Stone The Crows

Synopsis


Tom Bishop knows something is happening. But when The Horror begins, it will be too late for everyone else.

The crows outside Bishop’s flat have destroyed the morning birdsong. A vicious, aggressive black cloud of razor-sharp beaks and talons begin to taunt then attack him, a stark warning that the delicate fabric of daily life in the commonsense world is about to be altered forever.

The woman, the Japanese assassin, is pursuing him through the snaking dark streets of London. No matter how hard he tries to shake her off, she is always there waiting for him like a spectre. Is she some kind of shape-shifter morphing into familiar surroundings, lulling him into some false sense of security before she attacks him again? What does she want? Why him? But she is only a small fragment of this apocalyptic puzzle.

He knew they existed. The Inorganics. Flickering around him, as if on the extreme border of his consciousness, corporeally invisible, Bishop felt their presence as strongly as any worldly creature. It was as if energy had seeped into his existence and acquired a predatory soul. He knew some Inorganics could be harmful, but through his training he could defend himself  so far.

Roulla Mavromati, the enigmatic woman he meets one day on the train, craves his knowledge. But these will not be the lessons found in any university surrounded by the leafy comfort of academia. She will be pushed to the very edge of pleasure and pain to discover they spring from the same source. As her thirst for Heaven and Hell intensifies, Bishop has to find new extremes where the boundaries of flesh and consciousness dissolve. Roulla possesses a power Bishop has never encountered in any woman he has known. Unleashed, the potential could be devastating. As Roulla excels in her studies, Tom Bishop realises this is the woman he was always destined to meet and that these are not merely games of master and slave but a frightening prelude of what is to come.

Then it begins

It is during one of the many conversations with another resident of the house, his philosophical sparring partner, the Red Yank, an out-of-work actor with a passion for classical music, pipes and women. His flat is cluttered with chaotic displays of his theatre and film work, and he shares it with the love of his life, a politically incorrect parrot called Louie.

At first it seems like a simple car accident in the street outside with the two drivers in an angry stand off  maybe an exchange of blame, then insurance details? An axe swings, bullets spray from a gun and a man lies dying on the floor. A hate-fuelled mob floods the neighbourhood charged with insanity and chaos as Bishop and the Red Yank unbelievingly crane their heads out of the window to watch as the police, outnumbered and helpless, disappear beneath a tidal wave of blood and anarchy. It could be the beginnings of a long overdue revolution. But this is what Bishop has always known. The Horror had begun.

The landscape has dramatically changed overnight. Dismembered corpses hang from trees, the dead litter the streets as the crows and rats feast on the banquet. At first it seems that the only living creatures are the crows. Patrolled by armed guards, huge razor wire pens have been constructed. Inside, a new breed of animal is being broken in and conditioned to obey their new masters. Naked and dehumanised, the filthy rich, the ex-rulers of the people and the upper echelon, have become the primary fuel as they pull the new order around in makeshift chariots. Whipped into a pulverising subservience, these scarred and tattered people scream out for a system that has crumbled into the bloody filth and human detritus of stinking London streets.

Animals with reborn primal savagery hunt in packs, tearing apart anything in their path and adding to the growing carnage. The Horror is engulfing everything, not just people. The earth is in revolt.

Tom Bishop and the Red Yank find to their amazement they can walk around without drawing attention to themselves while watching the blasphemy of deconstructed humanity at their leisure. But the crows see them. The crows always see them, and the crows haven’t forgotten.

Then Bishop hears The Voice and learns why things are the way they are. Why they always will be. Why The Horror has to exist.







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6. Chapter Six

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

Woodentops duckwalked out the front door behind the lolloping Rhodesian ridgeback, stood on the top step and began to make an assessment of the neighbourhood.  First he looked at the steps just vacated by the ridgeback, then he looked up at the roof of the terrace opposite, then down again, then up.  The eyes behind his glasses were vacuous, and his lips were held in a perfect “O”.  Which was why he was called Woodentops.  He looked wooden – always – and moved as if to animation.  Like a marionette.  Meanwhile the huge dog bounded around the corner to dump eight pounds of steaming shit into the gutter.  But Woodentops was now fixated.  He stared as a child stares at a rainbow, in wonder.  Long arms hung loosely at his sides, and his hips seemed hinged to his legs.  He was mesmerised, and his face was a study of circles – wide eyes and rounded lips set in the oval of features beneath the greying and receding brush cut.

