As a Christmas bonus and gift to all our customers and to those who have supported Spectral over the years, we are proud to present the first episode in an eleven part monthly serial, Black Mountain, by Simon Bestwick. This episode is just to whet your appetite: the following parts will be available on eBook only throughout 2014 (starting in January) and then will be collected into paperback format sometime in 2015. So, without any further warbling from us, here’s the first part – The Red Key:
BLACK MOUNTAIN #1: THE RED KEY
ILLUSTRATED BY NEIL WILLIAMS.
It’s funny how things connect, how little chance meetings turn out to have consequences all out of proportion to themselves. If my writing career had started a little differently—if I’d just sent the first stories I wrote elsewhere—I probably wouldn’t be writing this at all.
Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
When I started writing in the late 1990s, I sent my first four short stories out to one of the small press magazines which were burgeoning at the time. These were labours of love, produced by dedicated fans in their back rooms and with a circulation of a few hundred readers. Odyssey, Peeping Tom, Terror Tales, Saccade… hard to believe that back then they’d seemed like giants, rather than the first steps along a very long road. But they were where any number of writers starting out in those days—Paul Finch and Tim Lebbon, for example—learned and honed their craft.
The mag was called Unreal Dreams, and the editor, Rick Bennett, was based only a couple of miles away from where I then lived with my parents. He accepted three of the stories I sent him almost by return of post (this was in the days before email, when snail mail was the only kind and the rattle of the letterbox in the morning was a source of mingled hope and dread as you scurried downstairs to see if you’d received acceptance or rejection letters) and also mentioned that the magazine needed an assistant editor; would I be interested?
Well, I was, although my editing tended to be confined to saying ‘yes, we should publish this’ or ‘no, we shouldn’t’ and writing the letters for Rick. On the other hand, I met my future partner, Cate, through it, so, on reflection, no, I can’t wish that part of my life had never happened.
Just the part where I met Rob Markland.
If I only hadn’t gone to the Sisters of Mercy gig. In April 1997, they played the Apollo in Ardwick, Manchester. At the time they were probably my favourite band, so I was determined not to miss it. I also spent several hours stood out back in the pouring rain waiting for Andrew Eldritch (the lead singer, for the uninitiated) to emerge and sign a poster of the band. I got it, too (I still have the poster somewhere), along with a galloping chest infection from the soaking I received.
I wasn’t the only one waiting; there were a few die-hards with more fanaticism than sense who decided they were going to get Eldritch’s autograph no matter what, especially when they were soaked literally to the skin and could get no wetter. One of them was a tall, thin guy with long brown hair and granny glasses. Like me, he wasn’t exactly a typical Goth, and we ended up talking.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said, choosing not to mention the insurance office I actually earned my wages in.
“Yeah? Me too. Kind of stuff do you write?”
“Horror mostly. Bit of sci-fi and crime.”
“No way. That’s me too.”
And he told me his name: Rob Markland.
We swapped phone numbers before going our separate ways, got in touch the next day. Unlike me, Rob had his own place—a flat in Levenshulme—and invited me over to watch horror movies and weird, obscure foreign films. And to smoke weed, of course.
We hung out a lot that summer, after I quit my job in my first unsuccessful attempt to become a professional writer. He was a pretty quiet, self-contained guy—the complete opposite of me—but with a very dry sense of humour that often had me in fits.
After a great deal of persuasion, I managed to get him to show me some of his short stories. He was very hesitant about it. It was one of the few times I ever saw Rob look uncomfortable or self-conscious; he was compelled to write, and the idea of becoming a published author was one that had a lot of appeal for him, but at the same time he hated showing his work to others. I’m guessing he’d had bad experiences in the past, with ex-friends or family members he’d shared his work with.
As it turned out, his work was good, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. He had about seven or eight acceptances from the small press of the time, including Unreal Dreams—we published his first story, ‘Detonation Boulevard’ (named after a Sisters of Mercy song, aptly enough) in our fourth issue—and I requested a story from him for my first solo editing project, Oktobyr, a sort of Halloween special that also contains the only known photo of Rob from that time.
Rob was very camera-shy, and that wasn’t all. He shied away from writer’s meets and conventions. That gave rise to rumours that he didn’t actually exist and that his stories in fact were collaborations between Rick Bennett and myself.
