THE UNIVERSAL

by Tony Richards

 

I know now why they chose to put it there. The landscape hid it. The very soil and grass conspired to keep their secrets.

At the end of the street I had moved onto was an undeveloped, windswept hill, the foot of which marked the boundary of town. I didn’t bother going there at all, my first week in Birchiam-on-Sea. It looked rather steep and desolate, and I already had plenty on my hands. Getting my belongings unpacked, trying to make my bungalow look like a proper home. Finding my bearings around this new district, the location of the shops and public transport. Getting to know my neighbors.

But by the end of that first week, I was in the mood to stretch my legs and my horizons a little.

The hill turned out to be everything that it had looked from a distance. Demanding, forlorn, and abandoned. Nobody had tried to build a home or anything else up here. Not a brick or a stick or a telephone pole. Grass about a foot long hissed around me in the salty breeze.

And the gradient was mercilessly steep, so that my legs began to ache after a while of climbing. I was fifty-seven and had taken early retirement recently. My wife and I had separated six years back. There was a spare room in my new place, for my grown-up son when he might visit.

I had lived in London my entire life, up until that point. And worked -- for most of the adult part of it -- in the science department of a TV news show. I wasn’t the fellow who appeared before the cameras -- I simply researched everything that that guy said.

There were no seagulls wheeling overhead, I noticed. And you tended to see them in the skies over most parts of Birchiam, which was odd. But I was still fairly fit, and forced myself to keep on going till I reached the top.

And there it was below me. A building I hadn’t even known existed.

It was on a craggy promontory, the gray sea churning beyond it. The waves caught the weak daylight and reflected it in such a way that the building simply looked like a black outline. Then I blinked several times, my eyes adjusting, and the thing came into focus.

Some kind of enormous bunker on three stories. There were no windows, not even slits in the concrete walls the way a military construct might have. Maybe they were on the far side, facing seaward.

And it looked to be surrounded, on its land side, by a massive barbed wire fence. Salt grasses grew beyond the barrier, right up to the edges of the structure. And leading down into the water past it were huge jagged boulders, so profuse and tightly packed they looked impossible to cross. Whoever had built this place had wanted to keep people out.

There was an area inside the fence that looked like it had been intended as a car park. But there were no cars there, weeds had cracked the asphalt up. There was a guard’s booth by the gate, but no one in it. Nothing moved.

Off to the left, I thought I could make out a length of rusted small gauge railway track. It came from nowhere, went nowhere, and was heavily overgrown as well.

Faintly intrigued, I started making my way down.

And I was halfway down the slope when something very curious appeared to happen.

As I’d said, there were no gulls above me. I could see them cruising in the distance, off in the direction of the ruined pier. None of them were coming near this place. But then a magpie flew in from the west.
Landed on the building’s roof.

And seemed to vanish.

Perhaps the angle I was looking from, the glitter of the sea, were playing tricks with my eyes?

And that was proven to be the case, a moment later. A bird of the same size came flapping away from the building, heading back inland. But it lifted from the far side of the roof I’d seen the magpie land on. And it looked, to my gaze, to be wholly black, no white or sapphire patches visible.

It was moving too fast to be entirely sure.

I pursed my lips, and then continued down.

 

#

 

As I got closer, I began to notice how disheveled the place was. The concrete walls had those blackened swathes that look as if there’s been a fire, but are actually the product of the filth we’ve spewed into the air for decades. There were dandelions everywhere. And gathered up against the fence were crumpled plastic snack bags, candy wrappers, the silver paper and the polythene from cigarette packs, soggy sheets of old newspaper. The winds must have carried them all here, the fence trapping them like a net. My step became a little warier. This looked like the kind of place you might encounter rats.

The fence wasn’t barbed wire, as it turned out. It was razor wire. I could see a signpost hanging from it.

MINISTRY OF DEFENCE. KEEP OUT.

I moved up to it, staring at the building. It was truly huge, the size of the big supermarket down the road, but taller. There really was not a single window. And no visible doorway either, just the top of a flight of steps out front, which looked like they led downward.

What had the MoD been doing here? This whole place looked impenetrable.

Something moved on the ground in front of me, making my gaze dart abruptly down. But it was not a rat, it was a crab. I’d never seen one come this far inland, so maybe it was lost.

It was the general size and shape of the lid of a coffeepot, except a sickly mottled green. Its claws were disproportionately large for its body. It kept one curled beside its shoulder, and held the other one out like a jazzman with his saxophone. And it was moving across the grass with a steady, almost purposeful air.