 

Woodentops was joined by his fat wife who was wearing dirty pink synthetic carpet slipper mules.  With hair trimmed very short, her head looked like a knob on a bag of lard.  She stood beside her husband.  They both looked now, two sets of eyes fixed as if by carpentry.  They stared without blinking at the mystifying phenomena across the street.

Tom Bishop held the gnarled hollow branch with one hand as he tapped it carefully with the side of the little hammer.  The dirt, the carcasses of beetles, gnawed nut shells, damp leaves and decomposing detritus fell in a little round circle as he tapped.  The end of the branch stood on the small square of earth exposed by the pavement to accommodate one of the trees growing on the Terrace.  The old branch was unusually shaped.  When laid on its side it had a small ragged hole just in the curve of the branch, and the open end curved up.   From above, the hollow at the end looked like a mouth of some prehistoric animal opened wide in agonising pain from the wound in its back. 

 

Bishop loved the smell of the thing, too.  It was of the earth, like the unknown animal it represented.  A few more years, and it would have decomposed completely and become part of the earth again.  Through his hands he felt the reverberations of the endless cycle – birth, life, death.  Everything was in a state of becoming.  Nothing was static.  A snapshot of him on the Terrace beating on the old piece of wood, the Woodentops watching motionless from across the street, a bounding ridgeback, one of the Breeders pushing a pram, two smackheads mincing along with cans of Special Brew held to their lips.  And a large crow.  It was perched on a TV aerial above the Woodentops’ roof.

Bishop realised he had accumulated quite an audience.  He smiled to himself.

 

Abruptly he glanced up and caught Mr Woodentops’ eye and held it firmly.  The man had been staring at him wordlessly for ten minutes, his lips still oval in astonishment.  Bishop gripped the hammer loosely.  His expression was neutral but resolute.  Seconds passed.  A stillness seemed to settle on the Terrace.  Bishop thought for a moment he was going to experience another one of his time warps.  Then suddenly, as if tugged by the invisible strings of the puppet master, Woodentops broke the gaze and lurched backward.  He looked at his fat wife.  His fat wife looked at him.  Both looked once more at Bishop, then turned together into the open doorway where the ridgeback was waiting for them, a long pale pink tongue hanging from the side of its mouth.  The Breeder continued on her way with the baby buggy, and the crow had not blinked at all.

*

 

They came back from Devon the night before, Monday night.  Bishop intended to let Roulla Mavromati drop him at the top of Ptolemy Terrace.  So she would not know exactly where he lived, which house.  But his assessment of her was changing.  She might well be one of the enemy.  There was no way of telling for certain.  However, the long weekend gave him some opportunity of scanning her while under stress.  During the play sessions he was more merciless than he had ever been before.  Punishment was more harsh, and he forced her along at the very limits of her capacities.

And a strange thing happened.  At some point early in the morning hours of Sunday Mavromati metaphysically broke water.  She passed into a state she had never before visited.  Bishop had fisted her both vaginally and anally.  He beat her, then pushed his largest butt plug up her.  He remembered her crawling across the kitchen floor on her belly begging to drink his piss from a bowl.  Her pleas were sincere and plaintive.  He was satisfied as he looked down at her, because he knew where she was and envied her the power of her submission.  It was total.  He could do anything with her.  The next day they went to the coast.  He horse-trained and horse-whipped her.  She took everything he could give and came at him for more.

 

Which meant she had spirit.  She couldn’t have faked that.  And she couldn’t fake her total submission to him, either.  Almost indefinable, spirit was expressible only by honest terms.  And it could only be recognised in human terms.  It wasn’t alien, foreign, plastic, phoney, fabricated or laminated.  He was confident now that he’d made the right choice with Roulla Mavromati.

They spent most of the evening of their return on the roof above his flat looking at the stars and smoking several joints.  The roof was wet from rain, but the clouds had blown away to reveal a clear, cool sky.  They sat leaning against the chimney stacks, talking quietly. 

