Harry Keogh: Necroscope

Harry sat on the rim of the river and talked to his mother. He believed he was alone and unobserved, but it would make no difference anyway: no one would object to a crazy hermit sitting on a riverbank talking to himself. He suspected that a handful of locals thought of him that way, as an eccentric recluse: someone to be regarded warily, but mainly harmless. He suspected it and didn't much care one way or the other. In their position he'd probably feel the same way about it.

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Indeed he sometimes wished he was in their position: normal, common-or-garden, everyday people. Homo sapiens, with normal lives to lead. But he wasn't in their position, he was in his, and it could hardly be described as normal. He was a Necroscope and as far as he knew he was the only Necroscope in the world. There should be at least one other like him, his son, but Harry Jnr was no longer in the world. Or if he was, Harry didn't know where.

Harry looked down between his knees and dangling legs at his own face mirrored on the surface of the water. He watched its blank expression turn to a cynical scowl. 'His own face', indeed! For to complicate matters, it wasn't his face at all! Or it was - now. But it had been the face of Alec Kyle, one-time head of British E-Branch. And yet Harry also seemed to see himself - the Harry Keogh he'd once been - superimposed over the stranger's face, making up a composite mask which wasn't really strange at all. Not any longer. But it had taken him eight long years to get used to it. Eight years of waking up in the mornings, of looking in the mirror and thinking: Jesus! Who's this? Until in the end the question had been merely academic. He'd known who it was: himself, in mind if not in body.

'Harry?' his mother's suddenly anxious voice broke in on his mental paradox. 'You know you really shouldn't worry any more about things like that. That side of your life is over, done with. You were called to do a job and you did it. You did more than any other man could possibly have done. And for all that there have been... well, changes, you know that you're still you.'

'But in another man's body,' he answered, wryly.

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'Alec was dead, Harry,' she made the point bluntly, for there was no other way to make it. 'He was worse than dead, for there was nothing left of his mind at all - not even of his soul. And anyway, you had no choice.'

Harry's thoughts, spurred by his mother's words, carried him back, back to that time eight years ago:

Alec Kyle had been on a mission to Romania - to destroy the remains of a human vampire in the ground there. Thibor Ferenczy had been dead, but he'd left part of himself in the earth to pollute it, and to pollute anyone who went near it. Kyle had succeeded, burned the thing, and was on the point of returning to England when Soviet espers had picked him up. Flown in secrecy to Russia, to the Chateau Bronnitsy, the then HQ of Soviet E-Branch, he'd been subjected to a particularly horrific method of brain-washing. His mind had been electronically drained, his brain literally emptied of knowledge. All knowledge. It wasn't merely a question of hot white lights, the rubber hose, truth-drugs and the like: the very contents of his mind had been forcibly, needlessly extracted, like a good tooth, and thrown away. And in the process Soviet telepaths had stolen the bits that were useful to them, all the secrets of their enemies, the British espers. When they'd finished with Kyle he'd been alive -been kept alive, for the time being - but his brain had been completely vacant, dead. Taken off life-support, his body too would die. And that had been the intention of his tormentors: to let him die and have his corpse dumped in West Berlin. There wouldn't be a pathologist in the whole wide world who could state with any certainty what had killed him.

That was to have been the scenario. Except... while Alec Kyle had been a husk, an empty mind in a living body, the then Harry Keogh had been mind alone! Incorporeal, a bodiless inhabitant of the Mobius Continuum, Harry had searched for Kyle, found him, and the rest had been almost beyond his control. Nature abhors a vacuum, whether in the physical or metaphysical worlds. The normal universe had no use for an incorporeal being. And Kyle's brain had been an aching void. Thus Harry's mind had become one with Kyle's body. Since then ... a great deal had happened since then. Harry forced the scowl from his face, stared harder at his image in the calm river water. His hair (or Alec's?) was russet-brown, plentiful and naturally wavy; but in the last eight years a lot of the lustre had disappeared, and streaks of grey had become very noticeable. It would not be too long before the grey overtook and ruled the brown, and Harry not yet thirty. His eyes, too, were honey-brown; very wide, very intelligent, and (strange beyond words) very innocent! Even now, for all he'd seen, experienced and learned, innocent. It could be argued that certain murderers have the same look, but in Harry the innocence was mainly genuine. He had not asked to be what he was, or to be called upon to do the things he'd done.