It was neither lost nor purposeful, I finally decided. It was just plain stupid, and was headed nowhere.

I was about to look away from it, when it disappeared behind a broad-leafed dandelion and…

And nothing.

It did not emerge.

And the dandelion wasn’t large enough to fully hide a creature of that size for very long.

I took my glasses off, rubbed at my eyes. And when I put them on again, there were two dandelions on the spot that I’d been staring at. No crab at all.

Maybe age was getting to my eyesight worse than I had thought.

Something else caught my attention a few moments later. And this time, it was a noise, that of a diesel engine coming up behind me. A navy blue Range Rover was approaching me along a bumpy gravel track. I thought that I could make out two men in the front seats, and could hear ferocious barking from the back.

The car stopped about a hundred yards off. The doors came swinging open and both men got out.

They were in their early thirties, topping six foot tall and powerfully built. They both sported moustaches and cropped haircuts, and were dressed like they were going hunting -- boots, blue jeans, plaid shirts and sleeveless padded jackets.

The man who had been driving was now dangling a six-pack of what looked like beer from one clenched hand. He leant against the hood. The other went to the rear of the vehicle, opened the tailgate and hauled out a pair of enormous Dobermans on thick chain leashes. And the dogs immediately started howling at me, straining angrily in my direction.

The man with the beer simply yanked loose a can, tugged at the ring-pull, took a heavy swig. Then stared across at me and called out, “You all right there, granddad?”

Who were these people with their furious animals? It was likely they were just a pair of thugs who came here for the sake of it. Whatever, this had become no place to hang around any longer. So I headed back towards my home, going as steadily but quickly as I could.

My mind was working, all the same. I’d already decided I might ask around a bit, and find out what this building had once been.

 

#

 

“Trevon Point Research Facility,” I was told. “I worked there from ’72 till when it was closed down in ’79.”

Someone at the Fox and Hounds pub, on the corner of my street, had directed me to an old regular called Reggie Trunch. That place? He can tell you all about it.

And now Reg and I were sitting in the beer garden out back, despite the blustery weather. Reggie was a heavy smoker, and he didn’t like to stop inside.

He was hunched over in a metal chair, rolling up a fresh cigarette. His overcoat looked too large for him, and his sparse gray hair kept flapping in the wind.

“What was being researched?” I asked.

“Whole variety of stuff,” he told me. “Separate departments, none of them supposed to know what the other one was doing.” He blinked at me with very pale and watery blue eyes. “But you’d be surprised how hard it is to keep secrets with the same people working in the same building for years. Towards the end, I knew a lot.”

He pinched the loose end of his smoke and then applied a flame. I waited.

“Some of it was genetics,” he went on. “One department, mind-altering drugs. Yet another one, psychology would you believe?”

“The MoD was into that?”

“Yeah.” And he shrugged. “This was, to the casual observer, silly stuff. Cold War, scooby-dooby, secret squirrel stuff. But all of it approached with deadly seriousness, like the future of the entire nation might well be at stake.”

“And you?”

“I was never told what the real point of it was,” Reg explained. “But, during the time that I worked there, I saw several thousand subjects passing through our lab. My job was to show them cards with different symbols on them, give them tests involving blindfolds, and then record the results.”

That sounded like…

“Testing for psychic ability, yeah,” Reg agreed. “I figured that out in the first five minutes. I was just a humble lab tech though, and being well paid. So I did what was required of me and kept my trap shut.”

My initial astonishment had transformed to a stunned feeling. And my mind had slowed down enough that I had to hunt around for my next question.

“What do you think they were trying to achieve?”

“Personally? I think they were trying to make a better spy.”

“Don’t you mean ‘train’?” I asked.

“No. Make.”

Reg sucked in smoke, then grinned at me with yellow teeth. He was being slightly enigmatic, but I could still see his point.

“What closed it down?” I asked him.

And it turned out to be either the right question or the wrong one, because all the humor vanished from his face.

“The project leader -- a Professor Marsters -- disappeared one night, apparently. And that was the end of it, all at once. A bunch of suits turned up from the Ministry. A good number of them struck me as being spooks. We were shut down and turfed out of there inside three hours. They were padlocking the front doors while I was still walking to the gate.”

A whole big place like that, shut down because of the disappearance of one person? That wasn’t merely peculiar -- it didn’t make any sense.

