Death in the darkness
Dragon brought Nick another welcome home present, this time in the form of a half consumed magpie, which he casually dropped on the carpet in the old cottage’s living room. Nick sat on the couch totally ignoring the latest offering from his tough old feline companion. He absentmindedly inhaled Inez’ seductive perfume which still emanated from her handkerchief, while daydreaming about the beautiful young woman, remembering the mind blowing invitation to unbridled sexual passion she had given him when she pressed her body to his on their farewell. Perhaps in another time and place he wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. But, for the immediate future he had to divorce himself from all the pleasures of life, at least until his quest was fulfilled. Sighing and momentarily thinking about what might have been, he put the precious piece of silk back into his pocket.
How long would it be before David contacted him next? Where was he going to be sent next? What kind of artefact would he be confronted with this time? A noise outside brought him back to reality as he heard the lid of his post box squeakily open and close on its iron hinges where it was fixed to one wall beside the door. Sitting among the mix of white and buff coloured windowed envelopes containing the inevitable outrageously overpriced council tax demand, quarterly electricity and water bills, monthly bank and credit card statements, all of which he made a mental note to change to paperless billing as soon as he had a moment to spare, was a large fat manila envelope with the logo of Air Malta at its top. Ignoring the bills, Nick opened the large envelope and studied its contents closely. It contained a glossy holiday brochure for Malta and Gozo, listing the usual range of tourist hotels, self-catering holiday houses and apartments. It also contained a list of guided trips to places of historical interest, and tourist shopping tours like the highly popular one to the world famous Medina glass works at Malta’s centre, situated on a former World War Two RAF airfield.
Among the pile of information was a single A4 sheet of paper containing a brief cryptic sentence, and a one-way air ticket. Nick studied the sentence for a moment. He had no idea who the person was that had signed it on behalf of Air Malta. But the contents of the sentence got his undivided attention. It contained a brief few words – Hotel Concordia, Victoria 3pm, twenty seventh of the month, and the word Ġigantija. That was two days from now, so Nick once again gathered together his motley collection of old clothes and items he deemed necessary, before heading out of the door once again. Dragon barely acknowledged the pat on his head from his human as Nick hurriedly left the cottage for this next leg of his quest. The flight to the next artefact was from Le Bourget just outside Paris and time was now of the essence. London Heathrow and any of the other major airports here in England were obviously being watched by the Order. Somehow or other he had to cross the channel, hoping upon hope that the port of Dover was not yet being watched by the Order’s spies. He decided to give the cross channel ferries a wide berth, because they were far too public as was the Eurostar rapid rail connection from Waterloo International in London to its French counterpart, Gare du Nord in Paris via the channel tunnel, for exactly the same reason. He opted instead for the drive on closed sided vehicle train. He reasoned that his nondescript hire car, which he decided he would abandon in France at the first opportunity, would be lost among the mix of eighteen wheeler trans-European, heavy haulage articulated trucks and holiday caravans that took the slower option to the vehicle terminal at Calais, twenty two miles away across the English Channel.
Nick finally began to relax once again as he drove south through the northern French countryside to Le Bourget airport and his flight to Malta. Leaving his rental car at the airport’s public parking area, he threw the keys into a nearby dumpster, congratulating himself on hiring it back in England with a wad of crisp fifty pound notes instead of using his credit card. Maybe by now the Order was already perusing his bank and credit card statements for possible clues as to where his destination may be, and to make an educated guess where he might go next. Shouldering his well-travelled backpack he strode through the door to the airport’s main hall where the airline departure counters were situated. Once he was safely seated on the Air Malta flight, he relaxed for the two hour, forty-five minute flight to Malta’s international airport in the crowded suburbs southwest of the ancient walled city of Valletta, built by the Knights of St John in defence of old Malta against Muslim attacks from the shores of North Africa during the island’s medieval years of occupation.
The salt air of the sultry Maltese night flooded in through the opened door of the Air Malta passenger jet, bathing him in its warm Mediterranean embrace as he descended the narrow mobile boarding ladder’s steps and made his way across the apron towards the main building of the airport. After he had picked up his backpack from the baggage carousel, he proceeded to the customs desk. A stony faced burly customs officer checked through Nick’s passport, carefully scrutinizing the sealed embossed identity page, containing the usual terrible photograph and personal information of its holder. He compared the photo with the tired man that stood before him. Then just as carefully, he stamped a standard three month visitor visa on a blank page of Nick’s passport, noting the other entry visa stamps from his recent travels before he waived him on. Nick offered his backpack to another equally stony faced officer for inspection. After a cursory check through the contents it was handed back and he was waived on. As Nick was being driven to his hotel for the night close to the ferry terminal, the burly customs officer who had checked his passport hung up the phone, satisfied that his detailed report to the Order would be looked upon in a favourable light.
