Dr. Nicholas Swift, thirty-eight years old, could not pretend to be very fond of company. Rather, if he had to use definite terms to describe himself – not that he was ever tempted to – "socially awkward" would probably be the most accurate. Exceedingly serious, sporadically prickly, with a dry, sarcastic wit that was sharpened by extended bachelorhood, Dr. Swift was painfully aware of his stand-outishness in the social events he had to attend, in the course of his work or otherwise.
Tonight was to be otherwise.
It was a reunion of old school friends, most of whom he hadn't seen for the past twenty years. Has it really been that long? He asked himself incredulously as he was getting ready. Has it? He asked again as he stared at his image in the mirror, at the trim figure in a modest but well-cut dark grey suit, at the thick black hair with no shade of silver, nor any hint of beginning to recede, at the nearly lineless face. He couldn't say he felt young, because he doubted he ever felt that. But he felt no older than he had at seventeen - nor any fonder of the schoolfellows, the subject of whose taunts he had been during his teen years. Well, at least he had to thank fate, or God, or whoever ruled up above, for giving him enough intelligence to shine at every exam. It sparked envy, but it also helped him pull through school without his spirit sinking too low. It helped him keep his head above water.
That, and Andrew.
Andrew, damn the man, was also the one who roped him into going to this reunion tonight. Nicholas tried to wriggle out of it – he had a mountainous pile of work waiting for him at the office, he thought he was beginning to feel the onset of a cold, he promised his mother he would visit and he couldn't foresee another opportunity of doing that this week – but all was in vain, just as he knew it would be. Somehow, Andrew always had his own way… which was often to the good, Nicholas was forced to admit.
Andrew was the only real friend he made in school – why him of all people, nobody could comprehend, as the two boys seemed the perfect opposites. Andrew was blond, boisterous, easy to laugh, the soul of every company; Nicholas long, lanky, black-haired, glum, slinking into the shadows at the first opportunity. What they had in common wasn't easy to understand at first – but there was the goodness of basic nature, the integrity of character, and above all youth, which so often endears two very different people to each other. Andrew became the protector of Nicholas, which caused sneers and jokes about "little Nick hiding behind Mommy's skirts"; but Andrew, without actually declaring it, recognized and admired his friend's superior intellect – although in some matters, as he always claimed, Nicholas remained woefully ignorant.
In the past five years, they have not seen each other quite as often as before. The paths they chose in life were as different as their personalities. Andrew went into car tire manufacturing, and after a decade of steadily rising found himself the owner of a successful company, while Nicholas became a historian specializing in the study of the Middle Ages – and more often than he cared to admit, slipped off the solid land of fact into the murky waters of myth and legend. Still, he and Andrew were bound by mutual affection and met fairly regularly – up until the latter's marriage. The charming Emily, blond and pretty and as well-suited to Andrew as a woman could be, did not have to try very hard to snare him, as he was quite ready to fall into the trap himself. Five years and two children later, Andrew passed his days in vast contentment, master in both his home and his work place, and the only thing he had to complain about was the length of commute – upon marrying, he left the City center and moved into a handsome suburban house of, as he insisted, his choosing (although it was really Emily's). Nicholas, in the meantime, stubbornly remained a bachelor.
He could have married, of course. Perhaps he should have married, as Andrew kept insistently reminding him – himself being a perfect rosy illustration of domestic bliss. While not what one would normally call a charmer, Nicholas was not unattractive, and his salary, though not lucrative, was perfectly fit to live on. He was highly respected in the academy, already had several published works under his belt, the most intriguing of which probably was "A Trail of Blood – Why the Vampire Myths in Bosnia were so difficult to dispel?" It was this book that brought him to the knowledge of the general public, although admittedly, it also caused criticism from some of his colleagues for "perpetuating a myth that should be dead and buried just as the so-called vampires are." But as the ever-cheerful Andrew told him, envy dies hard.
So why didn't Dr. Nicholas Swift, a reasonably successful, potentially pleasant man marry? Admittedly, he did not feel any particular urge to. He did not recall the feeling of burning desire, except perhaps once, when he was very young… half a boy, in fact, and in a co-ed school one could hardly expect not to… but it was over and done with before it even began. The girl was in her senior year and didn't even notice his existence. She left school at the end of term and, as he heard, married early. He never knew what became of her, and her features were hazy in his mind's eye now. He could not even recall her name.
He doubted she would come to this reunion. If it depended on him, he wouldn't be going himself. The only person he wanted to see there was Andrew, and he didn't need to drive two hours to see Andrew. They could meet any old time, like in days gone by. In fact, he was about to pick up the phone, dial his friend's number and suggest just that, when he heard a ring. He heaved a sigh and answered, knowing who it must be before he even heard the familiar voice.
"Nick!" it sounded as though Andrew was in the highest spirits. "I just decided to ring you before I get into the car. You ready?"
"Not quite," Dr. Swift replied evasively.