Reggie tipped his head to one side, took another draw of smoke, then told me, “I’d say bugger all at Trevon Point made sense.”

So I pressed him about this Professor Marsters. It turned out that Reg had never spoken to the man, and had only ever seen him some dozen times in all his years at the facility.

“Completely bald and with a hugely bulbous forehead, like some alien,” he said. “His lab was in the basement of the place -- we called it ‘The Inner Sanctum,’ and were never let inside. He’d sometimes spend several days at a stretch down there. The man appeared obsessed.”

“With what?”

My new companion shrugged again, saying precisely nothing. He just didn’t know.

“And did he live round here?”

A discolored finger pointed off in the direction I’d gone yesterday.

“A cottage, past that hill and then another half a mile along the coastline. Here’s another funny thing, though. The same night Trevon Point was closed, the place burned down.”

Darker clouds were gathering above us, the air growing damper. And my head was reeling slightly by this time.

“What kind of coincidence is that?” I pointed out. “Didn’t you ever wonder?”

Reggie eased himself back in his chair. He’d rolled up yet another cigarette and was lighting it off the first.

“I’ll give this to the MoD,” he said in a quiet voice. “Their severance pay was … shall we say impressive? We were being paid to keep quiet, that was pretty obvious. Besides, I was just a tech with no connections. There was no one left to ask.”

A plume of gray smoke drifted from his mouth and was snatched away immediately by the stiffening breeze.

“Better not to anyway, if you want my opinion, mate. Best to just forget it. Cold War, super-secret, silly, silly stuff.”

 

#

 

The following morning, I went up to the top of the hill again. Didn’t attempt to go any further. Simply stood there, being ripped at by the cold wind coming off the sea. The abandoned building stood below me.

Why would they shut down an entire facility simply because one man -- even the leading man -- was no longer present? What had happened to him, where exactly had he gone? I was pondering over matters like that when the dark blue Range Rover appeared again. It came trundling along the same path, braked on the same spot. But this time when the Dobermans were let out, they were not on leashes. They ran to and fro at a brisk pace, the two men leaning against the hood of their car, drinking beer and watching them. I could hear the barking from up here.

And that was when it occurred to me. These guys had shown up again not long after I’d come into view. Maybe they’d been on the lookout for me. And so could they be not simply idle thugs, but there to scare people like me away?

It was either a very troubling possibility, or I was getting paranoid.

Two days later, I went back again. And crested the hill to find myself looking down at an unexpected sight. The Range Rover was already there, parked closer to the fence than usual. All five of its doors were open, but the men and dogs were nowhere to be seen.

Other people were, however, and there were different vehicles in attendance. Four saloon cars were pulled up around the Range Rover. About a dozen men, all dressed in dark suits, were moving across the landscape below me, obviously searching for something.

Beyond them, further inland, was a large black Bentley. I thought I could make out the outline of its chauffeur past the windscreen. But as to who might be sitting in the back … it was impossible to tell from here.

The men on foot scoured the landscape around Trevon Point for another five minutes or so, their gazes pinned firmly to the ground so that they never even noticed me. Then one of them stopped and shouted, calling the rest back. They mostly headed to their cars, all except for one, who climbed into the Range Rover and started it. Where had he even got the keys?

And then the whole procession moved off, gradually disappearing.

But the Bentley was still sitting there. I thought that I saw one of its rear windows slide down a few inches. And stood very still at that point, feeling someone’s gaze on me.

Then the Bentley drove off too.

 

#

 

It was in the local paper by the Friday. Three Birchiam youths, all of them known to the police, had gone missing. A fourth had been found very badly injured, although there was no mention of exactly how. And he had been found not far from Trevon Point, which caught my interest.

I’d been around journalists long enough to do some asking around of my own. I phoned the hospitals first, and managed to get a response. No one was sure how the kid had got hurt, but his injuries were so severe he had been taken to a medical facility at…

I was given the name of a nearby airforce base.

I put the phone down, pulled my shoes and coat on, and went out and climbed the hill again.

A deserted shell like Trevon Point invariably gets visits from the local vandals. Those two louts with their Dobermans had kept them away so far. But now that they were gone … call it instinct if you will, but the boys had realized that the way was clear and seized the opportunity.

They had actually hauled a sleeper and a length of iron rail from the little stretch of railway I had noticed. And had set them against the razor wire, pushing its coils down and providing a way across.

