Six words led me to this moment. Led me here to a cold, dark field where I am to die.
Odd how the brain works. I don’t see my life flashing before my eyes. I see something more like a game of Tetris: seemingly irreconcilable blocks slotting together to form a whole. And the only thing that flashes before my eyes is that banal moment in which six words started it all.
I touch the wound in my left shoulder and feel gushing blood and torn flesh. I close my hand over it, knowing I have to somehow stop the bleeding. My heart is thudding hard so I will the beats to slow, feeling the way each one pumps blood out past my fingers. Kicking off my sandshoe I yank a sock from my foot and press it hard against the wound. Immediately the cotton soaks through with warm blood. Its smell is nauseating. I need something more substantial than a sock to stem the flow but I can’t get my jeans off with this useless arm hanging like a hunk of raw meat. It will have to be my T-shirt. I tug and twist but simply cannot get out of it without the help of the left hand.
A strange little whimper escapes me as I struggle to my feet. Blood is running right through the sock and down my arm. I decide to head for the track but I need to make a choice: should I turn for the beach or the highway? Which is closest? Will Owen drive back this way soon enough? I choose. Hopefully I will meet Owen on the track back to the highway. I wobble down the slope toward the fence.
I make it about half a dozen steps before my legs buckle under me and I hit the ground again. I must have stumbled over something. I try to get back to my feet but it’s like they aren’t my own anymore. My legs react in slow motion, weak flinches in response to my mental command that they straighten up and lift me off the ground. After a couple more attempts I stop trying. I’m still a good twenty yards from the track, slumped behind a clump of dry grass.
I’m cold. Terribly cold, through and through, as if all my warmth is pouring out of my arm with my blood. At least the pain is easing. The world seems darker than I’ve ever seen it. I can’t even see where the embers glowed in the paddock a few moments before. I think about an eagle landing near me in tomorrow’s daylight, hopping over to inspect my stone-cold, blood-soaked body. Plucking my eyes out of the open sockets. Carrion. The thought prompts another effort to heave myself upwards. Nothing. No physical response. I’m like a dead body with a living girl stuck inside. I groan thickly and the sound goes on and on.
After a moment I realise the sound is not my groaning. It’s something else … an engine? I try to raise my head. I think I can hear a vehicle. Owen? He won’t see me over here, off the road and hidden in the dark. Or it could be the farmer coming back to pick up his quarry. I clutch my arm harder, surprised anew by the constant pouring. Do I really have this much blood in my body? I’m not sure but there might be footsteps coming toward me. A cloud moves to reveal a waxing moon, its cold white light coming through the distant trees. It’s quiet now but for the irregular beat of my pulse in my ears. I attempt a call but my voice makes no sound, just a wheeze of air. I’m going to die here, voiceless, weak and alone.
You could argue it didn’t start there. Perhaps it started when I decided to return to Gaunt House ruins, or when I saw Cain’s face. But my addled, blood-starved brain has decided it was the moment when I heard those six words: Hey Frankie, come for a ride?
Chapter 1: Reckoning
“Hey Frankie, come for a ride?”
I gave Jude’s car a doubtful glance. “In that?”
He grinned. “Hey, shut up! It runs like a dream.”
“What about the party?”
“I’m over it.” He peered at me. “And I’m not sure you were ever even into it.”
Was it that obvious? I adjusted my expression. “It’s fun, but I’m a little tired. I moved my things into Alby’s place today.”
“I’m going to hang with a couple of friends someplace quiet. Want to join us?”
I could claim it was too late. I checked my watch, but it wasn’t even eight o’clock. “Uhh …”
“Come on! I think you’ll like these people. They’re not like Olivia.”
Oh, so Jude had noticed my reaction to her? He was more perceptive than he looked.
“Okay,” I said, mainly to avoid the Olivia conversation. “I’ll just tell Alby I’m going.”
My cousin was in the thick of the party. Albion was popular, with that cosmopolitan panache of his. Some of the other eighteen to twenty-fives in Augur’s Well tried to sport citified hairstyles but only Albion had totally nailed it. His years in a city boarding school had served him well.
His face lit up when he saw me. He took a long drag on some kind of roll-your-own cigarette I hoped wasn’t pot. “Frankie! Where have you been? Hanging with Jude?” His eyebrows twitched and I knew why. Ever since I got back to Augur’s Well Albion had been hinting about how much Jude had changed and how ‘hot’ he was now.