"Aren't thinking of not going, now, are you?" he could practically see Andrew squinting in suspicion. While not a man of outstanding clairvoyance, Andrew was quick to pick up on anything that concerned people he cared about. And Nicholas knew he couldn't say what was on the tip of his tongue a minute ago.
"Of course I'm coming," he said quickly, "I just… got detained a bit. Choosing a tie."
"Choosing a tie," Andrew repeated sagely. "I see. Now, Nick," his voice was different now, brisk, the kind of tone one doesn't argue with. "If you don't get going now, you'll miss out on the best part of the evening, and I won't have that, do you hear me?"
"I'll be on my way in five minutes," promised Nicholas.
"Emily can't wait to see you," were Andrew's first words after a warm handshake. "She says it won't hurt you to have some fun, and I happen to agree with her completely."
"Emily is always so thoughtful," replied Nicholas with just a tinge of sourness, but his friend didn't miss that. A finger rose into the air like an exclamation mark as the two proceeded towards the open area outside, where tables of refreshments and drinks were laid out.
"You don't know my wife as I do," declared Andrew, shaking his raised finger at Nicholas and mercifully missing the double meaning of his own words. "Emily is always concerned about everyone. And," he paused meaningfully, "there might be… others, who are just as interested in meeting you."
"Oh yes," Nicholas nodded vigorously, "such as Jeremy Logan, for example. Or… what was his name? Robert? Or Rupert? Allen, I mean. I'm sure the fun they derived from sticking my head in the toilet was a peak of amusement life never threw in their way again."
Andrew laughed. "I didn't know you still remember that," he confessed, "although of course, I realize you have less fond memories of school than I do. But it's not just schoolfellows here… there's someone – someone who has read your book about vampires and was highly impressed."
"It was not a book about vampires," Dr. Swift corrected him. "It was a book about how vampires, as lucrative as the myth may seem, never existed. Which point, I believe, I should have done a better job in clarifying."
Andrew waved a dismissive hand. "I think we discussed the matter at least a dozen times. It makes no difference. Emily has a – a niece," under his friend's piercing stare, his voice lost a notch of its cocksureness, "a young lady who came across your book as background reading for a college assignment, and, ah," he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, "expressed a wish to meet you in person, once she knew we were friends."
Nicholas faintly raised his eyebrows. "You didn't bring her with you?"
It must be said to Andrew's credit that he had the grace to look abashed. "I saw no reason not to – "
Nicholas stopped walking and sighed. "Look, Andy," he said, dropping pretence of coolness, "we can be honest with each other, can't we? I know what you are trying to do, and I appreciate your good intentions. But seriously, a college girl, you can't think – "
"No, no, no!" Andrew protested vehemently. "This is not what you think! I would never – "
"No? Well, then, what about that friend of Emily's, who just happened to pass by that restaurant you two dragged me to on New Year's eve? And you, you filthy hypocrite, you had the audacity to tell me –"
"Oh, alright, alright," hissed Andrew, "I admit we set it all up, and it was foolish of me, I should have known Laura is not your type, but for heaven's sake keep your voice down, Nick, there's everyone… and there's Emily."
And sure enough, in the crowd milling by the long tables stood Emily, looking as fashionable as ever in a cocktail dress of shocking pink that made a stunning effect against her highlighted blond hair. She was such a squeaky clean image of prettiness it almost made Nicholas smile, that is, until the young woman standing next to her turned to the sound of their footsteps, and –
And he saw a ghost. Not someone returned from the dead, but someone who nevertheless was no more.
A very lovely, very lively ghost with short, soft-looking chestnut curls and eyes of deep blue, that looked so like – but no, of course it couldn't be her, and the resemblance was not exact, well, at least he thoughtso, he could not be sure now after all these years, and the blue dress she wore was so becoming he nearly blurted out something to this effect, which of course would have been perfect idiocy, and –
Andrew cleared his throat.
"Nicholas, this is Kate Nuland, Emily's niece."
Dr Swift's black eyes burned into Emily's laughing pale grey ones, almost accusingly. "I was not aware that you had a niece, Emily. I didn't even know you had a sister."
"Oh, I do," she didn't seem remotely aware of his perturbation. "I mean… Terry is a half-sister, and her relations with the family are somewhat strained, which is why you didn't see her at our wedding. But perhaps you know Terry?" her inquisitive look was innocent and wide. "She went to this same school, only a few years above you – isn't that so, Andy? She regretted not being able to come tonight, but hoped her daughter would prove to be a worthy substitute," Emily gestured towards Kate, who grinned nervously. Nicholas could only nod vacantly, his mind in a state of furious work.
Terry. Yes, of course her name was Terry. How could he have forgotten? But of course, it was all so long ago. And Andrew, wasn't he aware that… he cut this thread of thought abruptly. Stop it. No one but yourself knew of that teenage agony. You would rather die than tell even your best friend, don't you remember?
He forced a smile, which she uncertainly returned. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Nuland."
"The pleasure is mine, Dr Swift."