Rob dated Teresa, a friend of my then girlfriend, for a few months in late 1998. It didn’t end well; my girlfriend—not Cate, who wouldn’t come on the scene ‘til later—blamed Rob for everything and pressured me to cut my ties with him. In addition, he was writing less and less. He’d always produced work slowly—a story every month or two, if he was lucky—but not only were his tales getting few and far between, but their quality was slipping. In any case, the day of the small press magazines was ending, with the advent of the internet and POD publishing. The little magazines vanished one by one, and no new ones appeared to take their place.
Rob published a couple more stories through Unreal Dreams before that too folded, and after that, fell silent. Sometime in 1999 he gave up his Levenshulme flat and moved away without a forwarding address. And for over a decade, that was the last I heard of him.
So, that was Rob Markland, as far as I was concerned—someone I’d once known for a little while, who’d moved on to who knew where. And then, out of the blue one day, my telephone rang.
“Hello, is that Mr Bestwick?”
“Speaking.” I waited, thinking that this had better not be another bloody sales call.
“I’m calling you about—on behalf of… that is… do you know a gentleman by the name of Robert Markland?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Then a memory stirred. “Hang on. I used to know someone of that name, but it was years ago.”
“Robert Markland,” the voice said again.
“Tall, thin guy? Long hair?”
“Tall and thin, yes.” A pause. “Look, Mr Bestwick, my name’s Keith Atherton. I’m a doctor at Prestwich Hospital. The, er, the psychiatric wing.”
“Right. Okay.” I definitely didn’t like the sound of this.
“Mr Markland’s a patient here. He was admitted about a week ago and, well, he’s said next to nothing. A couple of days ago he started speaking. He’s been asking for you.”
I sat down. “Well… look, doctor, perhaps I haven’t made it clear. I haven’t seen Rob in over ten years, and even then we weren’t particularly close. Why would he—”
“I honestly don’t know, Mr Bestwick, but the fact remains that he is, and it’s the only sign of engagement with the real world he’s shown since his admission.” Atherton sighed, then half-chuckled. “I’m just glad you’re in the phone book. And that there aren’t many Bestwicks in Manchester.”
I had to laugh. “Yeah. God help you if I was called Smith. So, what is it I can do for you, doctor?”
“As I said, he’s been asking to see you. For whatever reason, it seems to be important to him. I’d like you to visit Robert, Mr Bestwick.”
“Well, um… when would you…”
“Tonight, if you could.”
“That’s a bit difficult. I don’t drive, you see, and…” Prestwich isn’t actually that far from the part of Manchester I live in, but it’s not the easiest to get to by public transport.
“If you get a taxi, I’ll be more than happy to arrange reimbursement. My main concern’s the patient right now. He’s not dangerous, Mr Bestwick. I can assure you of that.”
On that one, as it turned out, Dr Atherton was completely wrong. But neither of us was to know that at the time.
I don’t know what I’d expected the place to look like—some looming Gothic edifice with screams echoing down the corridors—but it looked like any other hospital, as it turned out. There were private rooms, and there was a day room; half a dozen people sat staring at the television like so many dishes of pudding, but that’s hardly a symptom unique to mental illness; you’ll see the same in any suburban living room on a weeknight.
I shouldn’t joke about it. I’ve had my own run-ins with mental health issues over the years—four months off work with stress on one occasion, treatment for depression on another—so the last thing I should be doing is hanging on to any clichés. But I fear that loss of control, ending up unable to function, to tell what’s real from what’s not, and ending up in the hands of lobotomy or drug-happy quacks out to turn me into a vegetable.
Not that Keith Atherton struck me as one of those. He was young—somewhere in his thirties, with thinning sandy hair and a nervous, hesitant manner, but he came across as a decent guy, genuinely concerned for his patients. That was a relief.
“What’s actually happened to him?” I asked.
“To be honest, Mr Bestwick—”
“Simon, thanks—no-one’s quite sure.”
Keith went on to explain the circumstances of how Rob had come to be admitted. He’d been living in a flat in Salford Quays—if he’d left the Manchester area, he’d moved back—and earning a living as a freelance journalist. Which probably explained why he’d more or less dropped off the planet from my point of view; he’d long ago given up on fiction.
The first sign anything was wrong had been about ten days earlier, when he’d started bawling tuneless but very loud renditions of songs by the Cure at two o’clock in the morning. His neighbours had not been amused, especially when banging on the ceiling had no effect. Or, indeed, on his flat door. When the singing continued into the daylight hours, his voice growing hoarser and more strained, annoyance gave way to concern.
