My name is Brendan Burgin. By day I’m Professor Burgin, I work in the archaeology department at UCL. By other days (and sometimes night) I am also Field Agent Burgin, Department of Metaphysics. I’m a Government Man I suppose. I’d like to say I was bribed or coerced but in fact I volunteered. My behind-the-scenes role has taken me further and, in the case of the Welsh Atlantis, deeper, deeper than I wanted.
You see there always was a civilisation beneath the waves, Cantre’r Gwaelod or the Lowland Hundred or the Welsh Atlantis was a little kingdom that sat where Cardigan Bay is now. We know there was land there, quite recently. You can go to some beaches in West Wales and find tree stumps in the sand. If you pad along the same shoreline, if you’re lucky you might find a Roman coin or a rusty axe bob up at your feet.
But this is not quite what’s there, which is where I come in.
The basic work of the DoM is fringe science. We discover things that do not fit the standard scientific and social set up, anomalies, cryptids etc. We contain, we study and we even use some of these things. We make the world work, sometimes for the better. I was recruited by the Department to monitor the social sciences, particularly archaeology, for any unusual signs, like a trawler bringing up a nineteenth century hand-mirror. This is what sparked my interest in the case.
Of course it wasn’t just the mirror. A number of out-of-place artefacts had turned up, in nets, on beaches and, as a result, in local papers and trade magazines and shipping inventories. Trawlers of course have to account for everything they catch. The mirror ended up in the particular trawlers Miscellaneous List when it returned to port in Fishguard. I managed to recover the mirror, even speak to the captain of the ship, who was helpful enough, though knew very little. I added the hand-mirror to the three intact plant-pots holding anemones brought up in another trawler-net, a box keeping the gypsum cylinders that looked a lot like writing chalk hooked by a line-fisherman three weeks earlier in Anglesea, the polished black metal runic tiles that washed up in Aberystwyth back in January. A few days after adding the case to my file list a red cap found by a snorkeler off Poppit Sands. Something was definitely up, something worth investigating.
I wanted to get an investigation going. Normally to do this I would contact my Line Manager at Head Office. They were always the people we spoke to, at the beginning and end of every mission. Line Managers work out of the main office in Whitehall. We do not meet them. We do not know them. We are never given their names, just codes. Mine at the time was called Dr Kinch. I didn't know them as such but I got on with the Doctor. They seemed to like my work and we got on well enough to even use a bit of informal language in correspondence. We had an understanding. If the evidence was strong enough they would authorise a Containment Expedition and I wouldn’t hear about the case again or I would be given leave and resources to investigate the potential anomaly. So I was surprised when Dr Kinch sent the case ‘upstairs.’
I had to give a presentation to the DoM Sub-Committee for Oversight, which shouldn’t be a problem for a researcher/lecturer. I had two days to prepare. I did some online research into Celtic Mermaid apocrypha, civilian accounts. The red cap was a clue. I used it to hold up a hypothesis. The legend goes that the Celts were guided to Ireland by an undersea race, known as the Merrow. They were functional mermaids/men but with a difference. They were fully humanoid but survived underwater thanks to special, magical red caps.
I turned up things like, 1797 - the Battle of Fishguard, where the defeated French raiding party, fearing capture and execution, tried to escape to the sea. They were allegedly ‘granted asylum’ by sea creatures. During the 1910s there were regular reports of a family of mermaids that liked to 'picnic' just off the beach at Aberystwyth. In 1978 a teenage boy was washed out to sea during a storm. He was presumed dead but found 24 hours later lying unconscious on the local beach, in a fresh change of clothes, wearing a strange red cap. Of course some of these sightings came before the Department was founded. Even so, to my surprise, no one seemed to have followed these stories up. Perhaps it was lack of time or resources. Perhaps it was because the phenomenon was considered self-containing. But I could not access any documents relating to this on the DoM mainframe. My search strings turned up nothing.
I had expected the meeting to be at the Whitehall offices. It would be my first time there. I'd not seen it before. Very few people have. It's hidden in some abspace between the FCO and Horseguards Parade. Those who have seen it say it's a magnificent building. Anyway, I received an email at the last moment. I was sent up to the Stanmore R&D Facility instead. This was odd but I made my way. I made my case as best I could.
The Sub-Committee was four people, three men, one woman, impassive and grey. I was taken to a windowless room in the core of the building. The room was small, close and smelled of freshly laid carpet tiles. I waited for maybe ten minutes, it was hard to tell. The Sub-Committee eventually filed in, sat and listened while I stood and presented. None of them took notes or asked questions, despite me leaving lots of temping pauses after my hypothetical leaps or tendentious assertions, they just listened. At the end, when I had to actually say:
“That’s it, that’s the end of my presentation…” and for a moment there was nothing, no response. Then one of the Sub-Committee, the Woman, simply said:
“Thank you, Agent, for your presentation. We shall adjourn and consider your case.” The Sub-Committee stood in unison and started for the door.
“But…?” The Woman turned to regard me while the men kept filing out. “When shall I hear from you? When will I know?”
“You will be contacted in due course” she said, adding “please remember to put in any expense claims before you leave the facility” before strolling quietly out as well.
I was very surprised.
I still expected some kind of approval though. It was fairly easy for me to get the time off work. I have fairly limited lecturing responsibilities. I asked and the Faculty Head granted me a semester away. Twelve weeks would be enough I thought. My Partner, Chandra, has been working for the DoM on an away mission in Australia, off and on. I couldn’t tell her what the mission was, she understood, or seemed to when I explained it was a secret.
It took another two days but I was indeed instructed to head to West Wales and to proceed with investigations. Credit and ‘relevant documentation’ would be sent ‘in due course.’ I was pleased, just about but there was that phrase again. I wondered what the documentation would be.
And I was also given as assistant. Dr Kinch emailed me. He/she told me to be in my office at the university the following day, a Saturday, 11am. Sure enough, the clock passed 11am there was a knock on my door. I opened. A young man in a suit was standing outside.
“Good morning, my name is Junior Agent Squires” he said, holding out a hand to shake, very formal.
He was diminutive and ostentatiously well-groomed.; a tech-expert, a recent graduate from a feeder programme at Imperial College, though he didn't look twenty. He’d sent me some written recommendations from Field Agents who worked with him before. They said he was talented and conscientious. Even so I want to see what he could do.
In twenty-minutes of brisk, focussed work he'd rigged a net-vapour detector, a four dimensional search engine; all completely bewildering but it turned up a transcript of a three-year-old blog post, now deleted, of a widow of a trawler captain, whose boat worked out Fishguard. In it she said her husband’s boat was lost in a storm five years prior. The boat was never recovered, however, about a year after the likely sinking she said her husband came back to her in merman form, and has been visiting regularly ever since. There were no comments and there was no surface-level indication of who this woman was or where she lived.
“But that shouldn't be too hard to find.”
The documents didn't arrive that day, nor was the credit transferred, but the following morning we set off for West Wales.