He was still thinking about her – and chastising himself for it - when the phone rang mid-morning the day after.
"How's it going?" asked Andrew with unconvincing nonchalance.
"Oh, just fine," replied Nicholas in equally unconvincing airy tones. Then there was a silence, each waiting for the other to break it. Andrew was the first to do so. He harrumped.
"Aren't you glad you came to the school reunion after all, Nick?"
"If you are glad, that's enough for me," Dr Swift replied diplomatically.
"How touching," by Andrew's voice, it was plain that he was grinning. "Kate was very pleased to make your acquaintance, too," he added off-handedly.
"I am honored," was Nicholas's solemn answer.
"In fact…" Andrew hesitated, weighing his words, "in fact," he repeated, "she expressed utmost enthusiasm to – well, in short, she would like to work for you."
For a heartbeat, Nicholas was certain that his ears deceive him; for another, that this is some kind of a ludicrous joke.
"To work for me?" he repeated. "To work for me?"
"Well, yes," said Andrew, apparently unaware of saying anything very shocking. "As your personal assistant," he explained.
"My…" Nicholas spluttered. "I have no need of a personal assistant," he said reasonably, ignoring the sudden violent beating of his heart at the whole wide range of possibilities Andrew's suggestion presented.Stop it, you miserable old fool. Whatever is going on, you will not allow it to proceed any further. "I never had one, and even if there was work enough for an assistant, it would be the faculty's prerogative to choose and hire one for me."
"Now, now, Nick," Andrew went on placidly. "I know how much respect they have for you. If you said you need an assistant, they wouldn't argue. And if you said you know a person of excellent qualifications for this job, a Miss Catherine Nuland, I'm sure your opinion would be taken into consideration."
Nicholas was seized by a sudden vision of a young woman in a dress of blue satin, shaking her chestnut curls and laughing softly as she stirred her martini. To see her again… but to concede to what Andy was offering would be, he realized, an act of utmost foolishness.
"Why would a lively young woman like your niece want a boring job such as being a researcher's assistant?"
"You might say it's a boring job… but Kate is hoping for some vampire-hunting," said Andrew jovially.
Nicholas let out an exasperated sigh. "I wish the idea for the stupid book about the stupid vampires had never occurred to me," he said. "Andy, even if I had an assistant, the work would be answering phone calls, copying documents, organizing files… things like that. And to be frank, I'm getting on just fine by myself."
"I know you are," agreed Andy, "that is why you are thirty-eight with no prospects of settling down, isn't that so?"
"That's neither here nor there," Dr Swift replied haughtily.
"Alright, alright," Andrew sounded different now, more serious, "your bachelorhood isn't the issue here. The truth is, I'm asking this as a special favor for Kate and her family. The girl is very young," he lowered his voice, "just completed her degree in social studies, but that's nothing. She has no idea what she wants to do next. Now she got it into her head that she would like to study history, or perhaps archeology. She isn't sure which, but whichever it is, her poor mother seized upon the idea gratefully. There were some very disturbing moves she made recently," Andrew's voice was reduced almost to a whisper now, so that Nicholas caught only snatches of words here and there. "There was a Hindu sect… a hippie camp… a French boyfriend, and no good came out of it…"
"Strange. She seemed to be a reasonable young lady," remarked Nicholas.
"She's young, and has a warm heart. That by itself is enough to make her gullible."
Once more, it appeared to Nicholas in plain view that Andrew's will was going to overpower his own – and despite his rigid self-control, the hint of a thrill broke through. "Let's say I agree," he said, "what am I to do with her?"
"Well," Andrew hesitated, "Kate speaks French, surely that counts for something? Set her up to translating documents, gathering materials… I'm sure you can come up with things to keep her occupied, at least for a while."
"Her interest won't last long, once she realizes I'm dealing with fact, not legend," warned Nicholas.
Andrew snorted. "You really believe you can unearth fact when you dig through ten centuries of legend?"
"You'll be surprised," Nicholas replied in his prickly manner. He could afford to be prickly now; he knew Andrew would not be offended. After all, he got what he was asking for. Nicholas promised to speak to the administration the following morning.
His application proceeded smoothly, all needed documents were procured, and Miss Catherine Nuland was appointed as Dr Swift's research assistant. She was to begin her work on Monday.
The night before, Nicholas tossed and turned in his bed, unable to sleep. You are being ridiculous, he admonished himself. She is a girl, of an age when the world seems wide and confusing. She has no true interest in your work, and even less in you. Don't be such a fool as to think something depends on tomorrow. And yet he could find no rest.
She was more punctual than he expected, and at nine o'clock sharp she presented herself at work, almost childlike eagerness in her every gesture. It will be gone soon enough, thought Dr Swift almost sadly, but he greeted her with as paternally cordial a smile as he could summon. She was wearing loose beige slacks and a pale pink turtleneck sweater, with pale pink shoes to match. Nicholas would have wondered what madness possessed her to cut her beautiful hair so short, if Andrew hadn't confided at him that it was a fit during which she made the most serious plans to pledge her life to a monastery in Tibet. And again, Nicholas found it difficult to believe that of this particular young woman standing in front of him. She seemed so collected, so well-balanced – more than is usual at our age, in fact. A woman who would make an excellent wife someday to some lucky man. Stop it this instant, you idiot. How long are you going to continue standing outside the office? It's about to rain.