His teeth were strong, not quite white, a little uneven; they were set in a mouth which was unusually sensitive but could also be cruel, caustic. He had a high brow, which now and then he'd search for freckles. The old Harry used to have freckles, but no longer.

As for the rest of Harry's body: it had been well-fleshed, maybe even a little overweight, once. With its height, however, that hadn't mattered a great deal. Not to Alec Kyle, whose job with E-Branch had been in large part sedentary. But it had mattered to Harry. He'd trained his new body down, got it to a peak of condition. It wasn't bad for a forty-year-old body. But better if it was only thirty, like Harry himself.

'You're at odds with yourself again, Harry,' said his mother. 'What's bothering you, son? Is it Brenda still, and little Harry?'

'No use denying it,' he gruffly answered, with something of an irritable shrug. 'You never met him, did you? He'd have been able to talk to you too, you know. But ... I still can't get over the way he did it. It's one thing to lose somebody - or even two somebodies - but quite another to be left wondering why. He could have told me where he was taking her, could have explained his reasons. After all, it wasn't my fault she was like she was -was it? Maybe it was,' (again his shrug) 'I don't know any more...'

His mother had heard all of this before; she knew what he meant, intimately understood his otherwise vague words and expressions, even his tone of voice. For while he didn't need to, he usually spoke out loud to her. He didn't need to because he was a Necroscope (no, the Necroscope, the man who communicated with the dead) and also because she was dead, and had been since Harry was an infant. She was down there, where she'd been for more than twenty-seven years, in the mud and the weeds of the river, murdered all that time ago by Harry's stepfather. Yes, and now that same traitor was down there with her, put there by Harry, but he'd stopped speaking to anybody long ago.

'Why not look at it from their point of view?' his mother said, reasonably. 'Brenda had been through an awful lot for a small village girl. Maybe she simply... well, wanted to get away from it all. For a while, anyway.'

'For eight years?' There was a brittle edge to Harry's voice.

'But having made the break,' his mother hurriedly went on, at her diplomatic best, 'she found she was happier. And he could see she was happier, and so they didn't come back. After all's said and done, your main concern was for their happiness, wasn't it, Harry? And you'd be the first to admit that you weren't the man she'd married. Well, not exactly. Oh.r And he could picture her hand flying to her mouth, even though he knew she no longer had either of those things. Alas, she'd stumbled over her own argument, speaking not only her mind but Harry's, too. 'I mean - '

'It's all right,' he stifled her. 'I know what you mean. And you're right - as far as you go.' But because she had tried to be diplomatic, she hadn't gone far enough. And Harry knew that, too.

What had happened back then, eight years ago, was this:

In the Mobius Continuum, Harry had discovered by chance the elements of an insidious plot which was unfolding in the mundane world. The vampire Thibor Ferenczy had set in motion a gradual metamorphosis in a child as yet unborn. He had physically (and psychically, spiritually) defiled an innocent unsuspecting mother-to-be, causing something of himself to attach and cling to her foetal child. Now that child was grown to a youth, Yulian Bodescu, and as he had developed so his potential for evil had outstripped his human and humane side to achieve a monstrous vampire dominance.

The task of the British E-Branch had been twofold: to seek out and destroy whatever remained of lingering vampire influences (especially what remained of Thibor) in the USSR and her satellites, and so ensure that the 'Bodescu situation' could never arise again; also to destroy Yulian Bodescu himself, through whom Thibor had determined to terrorize the world anew.

But Bodescu had discovered the covert workings of E-Branch, specifically their plot and determination to put him down, and had turned his awesome emerging vampire powers and cold, cruel fury upon them. His principal adversary in the Branch had been the incorporeal Harry Keogh, who at that time was trapped in the psyche of his own infant son. Kill Harry Jnr and Bodescu would also rid himself of Harry. After that... the remaining members of E-Branch could be tracked down and picked off one by one, at the vampire's discretion.

