Authors: F. G. Cottam
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Ghost, #Sea Stories
Also by F. G. Cottam
The House of Lost Souls
F. G. Cottam
Thomas Dunne Books
St. Martin’s Press
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS
An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
. Copyright © 2008 by F. G. Cottam. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cottam, Francis, 1957–
Dark echo / F. G. Cottam. — 1st U.S. ed.
1. Yachts—Fiction. 2. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
First published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette Livre UK company
First U.S. Edition: August 2010
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my lovely sister, Kate
Rouen, September 1917
Captain Destain was with Sergeant Boulez on the steps at the western entrance to the cathedral when the mist came in. They were sharing coffee brewed at a stall in one of the warren of streets surrounding the great building. He was adamant that neither man had ever in their lives seen the like of this fog. It funnelled and unfurled through the cramped thoroughfares, obscuring detail and devouring space. Destain described it as roiling and impenetrable, worse than anything he had ever encountered before near the sea, in such ports it had been his experience to visit as Antwerp or Zeebrugge. It was palpable, this fog.
Had his men not been such experienced fighters, he thought some of them might have slipped on their gas masks in panic, believing it a chemical attack launched from long range by the heavy German artillery. But they had not heard the whistle of shells that morning. There had been no bombardment from the German front, forty miles to the east. And as they were shortly to come to learn, it was not gas that was attacking them.
Boulez was a mountain man. He had been born and grown up in a village high in the French Alps, where his father had taught him, hunting with an antique flintlock, the marksmanship for which he was so distinguished in the corps. He had an Alpine appreciation of weather, a mountain man’s caution and hard-earned expertise. He described the fog as
something similar to the mantle of invisibility that descends sometimes at altitude. It was so sudden and impenetrable that your instinct, caught in it, was to drop on all fours like a frightened animal to the safety and security of the snow powdering the earth. Except that there was no snow on the steps of the cathedral in Rouen in September. And according to Boulez, what differed about this phenomenon of the weather was that it was not the familiar, goose-feather grey of the high Alps. It was black in its swirling origins.
Destain had always maintained to his men that the cathedral was not a fortress. You could garrison a cathedral. But you could not make impregnable a building to which all were welcome by the very nature and purpose of its existence. The rich and the poor, the infant and the elderly, they were indiscriminately invited here to worship. In war even more than in peacetime, the role and symbolism of the cathedral as a place of spiritual solace had itself to be sacrosanct.
Nevertheless, the cathedral was heavily fortified. Destain’s men were crack troops, well trained, vigilant. They were at company strength. There were eight men altogether at the western façade, two marksmen atop the Saint-Romain Tower to its right and two up in the Beurre Tower to its left. There were units of three guarding each of the north and south portals and there were a further two sentinels at the entrance to the cathedral vault. All were armed with a carbine and a heavy calibre cavalry pistol issued to them because their fighting might have to be done at close quarters. Each man was equipped with a bayonet and a fighting knife. They were not complacent. And they were contented in their duty. The men had been hand-picked for their piety as well as their prowess in combat. They believed the thing they protected was worth the fighting and, if necessary, the dying for.
But you cannot turn a cathedral into a fortress, as Destain
kept repeating afterwards in his grief and shock, as the gangrene slowly devoured him in his hospital bed. And you should not be expected to fortify such a place against men wearing the uniform of your own allies in battle.
The Americans came grinning through the mist. The defenders of Rouen cathedral and the sacred relic it housed smelled before they saw the Americans. They smelled the cloying sweetness on their breath of the gum the Americans habitually chewed on their marches. This clue to them was all the roiling mist at first allowed. But then, at last, the French defenders saw them.
They came on in their doughboy uniforms with the short coats worn over their britches and their spats and shiny leather boots and their stubby Garand rifles carried at port arms. The mist did not seem to disorient or discomfit them in the slightest. They glided through it and only when they were within whispering distance of the French troops guarding the cathedral did they raise their rifles and begin with deadly nonchalance to squeeze off rounds aimed squarely at their brothers in arms.
The fog had deadened the sound as well as the sight of their approach, Destain said. It muffled the reports of their bullets exploding from the barrels of their weapons when the ambush began and they started to shoot. It deadened the sound of rounds ricocheting off the cathedral’s ancient masonry. It did not stop us firing back. The return fire, from the top of the towers in particular, was immediate and deliberate and murderous. The men at the portals quickly redeployed to reinforce their comrades. We established a withering field of fire. We were shooting at shadows, of course, but the very air was alive with the hum and screech of lethal projectiles. Nothing could have lived through such a sustained storm of assault. We fought the men of the fog with a blizzard of steel.
