The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 27

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After their bath, Kevin and Tanji slipped under the sheets. He felt initially restless, wanting only to hold Tanji close, holding her like he never wanted to be apart from her again. They moved together, making love slowly and in a reassuringly leisurely fashion. It was a wonderfully familiar sensation, one that Kevin had began to think he would never be able to feel that relaxed every again.

Inevitably, they both fell asleep afterwards, holding each other as close as they could manage. Kevin's slumber was unbroken and dreamless, as far as he could remember. He was awakened very early, feeling enormously rested, by the first light of dawn entering the room; once again, he had forgotten to darken the magical windows before falling asleep.

Bridge under construction Kevin lay awake for a long time, his hands behind his head on the feather pillow, listening to Tanji's soft and regular breathing next to him. He thought back to the time they had first met, when she was his official Guide, helping him - as an inexperienced Visitor - find his way around the country of Lyndesfarne during the construction of the New Bridge.

He smiled to himself, shaking his head gently in the semi-darkness. He had found himself thinking about the very first time the two of them have made the crossing from his own world to this one. Tanji's shapeshifting ability had taken him unawares and he had been shaken to discover the possibilities of this magic.

Later she had explained that this was something entirely commonplace in this world, that most people could make some conscious change of appearance. It was something that teenagers tended to experiment with - as with clothes and makeup in his own world.

Kevin's thoughts drifted onwards, remembering that other occasion when Bret had shown him the more radical changes that she was able to make - to take on the form and characteristics of a man at will. With the benefit of hindsight, it seemed impossible that he had known her for quite some time before he had realised that she was in reality a woman. Apparently, this was a rare gift - few people could manage such an extreme change of appearance.

Suddenly alert, Kevin sat bolt upright, struck with a flash of inspiration and insight. He shook Tanji awake urgently.

"What's wrong?" she demanded, sitting up and blinking groggily at him.

"Nothing's wrong," he replied, almost shouting in his enthusiasm, "Quite the opposite. But I need to find Bret or his Mother right away."

Kevin sprang from the bed, followed much more reluctantly by Tanji. The two of them quickly drew on bedroom robes - warm soft oversized garments very much like the dressing-gowns Kevin knew from home, although he could not quite identify the material from which they were made. He then yanked open the bedroom door and hurried upstairs to the main room.

Bret and the Ferryman were still seated at the dining table where Kevin had last seen them, still in the same clothes, and giving the distinct impression that they had not been to bed at all. The table in front of them was littered with papers, maps, slates and other devices whose purpose he could not fathom.

"Demaz!" he yelled, "It was Demaz, at Tanji's prison."

"What do you mean?" Bret demanded, rising to his feet.

"The man I said I recognised," Kevin spluttered, "The one in charge at Tanji’s prison - you remember?"

Bret looked puzzled.

"I remember what you said," he replied, "But who is he?"

Tropical beach resort Kevin glanced at Tanji, who had staggered up the stairs after him and was now looking as startled as the rest of them.

"You remember Demaz," he said to her urgently, "The man we met at the, err, that beach holiday place, whatever it was called."

Tanji blinked at him, then turned to Bret and uttered a stream of syllables which Kevin belatedly recognised as Demaz's full name in the Lyndesfarne language, together with the name of the resort location he had visited in her company all those months ago.

As one, Bret and the Ferryman turned to look at each other. There was a pause, a beat, where no-one moved or spoke. Then pandemonium broke out. The Ferryman stood suddenly and strode over to the door and opened it, shouting loudly for some unseen assistants.

A handful of Guardians entered, looking very much as if they had just been roused from sleep, but they rapidly became more alert when they saw the determined expression on the Ferryman's face. She started issuing rapid-fire instructions, pointing at first one and then another of the troupe. Shortly afterwards, several of the Guardians left the room at that near-run that Kevin understood was usually described in military parlance as "at the double".

Meanwhile, Bret had grabbed a slate from the clutter on the table, and started scribbling furiously. Kevin and Tanji looked on, both shocked and amazed at the reaction that had ensued. Bret looked up at them, simultaneously gesturing to send the third of the messages he had just written.

"This name is known to us," he said grimly.

"I think I should have guessed that, from your reaction," Kevin replied, "But just who is he?"

"As far as we know," Bret replied, still focussing most of his attention on the slate in front of him, "He's a, well, perhaps the word is mercenary, a soldier of fortune. But, we know he has connections with a certain dissident group - a loose and shadowy organisation which appears to endorse the forcible closure of the links between the Two Worlds."