This was a scheme monstrous enough in itself, but the true horror of the situation would lie in the aftermath of such a bloodbath; for then there would be no stopping Bodescu, who could create almost at will an army of undead followers which would spread like a dark plague across the face of the entire earth! And this was a very real possibility, for while Bodescu had become one of the Wamphyri, he did not have their self-discipline. They were essentially territorial; they had their cold pride; they were solitary and cautious, and usually firmly in control of their own destinies. Most of all, they were jealous of their powers, deviously protective of their Wamphyri nature and history, aware and appreciative of human skills and ingenuity. Only let mankind become aware that they were real and not merely creatures of myth and legend, and men would strive to hunt them down and destroy them forever! But Yulian Bodescu was 'self-taught'; he had had no Wamphyri instruction. He was none of the things which had made them what they were and possessed none of their dubious qualities. He was only a vampire, and he was insane!

Brenda and her months-old infant son Harry Jnr were living in a garret flat in Hartlepool on the north-east coast of England when matters finally came to a head. Leaving a trail of bloodshed and destruction behind him, Bodescu evaded E-Branch's attempts at entrapment, fled his home in Devon and travelled north. Having inherited his mentor's expertise in hideous necromancy, he could 'examine' the desecrated corpses of his victims and read in their brains and blood and guts all of their innermost secrets. This was his intention in respect of the two Harrys, father and son: to murder them and steal the secrets of the Necroscope, and so discover the nature and properties of the metaphysical Mobius Continuum.

E-Branch, closing on the Devon house to destroy it, missed their main quarry but discovered unthinkable horror there. Bodescu's aunt, uncle and cousin had been tortured and vampirized; his huge black dog was something more than a mere dog; a semi-plastic thing inhabited the earth under the extensive cellars, and Bodescu's mother was quite out of her mind from the unbearable knowledge of what Yulian had become. The house and all who dwelled in it were put to the torch.

E-Branch had men in Hartlepool, psychically talented people who were keeping a low profile in and around the Edwardian building which housed Brenda's flat. The local police and Special Branch had also been informed (however guardedly, so as not to panic the populace) that the woman and child in the garret rooms were possible targets for an 'escaped lunatic'. Their presence hardly deterred the vampire; he invaded the building, killed all who stood before him mercilessly and with dreadful efficiency, and finally reached his objective. But where the incorporeal Harry Keogh himself had been impotent, his infant son was anything but. His father's freakish powers had come down to him; he could talk to the dead, could even call them up from their graves in the cemetery across the road from the house.

Harry Snr had considered himself 'trapped' in the baby's psyche, but this had not been the case. The infant had held him there for one reason only: to explore Harry's mind and learn from it. Physically he was a baby, apparently helpless, but mentally -

Harry Jnr's talents were already vaster far than anything his father possessed or ever dreamed of achieving. And his potential was enormous. All the theory was there in the child's mind and only practical application, experience, was missing. But not for long.

Brenda, attempting to protect her infant son from the incredible nightmare which was Yulian Bodescu, had been tossed aside by the vampire. Unconscious, she had not seen the final confrontation. Thinking back on that scene in the flat now, Harry remembered it as vividly as if it were yesterday:

The two Harrys had looked out through the infant's eyes into the face of terror itself, the face of Yulian Bodescu. Crouched over the baby's cot, the leering malignancy of his eyes spoke all too clearly of his intentions.

Finished! Harry had thought. All done, and it ends like this.

No, another voice, not his own, had spoken in his mind.

No, it doesn't. Through you I've learned what I had to learn. I don't need you that way any more. But I do still need you as a father. So go, save yourself.

It could only have been one person speaking to him, doing it now, for the first time, when there was no longer any time to question the hows and whys of it. Then... Harry had felt the child's restraints falling from him like broken chains, leaving him free again. Free to will his incorporeal mind into the safety of the Mobious Continuum. He could have gone, right there and then, leaving his son to face whatever was coming. He could have gone - but he couldn't!

Bodescu's jaws had yawned open like a pit, revealing a snake's tongue flickering behind gleaming dagger teeth.

Go! little Harry had said again, with more urgency.

You're my son! Harry had cried. Damn you, I can't go! I can't leave you to this!

Leave me to this? It had been as if the infant couldn't follow his reasoning. But then he had, and said: But did you think I was going to stay here?

The beast's taloned hands were reaching for the child in his cot. Little Harry had seen the lust in the monster's eyes; he turned his small round head this way and that, seeking a Mobius door. A door had appeared, floating up out of his pillows. It was easy, instinct, in his genes. It had been there all along. His control over his mind was awesome; over his body, much less certain. But he'd been able to manage this much. Bunching inexpert muscles, he'd curled himself up, rolled into and through the Mobius door. The vampire's hands and jaws had closed on thin air!