I say ‘we’ I drove up, I don’t know how Squires got there. We had to ‘maintain confidentiality,’ Department Standard Practice. We had to pretend to be other people with unremarkable interests, which is perhaps the reason why we’re told to keep our regular jobs. It always felt silly though.
I checked into a B&B near the seafront in Aberystwth. The town was central to the area we wanted to cover. I got there late, about quarter-to-ten in the evening. It was a long drive. The landlady was friendly enough, a smiling veneer smoothed over understandable irritation.
“Thank goodness for that, another ten minutes and you’d have been sleeping in your car” she said with a soft smile, handing me the last key. “Breakfast is seven ‘til eight. The showers are on the floor below you. Please be out by half-ten so we can make your beds.” There was a porter, a young man, perhaps a relative, on hand. The Landlady said something in Welsh. I figured it out later, one of us, either me or the young man, was an ‘arsehole.’ Even so he took my bags and showed me to my room, an attic almost, it was at the very top of the house, up a winding set of stairs. The room was hot. While settling in I turned the radiators down and opened the skylight window to let some of the heat out. I could hear the sea and smell the brine for the first time.
It had been a long day but I had to check something. I had a laptop with me but I’d forgotten to ask about Wifi. There was Wifi, that was something, but what was the password? I rung downstairs, there was no answer. I had to get my phone out instead, use some data and check my emails. There was nothing. I should have had the documents sent. It had been a long day, plenty of time, but nothing was sent. I’d have to call head office in the morning. They probably hadn’t forwarded the credit either.
I had a dream that night, a threshold half-awake event. I looked up from my bed. I could see the Full Moon in the skylight, it looked huge, serene and a bright. I had closed the skylight earlier but could still faintly smell the sea. I couldn’t tell what time it was.
I then heard squelching, slopping noises, getting louder. I couldn’t quite place them to begin with but I realised they were coming from outside in the hall. I could see the light seeping under my door. The sea-smell got stronger. The wet sounds stopped and I heard voices, there were two, a dialogue; one whispering, the other softly gurgling. I couldn’t make out what the voices were saying. I tried to say something like ‘do you mind…?’ but it came out as slurred gibberish. The dialogue stopped, the squelching noises resumed, faster this time and fading away, as did the sea-smell. There was a shadow outside my door. My heart leapt.
I sat up again in my bed, this time for real. I looked at the door to my room, the lights outside were off and, of course, there was no hall. My room was an attic. I looked at the skylight; no Moon. It was almost 3am. After a moment to calm down I settled back in bed and quickly fell asleep again.
Set to work the following morning, Agent Squires and I met up in town, in a café, quiet except for a gang of students, noisy and distracting. The most annoying thing, apart from finding out Squires had checking into a five-star hotel down the road, was that there were no scuba-diving companies for miles around. We were too hasty. The nearest Navy bases with minesweeping teams were in Devon. I had minimal contacts in the armed forces, as you can imagine. I phoned head office for help but everyone seemed to be busy. I fronted up, tried some of the Navy bases, pulling as much rank as I could. I also sent emails to lecturers in the Celtic Studies Department of the local university.
Instead of dwelling on our problems, sitting on the phone/by the laptop all morning, pleading and explaining, we resolved to do something useful. We drove down to Fishguard to see if we could speak to the Fisherman’s Wife.
We found the woman’s address, a beautiful two-story cottage on country road at the edge of town, very old it was, one of a kind. We parked out of sight and walked up. Standing at the gate, I wondered out loud how a fisherman could afford to live in a place like this, let alone a fisherman’s widow.
“Old family home, perhaps?” suggested Agent Squires.
“Maybe” I said. We were really just delaying the inevitable with chatter. I opened the garden gate. We went inside. We had tried contacting the woman beforehand. We had a name, Imelda Ifans. Whoever she was she didn’t have a social media profile but she did have a functioning email address, no answer, and a landline that rang out. Cold-calling was going to be hard but door-stepping even harder.
Knock, knock… We stood and waited, hands crossed in identical poses. Some kind of activity was going on inside.
I’d said earlier, when I knew we’d be calling unannounced, “we need to put on a show. If we can’t project sympathy we’ll have to use authority.” Agent Squires, a resourceful fellow, mocked up some laminate cards with plausible insignia and ID. I knocked again. There was a voice behind the door:
“Oh dear” it said, “please excuse me…” The door creaked open and a woman appeared. She was short, early middle-aged and jolly-looking, wearing splattered overalls. She flashed a quick smile, “can I help you gentlemen?” The Woman had an upper class accent. “Only we are rather busy at the moment…” They were. The house was full of men in similar work clothes, the sound of hammering, sawing and chatter, the smell of paint and fresh wood.
For a moment we were taken aback. She was almost certainly not who we were looking for. Even so I asked the Woman at the Door, “Mrs Ifans, we are here about an important…”
“No, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong address, sorry, goodbye” she said quickly and brightly. She started to close the door.
“Madam” said Agent Squires. He stepped forward and put his hand on the door. “We have the right address and we are here on a serious matter.” He brandished his badge. He was projecting authority, and it worked. The Woman stopped, almost froze. “We need to speak to Mrs Ifans urgently. It is a matter of national importance.”
“National importance…?” They were right words, or seemed to be. The Woman looked awed. She took a step back and let go of the door. Agent Squires did the same. Some of the men had stopped work and were watching.
“If she is no longer resident here then we would appreciate your help in…”
“I can help you there” said one of the Workmen, stepping forward. He was maybe late-twenties to early-thirties, with short, bleached hair. “Mrs Ifans used to own this place.” He had a local accent.
“Of course” said the Woman, half to me, half to her (presumably) employee. “The estate” she said, turning to us again, “my husband and I bought it last year in an auction. We’re just doing it up now” she added, smiling once more.
“She disappeared” said the Workman, “Mrs Ifans. My Ma knew her a bit, from the skittles club. She lost her husband at sea, quite a while ago now. Got over it, I suppose; kept on living here, like. Then, three years ago she walked out of the Royal Oak…”
“The Royal Oak…?” Agent Squires queried.
“The pub in town” said the Workman. He pointed at ‘town’ with his brush. He was almost standing next to the Woman. “Anyway, three years ago she walked home after the skittles club like, but never made it back. The police couldn’t find nothing, no body or anything. You don’t look like police” he added.
“We’re not police” I said. “What do you think happened?” I quickly asked.
“I don’t know” said the Workman. “But there’s a rumour. Some people say she walked into the sea. Police didn’t follow it up. I don’t know why.”
“That’s a shame” ” I said, shifting my weight, “thank you for your help.” It was time to go. I started walking back to the gate, but I underestimated the Young Man.
“Don’t just walk away, you said this was a matter of national importance. Who are you?” he said, following me. Agent Squires was about to speak. He’d overplayed our hand. I’d get us out of this one. I made the only play left, honesty.
