Exclusive Preview: “Skywatchers” by Zoe Drake

 

The following is an excerpt from the supernatural thriller “Skywatchers” by Zoe Drake – Book 1 in the “Fiat Lux” series. 

THE TIME: Winter, 1996.

THE PLACE: The Fenlands, a haunted, remote part of East Anglia, England.

THE PERSON: Gareth Manning, freelance photographer. 

Now read on …

As he’d expected, Gareth was the only person in the dining room for breakfast the next morning.

Feeling self-indulgent, Gareth piled into the generous heap of bacon, mushrooms, sausage, grilled tomatoes and scrambled egg, and helped himself to the toast and little plastic pouches of marmalade. A twinge of sympathy made him exchange some idle chat with the man who brought in more cereal – Mr. Halliwell, the B&B owner. the tall, middle-aged man walked with a pronounced limp while carrying jars and bowls to and fro. A sports injury, Gareth thought, or an industrial accident – leading him into the life of a small hotelier.

 After breakfast, he checked his bag of equipment once more. He was due to meet the client at 10:30 this morning; plenty of time to test the light.

 Coveney, in the daytime, had shed its veil of mystery and now presented a face like that of an elderly, genteel aunt. Leaving the car behind – after all, he was in no hurry – Gareth walked in the brisk air along the main village street, exchanging greetings with the few pedestrians who were out this Monday morning. Houses, coddled by ivy, mock-Tudor timbers and late 20th century security systems gave off the faint, familiar perfume of Cambridgeshire opulence. Gareth wasn’t jealous; he wasn’t under any illusions. His critical eye felt sometimes – to him – like an X-ray camera, knowing that he would always find harassment and insecurity behind what appeared to be the happiest facade.   

There was a church at the end of the lane. Coated with the decaying veneer of history, it stood on a small rise of land like a ship plowing through the waves. Surrounding it was a fully stocked graveyard; the first thing that any walker or jogger would notice was the formidable Celtic stone cross poking above the wall of masonry. The crumbling tombstones stood, leaning at angles, discoloured with age.

 His tour of the village complete – or as complete as he could be bothered to make it, anyway – he walked back to the B&B to find that someone had the same idea; turning up earlier than planned.

 “Mr. Manning,” Mrs. Halliwell said when Gareth entered the parlour.”You did say you were meeting a Mr. Littlewood here, didn’t you?”

 “Yes, that’s right. At 10:30.”

 “Well he’s already. he’s in the dining room, with my husband.”

 Gareth entered the dining room, and two pairs of eyes  swiveled in his direction. Two men sat at the table where Gareth had eaten breakfast, bending their heads over a folder lying open. They both lurched to their feet. One of them was Mr. Halliwell; the other was Brian Littlewood.

 Littlewood was tall, but not as tall as Gareth – it was difficult to tell because of the slight stoop that kept his neck tucked into his shoulders as if he were contemplating a shoulder charge. He was well-built, with a belly overhanging a wide leather belt and jeans with unnecessary turn-ups. His face, as he looked squarely at Gareth with a straight, almost challenging gaze, was round, held a flabby nose and weak eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, and florid cheeks that made him look as if he were suffering from nettlerash. Perhaps he was growing a beard to hide his complexion – but the grizzled moustache and stubble only served to accentuate the mottling of his skin. Above his brow, Littlewood’s straight, greasy hair had been cut in a way that made Gareth feel really uncomfortable. And the coat …

  Gareth didn’t want to think of it as an anorak. No way, he thought. call it a parka or a cagoule … anything but that. But it was large, and made of some unidentifiable kind of light brown plastic, and was decorated with such an unbelievable layer of grime that it was probably only the stains holding the fabric together.

 “Hi,” the newcomer announced in a thin, nasal voice. “I’m Brian Littlewood, SIAP – Cambridgeshire branch. That’s the Society for the Investigation of Anomalous Phenomena.”