 

She drew deeply on the spliff, held the breath, exhaled.  “Do you like opera?”

“Yeah.  Some.”

 

Don Giovanni?”

Bishop accepted the spliff but didn’t take a drag.  “Mozart isn’t my favourite.  But the Red Yank loves it.  Plays it all the time downstairs, tries to sing along with it, fucking awful.  So I suppose I know it in a way.  The music, not the libretto.”

“You were talking about the ‘female strategy’.  It’s made me think about the ‘male strategy’.”

He chuckled and finally dragged on the joint.  “Impossible to compare the two.”

 

“No, no,” she said quickly.  “I finally understood.  You were talking about the paradigm, the female strategy in living things, not just woman.”

He nodded.  “That’s right.”

 

“Well, there’s the male paradigm, too.  As well.  Which made me think of Don Giovanni.  Get the Red Yank – whoever he is – to loan you the album.  Very philosophical.  Many people have written about this opera.”

“Who?”

“Kierkegaard.”

“Out of fashion, isn’t he?”

 

She looked up at the stars and drew the blanket tightly around her shoulders.  “For me, you personify some attributes of the ‘male strategy.’  In the opera, the Don seduces a country girl called Zerlina.  Now most baritones find it impossible to play the Don.  They like Leporello, the servant, a sort of buffo character who can’t help stealing the whole show.  Only a few know how to sing his master.  And those few know something of the male strategy.  Let me tell you, Mr Bishop, my new friend, Tom – that male thing – no, not your cock - is irresistible to women.  And this thing, I can’t explain what it is.  A few Italians have it.  Many Greek men do.  The English?  The Americans?”

She shrugged after contemplating the topic for a few moments.  “Well, I don’t know that many.  But they seem to…ignore that power which they have within.  Like the so-called female strategy, it is silent.  It doesn’t have to speak.  And it is utterly devastating.  It is almost arrogance but not quite.  It is beguiling assurance, although it has a hard edge to it.  It is very sexy but not pushy.  You see, it is seductive.  It is a lure.  Those things you called the female strategy.  It has high energy.  When the Don seduces Zerlina, he creates an atmosphere that is compelling and irresistible.  You see, his looks don’t so much matter – up to a point, of course.  Sometimes it helps if he is a little bit ugly, different.  A seductive predator, that’s an explanation of the male strategy.  Zerlina knows the Don will never marry her, will betray her, will cast her aside once he has plundered her.  She knows it because he is so confident he doesn’t bother hiding it.  Yet, against all rationality, she will allow herself to be seduced and plundered.  She will jeopardise her impending marriage to Masetto, along with her reputation.  Because for the moments of the seduction, she is everything.  His whole world.  His concentration and focus of his attention are total and unique.  The eyes entrap the hare like headlights on a dark road.  Yes, this is it.  He knows how reality is, constructs it for her, and she plays her role in his reality.  She submits, and as she submits her fecundity is at its apex.  Eggs ripen in her.  This is the man who knows what reality is, and the earth opens for him to plant his seed.”

 

She stopped and listened.  It was late, but they still heard traffic noise from Junction Road.  A blast of horns, angry drivers shredding the peace of the evening.  “That is the male strategy.”

“The duality,” he murmured, passing the spliff back to her.  “Like the universe itself.  The same but very different.”

 

She sucked on the joint and inhaled deeply, holding it inside her until it was painful, exhaling as she relaxed and closed her eyes.  “This weekend.  It was powerful, Tom.  More than I’ve dreamed of.  No one has made me feel like that, ever.  I’ve had all my emotions squeezed out of me by a mangle.  I’m flat, flaccid….”

“…and yet filled and complete,” he continued.  “Paradox.  Sex is full of it.  By submitting, you dominate.  As I dominate, I submit.  We are both prostrate before the sex goddess…”

 

She drew again on the joint.  This time she didn’t hold the smoke so long in her lungs.  “Never have I crawled like that before a man, but I’ve always dreamed of doing it.  You have subdued me, Englishman.  The first one.  The only one.  I am a very proud woman.  I’ve looked for that thing, the male strategy, where I can give myself fully, completely.”

