps to the front door. Simon knelt next to Morag, still sitting in the car.
‘Morag, you mustn’t feel lonely and sad. Please believe me, you have good friends now. We will never let you down, we promise. Ask your mum’.
Morag stared at him. ‘You know I talk to my mum, don’t you?’
‘I always have. And I understand. See you soon, Morag’.
Morag watched him walk up the steps behind Annie. She started the car. They stood and watched her drive away.
Their mother and father were sitting at the kitchen table, holding hands. Annie’s mum looked up and gasped. Her face was still blotchy and red with tears.
‘Annie, you’re back!’ She started to cry again.
Annie walked around the table, stood looking down at her mother for a few seconds, and then sat down next to her. She drew her mother’s head down, and put her arms around her. he mother continued to sob. Annie began to gently rock her back and forth to comfort her.
Simon took his father’s arm, and led him towards the door. ‘I think you and I should go to the study. I’ve a lot of things to talk to you about’. They both looked back as they left. Both would always remember that image. Annie’s face, now soft and gentle, cradling her mother’s head, the child comforting her parent.
Morag put down the glass of water on the bedside table and sat down on the edge of the bed, her hands clasped on her lap. She stared out of the window at the rapidly darkening sky. Her small flat was shadowy with the deepening evening. She pushed back a strand of hair, and clasped her hands again. She looked out, not knowing what she was looking at.
Mum. I miss you so much. I don’t know what to do any more. I hope you’re here and listening to me. I fought my first battle today. I wasn’t very good, though Simon and Annie were so kind. I think that they’re older and wiser than I am. I’m a child, compared to them. I wish you were here, saying what I should do.
Morag gulped in the gathering darkness. She folded her arms around her, and began to rock back and forth. Tears began to run down her cheeks.
I’m lonely, Mum. Very lonely. I want to do what is best in this world, but I don’t even know what world I live in any more. Please, be with me. I need you. Help me to do what is right, whatever happens. I wish you could hold me in your arms again. I’d be so happy.
She paused, and sobbed.
I know I’ve got to be strong. I’ve learnt that from you. But it’s so hard, Mum, so hard. I promise you that I will do my best. Never give up, you said. Never give in. Be strong, but compassionate. I’ll always remember that Mum. Don’t ever leave me. I need you.
The moon began to shine brightly outside.