The superintendent let himself into Rob’s flat after further banging on the door and bellowed requests for him to answer it were ignored. He took one look at the scene inside, then bolted back out, locked the door and dialled 999.
“He’d been like that for several days,” Keith explained. “He’d urinated and defecated on the spot repeatedly. He’d only started making the noise when the stereo packed up.”
Rob had been squatting naked in his living room, beside the stereo system. A pair of headphones were clamped to his head, and he’d blindfolded himself with pieces of a ripped-up shirt. He’d hacked off his hair with kitchen scissors, gashing his scalp in places. Clipped hair and nail parings were strewed all around him.
The stereo had been set to continuous play and the volume turned up to maximum, but a fuse had blown, so it couldn’t drown out whatever it was he didn’t want to hear.
“When they tried to take off the blindfold, he went berserk,” said Keith. “In the end, they had to sedate him. He was no different when he came round. The only thing that’s kept him calm is the blindfold. That and the music. We found a couple of MP3 players for him. Keep one recharging while he plays the other to death. Give him that and he’s perfectly happy.”
“But not very talkative, I’m guessing.”
“Not at all. We’ve tried talking to him on the couple of occasions that we’ve managed to get the headphones off him. On a good day he can stand it for a few minutes, as long as we leave the blindfold on. And nothing—no joy. And then, the day before yesterday, we got something out of him.”
We’d been walking down the corridor; Keith stopped and turned and looked at me. It was a rather deliberately dramatic gesture, I thought. “He said my name?” I asked.
“He did. Asked us to get hold of you, said that he wouldn’t speak to anyone else. And the rest you know.”
“I don’t understand why. We haven’t spoken in years.”
“Well, he seems to have kept track of your career, Mr Bestwick. They found several of your books in his flat. Even a few old magazines with your stories in.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out. “So, what exactly do you expect me to do, doctor?”
“Just go in and see him. He wants to talk to you. See what he’s got to say. If we can get some idea of what his problem is, we might actually be able to work out some way to help him.”
I hesitated. “You said he could be violent?”
“Not as long as no-one messes with his headphones. I’ll be with you, and there’ll be staff nearby, just in case. Please?”
Well, what would you have done? I’d always felt a nagging guilt over curtailing my friendship with Rob at my ex’s insistence; I couldn’t help but think I owed him something. “All right,” I said.
The room was brightly lit, overlooking a garden. There was a bed, a chair, a small table with toiletries on it.
Rob sat on the chair. He wore soft clothes—jogging pants, a sweatshirt, and a pair of trainers that fastened with velcro. He was humming and rocking to and fro.
He must have chopped his hair right down to the scalp; a week later it was starting to grow back, but I could still see the scabbed gashes the scissors had made. He’d blindfolded himself with a piece of fabric—it looked like most of a t-shirt, folded two or three, maybe four times before being bound across his eyes, so not even a glimmer of light would get through. A pair of earbuds were jammed into place and secured in position with tape. The MP3 was playing at maximum volume; I could make out the tune before I’d even sat down. It sounded like Iron Maiden, who Rob had always hated.
“Robert?” said Keith. “Rob?”
He hung back as I shifted in the hard plastic chair opposite Rob Markland, presumably so there’d be some illusion of privacy. “Rob?” I said, still trying to match the thing in the chair in front of me with the guy I’d known back in the ‘nineties.
Rob stopped rocking. After a moment, his fingers fumbled at the MP3 and it fell silent. His head twitched, as if listening. After a moment, he lifted a hand to his face. It shook.
He bit his lip, breathing quickly in and out through his nose, faster and faster as if in mounting panic, then pushed the blindfold up to expose his right eye, still squeezed tightly shut. The breathing stopped. Slowly the eye opened, squinting shut again against the light—it had been covered over for more than a week, after all. Then it opened again, bloodshot and roving, before it finally focused on me.
Rob let out a long breath, and then spoke. “Simon?” he said. His voice was cracked and gravelly, partly from disuse and partly from screaming, I guessed.
“It’s me,” I said.
Rob’s exposed eye blinked. He licked his lips, then tugged the blindfold back into place.
“Simon,” he said again.
“Yeah. I’m here, mate. What the fuck happened to you?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, his head started twitching again, and he sucked a hissing breath in through his teeth. “Oh, fuck,” he said. “Oh fuck no, not again. Leave me alone. Leave me alone, you cunt.”
He didn’t seem to be talking to me, but his voice rose sharply.
“Rob,” said Keith, moving forward.