He chuckled.  It was too dark to see his face.  “Even now the female strategy is working, playing, angling for territory.  Your tone of voice, what you say, implies more and more that we are lovers.  We aren’t.”

 

“I know we’re not.  I feel it.”

There was silence as he stared down at the street below.  “I don’t want lovers, Roulla.  I’m looking for other things.  Not love.  Not with you.  Not now.”

 

“What are we, then?”  Her voice was a little sharp as she handed back the remains of the spliff.

“Like you said.  Friends,” he replied.  “Free friends in perversity.  We both want to explore the outer horizons of human sexuality.  I sense that in you.  You are as perverted as any woman I’ve met.  No.  That’s not right.  You are the most honest about your perversity.  You have flair, spirit.  If I falter, you will consume me, clean my bones. It makes it risky, and riskiness causes me to salivate.”

She laughed.  “Yesterday you made me be a horse.  I was prancing for you with a bit in my mouth, and, you know?  I really wanted to do it.  I really was a horse.  You beat me so hard.  I only wanted to do what you made me do.  So exciting.  Even now it excites me.”

He didn’t reply for a moment.  “I have a gag that looks a little like that bridle.  Once I put it on, you can’t take it off again until I let you.  I may force you to wear it sometimes when you’re here on the roof with me.”

 

“I can be quiet if you want me to be…”  Her voice was a little pleading.

He pointed suddenly.  “Look!”

 

“What?  Where?”

“There!  Between those two terraces of houses!  Do you see it?”

 

She sat forward, straining her eyes.  What was he talking about?  “Between the terraces?”

“Yes!”  He was excited.  “It’s a huge creature, the size of a double-decker bus – but longer, like four or five of them connected end to end - and it’s rolling over and over between those two terraces.”

 

She tried but couldn’t see anything.  “Tom.  What are you talking about?”

He was up on one knee now, indicating with one hand for her to be quiet.  He whispered.  “Have you never encountered inorganics before?  This is the biggest I’ve ever seen.  Massive.”

 

She got up on her knees beside him.  The blanket fell to the roof.  “I don’t see anything.  I’m sorry.”

He put his arm around her shoulders.  “Don’t just look with your eyes.  Inside, you have knowledge of yourself and the world.  Seek that.  Look with it, through your eyes.”

 

She glanced at him.  “This thing you see, what is it?  What is it doing?”

He stared in the direction of the huge inorganic.  “Collecting.  Milking.  Farming.”

 

“Is it still there?”

Bishop strained forward, tilted his head.  “No.  Gone.”

 

Mavromati picked up the blanket and pulled it round her shoulders.  She looked for the joint, but it had fallen onto the roof and was wet on one side.  He took it from her fingers and put it into his shirt pocket.  They both sat down again and leaned against the chimneys.

In the silence she cleared her throat twice before speaking.  “Tom…”

 

“What?”

“Are you serious?  Aliens?  Big bugs the size of buses?  This worries me a little.”

 

He laughed easily.  “Why?  Does it make you think I’m mad?  Crazy?”

She laughed with him.  “Well…yes.  I mean, you have to admit it’s odd.  Normally, well, people just don’t talk about aliens because…because…”

 

“Yeah?  Because?”

She was struggling a little.  “We’d be told, wouldn’t we?  It would somehow be obvious if…there were aliens among us.”

 

Bishop smirked.  “Who would tell us?  Scientists?  The modern oracle.  The Scientists.  As if there were some body of learned men conferring together in gowns after much study?  There are a number of questions here, Roulla.  Try asking yourself some of them.  Do life forms have to be carbon based?  In other words do they have to look something like us?  I believe even The Scientists would explain that intelligence could even be collected into a gas.  There is certainly no reason they have to be visible or make themselves visible to us.  Why should they?  Would we, if we were occupying a planet of inferiors?”

She shrugged.  “Yes.  I think so.”