I walked towards it carefully, keeping a sharp eye out for any more approaching vehicles.

Studied the makeshift bridge the boys had made, but decided against using it. It was awfully narrow, and my balance wasn’t all that good. And the drop on the far side had to be at least eight feet.

Then something else that Reg had said came back to me. I stared off to the east. Half a mile from here was Professor Marsters’ old home. It might have burned down, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at what remained.

So I set off.

 

#

 

We were talking about three decades, a whole generation. But the blackened ruins of the cottage were still lying as they must have been the morning after the fire. No one had attempted to rebuild it. Nobody had even tried to clear the wreckage.

There was not a wall left, only shallow stubs of bonded brick. Every single wooden beam was black and cracked and looked like coal. The furniture had burned to ash. If Marsters had owned ornaments, they were ash too.

But I climbed in all the same. What was I looking for?

The debris crunched under my shoes. And I could smell something very faintly, even after all these years. Paraffin, or petrol.

What was I searching for, some clue, some kind of record? Nothing could have survived this. But I continued to hunt around for a while. And the noise that I was making must have covered her approach, because when a female voice abruptly sounded from behind me, it alarmed me enough that I jerked.

“You won’t find anything in there,” it was saying.

It was a very high-pitched, brittle voice, belonging -- as it turned out -- to a small, elderly woman in a motorized wheelchair. She had approached me down a narrow path I had not noticed until now. Her hair was pure white and her face was crumpled. She had on spectacles, and was squinting at me curiously.

I wondered who she was and where she’d come from. Then I looked past her and saw a rooftop, past a rise and closer to the sea. This had to be some kind of neighbor.

“How can you be sure I won’t find anything?” I asked her.

“They came the night after the fire, with big lamps,” she explained. “Did exactly what you’re doing now, except they came away with several boxes full of charred stuff, everything that they could find.”

“Who’s they?”

“The men in black, I suppose that you would call them.”

Spooks, in other words.

I didn’t even know this woman’s name. It turned out to be Emily Prentice. She indeed lived in the house that I had spotted, and had done so all her life.

“Then you knew Professor Marsters?”

“Strange man in some ways,” she nodded. “But I was the only neighbor that he had, and so we got to know each other fairly well.”

“And you don’t know how he came to vanish?”

“No. He simply disappeared one day.”

Once again, I thought that over.

“Did he seem … bothered in any way, when you last saw him?”

“He always worked extremely long hours,” Emily informed me. “Sometimes didn’t come back home for days. And when I did bump into him, those final months, he seemed more strained and agitated than was usual.”

“Did he ever discuss what he was working on?”

Emily was studying me carefully by this stage, with a faint smile in her gaze.

“I knew that that was what you might be looking for.” She steered her chair a little closer. “You’re not a man in black, now are you?”

I explained to her who I was and, listening to me, she looked quietly satisfied.

“I might be able to help you, then. Please, come with me.”

She maneuvered her chair around and trundled off towards her home, leaving me to follow. Gulls were wheeling in the sky beyond her rooftop. Trevon Point was still the only spot along this coastline where they were not present.

Her cottage was a single storey one, dimly lit and with that grandma smell, but clean. I was shown into a living room full of crystal, chintz, and capodimonte.

Take a seat,” Emily told me.

Then she began hunting through a chest of drawers.

She finally found what she’d been looking for. Handed me a notebook with a light blue cardboard cover.

“His?” I asked.

“The professor gave it to me the last time we met. Told me it should go to no one from the government. Someone independent instead. Someone scientific. I got the men in black asking around a few times those first years after the fire, but I told them nothing. You’re the first suitable person who has come along.”

I stared at the notebook blankly, my mind clouding like a thick, damp fog was filling it. I might be holding in my hands a genuinely important piece of science, and this woman had been holding onto it for decades.

“To be honest,” she told me, “I can’t make head or tail of anything it says. Maybe you can do a little better.”

So I opened it, and started reading.

 

#

 

It was mostly very long, extremely complex equations. I flipped through one that lasted thirty-seven pages. And had no more idea what it genuinely meant than Emily did. My science is of the kind that knows the difference between a sulphate and a sulphide, and did not extend to stuff like this.

But there were three-dimensional sketches in some places, of what I was unsure. And even some lines of handwritten script.

We are looking in the wrong place, started one of them. We are tinkering with the edges of the subject in question, when we should be looking at its core.

And then, amongst the final pages, I found more.