“Yeah,” I admitted. Noticing Olivia’s sour face behind him I added, “And a few others.”
Albion slung an arm around my neck. “Who hasn’t met my beautiful cousin yet?” he asked the crowd generally. “This is Francesca, Frankie to her friends, daughter of the saint-whisperer, but let me tell you, she’s no saint—” I elbowed Albion to shut him up and he giggled into my hair.
“I’m going for a drive,” I said in his ear, taking advantage of his closeness to communicate in private.
He smoothly turned the half-hug into ushering me away from the group a few steps. “With Jude?”
“What? I was joking. For real?”
I frowned. “Alby. It’s a drive. Nothing else.”
He took a thoughtful drag on his smoke. “Uh-huh.”
I beckoned Jude over impatiently. “Jude, we’re just going for a drive, right? To meet some of your friends. Nothing more.”
Jude looked awkward. “Of course.”
“Who you meeting?” Albion wanted to know.
“You don’t know them.”
“Don’t be pulling any touchy-feelies on Frankie, y’hear?” Albion drawled with a wink. “Unless she invites you to, I mean.”
I gave Albion the look that meant shut the hell up, disguising it with a quick squeeze.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I said. “To take you home.”
He rolled his eyes. “If I’m ready,” he countered. “If you’re gonna live with me this year, my little Frankie, you’re gonna have to loosen up and have a little fun.”
“In Augur’s Well?” Jude gave a cynical laugh.
“There’s fun wherever you make it, Jude McBride,” said Albion, poking Jude in his broad chest with a sparkling-nailed finger. “Even in Augur’s Well.”
Jude shot me an amused look as Albion returned to his circle. Olivia was still watching Jude, I noticed. We headed for the car but Albion’s suspicions stuck with me.
“Uh, Jude, you are taking me to meet your friends, right?”
“And …” I hesitated. “Are there going to be other girls there?”
“Shit, Frankie.” Jude sounded hurt. “Like I’d ever put you in danger! I’ve known you since kindergarten.”
“Yeah, but … I’ve been away so I haven’t really known you for a few years now …” Uncomfortable silence. I hadn’t meant to offend him.
Jude had unlocked my side and pulled it open for me and was now around at the driver’s side, climbing into the car. When he started the engine it chugged a low, irregular rhythm under the wailing radio.
“These friends we’re meeting,” I said, “not people from school then?”
“Nope. You don’t know them, I don’t think.”
Jude focused on reversing out of the parking area. I wound the window down to feel the humid night air.
“So, why are you really staying in town this time, Frankie? You and your sister, right? What’s her name again?”
I tensed. “Vanessa. And you already know why. I flunked my senior year on tour with Dad. I’m repeating it at Community College.” I didn’t want him knowing the other reasons so I babbled to distract him. “Turns out the tutor Dad hired wasn’t as strict about me doing my homework as he needed to be. I didn’t even take the exams in the end. I knew I’d fail. So we decided a year staying in one place was best.” I wondered if I was convincing and shut my heart to the sting when I thought about staying in one place for a year.
Jude turned onto the highway. “So Vanessa and you both gonna be living at Albion’s place?”
“No, she’s at Dad’s house.”
“All by herself?” Jude was surprised.
“Antonia’s there. The housekeeper.”
“Huh. I thought she was your uncle’s housekeeper.”
I didn’t like all these questions. “She lives at Dad’s house but Dad and Uncle Max share her housekeeping services. They’ve got some kind of formal contract with her.” I tried to sound vague and disinterested.
“Okay. Hey, I’m glad you’re coming with me tonight, Frankie. This is gonna blow your mind.”
I was a little amused. “Whatever!”
We drove in silence for a while. Suited me. We passed the Church of the Holy Ascension, the Church of Saint Peter, the Anglican Parish of Meadowvale, and the Blackrock Rise Baptist Union. Augur’s Well didn’t earn its nickname of the Town of Churches for nothing. It was about the only drawcard the town had to offer. Other than that it was all wheat fields, cattle and sheep, grain silos, the meatworks, and the tannery. Nothing exotic about this town. But the proliferation of churches had a weird attraction for certain types of tourists. It had certainly been what attracted my ultra-religious father to settle here. Even the rank-smelling tanning plant was regularly mistaken for a church. Its brick smoke stack featured a metal bar at just the right height, transforming it into a giant cross. Tonight, cloth protest banners had been wired to the fences around the tannery. Save Our Works … Augur’s Well Unite … Developers OUT.