 

“Well, before you get carried away, have another look at our record.  Take homo mechano.  I don’t call us homo sapiens because I don’t think we are now or ever will be wise.  No.  We are men who make machines, techno-man.  There were other routes, but techno-man was after one thing.  Wealth.  When he landed on the shores of the Americas or Australia or Africa, what did he do?  Did he introduce himself to the local population and offer to share his knowledge with them if they shared theirs with him?  No.  Because killing and enslaving were his games.  He wanted their land and their labour and their mineral wealth and never gave a shit about what they might know that he didn’t know.  Whatever it was had no value measurable in gold anyway.”

He stopped and reached for the wooden case beside him.  He opened it and carefully extracted a fresh joint.  Then he lit it.

 

“So,” he continued, “Bearing that in mind, do you honestly think some invader with ‘superior’ intelligence is going to bother contacting us to ask us our opinions about them or about anything else?  If they are something like us, they are just going to start exploiting us for their own uses.”

He passed her the cigarette, and she drew on it before leaning back against the chimney and looking up at the sky.  “It is an intriguing perspective.  So many stars.  So many galaxies.”

 

“Limitless possibilities.  There are also many other dimensions.”

She took another drag.  “So you think we have been invaded?”

 

“I don’t think, I know.  One of my patients helped show me the portholes between multiple realities.  I was so intrigued I never went back to work.  Seven years ago.  I had to study them.  It has been more interesting than I can begin to tell you.”

She thought for a moment.  “Is it only you – and your patient - who can see them?”

 

“Oh, no, no.  There are others.  You could do it if you wanted to.”

“Are you sure it wouldn’t just be my…imagination?”

 

He shrugged.  “Are you clear what is imagination and what is real?  Where do you look for guarantees?  To scientists who already collaborate with the aliens to keep us trusting and passive?  No.  You’re on your own.  You are obliged to return to your own resources and establish your own links with the universe.”

She handed him the joint.  “OK, I’m hooked.  What do the invaders do?  What have they done to us?”

 

He blew out a cloud of smoke.  “When you clear your head, you’ll be able to see. I can’t see them all by any means.  They are normally invisible.  But I can often sense their presence, even when I can’t see them.  The trick is to look around you.  Observe.  Be quiet.  Don’t talk.  Watch.  Listen.  Get in touch with your inner knowledge – your old knowledge, tribal knowledge, that thing every living animal must have to survive.  The whole interior parcel.  Bring together the light and the dark, and make them a whole again.  At some point during this process, you will begin to see what has happened, what is happening.  Part of the human race – and most of the whites - have been genetically modified.”

Mavromati couldn’t help but laugh.  “Like wheat and tomatoes!”

 

He shrugged.  “What else?  Something happened to us – Europeans – at about the time of the Renaissance.  Looking at it impassively, it just seems mad – as mad as my words may seem to you right now.  A worm of humanity began to be crazed by the acquisition of wealth.  Maybe it started long before the Renaissance, but it certainly gathered pace since then.  We’ve wiped out entire nations and races.  A global economy is now in place which allows no dissent.  It is killer-quick to crush any sign of disobedience.  Humanity itself has been over-bred.  Look out there.  Look at London, this stupid street.  What are we?  Battery chickens! Were we born to live in honeycombs?  Do you realise that, during tribal times, ten square miles was thought to be ‘full’ if it contained two score people?  Do you know why?  Because ordinarily the land wouldn’t support more than that.  So those people fought to defend those square miles so they could make their livings from nature.”

He sat back and passed the joint back to Roulla.  “Maybe it was the farmers, not the Renaissance.  Maybe that’s where it all began.  Clearing the trees, fertilising the land, intensive crops.  Cattle, pigs, poultry.  The food source grew, so the people multiplied far more than the ten square miles, and the little plots like that were stitched together to form little nations, then bigger ones.  Cities were once just trading centres, but they began to be infernos of activity.  The terraced house was invented and sold to the gullible, and the terraced house was divided and sub-divided down to individual rooms.  It can’t be denied.  People have been ruthlessly and relentlessly pressed and crushed together as they are simultaneously whipped by greed and desire, envy and hatred.  What does this suggest to you, Roulla?  What product are we making for those who farm us?”

 

She sucked air through her teeth.  “Anxiety?”