“My name is Field Agent Burgin of the Department of Metaphysics, secret service” and flashed my badge. “We are here to investigate stories of undersea mermaid activity. Mrs Ifans referred in a blog post to the fact that her husband was lost at sea, presumed drowned, but had been revived and now lived under the ocean, periodically visiting his Wife…” While the Workman was looking at me I tugged at Agent Squires sleeve; time to go. “Thank you for your help” I said. “Have a good day.” We walked back to the car as quickly as we could. We had to get away while the Young Workman was bewildered enough.
I drove us back to Aberystwyth. Half the day had been wasted. I drove while Agent Squires made up for lost time, making and receiving phone calls about, well, I didn't really listen. He seemed to know what he was doing and I fell into a silent funk. I let the montage roll past, the grey/brown/green blur, the shifting plateau of the deep countryside in early spring, depressingly uniform. It lured me into not noticing how fast I was driving.
"Shit!" I saw a police car suddenly in the rear view mirror. I slowed immediately, in a guilty manner because the police car did not overtake. It followed us for another mile or so along the A-road until we reached a dual carriageway, when it pulled out and alongside. I remember groaning "oh no..."
"What is it?" Agent Squires asked. He was on the phone to somebody at the time.
"The police" I explained. "They want us to pull over." We slowed.
"Why do they want us to do that?" We stopped.
"We're going to find out" I said.
"Excuse me please, I have to go. Call you back... Yeah, thanks" said Squires to whoever it was on the phone. We waited. I collected myself, my thoughts. If it was just speeding well, I wasn't doing much more than five miles over. Just admit it, cooperate and nod.
"Hello there, Sir" said the officer who came to my window. "Can I see your licence please?" He could. He had an odd look, this officer, thin, pale, almost grey and very bald, little evidence of hair at all. He was smiling though, seemingly relaxed, a good start I thought. He browsed through my documents, making enough show of attention, before handing them back. "So, right, you were going a bit fast there, weren't you..." I was about to launch my apology when he added, "you weren't trying to escape from something, were you?"
"What, I mean...?"
"You've come all the way up from London" the Officer continued. "It's not often that happens, is it?" He cast the question to his colleague, who was also out of the car, lurking and frowning off somewhere. He didn't response. "We might overlook the little speeding-thing" said the First Officer, turning back to me, "it you wouldn't mind helping me with some things, you know, answer a few questions, like?" His smile dimmed for a second, down to business. Pause then "I was wondering, see, what all these calls I've been getting is. Folk from down the road getting all excited about two fellas doorstepping people and asking strange questions about mermaids and stuff...?" He grinned again, a goofy, disarming smile. Even so, I wasn't sure where to begin:
"The locals have been talking about nothing else..." the First Officer ploughed on. Really, I wondered, it had barely been an hour since we left. "Lady Murkwood was most confused, I had to reassure her nothing strange was going on."
"You wouldn't happen to be those fellas by any chance would you?" said the scowly Second Officer after sidling up to the window.
"We're secret service" said Agent Squires, leaning in, "Department of Metaphysics." He showed the pair our improvised, laminated ID. It seemed to work until the First Officer said:
"So you're here about the Ifans case? Terrible that was..."
"We're here on an investigation into number of unusual sightings and reports..."
"Mysterious too" said the First Officer to his partner.
I persisted, "we didn't know anything about the... case you mention until yesterday. I wasn't going to call it the Ifans case.
"That's odd" said the Second Officer, "only the DoM was all over it at the time, fat lot of good it did, they were mostly across purposes..." and he laughed acidly.
"Where are you fellas headed?" the First Officer asked.
"Back to Aberystwyth" said Agent Squires. "It's our, uh, base of operations I suppose."
"I know a detective down in Swansea who'll be able to help you" said the First Officer. His grin broadened further until it looked almost manic, inhuman. "Detective Morforwyn, yes, he ran the Ifans case from the police's side. Oh, he'll have plenty to say, I'll bet you anything. I'll see if he can come up and talk to you." All sorts of questions passed through my mind. "Don't worry" said the First Officer, as if responding. "Report to the desk at Aberwrystwyth tomorrow, middle of the afternoon, see if he's there." He started walking back to his car. "Otherwise" he said from over his shoulder, "he'll come and find you."
"But how?" I asked.
"He's a detective, you numbnut" the Second Officer. "He'll find you." He strode off as well. We watched the officers drive away before resuming.
"What was that all about?"
"Perhaps someone wants to give us a lead" said Agent Squires.
"But why didn't Head Office tell us about this?" I asked.
“Well…” said Agent Squires eventually, “do you want to know the good news?”
“Really” I said, carefully, “what’s that?”
“The Navy have got back to us…”
“The whole navy…?” I interrupted.
“There’s a base down in Devon” said Agent Squires, “with a minesweeping team. They’ve agreed to a loan of some equipment, sonar, boat, diving equipment, maps etc.”
“And…” Agent Squires hastened to add, “they are giving us two officers; a diver and a pilot, to help.”
I thought about it for a second. The road was empty; outside a misty, drizzly rain set in. I nodded, “not bad…” There was a slightly briny tint to the rain, though we were a few miles inland.
“They’ll be up and in contact tomorrow afternoon” said Squires.
“Then we have the rest of the day” I resolved. “You see if you can get through to Head Office. Meanwhile, we need to pay a visit to the University.”
There was no luck with Head Office. I said to Squires to ask specifically for Dr Kinch but the line was either busy or we got some sub-bureau stonewalling us. When got back to Aberystwyth it was raining hard. I’d not been to the university before. Its campus was mostly old, castle-like, built from light-brown sandstone. It stood out against the harsh, leaden sky. I knew some staff, researchers mostly, from conferences. We only had a few hours though. I wanted to speak to someone from the Celtic Studies department and check out the archives.
We made out case at a few offices and made, perhaps, good progress. It was half-term of course but here was a Professor Thomas on campus. We spoke to a woman who was his ‘secretary.’ She was a tall, imperious woman who dominated the shoebox office they’d given her, halfway up a tower, without ever getting out of her chair. She was able to talk and type too. I’d not heard of him before but I figured he must be an important man to have a secretary. She seemed reluctant but after laying down our full DoM credentials the Secretary relented. She said he’d be free at after five o’clock and we could meet him in his office. I said that would be wonderful and she tapped something into her PC. I pushed my luck a bit and asked could I get a pass to the reference library. She said no and suggested we get something to eat. The canteen was just downstairs.
The canteen was actually a franchise coffee shop. Disappointed and hungry (there wasn’t much on offer), Agent Squires huddled over coffee and chatted. Squires told me about how he was recruited to the Department. He said he was essentially pressganged.
A few years ago responded to what seemed like an innocent ARG, a set of online puzzles for people to solve using advanced cryptography, steganography. The unnamed people running the game apparently wanted to recruit “intelligent individuals” to their unknown cause. Agent Squires was a student back then so had lots of time to go treasure-hunting. He ended up in a pub in Greenwich near the Maritime Museum. A mysterious man walked up to him handed him a document with a GNU code and said:
“Please respond within 48 hours…”
“Respond to what?” I asked.
