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[Part 1] can be found here
, the previous entry here
- - -
After several hours of driving I arrived at a small wooden jetty, unmarked and overgrown as I was told it would be. There were two small rowing boats moored on either side as well as a third on the opposite bank. I paddled across, and after climbing the ridge on the other side I spotted a small brick house nestled on a plateau halfway up the mountain.
The weather was bleak. Grey clouds blotted out the sun and I was pelted by a cold rain that bounced off my head and shoulders like hail. As I reached the plateau I took a moment to catch my breath and turned to drink in the vista spread out behind me. The world was beautifully still in that moment, peaceful in its monochrome misery. As I moved to turn away I spotted a large black car meander along the narrow dirt track I had taken, slowing briefly as it passed my own before speeding away.
I made my way up to the house and pounded on the door, and it was gingerly answered by a squirrelly little fellow with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. Somehow, he didn't seem particularly surprised to see me.
'Ah,' he said once we were seated in a dim and dirty kitchen. The stone walls were flecked with patches of dark mould. The beams above my head were black with a century of grease. 'I'm surprised it took you so long to find us.'
'Mrs. Taggart got a message to you after all then?'
'Who? Good lord, Beryl? No I haven't spoken to her in years. Wait a minute, are you not... with them?'
'I'm not with anyone sir. I'm uh, looking into my uncle's murder. I thought you might be able to help me find his killer.'
The old man chuckled, apparently relieved.
'I'm a historian not a detective mate.'
I pulled two photographs from my breast pocket, both versions of the druidic symbol.
'What can you tell me about this?'
He sighed, disappointed.
'Did you see anyone else on your way up here?'
'No?' I shrugged. 'Wait, yes, a black car drove by not ten minutes ago.'
'Ho bloody 'ell.'
He wrung his head in his hands for a long moment, then stood and pulled me into an adjacent room towards a bookcase on the far wall. He tweaked a hidden lever and it sprung open to reveal a set of stone steps. He passed me a torch and pointed into the darkness.
'Go,' he said. 'I'll be with you in a moment.'
Figuring I could overpower him if this was some kind of trap, I obeyed and the bookcase clicked shut behind me. I was in a small concrete basement set up like a bomb shelter complete with bunks, a chemical toilet, and stacks of canned food.
I sat down on one of the bunks and waited, thumbing 'record' on the dictaphone in my pocket: the rest of the dialogue in this entry is transcribed verbatim. My eyes were eventually drawn to an open cabinet in the middle of the room. There were guns inside; a couple of shotguns, a WWII era rifle, a small snub-nosed revolver, and boxes of ammunition for all of them. Without thinking I grabbed the revolver and loaded it. As the last bullet slid into the chamber the bookcase popped open once more and the old man returned, his arms around the shoulders of an even older gentleman.
'Bit of help if you wouldn't mind?'
I pocketed the gun and helped ease the older fellow into one of the bunks.
'That symbol of yours. It's rare.'
'I know. What can you tell me about it?'
The historian pulled the bookcase closed, locked it tight, and pulled a curtain across.
'Lower your voice please,' he said. He sat on one of two small chairs and gestured to the other. He lit a few candles and a warm orange glow swelled to fill the room. I turned off my torch.
'Well?' I whispered.
'Myself and Mrs. Taggart wrote a book about ancient cultures and religious sects that have persisted to the present, and this symbol was one of my personal favourites. You see, this particular sect was impenetrable, so secretive nobody had even heard of them. My friend over there was my source, you see he used to be one of them. They've been trying to find him, and myself, for many years now. Unfortunately it looks like you led them right here.'
I began profusely apologising but he raised a silencing hand.
'You weren't to know. Now you do.'
'To keep the secret, and this is why conducting your investigation puts you at risk. They wouldn't have been able to follow you here were they not already watching.'
We sat in silence for a while. I could hear something, a distant rattling and then the crunch of broken glass. At one point there were audible footsteps across the floorboards directly above our heads. I pulled the revolver from my pocket and the historian nodded approvingly. He eased one of the shotguns out of its case and began slowly loading a pair of shells into it.