“Yes.  Stress.  My own theory is that farmed stress is some form of energy source for another species.  We grow pigs for protein which we consume and transform into energy.  Likewise, these other beings herd us into smaller and smaller units, then keep turning the screws.  Maybe all our stress is stored in gigantic batteries, then traded or sold by a galactic conglomerate.  Could be used as a drug.  Rolled and smoked or snorted by beings from other dimensions.  Who knows?”

 

Roulla Mavromati chuckled as she took a drag on the joint.  There was not much left.  She passed the remains to Bishop.  “The imagery is good.  I like it.”

“What is all this?”  He gestured to include the whole population.  “It’s hell - level seven, subsection thirteen.  Once the air and water were clean.  We could breathe, and drink from the river.  Most importantly of all, each day was ours!  Roulla, no one seems to understand the depth of what that means.  All our time is now stolen from us.  Up in the mornings, out to work to bring home less money than we need to buy food that tastes more and more like the swill they feed to pigs.  And to pay for the privilege of living in honeycombs.  Now people work so hard there’s no choice when they come home except to turn on the TV – and that’s so dangerous.  Because all you get is propaganda programming for you and your children.  Then a few hours of sleep and back to work.

 

She thought for a few moments.  “Do you want to return to the days of the noble savage?”

“Ha.  They weren’t noble, and they weren’t savages.  You know what they were?  Human beings before genetic modification.  You don’t have to look far to see what human beings should be doing.  Native Americans, Australians and Africans before they were plundered, raped, enslaved or massacred in their hundreds of thousands, millions.  And the survivors were re-programmed with the same greed as their plunderers.  Just why, exactly, do you think the white man is so eager to wipe out these other cultures and impose his own?  Why is he so ruthless and bloodthirsty in eradicating every vestige of what he sees as competing cultures?”

 

“Go on, tell me…”

“So there will be no alternative.  That’s what all those poor sods in the honeycombs are faced with today.  No alternative.  Like cows driven in herds.  Nowhere to turn because there are thundering cattle in front, to the sides and behind.  All you can do is just keep your legs moving and not to worry that you are going straight towards the slaughterhouse and the revolving knives.”

 

“Obviously there is an alternative,” she said almost in a whisper.  “What you believe in.  What I believe in, also.  We don’t have to do these things like the herd.  We can pretend we are running with them but live our own lives, like here under the stars.  Or having the kind of sex they wouldn’t even dream about.  Like this weekend.  Total involvement, total engagement, out-of-body experiences, the depths and heights of human experience….”

“This is music to my ears,” he murmured.

 

She paused.  “I don’t know whether what you say is the truth.  But I recognise your passion.  I feel it.  You look so self-contained, so certain of yourself.  Yet there is fire in your belly.  Big love, great hatred.  These are good things in human beings, this connection to the world and the body filled with direct feelings.  Ice is cold, fire is hot.  There is too much rationalism, Tom.  You know this concept?  The division of time and measurement of space.  Which reduces our understanding of both!”

He turned to her, grinning.  “You’re taking my breath away, Roulla.  Why haven’t you talked like this before?”

 

She widened her eyes.  “Why haven’t you?  I don’t know about the aliens.  I’ll try to see them.  It sounds good.  There must be a reason, a pattern of some kind, something that can be understood.  But don’t think because I’m a woman I am stupid…”

“Now, wait…”

 

“…and by stupid I mean defined by some man.  Ha!  That surprised you, eh?”  She slapped her thigh.  “A whole weekend I spend at your feet, licking your boots, drinking your piss.  I’ll have bruises for a week and be proud to have them because it will remind me of the jewelled caverns of ecstasy.  But I have both in me – fire and ice.  I want to disappear through the bars of the small cage of submission to realise it is only an illusion, and I have the whole horizon to be free!  You force me to my knees.  You put a bit between my teeth and a bridle.  You define me and limit me completely – in play.  Play is as serious as reality.  But in reality I cannot be defined by a man.  Or woman.  I am a Greek.  We are not part of your white man’s exploitation.  We are no aliens, you can trust me there…”

Bishop noticed the joint had gone cold, but it was no more than a roach now.  He placed it carefully back into the wooden box.  “Are you trying to tell me the Bubbles are incorruptible?”