After that it had been all up for Yulian Bodescu. Harry had not called up the dead from the local graveyard, but his son had. For the dead had learned to love this child who talked to them, who had talked to them even from the womb! They loved him even as they loved and trusted his father; and if Harry Jnr was in trouble, that was all the incentive they needed to move limbs stiffened by death, to will back into pseudolife tissues and sinews long turned to leather and ravaged by the worm.

They had pinned the vampire down, staked him out between their own yawning graves, lopped his harshly screaming head from his body and burned him to ashes. And Harry Snr, no longer imprisoned but once more master of the Mobius Continuum, had watched them do it and instructed them when they faltered.

Later... Harry had discovered that his infant son had not only saved his own life but also removed his unconscious mother from danger. The child had used Mobius or Zollnerist metaphysics to move both himself and Brenda to a place of safety - indeed, to the safest possible place: E-Branch HQ in London! And Harry had been left to pursue his own destiny and inhabit the shell of the once-Alec Kyle.

This he had done, and in the process destroyed the KGB's new toy, the Soviet ESPionage centre at the Chateau Bronnitsy.

After that... it should have been a time for relaxation, a time to pause and take stock, make adjustments, realign lives. But the staff of E-Branch, jubilant over their triple success - the elimination of Yulian Bodescu, the termination of residual vampire sources abroad, and the destruction of Russia's KGB-corrupted esper corps -hadn't fully appreciated the stresses Harry and his family had suffered. Now that the job was done they wanted the entire thing pegged out, mapped, recorded, studied and more fully understood; and the only man who understood all of it was Harry. For a month he gave them what they wanted, even considered taking on the job of Director of E-Branch; but over that same period of time it had become increasingly apparent that all was not well with Brenda. As Harry's mother had so recently pointed out, there was hardly any mystery that anyone could attach to that; indeed Brenda's breakdown was only to have been expected, might even have been anticipated.

After all, she'd only recently become a mother and was still recovering from an uncomfortable confinement and difficult birth. Indeed, for a little while the doctors had thought they'd lost her. Add to this the fact of her husband's talent (that he was a Necroscope) which she had known and which had preyed on her mind for months; the fact that her infant child seemed to possess similar and even more frightening powers, so that even in the midst of E-Branch men, who were themselves ESP-endowed, he was looked upon as something of a freak; the fact that Harry was now (literally) a different person, a person who was Harry, with all of his past, his memories and mannerisms, but living in a total stranger's body; the fact of the absolute terror she had endured through that night, face to face with the monster Yulian Bodescu, whose like she couldn't possibly have imagined even in her worst nightmares...

Little wonder the poor girl's mind had started to give way under the strain! On top of all of which she hated London and couldn't return to Hartlepool; her old flat was poison to her now, where monstrous memories dwelled. And gradully, as her mental connections with the real world were eroded, so her visits to various specialists and psychiatric clinics increased - until one morning she and the baby...

They'd gone!' Harry said it out loud. 'They weren't there. They weren't anywhere that I've been able to discover. And what gets to me most is that there was no warning, no hint. He simply up and took her... somewhere. And you know, he never spoke to me? After that first time in the flat, when Yulian Bodescu almost had us, he never once spoke to me! He could have; he'd look at me in that way babies have, and I knew he could have spoken to me. But he never did.' Harry sighed, shrugged. 'So maybe he blamed me, too. Maybe they both did. And who can say they weren't right to blame me? If I hadn't been the way I was - '

'Oh?' his mother was angry now. She didn't like the tone of self-pity which had started to creep into Harry's voice. Where was all that quiet strength he'd used to have? 'If you hadn't been what you were? And Boris Dragosani still alive in Russia? And Yulian Bodescu, spreading heaven-only-knows what evil through the world? And the myriad dead, cast off and forgotten, lost and lonely, thinking their dead thoughts forever in the cold earth and never knowing that they weren't really alone at all? But you've changed all that, Harry. And there's no way back. Hah! If you weren't what you are, indeed!'

He nodded to himself, thinking that of course she was right, then picked up a pebble and tossed it in the water so that its ripples shivered his image into ribbons. 'Still,' he said as his face slowly reformed. 'I'd like to know where they went. I'd like to be sure they're OK. Are you certain, Ma, that you haven't heard anything?'