By the middle of the next day he had travelled via the inter-island ferry from Grand Harbour, north along Malta’s eastern coast, past the small uninhabited island of Comino in the channel that separates Malta’s northern most island from the larger island of Malta itself, to the ferry terminal at Gozo’s southern tip, where he caught a taxi into the island’s capital, Victoria, and on to the brand new Hotel Concordia. He walked in through the hotel’s ornate main doors and stood for a brief moment surveying its luxuriously appointed reception area, before approaching the counter. A smartly uniformed concierge looked up as Nick approached the Carrera marble topped reception counter. Using his well-rehearsed but unfeeling smile of welcome he said, “Good afternoon sir, how may I help you?”
“I’ll look after this gentleman Duncan. This way sir, please follow me.” Duncan returned to his duties while Nick followed the second uniformed hotel employee who had taken charge of the situation, to the hotel manager’s office. After Nick entered, he then excused himself as he closed the office door behind him.
A side door to the office opened a few seconds after the main door had shut behind Nick’s guide and in walked David with another man in tow. “Sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff Nick, but needs must,” David said with a nervous chuckle, as he warmly shook his hand. “This is a good friend of mine, Tony Mgarr. He will be your contact and right hand man here on Gozo for the duration. Besides our Crypto-terrestrial friend looking out for you, Tony will organize anything you need. Now, the location of your next artefact lies beneath the ancient Neolithic site at Ġigantija, a few miles away to the east of here. You’re not staying here in the hotel – too many eyes and ears. Tony will take you to his place in the hills overlooking the site where you can check it out unobserved. I must head back to my new bolthole in Brittany. The Order is stepping up their surveillance. Pretty soon I expect that they will get nasty. Malcolm Davies’ goons have already trashed my place back in England, so I’ve had to seek sanctuary with another old friend. Tony has the address. He will make travel arrangements for you, once you’re done here.” David stopped briefly by the side door with his hand on the door handle, smiled enigmatically, adding almost as an afterthought, “By the way Nick, did you notice the custom bloke’s tattoo back at the airport in Malta last night?” David’s band of spies was clearly growing in number, as well as their sinister counterparts in the pay of the Order.
Tony drove Nick in his elderly, black nineteen fifty’s Ford Popular, through old Victoria’s bustling streets full of tiny shops geared to the elderly tourists from all across Europe who spend their winters here to escape the brutally cold months back on the mainland, and out through the wooded hills that surrounded the natural basin where Gozo’s capital is located. The narrow paved road wound its way between poorly maintained ancient stone walls that defined the small ochre coloured fields of ploughed soil behind them. They drove down narrow dusty country lanes and on through open sun bleached scrubland towards a rocky promontory a few miles east of Victoria. “While your here, consider my home yours Nick,” Tony said, finally smiling as he showed his visitor into his ancient farmhouse. All Gozitans are far more reserved in their approach and dealings with strangers than their counterparts to the south, back on the larger island of Malta. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. If you’re hungry, help yourself. You’ll find everything you need on the shelves in the walk in larder behind that door over there. Tea and coffee are in the cupboard above the bottled gas stove. If it’s a beer you’re looking for, take a couple of bottles from the larder out to the well at the back of the house. Drop them into the bucket and lower it into the water. They’ll be drinkable in about fifteen minutes. See you soon.” Tony smiled again as he waived, disappearing back through the farmhouse’s one and only door to the outside world.
Nick made himself comfortable on the old threadbare settee under the stone farmhouse’s corrugated iron roofed veranda that faced east towards the rising sun. The bottle of local Hop Leaf beer was a welcome distraction from the task that lay ahead, despite it being an acquired taste to someone like Nick who only ever drinks English Bitter. David had given Tony a sealed package of information for Nick to study. He had left it in plain view for Nick to find on the wide work top of the farmhouse’s oak Victorian style sideboard, directly below two shelves fixed on the wall containing chipped willow pattern plates that belonged to countless generations of Tony’s family.
Somewhere beneath the distant Neolithic monument was his next assignment. The package of information included a detailed map of the ancient site, plus photographs of the badly weathered upright stone circle and the stone alter at its centre. Together with the photographs was a copy of the latest theoretical conjecture by prominent Maltese archaeologists on the site’s seven thousand year history. Tony had a powerful pair of submariner’s binoculars, which he used to watch the passing shipping trade. They were mounted on a heavy brass tripod, courtesy of the Royal Navy’s involvement in Malta’s defence during the Second World War. Nick put them to good use while Tony was away, familiarizing himself with Ġgantija’s layout, comparing what he observed via the binoculars with the black and white photos lying beside him on the settee, together with the written material. On Tony’s return later in the afternoon, the two men made plans for the following day. In his capacity as a part-time paid tour guide at Ġigantija, which helped to supplement the meagre income from his land with a few extra Euros, he would get him to the concealed entrance of the natural caves beneath the stone circle. All Nick had to do was follow his party on the guided tour, remaining at the back until Tony indicated the direction he should take to the entrance. He would follow Nick down into the underground complex after his tour party had left on the bus. The following morning the pair drove down to the ancient monument’s public car park in Tony’s old Ford. Indicating to Nick that he should duck down from view until the first tourist bus arrived in about half an hour from now, he went off to prepare for his morning’s work.