The next day the noises returned, louder this time as more bodies arrived and began to tear the place apart. All we could do was sit silently in the candlelight and hope we weren't discovered.
Halfway through the third day the historian agreed that it had been long enough since he last heard anything for us to peek our heads out and have a look. I stalked around the house as quietly as I could with my back against the wall, bursting gun-first into each room like I had seen cops do in the movies.
The place was trashed but otherwise empty. They had ripped out everything, even the plaster from the walls and the power cables from their sockets.
'They probably thought we managed to sneak away somehow. We should do that now while they're busy scratching their heads.'
'We could take my car-'
'No, they would have sabotaged it, or put a tracker on it. If they're still watching anything out here it'll be your car I reckon.'
'Not this place?'
'From where? Too dark and cold. Our only way out of here is across the moor. At night.'
I shuddered at the thought but reluctantly agreed. We crept back into the hidden basement and filled two knapsacks with food and camping gear. The historian produced three thick fleecy jackets and we all suited up. I was worried for the older gentleman, worried that at best he might slow us down and at worst could die of exposure.
We set off down the mountain away from the river. We went slow and steady; the historian wouldn't let us use our lights and the ground was most treacherous. I pointed out a little copse of trees as a potential campsite, but both the historian and the old man shook their heads.
'No trees,' said the old man. It was the first time I'd heard him speak.
We eventually pitched a small tent under the eaves of an exposed ridge, huddling together until first light when we continued the journey. It was almost the following nightfall when we reached the nearest town, and after we stashed the guns in a bush outside I paid cash for three rooms at a small inn on the outskirts. We washed, ate, rested up for a few hours, and then met at the bar where I intended to push for more information.
The old man looked distant, staring off into space with a dram of whiskey clutched in his gnarled fingers. The historian was slumped beside him with his head in his hands. His eyes were fixed on his untouched beer.
I bought myself a glass of red wine and joined them.
'Thanks for the room,' said the historian. 'I'll get the money back to you somehow.'
'Don't worry about it. It's my fault we're here at all, right?'
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Mind if I ask you a few questions?' I eventually pushed.
'I called a friend of mine when we first arrived.' He nodded at a pay phone in the corner. 'A car will be arriving for us soon. Me and him I mean, you should make your own arrangements. Speaking of cars, you shouldn't go back to yours. Feign mechanical failure. Get it towed, then sell it. Use a proxy if you can.'
A took a deep gulp of wine and sucked my teeth, struggling to make eye contact.
'Fine, uh, I appreciate the advice. Now I'm sorry, you gotta tell me: who are they?'
The historian sighed and rolled his eyes, then finally took a slow sip of his pint as he considered a response.
'You can't beat them mate, stop this, yeah? I tried and got lucky time after time but I barely scratched the surface. And look at me now! This is all a fool's errand, trust me.'
'They killed my uncle.'
'They kill people sometimes, I'm sorry but that's the way it is.'
'I'm not willing to let this go.'
'Don't you understand? The more you know the more danger you're in, the more rocks you turn over the bigger the target on your back grows.'
Realising we had at this point both considerably raised our voices, I caught a reproachful glare from the barmaid and resolved to shut my mouth. I looked away and finished my drink, and was contemplating another when I witnessed a change come over the old man. He was grinning at me. The glazed look in his rhuemy little eyes was now ablaze with furious focus.
'You're a daft boy ain't you?' he clucked. 'Dunno with what your meddling with son, and all because we killed your uncle? Heh.'
The historian must have seen my fists bunch and my shoulders tense up because he raised his palms.
'No-no, it's not what you think. He's not with them anymore, trust me.'
'What do you know about it?' I hissed at the old man. 'What do you
know about it?' I turned my glare to the historian.
'Oh for god sake...' The historian wrung his hands and stared at his boots. 'Like I told you he was with them once, back in the 50's through to the 80's, but he managed to get away. Lived on the run ever since. I helped him hide and in exchange he gave me information.'
'Which you then published.'