 “Gareth Manning.” The other man’s handshake was firm, as firm as the gaze that he kept trained upon Gareth’s face. They all sat down again at the same table. Among several badges on the lapel of Littlewood’s coat – not anorak, but coat – one badge caught Gareth’s attention. It was an image of a face, a pointed, almost triangular face with off-white skin and a tiny lipless mouth. Black eyes, with no pupils or irises, bulged out of the bald skull.

 “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Mr. Littlewood,” Gareth began. “There’s a lot about this contract that’s kind of … vague.”

 “Hmm. Yes, I’m not sure how much Dr. Bennings said in his letter to your agency, but maybe I can explain. Actually, you’ve come in at a very fortunate moment. Mr. Halliwell and I were in the middle of something.”

 Littlewood sniffed loudly, and a smirk crept over his face. Gareth looked to the landlord for help, but he was grinning as well.

 “What I mean is, Mr. Halliwell is one more eyewitness to the events taking place here. It shows how widespread they really are.”

 At this point, Halliwell decided to make his own contribution. “I’ve seen a UFO,” he declared in a cheerful voice.

 “That’s nice,” deadpanned Gareth.

“I was about to ask a few questions. Mr. Halliwell, do you mind if Gareth sits in on this?”

“No. The more, the merrier!”

Brian turned his head and gave Gareth a conspiratorial wink. “Bear with us, and I’ll fill you in as we go along.”

Once the three men were seated, Littlewood produced a dictaphone from his pocket. After some fiddling with the controls, he set it running and stood it on end next to the plastic folder.

 “Observation report, February 9th, Brian Littlewood reporting. I am speaking to Mr. Clarence Halliwell, of Coveney Fen B&B guest house, Coveney, Cambridgeshire. Mr. Halliwell – in your own words, could you tell us what you saw?”

 “My name’s Clarence Halliwell,” the interviewee began loudly, “and I saw – can that thing hear me all right? Okay. I’ll keep going. I saw something strange one night last month, at about 9pm.”

 He cleared his throat and continued. “I’d said goodnight to the lads in the pub on the corner of Market Street, in Swavesey.  We’d been playing darts, and and I was on my way home. I was getting a lift in my mate’s car, and there were three of us in the car park. Suddenly my mate George says, “Hey look, what’s that?” So we looked, and – well, I’ve never seen a UFO before. If somebody had told me that they’d seen one, I’d tell them to get out of it. But that’s the only thing I can think to call it. I’ve never even -“

 “Mr. Littlewood,” Brian interrupted, “at this point, can I ask you, exactly what did you see?”

 “Er …it looked like a long row of lights. Not plane landing lights; I’d know them straight away. It was a long dark shape with lights inside it, or along the side of it, and it was above the roof of the name of pub Merchants house opposite.”

“So what did you do?”

“We thought we’d drive closer to it, to find out what it was. We got in the car and started out, and it moved – it seemed to always be ahead of us, even though we were driving towards it. Hanging there in the sky, like.”

 Littlewood was hurriedly jotting things down in the folder, and as Gareth peered over the barrier of the interviewer’s arm – trying not to look at what stained the jacket sleeve – he noticed that Littlewood was filling in boxes on a questionnaire.  

 “Now, Mr. Halliwell,” Littlewood announced. “Cast your mind back. Regarding the weather …”

 Craning his neck, Gareth cast his eyes over the questions typed on the paper. They led downwards in neat rows, with space to write observations:

Time of sighting

Locations of sighting

Weather

Phases of moon

Surrounding area;

     Airports

     Military airbases

     Tall buildings

      Hills

      Factories

      Main roads

Police called?

Official report to MOD made?

Witnesses?

 Littlewood worked his way through them all, paying particular attention to the witnesses, as the tape in the dictaphone wound on. Halliwell was clearly enjoying this, and he seemed to have nothing else in the guest house to occupy his time at the moment. Gareth idly wondered what the man’s wife was doing.