This is generally acknowledged to be one of the great Universal Laws. Events that are impossible are never allowed to happen inside our sphere of existence. If that were not the case, then reality would be under constant threat of breaking up in places or even collapsing entirely.

Which was fair enough, and widely accepted. Stephen Hawking had written about this very matter in a Sunday supplement article a couple of months back. But Marsters appeared to have gone on past that.

Words like ‘law’ and ‘allowed,’ however, imply intent, a will, a guiding force. A creator. And, being a purely scientific man, I cannot countenance that. But if there is no guiding hand, no actual law, then this characteristic of our everyday existence -- this absolute forbidding of impossible events -- has to be produced by something physical and real. Perhaps it is a special kind of energy, or matter on the sub-atomic scale, brother to the quark.

It must exist. There is no other explanation. There has to be some actual element surrounding us that binds the fabric of reality together. I call it ‘The Universal.’ And if I can find it, isolate it, maybe it can be altered somehow, to our greater benefit. Just think what we could manage if the plain impossible could be achieved?

I read those words through several times, feeling my temples begin to throb. What he was proposing, if I’d got this right, was … unpicking the fabric of reality. Allowing things to happen in a universe where they should not.

And this had been sitting in a chest of drawers all this time?

“Did you find anything interesting?” Emily was asking.

 

#

 

By the time that I’d returned to Trevon Point, it looked like there was going to be a storm. The light had faded badly. The clouds had thickened and were churning across the heavens. Sea and sky were two wedges of almost identical gray, both of them shifting through a wide variety of patterns. The wind was fierce, the grasses hissing loudly.

I steeled myself and made my way up the railway sleeper that the youths had put across the wire until I reached the iron railing. Once on that, I was forced to continue on all fours. The wind kept trying to unbalance me. The coils of wire creaked ominously. I was tense and sweating, but I pressed on till I reached the end, then lowered myself down.

Another crab went scuttling by. Except it had a long pink tail, like a rat’s. That sent a chill right through me, but I pressed on. Hurried over to the stone steps leading down. There were double metal doors hanging open at the bottom, and a padlocked chain dangling from a handle, except that it had been broken.

On the wall to one side, someone had spray-painted a graffiti tag. The paint looked fresh. So yes, the missing vandals had been here.

I went inside, going slowly so my eyesight could adjust.

And at first, there was only a corridor, smelling of stale air and nothing more. There were doorways off to either side. The outlines of a few items of furniture were in the rooms beyond them.

And then another stairway took me further down. I thought I heard a noise. Was that a laugh? I wasn’t sure. My heart was bumping.

I was now in a shorter corridor with a lower roof. I shouldn’t have been able to see at all, not this far underground. But a very faint light seemed to be coming from some source. I turned round several times, but couldn’t make out where.

At the end of this passage was a far heavier metal door, like one of those hatches in a submarine. It was halfway open too. I could make out a faint clattering from beyond it. Then the clattering turned to grinding. Then the grinding stopped.

When I swallowed, it was painful. But I stepped around the hatch, and found myself inside the ‘Inner Sanctum.’

This room was absolutely bare. Whoever had come here that last day had not left anything behind. The place had to be some forty yards long by thirty wide, and had a cavernously high ceiling.

I could hear something breathing, and it wasn’t me.

A rat went past my feet, making me jerk. Except that it had half a dozen armored, pointed legs, just like the crabs I’d seen. It clattered across the bare floor, reached the nearest wall and vanished.

Only … there was no hole for it to vanish into.

A moment later, the same strange creature re-emerged at the far side of the room, appearing from three foot up that wall and dropping with a heavy clack. The thing began growing, swelling as I watched. It had turned into one of the Dobermans before much longer, and it started barking at me.

I drew back, getting really frightened. But the very next second, the dog changed into a silent shadow, which gradually faded away.

Something began lifting from the centre of the concrete floor. It looked like it was concrete too, but kept on growing. When it had raised itself to about six feet high, it began reassembling itself into a vaguely human shape. Its face took on distinctive features. This was one of those youths in the local paper, one of the boys who had gone missing, or else a facsimile of such.

It raised a hand in my direction. Then it burst like a bubble, vanishing as well.

Something else was happening behind me. I could sense it, and I turned.

That wall had bulged outward, in the shape of another human face, but massive. The top of its head was completely bald, and its temples were protruding.

So … Professor Marsters?