“That’s what I said!”
“What did you do?”
Agent Squires used the code to uncover a set of documents detailing a crucial state secret. The last of the files just said ‘please respond within 48 hours’ with an accompanying phone number.
“They were implicating me” said Agent Squires, “when the voice at the other end asked if I wanted to join the department I had to say yes.”
“And you don’t mind that?”
Agent Squires shrugged. “The pay’s good” he said. “It’s a good job, good money with promotion prospects. A lot of my friends are either pulling pints or unemployed right now. Of course it could have been a bluff” he said. “What about you?”
“Me?” I said. “I answered an ad in the Guardian. So…?” pause.
“What was the secret?”
“I could tell you” said Agent Squires.
“But you’d have to kill me” I said, laughing slightly.
“No” said Squires, deadpan, “someone from the Rogue Asset MTF would do that.”
“I see” I said.
“Excuse me” came a voice. It was Professor Thomas’s Secretary hovering over us with suppressed anxiety. “Follow me…” she whispered sharply. “Now…” I tried finishing my coffee. “Now…!” We stood up. She led us briskly up and out of the building, through the campus on a convoluted route, occasionally reminding us to “keep up!” It might not have been obvious to a casual observer but the Secretary was glancing around sharply, in way that seemed trained, a familiar way. She ignored us any time we asked what was going on.
“What is going on?” After having led us a merry dance she stopped suddenly and turned to us, glaring, accusing.
“What…?” We were under an archway, by a gnarled, old statue.
“I know why you’re here” she hissed. “Why has the Department sent field agents?”
“The, what…? Are you…?”
“We have successfully contained this anomaly for the past fifteen years” said the Woman, glancing around. I realised later why she picked this spot. We were at a long intersection and could see in four different directions with cover nearby.
“My team” said the Secretary.
“Wait a minute” said Agent Squires. “Are you Professor Thomas?”
“It doesn’t matter what I am I want to know what game you think you’re playing” said the Woman.
“How do you know who we are?” I asked.
“I told you, I have a team” said the Woman. “We do our job and we do it well.” She folded her arms, satisfied but defiant.
“In that case” I said, sensing a chance to needle, “why are we getting reports of mermen visiting their land-wives and weird things washing up in trawler nets?”
“If you have any information you will hand it over” said the Woman.
“Or what…?” I said.
The Woman seemed to notice something out the corner of her eye. She turned and started walking. “I’m warning you” she said from over her shoulder, “stay out of this.” Agent Squires started to follow but I restrained him.
“We have to follow her.”
“She’s warning us” I said. “That’s probably all she’ll do. Besides, we know where to find her if we have to. Come on…” I was then I noticed what the Woman must have seen, a group of students striding across the campus, clutching books and talking loudly. “Wait…” They passed us by without even acknowledging us. “Let’s try Head Office one more time” I suggested.
“Hello…” It was a hideous, synthesised voice. It was pleased to hear it though. “This is Doctor Kinch speaking.”
“That’s good” I said, “because one hand washes the other.”
“I fear nothing” said the Voice, completing the code phrase. It had taken half an hour of waiting on the phone and making bad noise whenever I spoke to someone but I got through to my Line Manager at last.
“We are in West Wales” I said, adding “we have set up and begun operations as planned.” Outside the rain was easing off.
“Good” said the Voice, “proceed as you were.”
“We have not yet received all documentation referring to the case” I said.
“There is no other documentation” said the Voice. “This is a new investigation. You shall proceed as you were.”
“But there are publically available examples referring to the phenomenon dating back decades, centuries even. We have even encountered someone claiming to be a DoM operative working on containment.”
There was a long pause then the Voice said “who is this alleged operative?”
“Professor Thomas” I said, “or his secretary, working at the local university in the Celtic Studies department.”
There was another long pause, until the voice “thank you. You will be reimbursed for all costs. Proceed as you were.”
“Good luck, Agent Burgin” said the Voice. Then the line went dead.
“What do we do now?” Agent Squires asked. A little sliver of evening sunshine was beginning to emerge. “This is complicated.”
“It’s a tangle” I said, “and we have to unravel it.” I sighed. “We’re committed I guess. I’m hungry Let’s make our last stop for the day.”
It had been an unsuccessful day. Things were even more confused, tantalising but confused. Our friends from the navy would be arriving the following day, as would Inspector Morforwyn. Maybe we could clean up the mystery then, maybe.
Agent Squires and I retired for the day. We went to where he was staying, a ludicrously plush hotel with a good restaurant and bar, to get something to eat. I’d been a fool all these years wanting to save on expenses. The food was good too. We were just having our plates cleared away when a concierge in a bright-grey suit approached our table.
“Sir, there is a message for you” and he held out a folded sheet for Agent Squires. “It was left with the reception earlier this afternoon.”
“Thank you” said Agent Squires. The Concierge hovered for a moment. He was a young man, clean shaven, with gelled hair, a thin, a little sallow closely and wearing fairly strong aftershave.
“Sorry…” said Agent Squires. The Young Man got his tip and scuttled away. Squires unfolded the paper.
“What does it say?”
The paper was lined, an A5 sheet from a notepad. The message said, “Poppit Sands Incident…” then there was a web address.
“Probably” said Agent Squires.
“This is a secret message…?”
“But handwritten” Agent Squires. He passed me the paper. “It could be the Concierge” he said. We looked around, he was long gone.
“Have you spoken to him?”
“Once” said Agent Squires, “just when I was arriving. He’s not a contact or anything.”
“It’s not headed notepaper either” I added. “Shall we check out the address?”
“I don’t see why not” I said, and fetched up the laptop from my travel bag. “Do they have Wi-fi here?”
“Of course” Agent Squires snorted.
Whoever made the site wasn’t going to win any design awards. It looked like a wiki-page, but there was no obvious way to edit it. It was an info dump, a set of links leading to PDF scans and digital photos, followed by a transcript of a conversation, under the heading:
“POPPIT SANDS INCIDENT – JANUARY 31ST, 2014.”
The transcript ran:
Researcher Byrd: Where did the incident take place?
Agent Thomas: On and around the area of Poppit Sands beach.
Byrd: When did it begin?
Thomas: The incident began approximately 15 minutes after dawn, which was at 7.07am Greenwich Mean Time, which would put it at around about twenty past seven. This and the fact it occurred out of the holiday season likely accounts for the lack of witnesses. The incident lasted for approximately 40 minutes.
Byrd: How did you learn of the incident?
Thomas: Police radio and twitter update. Two witnesses made 999 calls reporting what they had seen.
Byrd: When did Captain Jacket and yourself arrive on the scene?
Thomas: Shortly before 8am.
Byrd: Shortly after the incident finished?
Thomas: That’s right. We, uh, we did not see WA-1, although we did recover digital footage of the incident from one of the witnesses. It is fortunate that the nearest police station in Cardigan was not open at the time and the calls were diverted to Haverford West.