Kevin was flabbergasted. Tanji, too, seemed at a loss for words. The Ferryman waved them closer, indicating that they should sit themselves in chairs around the large table.

"I think that this news confirms our suspicions," she began, "We were already beginning to conclude that kidnapping Tanji was a ruse, a gambit - and we think it was to distract us, to prevent us from finding out something about the death of Doctor Wollack."

The Ferryman paused, looking preternaturally stern and serious.

"The question now," she resumed, "Is whether they have succeeded."

Kevin was dumbstruck for another long moment. He had been so focussed on rescuing Tanji that he had lost sight of the ongoing investigation into the death on the new bridge.

"But they weren't expecting us!" he burst out, "They were surprised, surely?"

The Ferryman looked even grimmer.

"Well, maybe, or maybe not," she replied, "From what Bret's already told us, it seems they were ready to move out at a moment's notice. And we've lost track of them - although I have instigated a high-level alert - and I've just added Demaz to that call. So maybe we'll hear something from that."

She sat back.

"But frankly I doubt it; whoever is behind all this - and I doubt that Demaz is the brains of the operation - has been very clever so far and may still be ahead of us."

"So what can we do?" Kevin asked despairingly, sounding rather whiney even to his own ears.

Bret's mother looked at him surprisingly tolerantly under the circumstances.

"For some reason, it seems you are the key to all this. Our adversary appears to be afraid that some insight of yours may foil his plans. Hence this elaborate plot to keep you distracted."

"Whatever have I done?" Kevin muttered, holding his head in his hands.

The Ferryman snorted.

"Well, spotting the near-invisible person on the bridge, for a start," she said shortly, "That must have rattled them, whoever they are. But they must have been aware of your potential of disruption for quite some time before that, judging by the effort they've put into giving you the run-around over that last few days."

Kevin looked up, still feeling at a loss.

"So, we need to help you, to support you in unravelling this tangle," she continued, "And we need to keep you - and Tanji, of course - safe while you undertake it."

Kevin felt entirely helpless, uncertain, at a complete loss. The pressure of expectation on him was so very high, and there was nothing in any part of his professional or personal experience which gave him any grounds for confidence.

The Ferryman had evidently noticed his mental anguish.

"Now, we may well find out more about what Demaz has been up to," she said, looking resolute and picking up a sheaf of papers from the table-top.

"In the meantime, there's another piece of intelligence which has arrived while you were sleeping. In fact, several related items - all of which I think you should know about."

In spite of himself, Kevin sat up and paid attention. The funk which had enveloped him seemed to dissipate somewhat as he focussed on the news that Bret's mother had to impart.

"Firstly, I have received a post-mortem report on the death of Andrew Wollack," she began, "It appears that he died from a cracked skull."

There was a sharp intake of breath from Tanji, and Kevin's attention snapped back. The Ferryman raised her eyebrows briefly, then continued.

"The blow was probably intended only to knock him out. But Andrew was a rather frail person, it seems, and he died a little later, probably without regaining consciousness."

"So why was his body being transported to the bridge?" Kevin wondered aloud, half to himself.

"It wasn't deliberate, I think," The Ferryman replied, "Whoever it was, they probably thought he was still alive and indeed he may well have been while he was being carried over the causeway."

She nodded in the Bret's direction.

"We think they had intended to transport him to Lyndesfarne, probably for questioning. They needed to understand what he had discovered, and to whom he had communicated this information. Later he would probably have been subjected to a mind-wipe before returning to your world - although being made to forget so much of his life might have damaged him, mentally - even turned him into a vegetable."

Kevin was suddenly reminded that he had nearly been subjected to one himself, only a few months before, and it might have been carried though if it was not for the intervention of the Ferryman herself. The thought that he might have been forcibly made to forget about Lyndesfarne and - more importantly - Tanji gave him the shivers. Moreover, he had not previously appreciated the risk to his mental integrity - his very sanity - that had been threatened by this procedure.

He shook his head to clear his mind of these dismal thoughts.

"So why was his body left in the centre of the bridge?" he asked the Ferryman.

"Well," she replied, "It's clear that someone had managed to smuggle a Watcher's cloak into your world which concealed their movements effectively. But, its magic was disrupted by the effects of the barrier, which coincides with the exact centre of the New Bridge."

Kevin was of course well aware of this, having carefully designed the bridge - in conjunction with Bret - to ensure that the short section which spanned the barrier used technologies which could be replied upon to work correctly in this region.