He blinked at me. His eyes were not evenly placed. As I watched, one of them began sliding down in the direction of his chin. I was so shocked, I couldn’t even speak at first. But finally, I got past my fright and bewilderment.

“Professor Marsters?” I yelled out. “You’ve got to stop all this! People are getting hurt!”

His mouth dropped open. There were the heads of tulips in it, and a starfish.

“Testing,” he said. “Scooby-dooby secret squirrel. Did you find anything interesting?”

Could he see and hear outside this place? Or maybe he could see my thoughts. If impossible things were happening down here, then couldn’t that be one of them? It wasn’t a particularly comforting idea, and I ignored it as best I could.

“Professor, I’m not sure what’s happened to you, but you’ve got to come back from there!”

“Define there?” was his garbled answer. “How do you get from there to here? If you want to get there, then I wouldn’t start from here. Yes? Hah!”

The sliding eye had reached the bottom of his chin and was hanging off it, like a drop of water. Another had appeared at the centre of his forehead. He swallowed the tulips, but the starfish stayed in place. The face staring out from the middle of the starfish was a caricature of his own.

“The world is the world is the world is the world,” he told me.

How long had it taken him to go insane, once he had tampered with The Universal? Five years, or five minutes? It didn’t really matter. No human could hang onto his mind once that reality was gone. We pin so much or our existence -- don’t we -- on believing that the chair we like to sit in will still be a chair tomorrow, and will be the same chair a year after that. Take that away from us, and everything else breaks down.

“Did you know,” he raved, “that seventeen times the event that took Demosthenes and then there is the vertical implosion? Fact!”

Thin, rubbery arms began growing from the walls and trying to grab at me.

And that clinched it. There was obviously no way I could get through to him. Nothing more that I could do. And so I panicked. Ran.

On the way back, parts of the corridor began opening and shutting, like a fish’s mouth. I had to slow my progress and time my escape. And so it wasn’t just the Inner Sanctum that had been affected.

And on the way across the open ground back to the fence, blades of grass grew several times their length and kept on trying to snare my ankles.

I finally reached the iron rail. Jumped up, grabbing hold of it and hauling myself up. And was sliding down its gradient, then running once again.

I must have only got a couple dozen yards before I stumbled, fell. I lay there on my face, my breath like fire in my chest and my pulse galloping.

There was a soft metallic tuck nearby, and I managed to lift my gaze slightly.

The Bentley was back.

 

#

 

One of its rear doors had come open. A pair of expensive and well-polished shoes was making its way in my direction. There were pale gray trouser legs above them with immaculate creases. I didn’t have enough strength left to raise my head and make out more of this approaching man, not at the moment anyway.

But he stopped directly in front of me. Both his narrow hands came into view. And with the thumb and forefinger of each, he pinched his trousers at the knees and lifted the fabric slightly before squatting down.

He was a thin but healthy looking man in his late sixties. His eyes were a granite gray. His silver hair had been combed very neatly into place and was resisting the wind. Everything about him looked manicured and polished.

His expression was quietly patient. He had on a handmade shirt, a club tie, and a navy blue blazer with golden buttons. This was no spook. He was most probably a ‘mandarin,’ someone from the very lofty apex of the Civil Service.

“Are you all right?” he asked me.

I came back with, “Who’re you?”

One of his eyebrows lifted, and his mouth formed itself into a tight, humorless smirk. I had just asked a stupid question -- stupid in the sense that it had not the slightest chance of being answered.

“Do you know what’s going on back there?” I gasped, pushing myself up onto my elbows.

The raised eyebrow remained in place. Why else would he be here?

“You need to blow that place to smithereens!”

“And scatter its dust to the four winds?” The man shook his head slowly. “Who knows what effect that might have?”

“But the unreality’s begun to spread,” I pressed on, getting angry. “That’s what you really need to understand. It’s not just in the Inner Sanctum any more. That’s very likely how you lost your two dog-walking thugs -- they got too close.”

He crooked the index finger of his right hand, pressed it to his chin, and spent the next half-minute in reflective thought.

“If I were you, Mr. Sayers,” he said finally, “I’d go away from here. I’d go away and not come back.”

An hour later I had a suitcase packed and was waiting for a train back into London.

But I wasn’t even sure if that was going to be far enough.

 

 

‘The Universal’ appears in Tony Richards’ latest collection THE UNIVERSAL and OTHER TERRORS from Dark Renaissance Books. Copyright © 2013 by Tony Richards.