"Good morning, Miss Nuland," he greeted her.
"Good morning, Dr Swift. Oh, and please call me Kate," her smile showed an adorable dimple in one of her cheeks.
Kate is too brisk a name for her, he thought. Cathy would suit her better, but of course he only nodded. He avoided looking into those blue eyes, lest he be lost, and cursed Andrew for putting him in a situation that would only rob him of peace.
"Please, Kate," he gestured towards the glass door, "let's go inside."
There was no space for a proper office or even a reception area for Kate, of course; a mere spare desk was shoved into a hastily cleared corner of his office. A phone and some office supplies graced its bare surface in an obviously insufficient way. He stole a quick glance at Kate, to determine whether she looks disappointed, but couldn't figure it out. His own desk looked so cluttered he felt ashamed of himself for not having made any attempt to clear it before the weekend.
"That is your place, Miss – Kate," he hastily corrected himself. "Not much, I'm afraid, but I hope it will make do. There are some documents," he gestured towards a pile of papers neatly stacked at one corner of her desk, "that I would be grateful if you translated for me. There are some essays by French colleagues of mine, and I've been meaning to look through them for a while now… but my knowledge of French is woefully poor. You, on the other hand, speak and read fluent French, or so I understood from your uncle?"
"Yes," Kate nodded matter-of-factly. "I spent some years in a school in France," she gave the French articles a fleeting look. "Before I begin… would you like me to make you a cup of tea, Dr Swift?"
He looked genuinely shocked. "Oh no," he said hastily. "No, no, there's no need of that. I have a little kitchenette just beyond that wall, and I've always managed perfectly fine to make my own tea. You are not here for such… mm… such tasks, Kate. You are a research assistant."
"Whatever suits you, Dr Swift," she said lightly, with a resolute shake of her short curls. She took a deep breath. "I do want to thank you, however," she blurted out. "I believe I owe you a confession… I'm a fair worker, but my attention is shallow, inconstant. I have never really been able to interest myself in a single thing over a reasonably long span of time. That is why I admire your concentration and determination so much… I realize that the amount of research you must put into your written works is staggering. And that is why I feel so thankful for getting this opportunity to work alongside you," she added with a faint blush.
"We'll see how thankful you are when the day is done," Dr Swift said wryly. Without another word, Kate slid gracefully into the chair behind her desk, one with lumpy and leaking stuffing, and commenced her work. A short while later, she lifted her face from the desk, and Nicholas saw that her eyes shone with the expression of pleasant surprise.
"It is about a legend I know," she said, indicating the article on the translation of which she was working. "The source of it is in Avignon, and it is still told locally among the elder inhabitants of the town. I've heard it personally; one of my best friends from school lives there, and I visited several times during the holidays."
"What legend is that?" asked Dr Swift.
"Well, you know, of course, that for a time Avignon served as the seat of the Roman Catholic church," Kate said matter-of-factly, and Dr Swift was inwardly impressed. "Sometime in the thirteenth or the fourteenth century, the town came under threat of heretics who wanted to bend the church to their will. So the Pope himself raised his arms up to the sky and prayed, and an hour later, a thick cloud descended from the sky and covered the town in impregnable shadow, which lasted until the threat passed."
"Ah, yes," nodded Nicholas, "a well-known legend. Only there is another part to it, Kate. Before long it was discovered that the merciful shadow was not at all the work of the holy Pope, but the subtle deed of an evasive local sorceress. She was discovered, interrogated, arrested, tried and condemned to burning at stake for practicing witchcraft."
"But why?" Kate exclaimed indignantly. "She saved their city!"
"It is only a tale," Dr Swift reminded her. "As modern, intelligent people, you and I of course know that there were never any witches."
"Of course," Kate deflated, looking abashed. "So what happened to the poor woman? Did they really do it to her?"
"To her, and to countless others. Those were ruthless times, Kate. But some claim she never burned," he added after a pause, "some say that when they approached the witch with torches, she cast a spell and hid herself beneath the same black shadow that formerly engulfed Avignon. And that no one was able to discover a trace of her since."
Kate shuddered. "I wish the burnings were only a legend," she murmured.
"Alas, they are not," said Nicholas, not unkindly. "But who is the author of this article? Ah yes, of course. Michel Dubois, I've had the chance to meet him several times. I hope the legend only serves as background to content of more solid substance."
Kate resumed her work. It was a dreary morning, with grey rain beating in a monotonous lull against the window-panes. Around noon, when Dr Swift was about to suggest they take a lunch break, footsteps sounded in the usually deserted corridor, and the silhouette of a man appeared behind the glass door. A brisk knock was heard.