'From the dead? Harry, there's not one of us who doesn't want to help. Believe me, if Brenda and little Harry were ... with us, you'd be the first to know of it. Wherever they are, they're alive, son. You can rely on that.'

He frowned and tiredly rubbed at his forehead. 'You know, Ma, I can't figure it out. If anyone could find them it has to be me. And I haven't even found a trace of them! When they disappeared, I got those people at E-Branch on it. They couldn't find them. A couple of them even approached me cautiously with the idea - and with a little sensitivity, you understand - that maybe Brenda and the baby were dead. By the time I handed the job over to Darcy Clarke six months later, everyone seemed sure they were dead.

'Now E-Branch has people who could find anybody anywhere - spotters who can pick up psychic emanations on the other side of the world - but they couldn't find my son. And little Harry's talent was far and away greater than mine. But your people,' (he was talking about the Great Majority, the countless dead) 'they say they're alive, that they have to be alive because they don't number amongst the dead. And I know that none of you would ever lie to me. So I think to myself: if they're not dead, and they're not here where I can find them - then where the hell are they? That's what's eating away at me.'

He could sense her nod, feel how sad she was for him. 'I know, son, I know.'

'And as for physically searching for them - ' he went on, as if he hadn't heard her, ' - is there anywhere in this world where I didn't look? But if E-Branch couldn't find them, what chance did I stand?'

Harry's mother had heard all of this before. It was his obsession now, his one passion in life. He was like a gambler hooked on roulette, whose one dream is to find 'the system' where none exists. He'd spent almost five years searching, and nearly three more planning the various stages of the search. To no avail. She had tried to help him every step of the way, but so far it had been a long, bitterly disappointing road.

Harry stood up, dusted a little soil from his trousers. 'I'm going back to the house now, Ma. I'm tired. I feel like I've been tired for a long time. I think I could use a good long rest. Sometimes I think it would be good if I could just stop thinking... about them, anyway.'

She knew what he meant: that he'd reached the end of the road, that there was nowhere else he could look.

That's right,' he said, turning away from the riverbank, 'nowhere else to look, and not much purpose to it anyway. Not much purpose to anything any more...'

Head down, he bumped into someone who at once took his arm to steady him. At first Harry didn't recognize the man, but recognition quickly followed. 'Darcy? Darcy Clarke?' Harry began to smile, only to feel the smile turning sour on his face. 'Oh, yes - Darcy Clarke,' he said, more slowly this time. 'And you wouldn't be here if you didn't want something. I thought I'd already made it clear to you people, I'm through with all of that.'

Clarke studied his face, a face he'd known well from the old days, when it had belonged to someone else. There were more lines than there used to be, and there was also something more of character. Not that Alec Kyle had been without character, but Harry's had gradually imprinted itself on the flesh. Also, there was weariness in that face, and signs that there'd been a lot of pain, too.

'Harry,' Clarke said, 'did I hear you telling yourself just now that there's no purpose to anything? Is that how you're feeling?'

Harry glanced at him sharply. 'How long were you spying on me?'

Clarke was taken aback. 'I was standing there by the wall,' he said. 'I wasn't spying, Harry. But ... I didn't want to disturb you, that's all. I mean,' he nodded toward the river, 'this is where your mother is, isn't it?'

Harry suddenly felt defensive. He looked away, then looked back and nodded. He had nothing to fear from this man. 'Yes,' he said, 'she's here. It was my mother I was talking to.'

Without thinking, Clarke glanced quickly all about. 'You were talking to - ?' Then he looked once more at the quiet flowing river and his expression changed. In a lowered voice, he said: 'Of course, I'd almost forgotten.'

'Had you?' Harry was quick off the mark. 'You mean that isn't what you came to see me about?' Then he relented a little. 'OK, come on back to the house. We can talk as we go.'

As they made their way through brittle gorse and wild bramble, Clarke unobtrusively studied the Necroscope. Not only did Harry seem a little vacant, abstracted, but his style in general seemed to have suffered. He wore an open-necked shirt under a baggy grey pullover, thin grey trousers, scuffed shoes on his feet. It was the attire of someone who didn't much care. 'You'll catch your death of cold,' Clarke told him, with genuine concern. The E-Branch head forced a smile. 'Didn't anyone tell you? We'll soon be into November...'

