Robin stepped from the car he had rented at Heathrow, blinked back weariness and stared into the pitch dark. There was not a sound. He was alone on the path. An hour had passed since he had seen another car, a beat-up Vauxhall driven by an obviously drunken Englishman on his way home after the local pubs had closed. Ian was nearly an hour late, yet Robin’s instincts told him he was being observed. His gut churned. Ian wouldn’t be hiding like this. He could not isolate the reasons why, but knew someone-certainly not Ian- was somehow watching.
A cold chill shot up Robin’s spine, raising the hair on the base of his skull. Since leaving the twisting country road the sense of someone’s presence and a feeling of danger had grown. This feeling now jumped into overdrive and gave him goose bumps up and down his neck. Robin was not one to fear, but his senses were on full alert, sharpened, straining to peel back the surrounding veil of darkness and see if someone was there. Fear was not in Robin’s nature. He forced himself to relax his tension, despite his screaming instincts warning of something wrong. Had he not been alone in foreign countries and precarious positions many times before? Had he not walked down many isolated roads into black nights? Was he not capable of taking care of himself, anywhere, anytime? Why feel such foreboding now?
“It’s thoughts of the old man and his story,” he thought. “Why should this particular story bother me? I’ve heard so many stories before and the old man was less than credible, maybe even deranged. He had no credentials, couldn’t even pay a fee. Maybe it was the old man’s death and Ian’s call all coming so soon? Or was Ian’s absence the warning?”
Robin’s wariness grew as he slid back into the rented Audi and drove ahead in low gear rechecking the trail and signs he had been told would be there.
The tension still grew. “Maybe it was the fear in Ian Fletcher’s voice? Ian’s always been fearless,” he thought again.
Just ahead was the large, dark oak looming blacker than the night which Ian had mentioned. Robin had waited there, but Ian had not arrived.
He saw the trail Ian had described, just to the right of the oak, two damp ruts of mud cutting cross the middle of the rounded hill. Far below and away, lights shone from a distant village. All else was pitch black. He decided to look further, turned the car onto the trail and let it slip slowly forward.
There was little for his senses to grasp, just the smell of burnt grass scorched by his car’s overheated muffler and a tiny beam of light from the flashlight he held out the window.
He craned forward to see where the trail ended and let the car roll slowly to a stop, avoiding the brake lights. He turned off the engine and sat in total dark and quiet.
There was no sound but the motor ticking as it cooled. The trail was only revealed intermittently when stars and the moon broke through clouds which opened briefly, then closed again. The countryside offered no clue that at the foot of this hill was the village of Nailsworth, or its inhabitants asleep. Nothing was here, except Robin and the presence he felt, whatever, whoever it was. His neck tingled more.
He made sure the door light did not come on as he eased quietly from the car. He shook the growing tension loose and did a quick meditation to calm himself. Many of his business years had been spent in Asia and he had learned many meditation and body control techniques there. The one he used now was a mantra from VietNam. “Breathing in, I calm my whole body,” he thought again and again. This worked quickly as he slipped deep into this thought and his body immediately relaxed. Alert but loose he left the door ajar for a quick escape and felt his way towards the end of the path.
He could not put a finger on who might be watching or what he expected to find, but knew that he felt some presence. His hair stood up on the back of his neck because he knew it was not Ian. Robin now understood this fact. Ian was not here. Ian would not have been this late and he would not have remained silent when Robin arrived. Someone or something else was waiting. The prickle on his scalp grew.
“Friend or foe,” he thought.
Many would have fled in fear, but Robin kept moving slowly forward, challenging whatever lay ahead. He felt strangely alive and his strength, born of caution and experience, grew stronger as he crept further up the path.
He moved ahead inch by inch and listened with each step waiting for the approach of Ian’s car or Ian’s whispered signal. He did not expect to hear either. Yet he was sure this was the place on the trail Ian had described. A shiver at the base of his neck suggested someone was ahead. There was someone watching him closely. Robin had an odd feeling of being carefully measured as if the person were reading him, probing his mind. Who and why? How?
He shook his head clear of the sensation and carefully inched further down the trail concerned that the path could end, without warning, at a sheer bluff offering a quick trip maybe hundreds of feet onto rocks below. His eyes strained and his ears tried to penetrate the space ahead listening for some change in the path or movement ahead. Many had been lulled from danger by the gentleness of this English countryside. These hills seemed tame compared to the rugged outdoors back in the States. Robin knew this seeming tranquility belied real danger. He remembered rock climbing near this area and thought of the warning his guide had given. “Danger in this land is time. Untold centuries of man has lived here. Their scars, stumps and scabs is left behind just waitin to get ya. Many old minepits they worked back then. Step into an old pit and you’re good as dead.”
He shook off rising tension again and stepped forward with care, his feet feeling cautiously each step. The trail ended suddenly at a promontory and he stood silently, thinking, in the darkness of the night.
Impatience rose. He was jet lagged and tired. Nine hours of travel from Miami to London and another five hours of driving had left him exhausted. Ian should have been here by this time. Worry for his friend throbbed like a sore tooth. Ian’s insistence on meeting here on this windswept hill, after midnight was totally out of character. This was from a man who rarely ventured far from a hotel luxury suite or his computer-filled office. Ian had not arrived yet he was a man who was never late.
He shrunk deeper inside his heavy wool jacket and stared into the darkness ahead. This was a lonely, deadly place… he brushed this troublesome thought aside. Ian knew how to take care of himself and would not have made a mistake if he had been here. If Ian had problems, they were not at this place. He wondered if old man Clague’s story tied into Ian’s call, his absence and whatever trouble he was in. He did not believe in coincidence. Ian’s call had come exactly as the old man had warned.