"Our best guess is that the slight failure of the magical clothing - which was presumably sensed by whoever it was - caused them to panic, and they simply dumped the body and ran."

The ferryman glanced meaningfully at her son.

"In any case, there's something more important that you should know," Bret said, "Andrew Wollack was infected by a pathogen. Something virulent - so virulent that the young woman we met on the bridge, and indeed several of her colleagues in the Guardian forces, appear to have been infected by the same bug."

Kevin leaned forward on the table.

"Is she OK?" he wanted to know.

"She's now in intensive care, in an isolation ward," Bret replied, "As are her comrades."

"And they're in your world," the Ferryman added.

"Why?" Kevin demanded, confused.

"Simply because there are better medical facilities, at least for this kind of disease, on your side of the crossing."

"But what about us?" Tanji asked suddenly, "Kevin, and Bret, and me. We were all on the bridge together when the body was there."

The Ferryman smiled reassuringly.

"We're pretty sure there's no threat to you," she replied, "We think the Guardians were infected when they tried to administer first aid, to resuscitate the stricken man."

Neither Kevin nor Tanji could quite suppress a sigh of relief at this reassurance.

"So what is this pathogen?" Kevin asked.

"It's a mutant virus, a version of influenza," the Ferryman answered, "Our people are working on a vaccination, both here and in your world."

Once again, Kevin was confused.

"But people don't die of influenza!" he asserted.

Both Tanji and Bret shook their heads.

"Not true, unfortunately," Bret said sadly, "Even these days, the old and the weak are at risk - that's why you have winter flu jabs for vulnerable groups at home."

"But that's just a few people," Kevin insisted, "Not an epidemic killing millions."

"True," Bret agreed, "But that's only a difference of degree."

"Well, OK," Kevin conceded, "But it still doesn't happen very often, to many people."

"But it has in the past," Bret went on, "When European explorers first visited remote tropical islands, in your world's history, the indigenous population was decimated. And there have been flu epidemics in the Twentieth Century, too."

At this moment, breakfast was served by Bret's father. He was perhaps aware that he was not expected to contribute to the solving of this mystery, but nevertheless concerned for the welfare of those whose lot it had become. Unsurprisingly, neither Kevin nor Tanji were particularly hungry but were persuaded to chew on a slice of bread and butter, mainly to prevent Bret's father from being too visibly disappointed.

The breakfast menu also included juice - some blend of fruits that Kevin could not identify but was invigoratingly tangy - and mugs of the stimulating hot chocolate drink which was so popular in this world.

As he ate and drank, Kevin cogitated on the information he had heard. Clearly, there appeared to be some kind of threat from an artificially-induced epidemic, and the unfortunate Andrew had somehow suspected this, or at least that he was discovering something important.

A realisation slowly dawned on Kevin.

"Do you think," he began through a mouthful of bread and butter, "That Wollack had accidentally - or even deliberately - infected himself and that he was trying to contact the Lyndesfarne authorities, to warn people of the dangers he had discovered?"

Bret and his mother turned to look at each other.

"It's quite possible," Bret replied after a long and thoughtful pause, "Perhaps this was why he was intercepted, kidnapped, on his way to the crossing. And perhaps why he was being smuggled back to Lyndesfarne across the New Bridge."

"So, then, motives for his kidnapping," Kevin said, nodding and ticking off the items on his fingers, "Andrew Wollack was grabbed and killed because he had - firstly - proved statistically that there had been trans-world epidemics in the past."

"That's something which was generally accepted by many of us," Bret interjected, "But it has to be said that his work showed unequivocally that it was true."

"More importantly," Kevin continued, "Andrew had shown that at least one, and probably more than one of these epidemics had been caused deliberately."

"And, finally," Bret concluded the other man's train of thought, "He had identified the signs that another one was about to start, or perhaps was already in progress."

Facade of University building "Exactly. So," Kevin said slowly, "This was the kind of thing that an intelligent and studious researcher might turn up. Such a diligent student would want to report this to someone at NISSA, and the obvious person would be his academic supervisor, Wendy Rossiter."

Bret and his mother nodded slowly in unison.

"There was no-one else he could talk to," Kevin continued, "No friends, no other academic contacts - at least as far as we know. And neither Wollack nor Rossiter mentioned the findings to Professor Braxton - again, as far as we know - and they certainly should have done so. We think Rossiter must have communicated with someone else."

"But who?" Kevin wanted to know.

"I don't know. But let's go and find out, shall we," Bret suggested, stepping towards the cloakroom by the front door and reaching for his staff and robe.

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