Rob cringed in his chair like a whipped dog. “Sorry, doctor,” he said. “Sorry, sorry. Simon? Simon, you still there?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m right here, mate.”
Rob’s head kept twitching. He was flinching, as if from threats and blows. “Simon?” he said loudly.
“Do you—can you hear me?” He was almost shouting now.
“Hello?” Now he was shouting.
Keith took a step forward, but I raised a hand. “Yes,” I shouted back. “I can hear you.”
He nodded, taking deep breaths. “Do you remember where we met, Simon? I mean the first time we met?”
“Yeah. You mean the—”
“Sh!” He put his finger to his lips, giggled nervously. “Walls have ears.”
I glanced at Keith. He nodded, mouthed ‘go on.’ “Okay, mate,” I said. “I know the place you’re talking about.”
“Go there,” he said. “Ask for Victoria.”
“Victoria.” He nodded. “She’s got something for you.”
He sucked in air through his teeth again and fumbled with the MP3 player. Music thundered tinnily out again. “Victoria,” he shouted over it. “Where we first met. Victoria.”
But he wasn’t listening any more, just rocking to and fro in his chair again, humming along with the music, and nothing either I or Keith could say or do would bring him out of it.
Keith walked me back to reception.
“So what’s going to happen now?” I asked.
He shrugged. “We’ll just keep trying, I suppose. He hasn’t responded to any medication we’ve given him, but it’s early days yet.”
We stepped outside and he lit a cigarette. “There’s been some sort of psychotic break, but the question is what caused it. We haven’t found any traces of drugs that could have triggered this reaction, and there’s no evidence of a physical trauma—a few bruises and scratches, but no serious head injury— o it’s more likely to have been a psychological event of some kind. Without knowing what it was, though…”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I’ll see if this Victoria can shed any light on things.”
“You know where he was talking about?”
“Thanks. That’s good of you.”
“Least I can do.”
Which of course wasn’t true; the least I could do was nothing at all. And that’s exactly what I should have done.
The Apollo is an old theatre standing on the road from Manchester to Ardwick, one of the city’s more rundown districts. It’s a decent-sized Art Deco building and used mainly as a concert venue—one example, of course, being that Sisters of Mercy gig back in 1997. (It was also where I went to see my first ever gig, at the age of fifteen—a Belinda Carlisle concert, but we don’t talk about that.)
I got off the bus across the road from the place and stood watching it for a while.
“Talk about cloak and fucking dagger,” I muttered to myself.
I’d made a similar comment to Keith Atherton outside the hospital, but he’d just shrugged and taken a long pull on his cigarette. “Paranoia’s very common in cases of psychosis,” he’d told me. “He obviously thinks he’s in some sort of danger and has to stay ahead of it somehow. Perhaps that’s why he asked for you. You know him, but you haven’t had much contact.”
“We haven’t had any.”
So here I was, wondering what I’d do if it turned out there was no-one called Victoria there. Or if there was, but she didn’t know what I was talking about. Rob was psychotic, after all; any knowledge she might have could have been entirely in his head. She mightn’t even know who he was.
Oh well. I’d have to bite the bullet, so I crossed over the road and went in through the doors.
A slim girl in her teens with bobbed black hair, china white skin and a silver nose stud was on the desk. “Hi,” I said.
She flashed a brief false smile. “Help you?”
“Yeah. Do you have a Victoria working here?”
“What’s it about?”
“Mate of mine—Rob—he’s in hospital and told me to ask for her.”
“Simon?” said a voice. I turned and saw a stocky, crop-haired woman in her forties coming towards me. I’d never seen her before in my life. She held out a hand. “I’m Victoria.”
There was a greasy spoon down the road. I followed Victoria there and sipped a cup of coffee while she gnawed a bacon bap.
Before the Apollo, she’d worked at the Cornerhouse, Manchester’s art-house cinema, which was where she’d met Rob. They’d become good friends—strictly platonic ones, of course. “I’m a gold star dyke, me,” she grinned. The smile faded as I told her about Rob.
She couldn’t tell me much. “Hadn’t seen much of him, the last couple of months,” she said. “He was really into something. Planning a book, he said.”
“Non-fiction.” She licked bacon grease off her fingers and reached for her mug of tea. “He’d been plugging away as a journo for yonks. I mean, he was bloody good, too. I’d been saying for years he should do a book. Collect some of his articles or something. But he said you had to be a bigger name to pull that one off. But he reckoned he’d found something.”