 “Now to finish, Mr. Halliwell, let’s return to the object itself. You said that it was long, and had a row of lights on it or inside it. You say it couldn’t have been a plane. Could you have seen an airship?”

 “You mean one of those blimp things? Well, me and my mates talked about that. We thought, maybe it’s Richard Branson in another hot air balloon like, maybe after he’d sailed over the Atlantic he wanted to sail over the Fenlands. But we’re pretty sure it wasn’t him. It didn’t have ‘Virgin’ written all over it. And if was one of those advertising things like the Goodyear Blimp, well – why put it up at night?”

 “Why indeed,” said Littlewood, nodding sagely. Now then, you say it was shaped like an airship? Long and cylindrical, like a cigar?”

 “Yes … I suppose so.”

  “Was it a long, thin cigar, or a short, stubby cigar?”

 Gareth suddenly snorted with laughter, and tried to turn it into a cough.    

Halliwell’s eyebrows huddled together as he said reflectively, “Hmm, yes, you’ve reminded me now, I used to like a good cigar. But this thing I saw in the sky, it wasn’t thin, like a Hamlet. Not like one of your standard Coronas. It was thicker … more like a Perfecto, or a Monterrey Diadema … tapering towards the end …”

 “Like a Cuban cigar?” Gareth interrupted, trying to keep a straight face. “A fat, succulent, aromatic cigar, rolled on the thighs of hot Cuban women?”  

 Littlewood turned to shoot a scornful glare at Gareth, and there was even more of a flush in his cheeks. While he fumbled for his place in the list of questions, Halliwell nodded slowly, giving Gareth a sly smile.

 “Er … yes,” Littlewood continued. “Did the cigar have wings?”

  Oh for Christ’s sake this guy is taking the piss, thought Gareth.

 After Littlewood and the landlord had gone over the form again, until Gareth was sure even he knew every detail of the observation, the interview drew to a close. Halliwell excused himself, and Gareth and Littlewood faced each other across the table.

 “Well, Mr. Manning … I think that’s given you a pretty good idea of what we’re trying to do here.”

“Yes, I think I’ve got the picture,” Gareth said solemnly. Be polite, he told himself. Half a photographer’s job is managing people.

 “Anyway, welcome aboard!” Littlewood grinned and shook Gareth’s hand again. “There’s plenty to see, plenty to do. Are you ready?”

 “Yes, of course. Er … ready for what?”

 “We’ve established a Skywatch base at Craven Fen Farm, down the road. They’ve agreed to let us use one of their barns. If you’re ready, I’ll give you a lift.”

 Taken aback, Gareth nodded assent. Seconds later, as he jogged up the stairs to collect his camera bag, he wondered about what the other man would be driving. Volvo … Mercedes … cigar with wings … okay, Brian, which one’s yours?

 it turned out to be a Ford Mondeo, surprisingly clean compared to the state of the owner’s coat. Climbing into its slightly chilly interior, they rolled at a moderate pace down the now familiar Coveney high street, and out of the village, into the Fenlands.

   Gareth had never seen such a mournful landscape in all his life. Even though he lived in Cambridgeshire, he had hardly any reason to venture into the Black Fens.  Craven Fen Farm was about five miles west of Coveney, and it was difficult to say where the farm began, as the fields seemed to blur into the distance. The ordinary English landscape of trees and hedgerows was absent, leaving only squares of green and black, fading into the mist-covered horizon. In the distance, a row of electricity pylons stood like stick-men scribbled in a child’s sketchbook, against the sheet of washed -out grey that was the sky.

 “Bit dismal, isn’t it?” Littlewood commented. “It’s the last place I would come to, if I were them.”

 Gareth let the ‘them’ reference pass.

 After a few more minutes driving, Littlewood turned off the road onto a muddy track, and the car bumped along beside the sullen black fields until it came to a large, hangar-like barn. A small group of people stood in front of the entrance.