A fountain pen fell from the slackened grip of Kate's fingers. The startled Dr Swift noticed that her face paled and her eyes widened in the same characteristic expression he wore when he met her for the first time – that of seeing a spirit.
"Etienne," she whispered, seemingly unaware that her lips formed any word.
Now, as it happens, Dr Swift was already acquainted with the man, and he knew he was not the mysterious French lover who nearly drove the susceptible Miss Nuland to a Tibetan monastery or to jolly life in a trailer park. But her involuntary exclamation made him understand that the visitor looked like that Frenchman, and he couldn't say this pleased him.
"Come in," he called nevertheless.
The door swung open, and the man walked in. He was the type of tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered Irishman that is not at all uncommon, but looks striking all the same.
"Good day to you, Dr Swift. I hope I don't come at a very inconvenient time," said the young man, with every air of confidence in being cordially received. His eyes lingered, curious, on Kate Nuland, who was not there last time he visited. Nicholas didn't fail to notice this look.
"Mr. O'Keeffe, this is Kate Nuland, my new research assistant." Kate nodded, calm and composed again – but her breath was still quick, as of someone who narrowly escaped a grave danger. "Kate, this is Jim O'Keeffe, a reporter who is fond of wasting his time – and the time of others," he added with savage pleasure.
"I can return in the afternoon, if you prefer," said the unabashed Jim.
"I believe I have already told you it would be better if you didn't return at all," said Nicholas. "You are not looking for professional opinion. You are looking for a headline. Mr. O'Keeffe," he turned to give an explanation to the curious-looking Kate, "works for one of those shallow little papers which supply their readers with a constant stream of fabricated myths, supposedly-true urban legends, UFO sightings, and other such unfortunately popular nonsense."
"I work for The Oyster," explained Jim O'Keeffe with a charming smile.
"The Oyster?" Kate looked confused.
"Our name hints at our confidence of being able to pry open any mystery," Jim supplied in a phrase that was obviously recited many times before.
Dr Swift snorted. "The less a man claims to know for certain, the more reliable he is," he said. "And therefore – "
"Well, I consider you a reliable man, Dr Swift," said Jim O'Keeffe, "and if you consented to accompany me to the Stone Circle, it would lend credibility to my article."
"I have not the least bit of interest to give credibility to an establishment such as the paper you work for," said Nicholas with icy courtesy.
"What is the Stone Circle?" interjected Kate.
"It is a place not far from here," explained Nicholas. "And as its name implies, it consists of a small mountain clearing with several reasonably even-looking rocks encircling it. No one knows precisely when and why it was built, but local legend attributes magical properties to the place, in particular during nights of full moon in May. Of course, there is no sound basis whatsoever to such claims. Do not get me wrong," he raised a finger, "I love the way history is always spiced with myths, legends, tales, details that may or may not be true, but lend flesh to the cold bones of the past. However, it is not, strictly speaking, my province. I deal with fact, Mr. O'Keeffe," he raised his voice slightly, "with solid, reasonable, proven fact."
"The fact," said Jim O'Keeffe, "is that now we're in the month of May."
"What do they tell about the Stone Circle?" asked Kate.
"According to the country folk legend," began Jim O'Keeffe, seizing the opportunity to speak, "if one stands in the middle of the Stone Circle on a night of full moon in May, in particular when the moon is not obscured by clouds, that person will experience… curious things. Last year, for example, a local farmer named Bob Tanner tried to do just that. He waited just outside the Stone Circle until midnight, and then stepped in. He claims he felt as though the air began shimmering all around him, as in a haze of heat, although it wasn't particularly warm… and he heard voices saying things he could not make out, and saw things – among them, an open gate which seemed to lead someplace which was definitely not Willow Creek, in the direction of which it supposedly stood."
"Why didn’t he walk through the gate, then?" Nicholas demanded in tones of derision. "Oh, but wait. I think I know the answer. He probably stumbled backwards, fell, and found his way to the village pub for another pint."
"The man swears he wasn't drunk."
"If I had a penny for every drunkard in the country who swears he wasn't drunk on a particular occasion – "
"I should like to see the Stone Circle," Kate interrupted their discourse in a dreamy voice. Upon seeing his expression, she hastened to add: "I'm not saying I believe this legend. It sounds bizarre, to be sure… but I love old places that have strange tales connected to them. And it isn't far, is it?" she turned to Jim.
"No more than an hour's drive from here," O'Keeffe said firmly. "I'm writing an article about the place, and I hoped to obtain Dr Swift's assistance in some background materials… but if he refuses," he added with a half smile, "so be it. Full moon is two nights from now, and you can be sure that if it doesn't rain, I will be standing right in the middle of the Stone Circle, waiting for the gate to open," his grin was almost wolfish. "If you would like to accompany me, Miss Nuland, I will be delighted."
