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The Tenth Gate

~ Part Three

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Ella hadn’t slept well. She’d thought about joining him in his room, of sliding between the crisp sheets and lying close, absorbing his warmth, his breath. But she needed to think.

The first time she’d seen him, last summer in the university library, she’d recognised the look of a man obsessed. She’s always had the talent of reading thoughts, that sensitivity that had sidled into the language as feminine intuition. It was a gift she’d practiced and cultivated, a talent she’d used to her advantage to gain small victories of wealth, of the moments of power that control brings, and she’d learned to live with the resulting backwash of maggoty guilt.

But she was perfectly aware that it was a skill few women shared. The talent for reading a man’s thoughts was a rare one, and one that her family had had for generations. Some had kept it hidden; some had used it to move their families’ lives forward, but not all. A few- and she wondered if she would include herself in this- had used it to hurt and to harm. Had she done that in the library entrance when she’d deliberately dropped her bag and made him turn and speak to her? She’d used her gift then. She’d planned. She’d set the trap, created the sticky web and lured him in with the bait she knew he wanted. But as he stumbled in, grateful and amazed at what he’d been offered, she’d felt something inside herself change, a balance shift. Sometimes a trap can be so clever that it springs on the one that set it. Although she’d reeled him in, the if and then of her plan had not included him wrapping himself around her, starting to squeeze and absorb, and making his being part of hers. That hadn’t been part of the plan at all.

She decided not to recognise what he was unconsciously doing to her. She would not nourish this with her attention. Something so fragile would fail without nurture.

She needed her mind for other things.

But any sort of power could be used with malicious intent. It was only the darkness of intention that separated the healer and the witch. It was the simple morality of choices that turned the light into the dark. She knew that the expression she had earlier seen on his face, the tiny glance of avarice that sparked in his eyes when she had mentioned the pictures the night before had grown from the seeds set in his mind by what he had seen at the castle. He seemed to know that the nine etchings promised something that was real, that behind his last failure lay the ghost of some terrible power, like the faint images in twilight that are clear in peripheral vision but vanish when looked at directly. She had seen the greed that those pictures had wormed into him. Whatever he said, he was afraid he’d lose them. So she stayed where she was, and kept her mind on her own search, thinking through the details of what she would have to do to find the last picture and then persuade him to let her use and perhaps keep his treasured remaining nine, and trying to dull the aching want that seeing him again had so unexpectedly created.


Dean woke early. The strange, time slipped world of jet lag still enveloped him. At first, as usual for a strange place, he was lost, disorientated. The light from the window was all wrong, the feel of the sheets, the sounds, or the lack of them, from outside. The countryside was without the reassuring presences of home. No sirens, no rumble of the commuting nine to fivers. No shriek of brakes at a junction, no macho revving as the seconds ticked out to the lights changing.

As he came to, he found himself listening to the silence more carefully. Not silence at all. A low level undercurrent of the papery rattle of leaves, distant water flowing, clicks and chirps of insect life, and discordant music of birds he didn’t have the names for, underpinned by the distant metallic groan of some farm machine cutting things down.

This illusory silence was more disturbing than real urban noise. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable in this alien landscape.

His thoughts ran through the conversation that had taken place after dinner yesterday. Ella had told him how, before they had met, she had come across an old local history book. It told the story of the witch trials back in the days of the commonwealth, more than three hundred years ago. There had been one particular etching. “It was like looking in a mirror. There was a woman from the past, from so long ago, and the woman had my face. It could have been some sort of co-incidence, but something about the feel of it, I can’t say what, made me know it wasn’t. She looked out of the past with my face, and saw me. This woman was something to do with me.”

As the cat wound around his feet, he had smiled wisely, reassuringly. He didn’t want her to know how he doubted her. He didn’t know how she could have known. Nothing but guesswork, clearly. The implausible principle of feminine intuition. How could she base any real research on the mists of feelings, and expect anyone who valued fact to give the idea a second glance? Looking her in the eye, he had asked as kindly as he could, “So did you find out who she was?”

“Up to a point. The book gave her a name, and told the story of a witch trial. Any woman living alone in those days risked being called a witch and suffering the consequences. At the trial, some of the villagers said that she had second sight, and knew things about people, used that knowledge to harm, to create malice. She was accused of killing animals, of causing illness, of talking to the devil, of keeping familiar spirits.”

“So what,” he asked carefully, “What linked her to my pictures?” Things were getting so close that he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“At the trial, there was another piece of evidence. The soldiers that arrested he said that in her house, a series of ten pictures were laid out. The descriptions make them seem like yours. Remember that this was in the 1640’s, twenty years before your Nine Gates book appeared. The woman was said to read from the pictures in an old language, Latin I imagine. The readings made her know all the villagers thoughts. That was her source of knowledge.” She looked down, as if not wanting to meet his gaze.

“So what happened to them, where are the pictures now?” He tried to keep his voice calm and even, but the urgency of want that obsession brings gave it a fast and bitter tone.