 

“Bubbles?”

He grinned.  “Rhyming slang.  Bubble and squeak rhymes with Greek.”

 

“Oh.”  She waved her hand impatiently.  “If you are human, you can be corrupted, or it is possible.  Life is corruptible.  What else is death but corruption?  The Greeks, they are not part of your aliens.  The other Europeans, maybe.  Like the Romans.  After the Ancient Greeks made beautiful things for the world, the Romans made an empire, and for all the years that empire lasted they did not make one thing as beautiful as the Parthenon.  Nor was Rome ever the city that Athens was. We had no empire.  The Romans, now.  Maybe they were your first aliens!  After all, it was an Italian who gave his name to America!……….”

+ The pain was awful.  Tom Bishop grabbed the kitchen worktop beside the cooker as he sank to his knees.  The fire down his left arm spread into his chest.  It was suffocating him.  His chin was drawn by contracting neck muscles into the top of his chest.  His eyes widened as he realised he wasn’t breathing.

Breathe!

That was the word!  Breathe.  He could force himself to breathe.  He must at all costs or he was going to die.  It was simple.

 

With the greatest effort of will, he placed his chin on the worktop and slowly let his body drop back.  His head pulled up from his chest, and he finally began to breathe.  One shallow breath, two.  Evenly, slowly, in control now.  In.  Hold it for a second.  Out.  In.  Out.  Closing his eyes he visualised his body in a shower of golden, healing light.  The light diffused, like crystal scattering sunlight, and washed over him like breaking waves.  The pain began to recede from his chest and arm, but he was still paralysed and could not move.  His chin was still resting on the countertop, which he also gripped with the fingers of his right hand.  His eyes flickered.  The fingers were white from the effort of gripping.  His left arm hung uselessly at his side.  It was tingling, as if an electrical charge was slowly being disengaged.  His heart was thumping noisily now, but it sounded strong.

He made a big effort and pulled himself up.  He stood, teeth chattering, holding on with both hands now.  He forced his chin into the air, leaned against the counter with his right leg and began windmilling his left arm.  Tom Bishop knew he had reached into the twilight zone.  He had seen light and darkness, life and death – his own.  Truly, it was as if he had been missed by the talons of a huge bird of prey lurking about waiting for him on the rim of being.

 

He plugged in his kettle, dumped a heaped spoonful of coffee into his mug and leaned forward to wait for the water to boil with closed eyes.

He held the hot mug and stared out his window with glassy eyes before leaning back in his chair.  Clearing his mind, he relaxed his body, warming his hands on the mug.  He had just survived a heart attack, and he had reason to believe it had been induced by one of his foes.  With his eyes closed, he searched the room.  Sure enough, there was a Presence.  In the corner near the cupboard.  Bishop scooped up as much energy as he could gather and thrust it suddenly and vehemently at the Presence with a chi push.

 

There was a crackle, a visual blue spark.  Then it was gone.

He didn’t know how to fight them.  He made it up as he went along.  But he knew he had to fight back or die.  That was completely clear now.  There were so many questions, so few answers.  The heart attack shook him, scared him.  Yet he had to fight his fear, understand it, absorb it.  Closing his eyes again, he remembered the Chinese proverb.

“Fear knocked at the door.  Courage opened it.  There was no one there.”

Only himself to fear.  They hadn’t got him yet.  Whoever they were.  That meant there were limits to their powers.  And perhaps they were more vulnerable to his own efforts than he thought possible.  So far, they had failed in every attempt to convert, divert, hoodwink or kill him.  He sensed big changes were taking place – in the cosmos and the microcosm.  Thunder in the distant hills.  Was it the sound of the hooves of the Four Horsemen?  There was a sense of rising anticipation, as on the eve of a great battle.  Something was coming.  But what was the time scale?  Was the build-up taking centuries, years, months or hours?  How to know?  Tom Bishop regularly scanned the perimeters of his consciousness for any clues, but the only hint was what he felt in his bones.  Soon.  Soon.

What was soon, though?  How long was soon?  How long was a piece of string?+

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