Feeding the Monster
The land was flat and the horizon punctuated by the spires of two churches and a derelict windmill. The air tasted of grilled artichokes and the sound of a distant foghorn was deep purple. The drainage channels criss-crossed the reed beds in a concerto of strings, accompanied by a choir of soprano voices - not necessarily human ones.
Valerie was too consumed by the sensations of place to hear the question, watching an airliner’s dispersing vapour trail writing hieroglyphs in the nacreous sky. Her middle-aged nephew had been demanding answers since he could talk and it was inevitable he would opt for a profession where it was obligatory. Then she turned and saw that boyish expression lit up with expectation. Nicholas was now 52 and had never lost the enthusiasm for solving the world's woes.
‘What is it you expect me to see?’
‘Anything that seems out of place.’
‘Everything is peaceful. There is an odd odour, but you can probably smell that as well.’
‘It's the bog over there.’
Valerie turned to where there was the phantom cacophony of mating frogs despite it being autumn and not an amphibian in sight. Knowing what Nicholas was looking for would have helped, but that had never been part of the game they played. Valerie modestly underrated her value in pointing his investigations in the right direction and marvelled that his superiors allowed them to do this.
DI Neville was very protective towards his elderly aunt and annoyingly possessive over her extraordinary synesthesia. Her ability went beyond the perceptions of others with the condition and verged on the paranormal. Valerie seemed unaware of how remarkable they were, having lived with them all her life. Nicholas did not allow any other detective access to her exceptional ability without being present, which limited many of the glorious, irrelevant things she would have preferred to concentrate on. After so many forays to pinpoint human remains, buried contraband and unexplained blips in unlikely landscapes, the domestic normality of others came as a welcome relief. On one occasion she detected that the stressed behaviour of a suspect's pet was due to its owner’s cancerous tumour. Saving the life of another person, even a criminal, was far more satisfying than finding the long dead. Valerie would have much rather spent her later years revelling in the melodies and glorious colours others were not able to perceive in their surroundings but, for better or worse, the demanding yet charismatic Nicholas had always been her favourite nephew. She had been just as astounded as everyone else when he joined the police force, though they should have realised that was the most obvious way for him to satisfy his need to solve mysteries. He was fascinated by his aunt's synesthesia and could not comprehend what it was like to hear images, see sounds and smell places. He would have willingly become her constant companion if education, and then marriage, had not intervened.
Even now, in her 84th year, Valerie’s synesthesia added a level of enjoyment to life few others experienced. Reading the bus timetable was a delight in itself, with the bright overlapping colours the numbers generated.
‘A dark grey cloud has descended over DS Clinton,’ she announced without warning.
‘Ignore him, Aunt Val. He gets bored if he's not chasing some villain or other,’ Nicholas told her.
‘And you expect to find him a villain out here?’
‘Stop digging. You know the rules. Find the blip that solves the crime and it's a weekend in Eastbourne.’
Valerie groaned. Not God's waiting room again. A heart attack skydiving would have been a far more adventurous way to go.
‘All right.’ She pointed to the silhouette of the sail-less windmill in the distance. Have you investigated that?’ No sooner were the words out of her mouth than something niggled that she should not have made the suggestion. But it was too late.
‘Virtually took it apart. No Jonathan Creek living there. You want to see it then?’
‘Looks a nice spot for a picnic,’ she said diffidently.
‘Now you're tormenting me.’
Nicholas beckoned DS Clinton to bring the car over and they wended their way through the narrow lanes to the dilapidated hulk.
Turquoise sea zephyrs swept through the reeds as they sat and sipped tea, and the rainbow sky merged with the flat horizon.
‘How do you do it, Mrs Hough?’ asked DS Clinton. Recently promoted from detective constable, the young man still had the guileless air of an apprentice, albeit a very astute one. His aura was like a peach-coloured carnation warily opening its petals to reveal its flame-coloured streaks of curiosity.
Strangely Valerie did not mind him asking the question which, if she had pound every time it had been put to her would have funded a world cruise. ‘It's just there. They say that I started by seeing numbers as colours. As I grew older, colours, smells and sounds just came at whatever I focussed on. Sometimes vivid, but mostly pleasant and natural. It's extraordinary to me that so few others can experience them.’
Valerie tried not to cast a glance at the derelict windmill nearby. It was beginning to radiate the scarlet throb of something malevolent waking from a deep torpor.
And it was hungry.
‘I bet that place is part of local mythology.’