As the buildings melted away I leaned my head through the open window and watched the dark sky blaze. The lights of the milky-way were unusually bright because of the lack of houses and streetlights. I had no idea where we were anymore. I let the warm wind turn my hair into a nest. Eventually Jude pulled off the road, bringing the car to a stop in a gravel clearing. A huge electrical tower hummed in front of us, white-blue sparks firing occasionally into the evening air. Next to the clearing, I discerned the pale ruins of an old building. A stone house? Another church? The headlights reflected off a motorbike before Jude cut the power. I looked from the bike to the ruin.
“Cain’s bike. Come on.”
Jude went to the back of his car so I crossed to the bike and ran my fingers over its black metal. It looked out of place parked beside the old ruin.
“I haven’t seen this place before. Where are we?”
“Gaunt House ruins,” he said, voice muffled as he fossicked in the trunk of his car.
I’d never been on a motorbike. Dad had often said he wanted me to keep it that way. Since the mysterious Cain was nowhere in sight, I slid my leg across the bike to sit on the saddle. It was only when Jude closed the trunk, a box of soda cans and some chip bags tucked under his arm, that he noticed what I was doing and opened his mouth in dismay. Instead of speaking, he strode over and pulled me off the bike by my arm. He wasn’t technically rough but it was done with disapproval. He handed me a bag of chips at the same time, maybe to cover up his reaction.
“I wasn’t going to scratch it.”
He just nodded. “Come on. This way.”
“This is weird,” I said. “I don’t see any of your friends. Where are they? What’s going on?”
In answer, Jude headed for the ruin, straight past a sign that read No entry—unsafe structure. Just inside the doorframe he leaned down to grasp what looked like a tarnished iron ring lying on the floor and gave a heave. With heart-stopping suddenness a trapdoor swung open. It made me jump back in shock, dusty air from the square hole in the ground billowing into my face.
“What’s down there?” I breathed, trying to recover my composure. Jude indicated for me to go first in the descent and I gave a nervous laugh. “Uh, no way.”
“But I need to close the door after us.”
“I’ll do it.”
“It’s heavy,” he said.
I still didn’t move so he huffed a sigh and made the descent, vanishing down the hole using metal rungs in the wall. I sat on the edge of the opening, stretching a leg out to find a foothold. Only when I was secure in the rungs did I follow him down, the corner of the chip bag held between my teeth. At the bottom Jude gave me his junk food cargo and climbed back up to tug the trapdoor shut above our heads. Total blackness.
“Jude!” I said, panic bubbling up.
A moment later I found him breathing at my side. “It’s okay. We’re in a little tunnel. Here, grab my hand.”
I didn’t like that but obeyed, finding his sweaty hand in the dark. There was a suggestion of light somewhere in the tunnel but I couldn’t identify where it came from, so I stumbled along behind Jude. Ah, my phone! I could use it as a flashlight. But then Jude stopped so abruptly I almost fell over him. A moment later I was squinting into brilliant light in front of us. He’d opened a door. Jude pushed me through and, as my eyes settled down, I realised the light was not brilliant after all; merely the flickering of candles.
I stared around myself. Candles in cast iron brackets lit the sandstone walls of a curved chamber. Directly across from us, flanked by two sconces, the words Adsero nos had been carved into the stone. It would have been beautiful if it were not for the piles of old mattresses and cushions spread all over the floor. They were littered with half-filled cans, empty chip packets and overflowing ashtrays.
“Wow,” I whispered. “This is … cool. How did you find this? When did you find it?”
“I’ve known about it for a while.” Jude’s voice was tight, as if he were nervous.
“Where are your friends?” He nodded toward the wall with the carven words. Somehow I’d missed it on my first look around the room, but now I saw a man stretched out asleep on a ragged sofa. “Who’s that?”
“Cain.” Jude took the chip bag out of my hands. “I’ll just put these cans in the cooler. You wake him up.”