Byrd: How many witnesses were there?
Thomas: Seven known witnesses, three women, three men, one child, all of whom were detained, debriefed and given class B amnestics.
Byrd: How were they detained?
Thomas: I managed to commandeer a community hall at short notice. Four more people arrived on the scene after we did, summoned by the original witnesses. They were likewise detained. As of yet there no reports of the incident have reached the local or national media.
Byrd: Describe what happened.
Thomas: The incident began approximately 15 minutes after dawn. They, the witnesses, saw two humanoid figures emerging out of the sea near the Poppit Sands beach. The figures were dressed in spacesuits similar to the ones worn by the Apollo astronauts.
“Quick” I said, “find that man, the Concierge.” Agent Squires leapt into action. I continued reading.
Thomas: [continued…] The astronauts stepped onto the beach, near the northern end. One individual collected samples of various things, rock, sand, plants etc, while the other appeared to take photographs. They also planted a flag, a Celtic cross, gold on purple, which Capital Jacket later identified as The Cross of Neith.
Byrd: What’s that?
Thomas: The flag used by Princes of the Aberffraw dynasty, the last rulers prior to English annexation… and a plaque in the sand. The pair moved on from the beach, into a nearby field, where they continued their survey. They were approached by a local farmer, a short encounter that drew no response from the astronauts, save for them withdrawing to the sea shortly after. The farmer described the figures inside the suits as being human-like, with dark eyes and silvery skin. Their suits were apparently filled with water. The flag and plaque were quickly recovered. The plaque was small, heavy, made from a metal alloy and engraved with two phrases, one in a language seemingly derived from ancient proto-Welsh, the other in English. It read: “In the name of the Kingdom of the Lowland Hundred we shall return and claim this land.”
Byrd: Thank you.
Agent Squires returned, almost bounding across the room. “He’s gone” he half-shouted, “finished his shift, but I know where we can find him.”
“What… how…?” I jabbered.
“He’s called James” said Agent Squires, “he’s a student at the university, probably IT and he’s probably going to the Frogman’s Ball tonight.
“I don’t know what it is either but look at the bottom of the page.” I did. The paper was torn at the top. I could see the lower half of what could have been frogman’s ball. “It’s a student thing, apparently, though they hold it off campus.
“Oh, aye…? So how’d you get his name?”
“I asked at the desk” said Squires, grinning.
“OK, I didn’t have anything planned for these evening. Let’s go see what the Frogman’s Ball is like.”
We couldn’t really see much. It was in a community hall on the far side of town, near the shore. We could see it and hear it and smell it again. We decided on a stakeout. We wanted to speak to this young man, James Celliers, to give him his full name, not anyone else. We were in the middle of something complicated. That much was obvious. Someone, somewhere along the line was withholding information. The only way out was to get to the bottom of it all and keep a low profile. That was the idea.
But there wasn’t much getting to the bottom with the Frogman’s Ball. Neither of us had done a stakeout before. We parked up as close as we dared, about fifty yards down the road, still feeling exposed and obvious while sitting in the dark. We didn’t see young James arrive. What we did see was a steady trickle of mostly young people, excited and noisy, pour into the hall. Muffled disco leaked through the walls, into the night. The lights in the hall were blazing away. When our legs got too stiff and/or we realised we weren’t doing much good we took a couple of strolls up and down the pavement, past the hall. There was security at the event, men presumably, bouncers wearing diving suits. If that didn’t look odd enough (we were in a residential area) after glancing inside I could see revellers wearing bright red caps. Nothing much came out when we took pictures though.
“Perhaps James wasn’t meant to be here? Perhaps he meant us to see this?”
“Because of a torn fragment of paper…?” Agent Squires queried. “I doubt it… Then again…” he seemed to reconsider. “Don’t worry” said Agent Squires. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll get him tomorrow, and the Professor. This is a small town.”
“That depends on when the diving crew get here” I said.
Thanks to the Frogman's Ball I almost missed closing time at the B&B again. The Landlady was waiting for me, scowling a little ironically this time it felt:
"Here comes the straggler, just in time." She handed me my key. "You look like you could use some rest" she added.
"Thank you, I, uh..." I realised the Landlady was wearing a small red, flapper girl-style hat. I said "I like your hat." It didn't really go with what she was wearing though, comfortable clothes, pastel colours.
"Thank you" said the Landlady, not seeming at all pleased. "I'm going out later."
"I see" I said. I didn't. "Good night."
Upstairs, in my room I took precautions. I knew basic self-security. All Field Agents are shown bug-sweeping, trap-setting, how to build a fall-back in orientation. Now I had to remember. I checked everywhere I could for recording devices. I put a chair against the door and sprinkled some broken glass on the floor, I'd have to remember that in the night, the checked the lock on the skylight. I didn't have any weapons on me, I wouldn't have been much use with a gun or a taser anyway, but I had a crowbar. I kept it under my bed.
My mind was a whirl of possibilities. It was difficult to fall asleep in such circumstances. I didn't want to be here anymore. Something was up. I was part of something. It felt like an elaborate deception, but what? I lay awake for some time. The weather had cleared. Moonlight filtered into my room from above. It felt like hours. Slowly my mind started to ease. I was just on the point of dropping off when I heard a scratching, thumping sound from the roof. I realised suddenly. I looked up in shock. There was a face, a hairless, grey face, a man wearing a cap. It was the First Policeman, the one who spoke to us on the A-Road, glaring at me through the skylight. I scrabbled for crowbar, falling out of bed. Then I came to, sitting up with a jolt. I looked up; heart pounding. The Man was gone. The sky was overcast. It was 2am. I had fallen asleep but now I was really troubled.
I had a phone call just after six, rendezvous 08:00 hours. The MoD was on their way. We would have to smarten up, quickly. Agent Squires and I would also have to divide our time. We met up, early, in the same café as yesterday. I was bleary, grey as the morning. Agent Squires seemed fresh as a pink edged daisy. We agreed he would get down to the police station, make himself known so Detective Morforwyn could find us. Squires would also get on to head office. Needed to find and sequester Professor/Agent Thomas, find out just exactly what was going on. Meanwhile I would have to meet the guys from the MoD.
Down at the marina, our help had arrived.
“Sub Lieutenant Sarah Corrigan, minesweeper…” Shake hands and a nod. “Lieutenant Commander Michael Moore, pilot…” Shake hands again with a smaller nod this time. I knew their names and their roles but was a bit stuck for something to say. “Thank you for coming” I said. Neither responded, they just looked at me. The Sub Lieutenant smiled a bit. “It’s much appreciated” I added.
“Good” said the Lieutenant Commander.
“So, what’s the plan?” Sub Lieutenant Corrigan asked. She was the younger of the two, maybe early-thirties, cropped blonde hair. She clapped her hands. “What has the DoM got us out here doing?”
“Did you read the brief…?” I asked, immediately regretting it.