“Any idea what?”
She shook her head. “When he was working on something, he didn’t talk about it. It was like a superstition with him—if you talked about it, you jinxed it. That or some other fucker would hear about it and beat you to the punch.”
“Right. So—any idea why he sent me to you?”
“Oh yeah. It’ll be this.” She dug a crumpled envelope out of her jeans pocket and handed it to me. It was a small, plain envelope, the kind you’d send any old letter in, but there was something lumpy in it; it felt as if it was swaddled in bubble wrap. My name was written on the front of the envelope. Nothing else.
“Last time I saw him,” Victoria said. “Couple of weeks ago. He comes round to mine, ‘bout eleven o’clock at night. Lou wasn’t happy. That’s my girlfriend.”
I nodded. “How did he seem?”
“To be honest, I thought he must have dropped acid or something. Maybe smoked way too much weed. He was all twitchy. Kept flinching and looking around him and over his shoulder and all that.”
“Yeah. He’s still doing it.”
“Christ. Poor sod. Anyway, he gave me that—” she nodded at the envelope “—and told me to give it to you when you showed up.”
“And this was a couple of weeks ago?”
Around about the same time that he’d stripped naked and taken up permanent residence beside the stereo, then. “Probably meant to ring me or send an email or something, but flipped out first.” I looked at the envelope, then at Victoria, then at the envelope again. “Fuck it,” I said, and opened it.
Inside was—as I’d thought—a ball of bubble wrap, with a small hard object inside it.
The bubble wrap was held in place by sellotape. I picked at it ineffectually till Victoria handed me her Swiss Army knife, then cut through it with the scissors and unwrapped the ball. Inside was a small brass key, the handle coated in red plastic.
I held it up. “Any idea what this is for?”
Victoria shook her head. “Sorry.”
I looked inside the envelope again. It wasn’t quite empty; there was something else inside. A single folded sheet of notepaper. I opened it.
“What does it say?” Victoria asked.
I showed her. “Next step of the treasure hunt.”
The leisure centre was in Salford Quays, near Rob’s flat. Luckily it wasn’t members only; I paid to get in and then headed straight for the changing rooms.
The Quays Leisure Centre. Locker 38. That was all the piece of notepaper had read. I took the red key out of my pocket and gripped it tight. Even though I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, I still felt like a criminal or a spy. Bloody Rob and his bloody cloak and dagger games.
I walked along the row of lockers, till I found the one I was looking for, then put the key in the lock and turned it. The lock clicked and the door started to give. I held it in place; it was only now that it occurred to me to wonder what Rob might have stashed in it. Body parts? Guns? If it was anything like that, I’d ring the police and have done with it.
I let the locker door swing open. Inside was a carrier bag stuffed with papers. I manhandled it out, carefully; it was starting to split in places. As far as I could see from peering into the open bag, it was mostly occupied by two buff manila folders—one, by the look of it, considerably older than the other—filled with scribbled notes, newspaper and magazine clippings, computer printouts and photocopied documents.
I glanced around, still feeling like a spy, then stuffed the bag into my rucksack, shut the locker and slipped outside.
Once I’d got home, I cleared a space on the kitchen table and put the kettle on.
I could just turn the papers over to Keith Atherton and let him try to puzzle it out, but Rob had meant the documents for me. Maybe there was something only I’d understand. Or maybe Keith was right—Rob knew how to get hold of me, but I wasn’t in his life any more so that it made sense, in his paranoid world, to trust me with getting the documents.
I was tempted to ring Keith then and there; at the same time, though, I was curious, especially as I’d been chasing back and forth across Manchester to find the damn thing.
In the end, I decided to take a quick look. If it was gibberish or made no sense, I’d wash my hands of it and pass it straight on to Keith .
Just a quick look. What harm could it do?
I sat down at the table with a cup of coffee to hand and eased out the bag’s contents.
The more recent of the two folders had Rob’s name and address scribbled in one corner. Most of the folder’s cover, though, was taken up by two words, printed in ballpoint and gone over again and again till they were thick and bold: MYNYDD DU.
I only know a little Welsh. My Dad comes from North Wales and used to speak it fluently, but having moved to England had less and less cause to use it. He’d talk Welsh with my grandmother occasionally, but less and less as the years went by. But I knew enough to decipher this one.
Mynydd was the Welsh word for mountain.
And du? Du meant… that was it. Black.
I opened the folder and began to read.
I wish I’d left it shut.
TO BE CONTINUED…