But the mutinous Americans came on. Incredibly, they ambled forward casual, alive. At their centre was a man taller than the rest of them and bare-headed. His white-blond hair picked him out in the wreaths of gloom with the haze of cordite thickening it even further in the firefight. He was a glimpse, a phantom. He was, said Destain, the pale, smiling rumour of a man. Destain took the cavalry pistol from the holster on his belt, aimed carefully and fired a round at the American. One was all he had time for. He pulled the stiff trigger once and felt the crash of recoil jerk through his wrist and forearm.
I had never been surer of a shot in my life. And I could shoot. And at that range, the weapon was always accurate. But I must have missed, he said. I must have missed. Because the American just grinned through the fog and raised his rifle and shot me through the shoulder with an impact that put me breathless and bleeding on my back on the cathedral steps. I began to lose consciousness. Sound, already dampened by the fog, became sluggish and indistinct and dim. A scarlet curtain descended over my sight. And then I smelled the mingling, pungent scents of cologne and Turkish tobacco as someone knelt beside me to whisper in my ear. And I knew it was the American renegade, invulnerable to our weapons, come to gloat. I understood English well enough. Of course I did. I had been listening to it spoken in France through three long years of war.
Not your day, sport, he said.
He used the language of a man who had just beaten a fellow member of his own sporting club in a Sunday bicycle race.
Not your day, old chum.
You’ll burn in Hell, I told him. And I thought then he would take the pistol from his belt and finish me for the remark. But he merely laughed. It was a grim and callous
sound, mirth echoing from an open crypt. It seemed barely human. It was a sound in utter contrast to the character of his words. Perhaps he was only impersonating a man. He was as unnatural, I think, as the fog that had announced and then delivered him. Last I heard the nailed soles of his boots, slick on the spilled blood of my comrades on the cobbles.
Of course, I knew what he had come there for, Destain said.
And the men at the captain’s hospital bedside, the grim deputation from the Vatican watching the infection kill him, lowered their eyes as he and some of them crossed themselves.
And so I knew that he would, indeed, burn in Hell. One day and for ever, I knew that the smiling American would come to know damnation.
It was wholly in character for my father to buy a thing cursed. He didn’t give a damn for dubious reputations. He believed in nothing he hadn’t seen for himself or could not prove. Price was never a consideration either, I don’t think, in determining what he chose to acquire, except when set very high. Then, his rapacious appetite for ownership could make a thing impossible to resist. Rarity tempted him. But he was a man, I think, without superstition and I’m sure, even thinking upon it now, devoid of remorse or even the subtler sentiment of regret. His famous nerve had enabled him to build his fortune. Every day that fortune swaggered and grew, his instinct gained a sort of strength and vindication. He was confident and fearless and his decisions were never reneged upon. Bidding at auction for the wreck of an unlucky boat was nothing to him and winning the auction was nothing short of what he would have expected. But what happened next surprised everyone. Perhaps it even surprised my father. I wish I had asked him. I fear I will not now ever get the opportunity. I don’t know, though. When I think about what has happened subsequently, maybe that’s actually a blessing.
I inherited neither my father’s courage, nor his addiction to risk. And without his visceral need to make money, I have always been unproven in that accomplishment, too. By the age of seven or eight, I knew I was destined to be a disappointment to him. I did not share his reckless energy. I was a dreamy, reflective child. And so the precious hours
away from business conquest that he devoted to his only son were understandably frustrating for him. In his time spent with me, he could transmit his will to compete to the arena of competitive games. He did it willingly, with relish and focus. But I never cared about who won our chess matches. He would murder me, across the board, and I would grin in goofy admiration. I can only imagine how it must have galled him.
One day, when I was about eleven or twelve, he took off his jacket after another predictable whitewash over a game of Scrabble or dominoes and rolled his sleeve and planted his bristling forearm from the elbow on the table top. I was looking at the bulging strength and sinew of the limb, wondering afresh at where a business tycoon like my dad acquired the muscle, when he said, ‘Give me your hand.’
Dutifully, I clasped his palm. It was hard and calloused and dry. And it was another massacre as he slammed my knuckles against the polished oak. He fixed me with eyes of ageing emerald green and said, ‘You’ve the strength of a butterfly, Martin. And about the commensurate will.’ He rose, tiredly for my father, slowly. He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped the stain of my weakness from his palm. ‘When you can defeat me, you will have earned my respect,’ he said. ‘And who knows? Perhaps you will have earned your own.’
My father had boxed as a boy. More accurately, he had fought. His had been the sort of childhood poverty that announces itself in shoes with composite cardboard soles and clothing sourced through charity and invigorated through flat-iron steam and repeated darning. His appearance did not wash at the educational establishments his brains and a subsequent scholarship achieved for him. He was duly picked on. He was bullied. Out of necessity, he discovered he was handy with his fists. From being jumped in school lavatories and
the dark corridors of dormitories, he progressed to the crested vest and ringside cheers of organised bouts. His old trophies, cheap things of plate nickel, are now priceless treasures, holy relics of his fabled past, taken from their cabinet in the library of our family home and faithfully polished by his housekeeper every day.