“Of course we did” the Lieutenant Commander shot back. He paused. His face, which was oddly craggy and immobile for someone in their forties, shifted a little. “It’s just…” He visibly considered his words. “It’s rather unusual…” He had a deep, stern, upper-class voice.
“I’ll explain as we go, perhaps…?” I said, diffident. “It’s going to be a bit of an unusual day. We’ve got a berth reserved at the marina.”
“Good” said LC Moore. He patted the boat they had brought with them, stacked on the back of a trailer, evidently proud.
“But first” I said, “you’re going have to teach me how to dive.” This prompted laugher and some eye-rolling. They taught me though.
We were able to use a bit of cloud down at a local swimming pool. It was a weekday, not too busy, but I was able to flash some credentials and a fair bit of money. It took over an hour to clear the pool. We talked for a while, the three of us. I quizzed them mostly about military life, not much in common there, but I wanted to get onto some personal basis. I wanted to know if I could trust them. I had to trust them in any case.
Corrigan was more talkative than Moore. She was the diver, he was he pilot. I learned that much. She told me a little about minesweeping in the Gulf of Iran. I didn't know there were mines in the Gulf of Iran.
“Some of them were left behind during the war thirty years ago.”
“Thirty years ago?”
“Iraq/Iran” Corrigan explained.
“Yeah...” But that was the end of that.
We went over the basics of the case as well, the facts a least, everything except for the confusion of motives. They seemed to take it all in. Moore seemed a bit put out when I said I'd be doing the ocean survey. But we got to the end of that fairly quickly. In desperation I tried ringing Agent Squires. His phone was off. It was concerning, but there was nothing I could do.
Learning to dive was easy, easy in that it was impossible. The equipment was cumbersome, difficult to get into, Corrigan had to help me. We went through how the equipment works, the basics of hand signals, the dangers and how to avoid them, specifically decompression sickness and nitrogen narcosis. It was finally time to go under. I couldn't do it. I had to breathe through my mouth but I kept surfacing. It felt so unnatural. It felt even stranger when Corrigan resorted to holding me under the water, grinning and giving me mostly indecipherable encouragement from above.
“You can do it. It's easy just breathe.”
After much effort I managed to keep my head under and eventually struggle slowly across the bottom of the pool. LC Moore watched this, silent, disgusted but probably also amused.
We had two hours. We needed more time but it would have to do. We had to find Agent Squires.
Agent Squires wasn’t at the police station. Detective Morforwyn wasn’t there either and, according to the Desk Sergeant, was never going to be there either.
“I remember him” said the Sergeant. He was another bald, pale man, portly though, with jowls like flabby gills. He was friendly enough but something bothered me. “Poor sod died, how long ago was it?” he asked one of his colleagues, lurking, apparently in the backroom, though I couldn’t them. There was no answer. He didn’t seem to mind though. He turned back to me. “It must have been two or three years ago now. Heart attack I think it was. No surprise though, he went a bit funny at the end…”
“A funny case, it made him a bit odd. Obsessed he was. What was it now?”
“The Ifans case” I offered.
“I think that was that was it?” the Sergeant asked the door. Again there was no response.
“That’s right” I said, “but, um, how do you know about it?”
The Desk Sergeant seemed to struggle for a moment. “Oh, um, well… It was quite a famous case you see, a mystery. See it looked like straightforward insurance fraud. The boat was owned by someone on land. The crew were just employees getting wages, not shares. But no one could get to the bottom of who owned the ship…”
“You seem to know a lot about the case” I said.
“You hear things” the Desk Sergeant shrugged.
“You do indeed…”
The Sergeant seemed to ignore my dig. “It was a bit of a mystery. Anyway, the case went cold for a while but things got really strange when, later on, his widow disappeared and our Detective’s back interviewing people left, right and centre. He caused a bit of a fuss up at the university if I remember right…?” There was still no answer from the door. “It was all a bit of a mystery.” He seemed to like mysteries. “So, anyway, what organisation did you say you were from?”
“Department of Metaphysics” I said.
“Not heard of that before” said the Sergeant, grinning amiably.
“We deal in mysteries” I said. I showed him some ID. “My name is Agent Burgin. I asked a colleague of mine, Junior Agent Squires to meet Detective Morforwyn here this… well, today.”
“I’ve not met this colleague and our Detective’s dead now. Couldn’t make the funeral, such a shame, I would have liked to have gone.”
There wasn’t really time to stop and chat. Corrigan and Moore were setting up the boat for me. I gave my excuses and headed off. On my way to the harbour I tried ringing Squires, still no luck but I did manage to get through to his answerphone. I left a message, antsy but polite: where are you, call me ASAP, etc. By this point it was midday. I was in for a long, boring afternoon.
Everything was settled. We headed about a mile out in Moore’s boat (as it was fast becoming) before we began the sonar search. I had it set up similar to ground radar, two emitters attached to either side of the ship and one receiver at the stern so, hopefully, we would get a good 3D picture. The boat was good, a flat-hull designed to go fast, though on this occasion we would have to take it easy.
We scanned the seabed using the shoreline as a frame of reference. We had a computer on board recording data but also converting it into an image. Corrigan and I watched as it spooled on and on. The weather was good, mild enough with no rain. The sea was fairly calm, a small swell with an occasional spray. Moore was taciturn but I chatted every now and then with Corrigan.
“You’d think we’d know what was on the bottom of the ocean” I wondered idly.
“Not really” said SL Corrigan, “there’s a lot of undiscovered country down there. A lot of maps are perfunctory. It’s not as if you need to know much, reefs, sandbars and so on; things for a ship to avoid.”
“That must be why you like diving” I offered.
“Maybe” Corrigan shrugged, “I suppose, that and the peace and quiet. Hey, can you see that?”
I could. It was a long cluster of cuboid objects. “Amazing… If what you’re saying is true…” said Corrigan, “it might be more uncharted than we think.”
I got a phone call about an hour and a half into our search. “Hello…” I didn’t know it was on. I didn’t think there would be reception out there.
“It’s me.” It was Agent Squires.
“Where are you, you were supposed to meet Detective Morforwyn?”
“I can’t do that now, can I?”
“I used my initiative” said Agent Squires, “and dropped in on the Professor unannounced…” There was a short, accusing science. “We should have followed her” said Agent Squires, sounding anguished at his first instance of dissent.
“Maybe” I said, “but what happened?”
“I don’t know, aneurysm, stroke, something…” It was a bit melodramatic I thought, conveniently scripted. Then I realised the tone of fear in Squires voice. “I found her like that in her office, collapsed. Next thing you know they’ve bundled her into an ambulance and me into a police car. We followed it down to Withybush…”
“Hospital, in Haverfordwest” said Agent Squires. “The police have just let me go. I’m not sure if they bought my story. They might be looking for you now.”
I gave it some thought. “Have you got the car?”
“No...” it was a silly question.