They walked along the riverbank toward the large Victorian house brooding there behind its high stone garden wall. The house had once belonged to Harry's mother, then to his stepfather, and now it had come down naturally to Harry. 'Time's not something I worry about a lot,' Harry eventually answered. 'When I feel it's getting colder I'll put more clothes on.'

'But it doesn't matter much, right?' said Clarke. 'There doesn't seem to be much purpose to it. Or to anything. Which means you haven't found them yet. I'm sorry, Harry.'

Now it was Harry's turn to study Clarke.

The head of E-Branch had been chosen for that job because after Harry he was the obvious candidate. Clarke's talent guaranteed continuity. He was what they called a 'deflector', the opposite of accident-prone. He could walk through a minefield and come out of it unscathed. And if he did step on one it would turn out to be a dud. His talent protected him, and that was all it did.

But it would ensure that he'd always be there, that nothing and no one would ever take him out, as two heads before him had been taken out. Darcy Clarke would die one day for sure - all men do - but it would be old age that got him.

But to look at Clarke without knowing this ... no one would ever have guessed he was in charge of anything, and certainly not the most secret branch of the Secret Service. Harry thought: he's probably the most perfectly nondescript man! Middle-height (about five-eight or -nine), mousey-haired, with something of a slight stoop and a tiny paunch, but not overweight either: he was just about middle-range in every way. And in another five or six years he'd be just about middle-aged, too!

Pale hazel eyes stared back at Harry from a face much given to laughter, which Harry suspected hadn't laughed for quite some little time. Despite the fact that Clarke was well wrapped-up in duffle-coat and scarf, still he looked cold. But not so much physically as spiritually.

'That's right,' the Necroscope finally answered. 'I haven't found them, and that's sort of killed off my drive. Is that why you're here, Darcy? To supply me with a new purpose, a new direction?'

'Something like that,' Clarke nodded. 'I certainly hope so, anyway.'

They passed through a door in the wall into Harry's unkempt back garden, which lay gloomy in the shade of gables and dormers, where the paint was flaking and high windows looked down like frowning eyes in a haughty face. Everything had been running wild in that garden for years; brambles and nettles grew dense, crowding the path, so that the two men took care where they stepped along the crazy-paving to a cobbled patio area, beyond which sliding glass doors stood open on Harry's study.

The room looked dim, dusty, foreboding: Clarke found himself hesitating on the threshold.

'Enter of your own free will, Darcy,' said Harry - and Clarke cast him a sharp glance. Clarke's talent, however, told him that all was well: there was nothing to drive him away from the place, no sudden urgency to depart. The Necroscope smiled, if wanly. 'A joke,' he said. Tastes are like attitudes, given a different perspective they change.'

Clarke stepped inside. 'Home,' said Harry, following him and sliding the doors shut in their frames. 'Don't you think it suits me?'

Clarke didn't answer, but he thought: well, your taste was never what I would have called flamboyant. Certainly the place suits your talent!

Harry waved Clarke into a cane chair, seated himself behind a blocky oak desk dark with age. Clarke looked all about and tried to draw the room into focus. Its gloom was unnatural; the room was meant to be airy, but Harry had put up curtains, shutting out most of the light except through the glass doors. Finally Clarke could keep it back no longer. 'A bit funereal, isn't it?' he said.

Harry nodded his agreement. 'It was my stepfather's room,' he said. 'Shukshin - the murdering bastard! He tried to kill me, you know? He was a spotter, but different to the others. He didn't just smell espers out, he hated them! Indeed, he wished he couldn't smell them out! The very feel of them made his skin crawl, drove him to rage. Drove him in the end to kill my mother, too, and to have a go at me.'

Clarke nodded. 'I know as much about you as any man, Harry. He's in the river, isn't he? Shukshin? So if it bothers you, why the hell do you go on living here?'

Harry looked away for a moment. 'Yes, he's in the river,' he said, 'where he tried to put me. An eye for an eye. And the fact that he lived here doesn't bother me. My mother's here, too, remember? I've only a handful of enemies among the dead; the rest of them are my friends, and they're good friends. They don't make any demands, the dead...' He fell silent for a moment, then continued: 'Anyway, Shukshin served his purpose: if it hadn't been for him I might never have gone to E-Branch - and I mightn't be here now, talking to you. I might be out there somewhere, writing the stories of dead men.'