Nick tagged along behind the chattering crowd of mainly elderly German tourists that followed Tony’s colourful sun umbrella. Close to the centre of the ancient stone circle a few yards away from the sacrificial alter, Tony almost imperceptibly waved his umbrella briefly to his left, unnoticed by the tourists following him. Leaving the group, Nick disappeared behind the inner circle of stones that surrounded the ancient alter. According to the notes, the entrance was situated between the stones that supported a heavy lintel behind the altar.
As he began his descent down the rough natural passageway beneath the monument he heard the unmistakable sound of steel on stone somewhere ahead of him in the darkness. Rounding a bend in the passage, he cautiously peered out and saw someone pounding a stone structure with a pickaxe, determined to destroy it. As he hesitantly drew closer prepared to do battle, the man suddenly stopped pounding the structure. The pickaxe dropped to the floor with a clatter, as he clutched his chest in agony before crumpling in a heap on the floor of the natural chamber. Ithis coldly smiled to herself as she surveyed the now lifeless man who she had just executed, by inducing a massive heart attack in him through sheer will on her part. Nick carefully approached the dead man’s body bearing the unmistakable Order tattoo on his forearm as Tony joined him in the chamber. “You do what you have to Nick while I dispose of this traitor,” Tony said coldly as he dragged the unsuccessful saboteur’s corpse across to a natural deep crack in the chamber’s rocky floor. After he had disposed of the body and the pickaxe, by dropping them both into oblivion down the natural bottomless void, he came back to where Nick was studying the former saboteur’s target very closely.
This artefact was clearly different from the capacitors that Nick had come across in the past. It had a number of shielded metal rods leading into it from holes in the chamber’s floor. But this time it appeared to be some kind of ancient booster substation in the Crypto-terrestrial network, designed to amplify the power that flowed through the system’s subterranean network. He carefully studied it for any form of carved effigy similar to the ones he found under the Olmec ball court. Finding none, he stretched out his right hand and tentatively touched it with his forefinger. Almost immediately the substation began to give off a slight glow as it reconnected with its as yet unknown counterparts spread beneath the planet’s surface, and, like the previously reconnected artefacts, began to revert back to its original condition.
Neither of the men heard the silent footsteps behind them. Tony cried out in agony as he was struck from behind by a violent blow to his head, sending him crashing to the ground, temporarily blinded by the myriad of stars floating across his eyes. On hearing Tony’s cry, Nick instinctively stepped sideways to dodge a blow aimed at him by his assailant’s determined attack. Ithis stepped in unseen by all from her hiding place in the chambers walls, sending one of the Order’s thugs flying through the air, smashing him into the chamber’s rock walls, knocking him out and breaking his ribcage. Tony managed to get to his feet and grabbed the second man from behind as he was about to stab Nick with a deadly looking switchblade. Ithis again used her deadly powers, as she ripped the knife from the man’s hand. Nick watched totally spellbound when it appeared to briefly float in the air before turning its vicious point back towards his assailants face, and launch itself into his brain via his left eye socket. The Order’s thugs were quickly dropped down the same crack in the floor to join their companion in oblivion by Tony.
Later that day, once he and Tony were back in the old farmhouse, Nick’s mind began to work overtime wondering just how it was that the Order had beaten him to the artefact. Was there an informer in their tiny band? Or had the Order somehow intercepted David’s communications to him. Was his old friend Hector really in the Order’s pay after all? Or had Malcolm Davies somehow got wind of the location of the artefact even before David knew of its existence? Until this was all over and he could get back home to his cottage in Gloucestershire and wily old Dragon, finding out the answers to these worrying questions would have to wait. Then the sudden realization that the mysterious Crypto-terrestrial that David said was always watching his every move and guarding his back, finally struck him. The three saboteurs looked to be fit and healthy individuals. Had the first really succumbed to a natural heart attack? Or was that the work of his unseen protector? Had she also thrown another attacker across the chamber like a rag doll while dispatching the third with his own weapon? Watching from her hiding place in Tony’s old farmhouse, Ithis just smiled coldly to herself. Nick and his mission came first. Anything or anyone that stood in his way would be eliminated.