“Nine disappeared, perhaps stolen and sold on by the soldiers who performed the arrest. The last one found its way into the record of the trial, which took place near here. Legal documents are guarded carefully by governments, you know that. It allows them to appear honest and credible in the most unlikely of circumstances”

He didn’t even dare ask if she was sure that the tenth was nearby. Sometimes, just sometimes, he had intuition of his own.

He realised that coffee was necessary to get him thinking straight. He dressed carelessly, city clothes that didn’t really work in this new place. Looking at himself in the mirror, dragging a comb through his hair, he was unimpressed. He removed the tie in an attempt at the casual, and considered buying t shirts. But realising that this was the best that he could manage, he lit a cigarette and headed downstairs.

In the kitchen, the door to the garden was open to let the sun stream in. The smell of the grass, still wet from the last night’s storm made the air heavy, mixing with the coffee and toast smells of a breakfast just finished. Dean wasn’t used to foods that had to be cooked being found in a kitchen. He mainly dealt in opening cans and packets and the occasional attempt at heating up. The scattered mess of crumbs, smears of butter, and used cups were pleasing, but he didn’t really understand why. He wondered if it was something to do with childhood memories, a comfort and warmth that were in his case long lost.

He found a clean cup, and poured himself some black coffee, adding a couple of sugars to help him face the day, and went to the door. He could see Ella in the garden, back towards him, making her way carefully between the tall flowers laid flat by the storm, picking up the stems, tying them up, looping them around the canes that kept them tidy. She carried some garden tools, and seemed absorbed by what she was doing. There was a beauty in her movement, an elegance in the way her hands moved deftly, tying strings, moving canes, pulling weeds. There was a beauty in watching a simple task well done. Somehow it reminded him of dancing, careful steps, all in sequence, minutely planned to make the difficult look easy. He watched each step that she took, and as he did so, he knew that the question of the pictures, and who got what from any magic they might have, was not the important one. The real question was what Ella felt for him. What he felt for her hovered uncertainly between lust and love.

“I’m lost without you” he whispered to himself. But even forming the words was a little admission of defeat. He felt glad he’d said it, but somehow he felt lessened. The solid ground of lust was a safer place than the marshy unknown that was love.

She had turned back to the house, and as she walked up to him, he could see the smears of mud the garden had made on her face. Her hands were dirty, and she kicked off some old shoes she was wearing as she got near the door. Blades of broken grass stuck to her small white feet as she walked back into the house.

“Sleep well?” She looked just how he liked her, grubby and confident.

“Not particularly” he replied. “I was awake a long time. Time-zones, and thinking about what you’d said about the pictures. I thought of coming to ask you about what you wanted us to do, but you would have been asleep.”

She looked at him carefully, dragging the back of a muddied hand over her lips. “I wasn’t asleep. I was thinking the same as you. Including the things you haven’t said.”

He was taken aback. Again, she’d looked right inside him. He dropped his gaze, embarrassed, ashamed. He knew what he wanted to do, to touch and stroke and feel her, pull off the garden clothes. But knowing that she knew made making the slightest move difficult. The fear of acting foolishly, the dread of the brush-off, rose like sickness in his throat.

She put her hand under his chin, and made him look up. “I said I was thinking the same. The same about everything. Everything. This included.”

She reached down and began to pull her dirty T shirt up, slowly letting him see the lines of muscle on her thin stomach, and the perfect arcs underneath her round breasts, pulled as the shirt pulled higher. He put his lips to hers, lightly at first, and then with biting urgency. He loved the taste of her mouth, warm with coffee and the hints of tobacco. His mouth moved on, feeling the sinews of her neck, massaging and exploring the tiniest details, the semicircular hollows where her collar bones started, the curves and the flat centre of her chest. His hands followed, confident, aware of what they could do.

“Let me take you back upstairs” He couldn’t believe it was him saying that.

She drew him up and kissed him on the lips, tasting his own taste with an almost lascivious pleasure. “Yes. Dean, you have a delicious mouth. The devil himself couldn’t do better.”

He wasn’t used to this type of compliment. Knowledge and cleverness were certainly things he had, but not to do with women. He couldn’t read the signs and signals they dealt in. He always felt he was lost in the dark, any progress he made the result of chance not ability. But perhaps things were about to change for him.


Later, relaxed and smiling, he poured out the rest of the coffee into the last two clean cups. Lighting two cigarettes, she passed one to him as she looked through the piles of yesterday’s newspapers that littered the table, to find some photocopied sheets beneath. “These are the things I’ve found, the old letters” she said. The original of the etching, the one I think is the tenth picture, is in the academic section of the museum. I’ll show you tomorrow. But you’re going to have to bluff your way in. You once told me that you had letters, or faked letters, from professors that say you’re doing research. The museum will expect you to be a genuine researcher, a real academic. We could use them now.”

So this was the challenge. Slowly, he smiled at her. “They’re in my bag. They’re perfect, they won’t fail. We’ll be welcomed in. You’re going to have to dress smartly, because you’ll be there too. You can be my research assistant.”


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