“Get a taxi” I said, “the police are nothing to worry about. Well…” I almost reconsidered. “We’re running out of options on land, there’s one more place we need to go, but I think we’ve found something out here.”
“What, what is it?”
“We'll see...” I said. “We'll see... Just get back as soon as you can.”
“Do you know why scuba divers jump backwards into the water?”
“Because if they jumped forwards they’d smack their head on the deck,” SL Corrigan smiled. She then bit down on her mouthpiece and fell backwards into the water with a graceful splosh.
It helped calm my nerves a bit, though not enough. I hesitated though I knew what I had to do. We’d come back to the spot we’d found earlier, the sprawl of unusual shapes found down below. I looked around, at the sea, the sky, the thin blur of land to the east. Moore wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention. Corrigan surfaced again after a moment. She looked at me as if to say ‘come on.’ I did as I was bidden. I took a deep breath, put my goggles on, clamped down on my breather and fell backwards.
Despite the humour, despite my training, despite my dry-suit it was still a shock entering the water. I had to get used to my breathing equipment all over again. I also had to adjust to the new visibility. We were diving in Cardigan Bay not a swimming pool. We could see ten metres at most. I would have to stick close to Corrigan for the duration.
The training kicked in and overcame the panic. It wasn’t that far down. We soon found what we were looking for. The murk cleared and we saw a network of stone huts, a village under the sea, and shapes moving between them. It was not an abandoned village, it was a living one.
The grey-green gloomy world below resolved. It was incredible. It looked exactly like a village under the waves, with houses, roads and streetlamps (though they weren’t on). We were about five metres over the rooftops, treading water. For a moment I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t actually thought this far ahead. We didn’t even have a camera on us. I signalled to head down. We swam along a road for a while, which was paved, there were occasional objects on the side of the road, they looked like a cross between a torpedo and a pedalo. We saw gardens with underwater flora. The houses were numbered.
The village seemed empty. There were windows, curtains and, finally faces. I saw one, a woman it seemed to me, peering out, looking at something, not us. Over the road I spotted someone, a male-looking silhouette tending to a small patch of seaweed stretching up from his garden. He looked at me, right at me, then turned away indifferent. It was odd. It kept happening as we explored. We saw men, women and even children, grey-skinned natives of the Welsh Atlantis, each wearing a bright red, tight-fitting cap. The aliens had landed, we had arrived, but no one seemed to care. One of the torpedo-pedalos approached us and passed. They were a kind of vehicle. It was all too odd.
The natives moved with grace. They swam around is, paying no regard. Their clothes were similar to what people would wear in land, thinner perhaps, less florid and more tightfitting. We were conspicuous, frothing, bubbling and struggling in our suits. We swam some more. We saw what looked like municipal buildings, a shop perhaps, with people heading in and out, carrying bags and signs, pictures and words and numbers, adverts presumaby. We saw low, long building with parents and children milling about in a yard outside, a school, it must have been the end of the day. A little native child swam up to us.
It was androgynous-looking, a boy perhaps. He or maybe was swimming along with his/her mother across the other side of the road, holding hands. I assume it was their mother. The child saw us and broke loose. He/she seemed to be about five. The child swam up to me and smiled. A brace of bubbles came from its gills. Its eyes were dark-black. Its teeth were silver-grey and sharp like claws. I panicked, recoiled and tried to swim away but the child followed me, playfully. It was making some kind of gesture at me and grinning its evil-looking grin again. Eventually the child’s mother caught up and tugged it away. I signalled to Corrigan it was time to surface.
I came up into air. The swell had grown somewhat. For a moment I could not see our boat, which inflamed my panic even more. Then SL Corrigan surfaced next to me. She took out her breather and yelled:
“What was that?”
“That was the village, it…”
“What were you doing” she continued, “you surfaced too quickly, are you alright?”
Only then did I realise I wasn’t. There was a sudden hard cramp in my right thigh. It worked its way up to my lower back. “Ah shit!” Another surge of panic; for a moment it felt like I was being pulled down. “It’s got me
“Newbies…” Corrigan managed, somehow, in this situation to roll her eyes. “Let me help you.” She swam up to me. “Where does it hurt?”
“Leg…” I said.
“Which bit, you daft bastard?”
“Hold on…” Corrigan put her breather back on, dived under and started massaging my leg, though it felt like being punched. I heard the sound of a motor. Moore had spotted us and was heading our way. He stopped and we climbed back on board.
I was out of breath, gasping and clutching my leg. Corrigan filled in for me.
“We found it” she said. “We found an underwater city with mer-people and red caps. It’s all there.”
“Astonishing” said Moore. He actually looked astonished as well.
“Then Office-Boy here blew it and surfaced” said Corrigan with a snort. “Sorry, you don’t like being called ‘Office-Boy?’” I didn’t. “Sorry, Professor here blew it, flipped his lid and came up too quickly. Come on” she added, “I’ve seen worse. Let’s get it out of you.” Corrigan started bashing my leg again.
Back on land, safe, my leg and back pummed free of pain, everything had changed. Both Corrigan and Moore were enthused. They wanted to go back out again as soon as possible. There might have been a chance. There was about two and a half good hours of sunlight left but I called it a day. I knew the bigger picture, a bigger picture. I still didn't know what was going on and I had one last shot at finding out.
“Agent Burgin...” I got through to Dr Kinch almost straight away. “You have a report...” still the same strange, modulated voice.
“Yes, I, uh, we found it...”
“You have located the anomaly?”
“That's correct” I said.
“You have photographic evidence?”
I sighed. I should have brought an underwater camera. Then again evidence for what, who was I supposed to prove it to? “No...” There was a pensive pause:
“Coordinates and dimensions?”
“Yes, I do...” I said, “and sonar data.” I was about to give it all over the phone.
“Please don't, Agent...”
“Sorry...” I was forgetting basic procedure, standing there on the quay in my drysuit.
“Make the secure document transfer as soon as you are able” said Dr Kinch, his/her distortion modulated even lower than before.
“Of course” I said, “but there are a few loose ends to tidy up. Junior Agent Squires is out of town pursuing a...”
“Agent Squires has been withdrawn from the case” Dr Kinch interrupted.
“What's happened to... is he OK...?” A long pause, then:
“Agent Squires is well” Kinch's voice was harsh. “He is no longer required.”
“He has been essential to a line of enquiry that...”
“He is no longer required for your investigation” said Doctor Kinch. The line oozed static chill.
“Where is he?”
“He is being brought to HQ for debriefing. You will please send the relevant data on your discovery by approved secure channels then wait for further instructions.”
“There is one more witness I need to speak to.”
“ You will please send the relevant data on your discovery by approved secure channels then await further instructions.” Dr Kinch then rang off.
I wasn’t going to have that. I don’t think Corrigan or Moore would have particularly understood. Why drop the case now? I had been run ragged by… whoever it was running these events seemingly for my benefit. The first thing I did was try to contact Agent Squires. I got nothing. The number I had for him didn’t even ring out. Perhaps I’d been taken in by him as well. It was as if we weren’t supposed to find whatever it was we were supposed to find. What had we found? The natives’ indifference surprised me.