'His story made its way into some of my books, yes. Rest assured he's not with them, hasn't been for a long time, and has no contact. They want him dead even more than me. Even more than you
The bar door swung open and a bald-headed man in a trim black suit and leather driving gloves glanced around. His attention settled on us and the historian gave him a subtle nod.
'Time for us to go,' said the historian. He drained his almost full pint in one swallow and heaved himself onto his feet. 'We won't see each other again but my advice stands; stay away unless you want to disappear.'
The old man was still grinning at me.
'You want my
'Sure,' I replied.
'Read more books.' He stared at a beer mat on the table and tapped it hard with a long finger. 'Nobody reads anymore. Science Fiction was aways my favourite; dreams of the future.' He spread his arms wide in wonder. 'And of the Uncanny.'
He glared at me with that last word and tapped his temple as he had the beermat. Then they left, and I never saw either of them again. The driver on the other hand, the bald man, we would run into one another again at a later date but that's a story for another day.
I ordered another wine and sat in a booth out of sight where I could enjoy it in quiet solitude. I thought about every word the old man had said, wringing them over and over in my mind until something clicked. I bolted back to the table we had shared and flipped the beermat: Cleckheaton Hall, Room 183
was scrawled in uneven blocky letters.
Some time later I made it home, and taking the historian's advice called to have my car towed and sold at auction as-is. I mailed the keys that afternoon.
Cleckheaton Hall as it turned out was a stately home, now a hotel in the town of the same name. It is also one of several locations visited on my travels that no longer exists. There is no record in books, newspapers or on the internet, nobody in the local community remembers it, and at the site of that huge gothic cuboid is merely an unkempt and overgrown wood frequented only by doggers and fly-tippers.
Cleckheaton Hall was only an hour's drive from my home, so I borrowed my sister's van and crawled around the backroads until I was sure I wasn't being followed before heading straight over. I winced when I saw it, not for its enormous brooding size or imposing black spires, but because it looked so expensive.
'I'd like to book a room please,' I told the smiling receptionist. 'For tonight if that's no trouble.'
'Not at all,' she replied. 'We're pretty quiet this time of year. Have you visited us before?'
'A few times,' I lied.
'Do you have a favourite floor or wing?'
'Is room 183 available?'
She furrowed her brow thoughtfully and consulted the system.
'I'm afraid not sir, 160 through to 190 are all privately-owned rooms.'
'You have permanent residencies here?'
She chewed the inside of her cheek.
,' she said. 'I mean, they're empty as far as I know, but this is a super old house with all kinds of history. Those rooms are all in the Tolstoy Wing.'
'Named after the Russian writer?'
'No sir, after the benefactor who paid to have it built. No relation as far as I know.'
'And when was it purchased may I ask?'
'Oh goodness...' She slowly shook her head, pouted and widened her eyes; unsure. 'At least a hundred years ago, maybe longer. Maybe way
longer. You should ask Basil the groundskeeper, he knows all about the history of this place.'
'Okay thank you miss.' I took my key. 'You take care now.'
My room wasn't far from the Tolstoy Wing, on the fourth floor with a narrow balcony overlooking a walled-in courtyard. The corridors were long and winding, and the walls, ceilings and even floors were bowed and warped, twisted by time. The place was largely empty, though I had passed two different maids and their trollies as well as a pair of fellow guests after an afternoon spent pacing around and exploring. I once spotted from a second floor window the groundskeeper tending a vegetable bed, but he was gone by the time I worked my way downstairs and outside.
I chose to walk the grounds and marvelled in the beautiful gardens, topiary, and even a small hedge maze. Did one man really do all this? Looking at the size and relative emptiness of the place it was easy to imagine the estate freezing all but the most essential of expenditures.
Some of the topiary pieces were different from the others; the replica of the Great Sphinx and the train with its 5 carriages, the spheres and the pyramids, all were pristine. However anything that resembled a human form looked neglected; all (and I passed at least a dozen) were trailing a veil of vines and were swollen to the proportions of an astronaut, spacesuit and all.