Nicholas looked from Kate to Jim O'Keeffe, and a terrible realization bolted into his brain. She would go with him, he knew. And the foolishness of the suggested expedition didn't matter one bit. This young woman, who was - despite her obvious intelligence, her good head and gentle heart - still an innocent, trusting child, would gain another Etienne in her life. This smug, arrogant, vain little jackanapes would carry her off as a prize.
And he should be damned if he let this happen.
He cleared his throat. "On second thought," he told Jim O'Keeffe, "I believe I will join you on your little excursion as well. You can put my name in your article, but don't you dare to make it sound as though I agree with a single word you say."
"Let me get this straight," said Andrew next time they talked. "You are going to take Kate for a moonlit stroll in the Stone Circle?"
"It isn't what you think," Nicholas said defensively. "If I didn't volunteer to visit the wretched legendary site, she would have gone with Jim O'Keeffe, and we both know how this would likely have ended."
"Of course. And you couldn't permit that, could you?" the smirk in Andrew's voice was audible. Nicholas fought the urge to tell him to get lost.
"You placed your niece under my charge. I believe it is my duty to keep an eye on her, and this O'Keeffe type looks like a rascal."
"Kate is of age," Andrew pointed out, but it was obvious he was pleased, and this, perhaps, was what annoyed Nicholas the most.
"If you prefer, I might not take part in this… expedition after all," he said through gritted teeth, "I will be quite glad to remain behind."
"I would rather that O'Keeffe remained behind."
And that was precisely why, as much as he tried, he could never be angry with Andrew.
The unlikely trio of a Middle Ages scholar, a UFO chaser and a college graduate who very nearly joined a hippie community set out next evening. In a fit of politeness Dr Swift suggested that they all go in his car, but as he didn't know the way, he had to admit Jim O'Keeffe as navigator. Jim sat next to him, and Kate in the back seat – an arrangement the honorable doctor would very much like to reverse. Fortunately, O'Keeffe didn't lie about the length of the drive. Scarcely more than an hour after they set out, the country road they have been following reached an abrupt end at the edge of a forest, and Dr Swift, not expecting this, stopped the car rather abruptly.
"It seems we have reached a dead end," he said, fixing O'Keeffe with an accusing stare.
"No, this is just right," said the ever-confident O'Keeffe. "There's a path right in front of us, see? It leads through Pinewood forest, and is supposed to bring us to the Stone Circle within five minutes."
"Did you bring a flashlight, then?" asked Dr Swift rather less sourly than he normally would have done. "Because I did not, and I certainly don't intend to drag Miss Nuland and myself through a dark forest, following the trail of some crackpot story."
"I have a flashlight right here, Dr Swift," Jim declared triumphantly, taking one out of the pocket of his coat and brandishing it in the air.
When they got out of the car, Nicholas immediately wished he had brought a coat as well. It was a chilly night for May, and although he zipped his light jacked to the top, it was not enough to ward off the sudden gusts of wind that sneaked between the trees. The sky was clear, though, and the moon swam above their heads, huge and luminous, a perfect circle of solid gold.
As they followed the path clearly visible in the white beam cast by Jim O'Keeffe's flashlight, Nicholas wondered why anyone would name this place Pinewood forest, as it was obvious pine was among the few trees that did not grow here at all. The wood was a mix of oak and elm and birch, no tree too old and gnarled and imposing, and the growth was not too dense, almost like in a park. It seemed to be a young forest. Perhaps there was an older one before; perhaps it was a forest of pine.
The path started uphill. It was not very steep, nor very long, and just as promised, within minutes a circle of smooth rocks loomed before them at the hilltop, enclosing a small clearing overgrown with soft grass and bluebells. The grass was springy under their feet, the earth damp with dew or the residue of the last rain – Nicholas couldn't tell. Finally, he stopped right in the middle of the clearing and looked about him.
Kate's face was solemn as she ran her hand over one of the rocks. "This place looks ancient," she murmured.
"It's like a miniature Stonehenge, isn't it?" Jim said brightly.
"I might as well throw a few pebbles in a circle and call is Stonehenge," snapped Dr Swift. He walked slowly around the clearing. Over the other side of the hill – the opposite to the one they came from – the lights of a village twinkled invitingly. It wasn't too late yet, and no doubt the first clear night after a week of almost incessant rain lured people outside. If one listened carefully, a murmur of indistinct voices could be heard from the direction of the village. There were a few solitary scattered lights here and there across the valley, too – no doubt the thriving farms of this fertile area. Nicholas would probably have appreciated the view if he were brought here during a fine day and without the unwelcome company of the young Irishman.
"Well," he said with badly disguised irony, looking about him, "we're standing in the middle of the Stone Circle, and it's the night of full moon in May. Shouldn't something happen now? A giant fire-breathing dragon soar from the sky? The earth open up its mouth and swallow us? The headlines will be magnificent. "Three people disappear in the middle of the famous Stone Circle." Intriguing, isn't it? A pity we won't be here to read the papers."
The derision wasn't lost on Jim O'Keeffe, but as always, he did not let it bother him. "I never said something would actually happen," he put in. "And anyway, Bob Tanner's evidence spoke of a much later hour, if I remember correctly," he added with a swift glance at his watch.