It surprised Corrigan too. Both she and Lieutenant Commander Moore dwelt on it at length. They wanted to talk about it with me.
“This is supposed to be first contact, right” said Corrigan as we were packing away on the marina. “We’re supposed to be the Martians.”
“Perhaps they’ve encountered humanity before” said Moore. He was a totally transformed man with a completely different demeanour, almost childlike. He looked to me for an answer.
“They haven’t, I mean…
“I don’t know…” I said. “There’s nothing on record” which was possibly untrue. “I don’t know what’s going on…” which was more like it.
They wanted me to come with them, regroup, get something to eat and presumably talk some more. I managed to placate them by insisting we would go back first thing in the morning. I wanted to get away. I had some data to send and one last person to find.
I went back to the hotel, Agent Squires hotel, formerly, and asked at the desk for James. It turned out he wasn’t due on shift until after the weekend. It made my job a bit harder but at least he wasn’t daft enough to turn up to work. I decided he was probably on the campus somewhere. It was as good a place as any to look, and I really did look.
Though I steered clear of Professor Thomas's office I still probably threw caution to the wind. I asked around all the departments, no luck, especially with IT. I managed to find a Facebook account that looked like him. I even uploaded a fairly good picture, printed it off a few times at an internet cafe: “have you seen this man?” Nobody had. Darkness turned. It was getting futile. I after a while I had to scarper. I was being followed by a security guard. It was a bust. The means to investigate any of this was disappearing fast. There was nothing left to do but return to the B&B and await further instructions.
I got in my car. It would be a short drive back, or so I thought. Something had changed in this quiet town. The roads were busy, clogged even. There had been a strange atmosphere People were milling around the town centre. The campus had been fairly rowdy with clots of students forming at odd points, loud chatter, some drunkenness, some play-fighting, the smell of weed sifting here and there. In town I saw men dressed as knights galloping around (pretending to) on mops, zig-zagging through traffic. I saw billboard adverts splattered with Celtic crosses. On one corner a man dressed as an astronaut handed out leaflets to passers-by. It was as if a weird festival was underway. Of course there were red caps everywhere.
I got back to the B&B eventually. The Landlady was waiting for me as before though this time she seemed happy.
“Nos da, Professor Burgin” she smiled benignly. For a second I wondered how she knew my name, such was my confusion and paranoia. “You’re early tonight.” She handed me my key. I looked behind her on the rack. There were lots of keys remaining.
“I need to get some rest” I said.
“Good luck with that” said the Landlady. I was preoccupied and didn’t realise what she might have meant until later.
I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep. I was fairly isolated, up in the attic room. I thought it through. I expected someone to come for me. Too many folk were disappearing, people who knew or knew something about what was going on. What was going? I couldn’t help it. I secured my room. I sat up in a chair, or tried to, clutching my crow bar and waited, thoughts scanned through my mind like a montage. I kept trying to reconcile the detective with the policeman with the fisherman and his with then bring in the professor with the student with the Poppit Sands Incident and the Frogman’s Ball and, of course, the village, all into one connected narrative. It wouldn’t go. Something had to be false. I’d take one element out, maybe two, but each element was necessary as well. Someone wanted to reveal the village. Someone else wanted it to be covered up.
With a parade of thoughts inside, outside I realised there was a parade of noises. Even with the skylight closed I realised I could hear shouts, screams and other sounds, rattling and crashing. I checked my watch. It had been a few hours since I settled into my room. I couldn’t resist. I shifted my bed to climb up to the skylight and put my head out.
The night sky was clear. It was cool. In front of my eyes I could see rooftops, streetlights and the black bay. I could smell the sea again, an instant, strong hit, and I could hear voices, shouting in a language I couldn’t understand, sometimes ecstatic and sometimes fearful. There were loud musical blips, the sound of waves crashing from impossible directions. I heard tires screeching, boots trampling and then a sharp, loud rattling sound. Was that? I ducked in fear. Was that gunfire? Surely it was not. The sounds stopped for a moment. Then they resumed. I could hear low, booming noises and what seemed like bursts of light. I looked out again. The sounds came from far out in the black bay, deep, dim lights flashed. I couldn’t tell if this was happening above or below the horizon. Was it thunder or something else?
The chaotic noise on land eventually resumed. The sounds became long and monotonous. I got back down off the bed, closed the window, resumed my old pose and tried to stay awake.
I got a call a little after seven in the morning. I came to, looked around the room and picked up the phone:
“Hello…?” I was still here. Everything seemed to be in its right place.
“Dr Kinch, Sir…”
“Madam” said Dr Kinch. There was a pause. Even she seemed to be taking in the significance. “Agent Burgin” she resumed. “Please assemble your team and return to the coordinates sent in the packet yesterday. Please acquire visual contact of the target. Afterwards please report your observations to me…” Pause. “Good luck, Agent Burgin.”
Back on the marina, 9am, I ‘assembled my team.’ Corrigan and Moore were bright and enthusiastic. I asked them both, tentatively, about the ‘noises last night.’
“What noises?” asked Moore.
“You didn’t hear any noises” I said, “last night, banging and crashing outside…”
“I don’t know about Corrigan” said Moore, “but I slept really well.” SL Corrigan shrugged as if to agree.
“Where did you stay?” I asked.
“The hotel up the road” said Corrigan, meaning the one where Agent Squires stayed. “You look shattered…” she added. “Are you going to be OK?”
“I’m sure” I said. “Come on, let’s set up.”
We went out to yesterday’s spot, as close as we could manage. Corrigan dived first again. I watched her down, took a brief look again at the horizon and the sky. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, windy but sunny. I did not hesitate this time. I was not afraid. I clamped down on my breather and fell backwards with aplomb. I was an old hand at it now.
The water was still murky, perhaps a little more so, like a dirty, cold lime-green soda. We had to pick our way down carefully. Down we went. The floor seemed deeper this time. It took more than a minute but we found the bottom. There was nothing, no life, no mermaids, no village and no buildings, just rubble in dark piles, craters and rays, clotted weeds, scraps of grey cloth and rolling sand.
It all fell into place down there, at the bottom of this grey world, this shattered world. We followed together, Corrigan and I. We explored the wreckage until we came to a pyramid of detritus, odd wreckage about twenty metres high, consisting of helmets, wires, tanks, harpoons and swords and a flag, a Celtic cross, gold on purple. We had not discovered anything new at all. We had been scouts, unknowing, in the midst of a war, a secret war.
After just over three-quarters of an hour we made our way back to the boat. Climbing back inside was difficult. We were both exhausted and shocked and there was a sharp swell now. The wind had got up. Before either of us could speak Moore pointed to something on the horizon. “We better get back” he said.
“What…?” I was confused until I saw a huge, dark cloudbank blooming quickly in the west.
“A storm’s coming…”
Of course it was.
Picture from here.