 “There’s the lads,” Littlewood said, grinning.

 Getting out of the messily parked car and walking towards the barn, Gareth saw a huddled group of six oddly mismatched individuals. Five of them had the trendy baggy jackets, sideburns and cropped hair of youth, but the fourth man was clearly older. He was warmly wrapped up in a Barbours jacket with a flat cap crammed onto his head, and possessed a face with more grains and wrinkles than an old wooden log. A large bunch of keys dangled from the man’s right hand.

 “This is Mr. Higgs,” introduced Littlewood, when they arrived at the barn entrance. “He’s the land owner, who’s kindly allowed us to use the barn. The rest are members of SIAP – the University branch. Gentlemen, this is Gareth Manning.”

 The farmer thrust a large dry hand into Gareth’s, and gripped it firmly. “You’re in charge of this lot then, are you?” he said, grinning.

 “No, no, no …” Gareth instantly regretted the speed of his reply. “I’m an agency photographer, from Cambridge. I’m down here to take a few shots of the proceedings.”

“Hmmph.” The farmer gave a little snort of derision that made Gareth feel even more uncomfortable. “Well, I reckon you’ll be all right down here, out of harm’s way. This is a quiet part of the land, so there shouldn’t be too many folk to bother you. Except for all those space aliens buzzing around, of course.” He gave a short, barking laugh, and Gareth winced in mute desperation.

 “Well!” Higgs jangled the keys in his hand and turned toward the barn doors. “Let’s get on, shall we? Let the dog see the rabbit.”

 Gareth helped the students to pull the doors open, letting a heavy mixed smell of hayseed and machine oil out into the brisk air. It was dusty and gloomy inside, but as Gareth walked in, his eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he stared at the bench that had been hauled close to the doorway.

 The bench held the strangest, and most expensive-looking, selection of equipment Gareth had ever seen. Behind it was a squat electrical generator, the kind used for powering pneumatic drills at construction sites and earthworks.

 “I don’t understand,” Gareth admitted. “Does all of this belong to you?”

 “Not exactly. It’s on loan from Northwestern University.”

 “Northwestern University? In the USA?”

 “Yes. It should have all been in the letter from Dr. Bennings.”

 “Oh, yes. The letter.”

 Covering his confusion, Gareth went back to Littlewood’s car to retrieve his camera bag. Just get on with it, he thought. Take a few snaps of them at work and get it over with.

 Back inside the barn, the students sniggered to each other above their scarves and lapels studded with Roswell and Red Dwarf badges, and Gareth heard Littlewood and Higgs conferring in low tones about something. Lifting up his Minola camera, Gareth went back outside stood with his back to the barn, and let the focal length gradually increase. With the F-stop sliding towards infinity, his eye panned out over the land.

 To the left was what he took to be the Higgs’ cottage, looking warm, cosy and self-contained. Beside it was a small enclosed field holding two horses. Gareth kept the zoom trained upon them, waiting for them to do something. He willed them to run, to spend their pent-up energy and take a good, muscle-pumping run over the fields, just as he wished he could run back to Cambridge.

 But there was nowhere for the horses to run to; and apart from the horses, there was nothing for the camera to focus on. The fields ran away from Gareth in all directions, with no trees or buildings to stop them, like water rushing over the edge of a weir. The whole thing was ridiculous; in a place like this, there was nowhere for UFOs to hide. There was nowhere for anything to hide.

Movement on the lane where they had driven from caught Gareth’s eye, and he pointed the lens in that direction. A Land Rover Discovery, gleaming in the chill February light, was rolling slowly along the dirt track towards them. Higgs’ voice startled Gareth, as the little farmer had left the barn to stand behind him without making any sound at all.  

 “The Yanks are coming,” Higgs said, and laughed again.   

 “Skywatchers” is scheduled to be released in early 2019.

    Read more of Zoe Drake’s work here!  

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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