"Oh, certainly. Midnight is the proper time for fairies and leprechauns, isn't it? So why don't we wait here another four hours or so, and then we'll be in much better position to asses the truthfulness of this local farmer's," he snorted, "testimony."
"We don't have to stay here," said Jim O'Keeffe, in an obvious effort to make peace. "We can go down to the village and see what we can learn from a visit to the local pub. People usually like to talk to investigators about unnatural phenomena, and who knows, we might even meet Bob Tanner himself."
Dr Swift's lip curled as he heard the word "investigators", and he was about to say something along the lines of not coming here for a pint in the local pub – but then Kate, who appeared to have a slight head cold, chimed in and mentioned that it would be nice to get something hot to drink.
"Do we have to walk?" asked Dr Swift, appraising the distance from the hilltop to the village, which seemed to be a good deal longer than the walk they took from the road to the Circle.
"Oh, no," said O'Keeffe. "It will make much better sense if we go down to the car again, turn around and take the little fork left that we passed on the way here. It should run around the bottom of the hill and take us straight to the village."
The local pub and inn, "The Red Rooster", greeted them by a breath of warm air and a raucous laughter that froze on someone's lips, trailing into an unconvincing cough. A gentle murmur of voices and more than their fair share of curious looks followed them as they made their way to the bar. Jim smiled genially, taking it all as his due, but Nicholas's shoulders stiffened. He wasn't any more comfortable in the presence of strangers than the local patrons of "The Rooster."
The landlord, a portly, balding man was just filling a large mug with ice-cold foaming beer when they approached. He neatly slid the mug in the direction of a gruff-looking villager, casually accepted a few coins in payment, and looked at them without the least sign of curiosity.
"How may I help you?" he asked.
"A beer for me," said Jim in his friendly manner. "What about you, Doc?"
"A whisky," Nicholas consented dryly. "And for the young lady… what would you like to drink, Kate?"
"Some hot tea," she said, smiling apologetically at the barman. If he was at all disappointed by her order, he didn't let it show.
"A beer and a whisky, and tea for the young lady," he repeated, just as Kate hastily reached into her handbag, pulled out a tissue and muffled a violent sneeze in it. "And may I suggest a shot of cognac in your tea?" he asked politely. "May is chilly this year – quite unseasonable." Kate accepted with a grateful nod.
They took the table nearest to the bar, and when the landlord himself came over, carrying a tray with their drinks, Jim gave him his most ingratiating smile.
"On second thought," he said, "I'm feeling somewhat hungry. Do you serve fish and chips?"
"The best you'll find in the county," the landlord said warmly.
"I'll have that, then," nodded Jim. With a surprisingly energetic stride, the man shuffled off, empty tray under his arm, to bellow orders at his kitchen workers. Before long, a plate of crisp fried fish and potato chips was placed before Jim. The portion was big, and he offered to share, but both Nicholas and Kate declined, saying they weren't hungry. Jim shrugged and, with the healthy appetite of a young man, crunched vigorously into a wedge of potato. He didn't talk again until his plate was clean, which didn't take a very long time. After he had eaten, he got up, hands in his pockets, and sauntered in the direction of the bar, which was now empty. He leaned his elbows on the reasonably clean counter. Since the bar was so close to the table, Nicholas and Kate were able to hear every word of Jim's conversation with the landlord.
"Everything's to your taste, I hope?"
"Oh, excellent," Jim said enthusiastically. "You have a fine establishment here."
"Thank you, sir. I'm not a man to work by halves," the landlord said with a touch of pride. "I put my heart and soul into this place."
"You aren't from around here," noted the landlord, sizing Jim up and down in the first display of his curiosity. "We don't get many visitors this time of year."
It was doubtful that the little village got many visitors at any time of year, but O'Keeffe did not remark on that. "I'm a reporter," he said. He wisely omitted the name of the paper he worked for. "We came to see the Stone Circle."
"Ah," the dawn of understanding loomed over the man's pudgy face. "Yes, of course. Many are interested in seeing it, and tonight's the full moon of May. There are many tales surrounding that place, there are."
"Such as?" Jim prompted eagerly.
"For example, young girls from the village believe that if they step into the Circle on a night such as this one, the face of their future husband will appear in front of them," the man permitted himself a chuckle. "I never saw much sense in superstitions such as that, but there you go. You visited the place already?"
"On our way here," said Jim, making it sound as though the chief purpose of their evening drive through the country was to stop and have a drink at "The Red Rooster".
"And you met no one?"
"Not a soul."
"That's strange," the landlord said ponderously. "On May's full moon, if it doesn't rain, one's almost certain to meet a girl or three wandering around that hill."
"Are you familiar with a man named Bob Tanner?" Jim inquired casually. The proprietor grinned.