Circling the hotel so closely I began to gather a feeling of the place. I could see where the oldest core of the building fanned out into spiral arms of increasingly modern architecture. A barn conversion-type event space here, a conservatory there, even a bladed arch of glass that from the faded signs in the front window was a half-finished and long-abandoned restaurant.
Then there was the Tolstoy Wing.
It was leeched onto one corner of the house like some great squat parasite, it's proboscis buried deep into the stonework to no doubt form the singular connecting door I had thus far been unable to locate from the inside. The exterior was almost entirely swaddled in thick ivy and other climbing plants, though I could just about make out an arching churchlike shape to it.
I spent some time wandering around looking for another door or even a window but the entire thing was sealed tight behind foliage. It was like a second skin, and quite beautiful to behold where it flowered into blossoms of red and purple.
After some more searching I discovered an unlocked shed and decided to look for some bolt cutters or perhaps a saw, intending to cut my way through to a window. Before I found anything I heard a cough nearby and managed to straighten up and look casual in time for the groundskeeper to appear. I clicked the 'record' button on the dictaphone in my pocket.
'Are you lost?' he barked at me. I could immediately tell he was suspicious.
'Just having a walk around,' I told him. 'I presume that's allowed?'
'And I presume you're a patron?' he snipped back.
'Well then.' He sucked his teeth in defeat. 'I'll leave you to it. Lots to do.'
'I'll bet. Before you go, can I ask you something? About the Tolstoy Wing?'
He tensed up and looked away.
'What in the hell would you wanna know about that place for, eh? You some kind of journalist?'
'No.' I widened my eyes slightly and raised my hands in faux shock. 'A friend of mine had stayed here before and recommended a specific room. When I asked the receptionist for it she told me it was private. I guess I remembered the number wrong or something, I'm only curious.'
'Stay away from it, alright?' he told me sternly. 'I've had enough shit with these things as it is.' He jerked a thumb over one shoulder where there stood a trio of of the neglected humanoid topiary pieces.
'What do you mean?'
'Forget it. Just don't go near the place or there'll be trouble.'
'Well,' I began, formulating my response. 'I wasn't going to but you've piqued my interest now. What's so forbidden about it?'
The groundskeeper narrowed his eyes to slits beneath the brim of a battered flat cap. He reluctantly came closer and sighed irritably.
'It was a kind o' safehouse, an 'orrible little bolthole for a group of the creepiest fuckers I ever laid my eyes on. I were a boy at the time, helping my Da' and learning the ropes when I first saw 'em. The wing itself looked the same even in that time, still wrapped up tight in climbing plants. You could see a few windows though. I let 'em grow over.'
'Who were they?'
'Dunno. I thought priests at first, then maybe philosophers. When I got older and learned about the Freemasons I thought maybe I'd cracked it, but me Da' was a Freemason himself and told me those men weren't it. They wouldn't all be there all year round like, but there was always a light on inside even when I thought they'd all cleared out.'
'Not for a few years but they'll be back. They always are, ever since Tolstoy built the place in 1649.'
'It's that old?'
'Oh aye. You American or somethin'? Everything's that old around here. Thing is I caught a few peeks during those youthful years when I was daft and brave.'
'What did you see?'
'Experiments. Shelves full of jars and chemicals, all those glass tubes and beakers and things.'
'Sounds like a drug lab,' I muttered.
The groundskeeper chuckled and grinned, perhaps warming to me a little.
'Nah nothin' like that. The very first time I scaled the ivy and looked into a window I saw a big wooden table and some of the men in weird medical outfits. They were doing things to plants, just everyday plants like, performing weird autopsies usin' instruments I've never seen before or since.'
'Aye, wooden clockwork things, though some had electronics and battery packs strapped to 'em too. I remember one in particular was like a fat pencil, rigid as you'd expect, but when they passed it over the plant it would pulse an' twitch like a fuckin' witchety grub. Horrid it was. They could somehow read its movements which they wrote in this massive leather-bound ledger. Whenever they'd leave en masse they'd take the ledger with 'em. Thing is, they kept it in this thick stone box that took 6 of 'em to lift.'