Clarke, like Harry's mother, felt and was disturbed by his gloomy introspection. 'You don't write any more?'

'They weren't my stories anyway. Like everything else, they were a means to an end. No, I don't write any more. I don't do much of anything.' Abruptly, he changed the subject:

'I don't love her, you know.' 'Eh?'

'Brenda,' Harry shrugged. 'Maybe I love the little fellow, but not his mother. See, I remember what it was like when I did love her - of course I do, because I haven't changed - but the physical me is different. I've a new chemistry entirely. It would never have worked, Brenda and me. No, that's not what's wrong with me, that isn't what gets to me. It's not knowing where they are. Knowing that they're there but not knowing where. That's what does it. There were enough changes in my life at that time without them going off, too. Especially him. And you know, for a while I was part of him, that little chap? However unwillingly - unwittingly? - I taught him much of what he knows. He got it from my mind, and I'm interested to know what use he's made of it. But at the same time I realize that if they hadn't gone, she and I would have been finished long ago anyway. Even if she'd recovered fully. And sometimes I think maybe it's best they did go away, and not only for her sake but his, too.'

All of this had flooded out of Harry, poured out of him without pause. Clarke was pleased; he believed he glimpsed a crack in the wall; maybe Harry was discovering that sometimes it was good to talk to the living, too. 'Without knowing where he'd gone, you thought maybe it was the best thing for him? Why's that?' he said.

Harry sat up straighter, and when he spoke his voice was cold again. 'What would his life have been like with E-Branch?' he said. 'What would he be doing now, aged nine years old, eh? Little Harry Keogh Jnr: Necroscope and explorer of the Mobius Continuum?'

'Is that what you think?' Clarke kept his voice even. 'What you think of us?' It could be that Harry was right, but Clarke liked to see it differently. 'He'd have led whatever life he wanted to lead,' he said. This isn't the USSR, Harry. He wouldn't have been forced to do anything. Have we tried to tie you down? Have you been coerced, threatened, made to work for us? There's no doubt about it but that you'd be our most valuable asset, but eight years ago when you said enough is enough... did we try to stop you from walking? We asked you to stay, that's all. No one applied any pressure.'

'But he would have grown up with you,' Harry had thought it all out many, many times before. 'He'd have been imprinted. Maybe he could see it coming and just wanted his freedom, eh?'

Clarke shook himself, physically shrugged off the mood the other had begun to impose upon him. He'd done part of what he came to do: he'd got Harry Keogh talking about his problems. Now he must get him talking, and thinking, about far greater problems - and one in particular. 'Harry,' he said, very deliberately, 'we stopped looking for Brenda and the child six years ago. We'd have stopped even sooner, except we believed we had a duty to you - even though you'd made it plain you no longer had one to us. The fact is that we really believed they were dead, otherwise we'd have been able to find them. But that was then, and this is now, and things have changed...'

Things had changed? Slowly Clarke's words sank in. Harry felt the blood drain from his face. His scalp tingled. They had believed they were dead, but things had changed. Harry leaned forward across the desk, almost straining toward Clarke, staring at him from eyes which had opened very wide. 'You've found... some sort of clue?'

Clarke held up placating hands, imploring restraint. He gave a half-shrug. 'We may have stumbled across a parallel case - ' he said, ' - or it may be something else entirely. You see, we don't have the means to check it out. Only you can do that, Harry.'

Harry's eyes narrowed. He felt he was being led on, that he was a donkey who'd been shown a carrot, but he didn't let it anger him. If E-Branch did have something... even a carrot would be better than the weeds he'd been chewing on. He stood up, came round the desk, began pacing the floor. At last he stood still, faced Clarke where he sat. Then you'd better tell me all about it,' he said. 'Not that I'm promising anything.'

Clarke nodded. 'Neither am I,' he said. He glanced with disapproval all about the room. 'Can we have some light in here, and some air? It's like being in the middle of a bloody fog!'

Again Harry frowned. Had Clarke got the upper hand as quickly and as easily as that? But he opened the glass doors and threw back the curtains anyway. Then: Talk,' he said, sitting down carefully again behind his desk.

The room was brighter now and Clarke felt he could breathe. He filled his lungs, leaned back and put his hands on his knees. There's a place in the Ural Mountains called Perchorsk,' he said. That's where it all started...'

    

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