"Yes, of course I know him. I know everyone in the area. And now you mention it, last year Bob came out with some cock-and-bull story about what happened to him at the Circle. I don't remember exactly what he said, but we all laughed him down, and old Bob has been keeping real quiet ever since, which no doubt was a relief to his wife. Actually, come to think of it," the man screwed up his face in concentration, "I don't recall seeing Bob ever since. Seeing him here, I mean. I passed him at the market a time or two, but he just nodded and walked off. I could have thought he was angry with me for mocking him, but no, it was clear he just wants to do nothing with no one."
"Is there a way for me to speak to Mr. Tanner? He lives on one of the farms in the area, doesn't he?"
"Yes, but Bob also keeps a little shop around here. He sells mainly building supplies, paint and brushes, things like that, but also fishing rods and some odds and ends. Three times a week he comes himself, on other days his missus. You can find the shop if you drive down the main street."
"Thank you," Jim said courteously, "you have been most helpful." When he came back to the table, Nicholas discovered with annoyance that the bill had already been paid.
"You needn't have," he said dryly.
"It's nothing," Jim waved an airy hand. "You drove us here, Dr Swift, didn't you? And just saying I toured the place together with you will give a much better ring to anything I write. I believe I will pay a visit to Bob Tanner's shop tomorrow morning."
"Then you will have to drive yourself," Nicholas warned him.
"Oh, there will be no need of that, I think," said Jim. "The inn has free rooms, I believe. Wait a minute," he went back to the bar and made proper inquiries. Yes, there was a room, the pleased proprietor said. It hasn't been occupied in a while, but if he just consents to wait a bit, he'll send the lad for some clean bed linen.
"That's settled, then," said Jim with unsurpassed cheerfulness as he turned back to his companions. "It's lucky experience taught me to always have the necessities with me, in case I don't come home for the night," he indicated his small black briefcase. "A clean shirt, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a razor – and I'm good to go," he smiled.
"I applaud your foresight," said Nicholas. Jim yawned unashamedly.
"I hope the room is ready soon," he said. "I could sleep on my feet, and I don't want Bob Tanner to close for lunch before I even have the chance to drop by."
Soon enough it was announced to Jim, with polite wishes for a comfortable stay, that his room is ready and he may go upstairs. He took leave of his companions, and for the first time in the course of the whole evening, Nicholas found himself alone with Miss Catherine Nuland.
"I hope you didn't find the whole affair too tiresome," he said solicitously.
"Oh, not at all," she said. "As a matter of fact…" she hesitated."Do you think we might pass through the Stone Circle again, before we had back? Even if none of what is said about the place is true, it feels – it's hard to explain, but it feels magical. I'd like to see it once more."
"Are you sure?" Nicholas frowned. "The chill is deeper now, and you already have a cold."
"I feel fine now," Kate assured him. "The shot of cognac in my tea was an excellent suggestion."
"Well, then…" Nicholas trailed off and shrugged. He would not, of course, argue with her.
The place's eerie beauty was even more obvious now that they stood in the middle of the Circle alone, without Jim O'Keeffe. The moon floated high above their heads, bright and clear, accentuated by the wisps of silvery clouds that ran over part of its face from time to time. It was a still and beautiful night, and Kate let out a sigh of contentment as she looked about her.
"To think," she mused, "that these stones stood here for many centuries before either of us was born, and will continue to stand here long after we are gone from this world…"
Such sentiments were not altogether foreign to Dr Swift, but just at that moment, something more urgent captured his attention. Without warning, he felt unsteady on his feet; it was almost as though the earth moved underneath them. He had to spread his arms to steady himself.
"Did you feel it?" he asked Kate. "Or was it just me?"
"Feel what?" she seemed confused.
But there it was again. This eerie, unsteady feeling; and just as the uncouth farmer Bob described, the air swam before him as on a hot summer day, fashioning itself into shapes his eye could not quite capture. He fell to his knees.
"Dr Swift!" Kate cried urgently, and then, "Nicholas! Nicholas, what's going on?" But her voice sounded as though it reached him from a great distance, and even her shape was growing distant, as though he was on a train that was speeding away, and she was left behind on the platform. And yet he couldn’t say he was moving. Rather, something grabbed hold of him, took him, decided it won't let go of him, and plunged him into something that was more than air but less than water, so that he could breathe, but just barely, and then not at all… a heart attack, was his last coherent thought. He was dying, and that was all there was to it.
And like many times in his life, Dr Nicholas Swift was wrong.
The queer, disconcerting, almost painful sensation was gone. He could stand up on his feet again, and look about him. He turned around, expecting to see Kate, to assure her that he felt fine – but she was not there… nor were any of the Circle's massive rocks. He stood on a flat grassy plain, and heard the sound of waves breaking against a rocky shore. But no, it was impossible, he reminded himself sternly. Willow Creek was many miles away from the sea.
Only, as he walked his first few uncertain steps in this unknown place, the impossibility presented itself determinedly, in all its mass of salty, foamy, black water.
Nicholas Swift had to face the inevitable. He was as far away from Willow Creek as he could possibly be.