'Why the box?'
'This is fascinating,' I admitted. 'And very spooky I have to say.'
The groundskeeper was on a roll now. He even pulled a thin black cigar from his breastpocket and sparked up with a kitchen match.
'You haven't heard the half of it mate.' He took a deep lungful of smoke and exhaled throatily. 'Neither me nor me Da' ever spoke to any of 'em directly, but they left instructions with hotel management which were passed onto him an' then me when I took over. Y'see, the topiary hedges are part of the job an' always have been, but the man-shaped ones aren't my work. They grow like that.'
'Bollocks,' I told him; I couldn't help myself.
'Aye I'll forgive ye for thinkin' such, but no it ain't bollocks I'm afraid. I call 'em 'mimicweed' but thing is, it ain't even the same plant every time. Was a rosebush once.'
'What do you do with them?'
'Kill 'em, dig 'em out, burn 'em. It's not easy though, they don't like being pulled up.'
'What do you mean?'
'They're just dead hard to remove, even the ones formed from plants that should be easy. Big, thick white roots that go deep and wide, and wrap tightly around anythin' they find in the soil, rocks, pipes, other plants you name it. I'm on me own out here and every time I get rid of one two more pop up.'
'Fancy a hand?' I offered without thinking.
His bushy eyebrows perked up at that and he considered his wristwatch.
'You sure? With your help we could do 'em all this afternoon I reckon, but like I say it's hard work.'
He wasn't kidding. I spent hours breaking my back plunging that spade into the soil over and over, but the experience gave me ample opportunity to examine the so-called 'mimicweed' in more detail. The groundskeeper had clearly been telling the truth; the roots on these plants were like nothing I'd ever seen before, pale rubbery white, some as thick as my wrist, most wrapped in a vicelike deathgrip around every surrounding object.
Above ground their growth was even stranger. Most plants tend to have a thick stem or trunk, and any branches then subdivide over and over smaller and smaller stretching up to the sun until they end in the smallest leafy twigs. The mimicweed was very different. The swollen roots were connected to a short trunk that stretched up into the 'crotch' of the figure where it then branched a little like a five-pointed star to form the limbs and spinal column. From these thickest branches grew only the thinnest of twigs, but they grew in a consistent and extremely dense pattern. It looked to me like a poor imitation of hair or fur.
We dragged them all to a small woodchipper at the back of the hotel and the groundskeeper gleefully fed them in limb-by-limb. Twilight was beginning to descend by the time we finished, and so we built a small fire and shared a few drams of whiskey.
'The last time I looked inside that place was a lot like the first,' he eventually told me. 'Those creepy fuckers all stood in their lab around the big wooden table doing their dissections and their autopsies. Not plants this time though, oh no, this time they were cutting up animals, all kinds of things, ferrets, cats, birds, toads, a goat, a small sheep. All of 'em were carefully spread open, scanned with those weird objects and the results written in that ledger of theirs. There was so much blood I could smell it through the glass.'
He shuddered and looked away.
'I can understand why you'd want me to keep away from it. I appreciate the explanation.'
'Ey you earned it.' He raised his glass and I tapped mine against it. 'I've been here all my life but that place is like a black hole. We don' go near it, none of us. Never have.'
I noticed something catch the firelight, a circular silvery object that hung from a chain around his ruddy jowled neck.
'What's that may I ask, a St. Christopher?'
'Nope, an ancient Roman denarius. Me Da' gave it to me when I were little, said it'd protect me from the worst of the shenanigans that go on around here.'
I pulled my uncle's coin from one pocket and held it up between forefinger and thumb.
'Would you believe it, I carry something similar.'
'Aye well keep it close,' he warned me sagely. 'Keep it very
close, especially around these parts.'
I thanked him for the drink and told him I was heading off for some dinner. On my way back to the hotel under the cover of impending darkness I swiped a pair of bolt cutters, resolving to get inside the Tolstoy Wing later that night.
[Part 4] can be found here