“Is someone else here instead of Ian?” he thought to himself. “Who? Why don’t they show themselves? Were they the reason why Ian has not shown up? Why do I feel like they’re getting inside my head?” His inner feelings would not dismiss that someone was again watching him and again probing his thoughts. Yet there were no outward signs, no lights, no movement, no noise, no smell. The silence, the presence and his worry about Ian magnified his impatience. He wanted to make something happen but calmed himself. “Breathing in, I relax my whole body.” He floated the thought through his mind again and again.
Robin had learned to be patient and calm. He crouched and waited. Nothing happened. No one moved. His legs began to knot and his body trembled in fatigue. Still he silently waited, crouched, ready. Eventually the prickles up his spine disappeared. Somehow he was now as certain that he was alone as he had been of being watched. “They’ve left,” he thought. “Or were they ever here?”
He rose slowly and backtracked cautiously through the dark. If someone had been there they had not shown themselves. He now felt sure they were gone and Ian Fletcher was not coming. Reluctantly Robin crept back to the Audi and returned to the country inn where he had left his luggage.
Several miles away, the Bear Inn at Amberly, was the type of country inn that made the English countryside famous. Centuries old, it held commanding views of the valley below and was steeped in tradition. Driving in the middle of this starless, black, cold night Robin failed to find this fact comforting. Cold and weary, he arrived to find the hotel, in traditional form, totally locked up-he had forgotten to ask for a night key. Leaning heavily for support on the cold stone gate he was too tired to admonish himself. Ages might pass before the innkeeper would hear the buzzer, awake and let him in. More fatigued than disgusted, he stabbed a half-frozen finger at the dark nipple of the night bell which was only visible for its contrast against the light color of the chilled Cotswold stone. A sudden shiver up his spine made him feel once again observed, but he was too tired to care. He ignored the stinging sensation on his hairline and reached for the bell.
As his finger touched the bell, incredible arms wrapped around and crushed him. Robin tried to whirl but something had him locked tight. He could see nothing, but the pressure on him was immense! The grip relaxed momentarily and he twisted sharply jerking free from the hold, thinking some drunk had grabbed him for support. Nobody-nothing was there! The pressure hit him again. Invisible arms tightened. Unbelievable pain, increasing. He reeled back stunned. His head was ready to explode. More pressure, a vice-like grip. Was this a heart attack? No, he realized the pressure was external, but how? What? His strength was a match for any man and yet he was being crushed helplessly.
This grip was not of a man. Like some invisible claw, the attack enmeshed his entire being. Forced of air, crushed of body, Robin was alone, unable to move. Yet in this grip his survival instinct still kicked in. Remembering the meditation techniques he had learned so long ago, he slipped his mind into the mantra, “Breathing in, I relax my whole body. Breathe in, deep. Forget this pressure. Relax.” He went limp, dropping to his knees. Hitting the cold pavement, his cheek scrapped against ice, but he relaxed again and let his mind drop away absorbed by these simple thoughts. Lying totally still, he let his mind drift. He released the pain, looked within. Relaxed, his thoughts went deeper, deeper inside and warmth rushed in. Then the lights from inside the hotel slowly began to fade.
Through a deep fog Robin heard a worried voice. “Sir!, Sir! Are you okay? Sir?” Words? Yes, these were words. He was alive. Alive and feeling the ice bite at his face again. Cold. With this thought he came round to the harsh scrape of the pavement. “Are you alright? Wake up. Sir!”
Robin blinked and groggily asked, “What happened?” The innkeeper kneeled down, shaking in the cold as he replied. “I don’t know. Came out to answer the bell. Found you lying here. Shall I call the Doctor Chilman?”
Robin felt his strength begin to return. “No. Ugh, no, don’t do that,” he said gaining his senses. “I, I’m fine. Must’ve slipped on the ice. It’s dark. I, I just knocked the wind out. That’s all. Here, help me up. Maybe a shot of brandy. That’ll warm me up.”
The innkeeper helped him to the lounge and settled him uncertainly on a short stool in front of the fireplace. Robin stared at the coals in their final warm, orange glow.
The innkeeper hurried around the bar with a large snifter of rough Armanac. Robin inhaled the acrid fumes, took a huge gulp, and coughed, “Thanks, I’m fine now.”
“If you’re sure then, sir, I can still call Dr. Chilman at home to come across the hill and take a look.”
“No, no,” Robin replied as he turned from the fire and waved the innkeeper to bed. “I’m fine and am really sorry about all this. Please go on back to bed. I’ll turn in soon myself.”
The innkeeper padded softly across the faded, floral carpet and headed back to warm bed leaving Robin alone in front of the dying coals. Despite the long journey, the long wait on the hill and this terrorizing attack, Robin knew he would not sleep.
The brandy burned his throat but warmed him. He wondered if the many unexplained events, the presence he felt and this attack were related. “Could he have imagined them? Was this some sudden medical problem, or just fatigue? Had Clague’s warning come true?” He had received Ian’s call, come to England and now there had been a mysterious attack.
Comforted by the fire, his mind puzzled over the facts. He thought about the tingling sensation that had warned him of someone or something watching him on the hill and before the attack. This was the same sensation he felt in his business when he smelled a financial problem. He had always called it an instinct and these goose bumps had saved him from more scams than he could count. This is what Clague had said was his second sight when he had told him the story about the book? “The book,” he muttered! He had brought it with him on the flight meaning to read it on the plane, but had not. He had carried it in his coat pocket and now reached out for his coat to confirm what his second sight somehow already knew. The book was gone!