Despite her effort to sound nonchalant, Nicholas wasn’t fooled, ‘What can you see there?’
‘Nothing, nothing at all,’ Valerie lied.
Her nephew relaxed. There was no reason how hearing about the local legend could compromise her safety. ‘Several centuries ago some secret guild used the mill as a meeting place and to raise a demon to help their businesses prosper. They certainly raised something. One morning the miller arrived to find their contorted bodies, drained of blood, hanging from the rotating sails.’
‘You don't believe that it was a demon of course?’
‘Of course I don't. Out here, in those days, people had ways of dealing with anyone who tried to raise the Devil.’
DS Clinton thought it remarkable that his superior depended so much on his aunt's synesthesia, yet expressed such contempt for the inexplicable. ‘The boss doesn't have a superstitious atom in his body.’
As far as DI Neville was concerned, everything, however unlikely, had a rational explanation.
‘Been like that since infancy,’ Valerie explained.
Nicholas could tell that his aunt was trying to distract him, but could not fathom why. ‘Are you sure you can't see something?’
The livid aura of devouring, elemental evil was spilling from the mill's foundations.
Time to play on her nephew's protective reflex. ‘You know, I have this terrible headache coming on.’
Nicholas was immediately sidetracked. ‘Oh, I'm sorry, Aunt Val. I shouldn't have kept you out this long.’
The phantom tentacles of the malevolent entity had detected its next meal. DS Clinton, young and full of vigour, was its main target; Nicholas a mere hors d'oeuvre. Valerie would probably have been able to walk away with the car keys after it had satiated itself. It had no interest in old bones and a dwindling life force.
She rose from her folding chair. ‘May we go back now please?’
Nicholas was disappointed, but tried not to show it. ‘You're positive?’
‘There is nothing untoward here, believe me,’ Valerie walked purposefully towards the car.
The detectives had no choice but to follow her.
The next morning a car with tinted windows arrived at Valerie’s cottage, and drove her to a small hotel overlooking the sea. The holiday season was over and the lounge virtually empty. A tall, smartly dressed man rose to greet her.
Valerie sat facing him. ‘Thank you for doing this.’
The distinguished man with steel grey hair and matching eyes gave a stern smile. ‘Not at all, Mrs Hough. Your remarkable ability has proved too invaluable to ignore. My predecessor insisted I continued to use your services. I only wish you would allow us to pay you a consultancy fee.’
‘That would mean me knowing too much about the case. My nephew would not allow it. He has always been very protective. Also, after what I have told you, I think this will be the last assistance I offer.’
It was easy to see the cool blue of his disappointment.
‘My secretary discreetly delved deeper into the history of this windmill.’ He opened the file on the table. ‘However extraordinary what you saw was, I fear you may be right.’
‘How many people have gone missing there?’ Valerie asked.
‘We cannot be sure. The missing person’s database and Salvation Army records can only positively locate four in the immediate vicinity, though anecdotally and historically there are reports of many more. Mrs. Price dug out the file of a young couple renovating the mill 25 years ago. They disappeared without trace. Your nephew reopened the case of a courting couple who went missing three years ago after a witness came forward to say they regularly met there about that time. He had been in South Africa and only just returned.’
‘Again, no trace?’
‘Whatever is doing this no longer has the windmill's sails to display the bodies on.’
Valerie was relieved that the senior officer was more open-minded about the paranormal than her nephew.
‘I saw the aura of something beyond evil enveloping the mill. It was primeval and voracious. The activity of the team that searched the place may have disturbed it. I believe that the next unsuspecting person to approach will be taken. For that reason I would like you to remove my nephew and DS Clinton from the case.’
‘Of course, Mrs Hough. I shall second them to another force before they have chance to return there.’
‘Thank you so much. He will be very annoyed.’
‘Better that than them ending up as a demon’s pâté.’ He handed her the menu. ‘Now, how about lunch.’
DI Neville and DS Clinton were dispatched to the other side of the country early the next morning to assist in a multiple murder investigation. He didn't have chance to walk the dog or wake his sleeping wife to say goodbye. And he was, predictably, very, very annoyed.
A few nights later, while he was rounding up suspects and taking DNA swabs, a team of army sappers arrived at the windmill under the cover of darkness. A dull thud rolled across the marsh as the derelict hulk was blown to pieces, sending the demon inhabiting it back to the lower depths of the dimension from which it had been spawned.
The next morning there was no trace of the windmill. The land had been cleared and ploughed over to become just another part of the marsh waiting to be colonised by frogs.