Jude went down a dim corridor. I looked back at Cain, who still slumbered peacefully. Screw that. I wasn’t waking up this guy I’d never met. Jude could do that when he got back from his cooler mission. But an odd feeling of recognition came over me and I drew closer. Was it possible I knew this man? From school? No way. He was older than me by at least a few years. From Dad’s church? Seemed unlikely. I knelt beside the sofa, looking up and down the length of his body, from his tangled brown hair to his bare feet, lying one on top of the other. His left arm was exposed, palm up, and tiny scars peppered its crook. When I worked my examination back up to Cain’s face I found his eyes open, mirroring the shock and fascination I felt. We gazed at one another for a long, tense moment.
Finally his eyes flicked upwards, above and behind me. “Who is she?”
I hadn’t noticed Jude standing skittishly at my back because I couldn’t take my eyes off Cain. His face now he was awake was … well, there was no word for it but stunning. It wasn’t even something identifiable, like striking eyes or sensual lips. Just a face that could make you forget to blink until your eyeballs dried out. A face that could, and was, making my body react—despite my efforts to control it.
“Frankie. Francesca Caravaggio,” Jude stammered in reply. “An old school friend.”
“What is she doing here?” Cain’s voice was calm, a still body of water against Jude’s nerviness.
“I thought you might think she’s, uh … okay …”
Cain nodded. I felt a rush of air from Jude as he turned away, heading down that dark corridor again. Cain sat up and lit a cigarette, rubbing the back of his head. He offered me one and I shook my head in wordless distaste, although these cigarettes didn’t seem as bad as most. In fact, I couldn’t really smell it at all. He drew on it deeply and gave me a smile, fixing his eyes on my face.
“Hello, Francesca Caravaggio. I’m Cain. Cain Aleister.”
“Frankie.” My reply sounded lame, helpless, because I was seriously disturbed by that smile. It didn’t seem fair that he could keep climbing degrees of stunning like that. “Everyone calls me Frankie.”
He puffed on his cigarette. “The others will be here soon.” His voice. It was soothing, comforting, and intimately warm.
“Who are they?” I asked, more to distract myself than from actual curiosity.
“There’s Liz. She’s a nurse I met in the hospital when I came off my bike.”
“How old is she?”
“About thirty, I think.” Thirty? Jude was hanging out with thirty-year-old women now? “Then there’s Owen Zheng,” Cain went on. “He’s a university student.”
“What does he study?”
“You already know Jude.”
“Yeah, from school.”
“You were at high school together?”
“Yeah. Well, no. I haven’t always been in town. Not for the last few years.”
Okay, here it went. This was the bit where I admitted to this guy who was incredible in a way I had never—not in forty-five cities over three years—seen before, that I was Don Carver’s daughter. If I could have closed my eyes to get it over with, I would have.
“My father’s a well-known author,” I said in a rush. “He made it big in the last few years and I’ve been touring with him. It takes me out of town for most of each year. Took,” I corrected myself, the new reality coming back to me like a slap. “It took me out of town for most of the year, but not this year. I’m staying in Augur’s Well now. To study.”
He played with his cigarette for a moment before lying back on his sofa, positioning himself so he could still observe me. That’s it? I watched him, suspicious. He wasn’t going to ask why? He wasn’t going to ask my dad’s name? He wasn’t going to tell me he’d heard of my dad’s Saints Among Us book series and live shows and thought they were a load of bullshit?
“Have you always lived in Augur’s Well?” was all he asked.
“Uh, no. We lived in Land’s End for a few years. That’s where my mum comes from. Dad had a job managing the grocery store so we lived there till I started school.”
“Did you like that? Living on the coast?”
“I loved it.” He waited, but I hesitated to give him any more information about myself. I was already at a major disadvantage in this situation. I seized the questioner’s role. “So … you’re not at school, I guess?”
Cain gave a small smile. “Not for a few years now.”
“Been in Augur’s Well long?”
“No. Just a year. I lived in Revel City before that.”
“Did you get a job here or something?” I couldn’t think of any other reason someone would move from vibrant Revel City to the flat, anonymous town of Augur’s Well.
“Just knew I had to live here.” As he spoke he watched me closely. Was he trying to detect a particular reaction?
I didn’t give him one. “Okay.”
I wanted to ask how old he was but wasn’t sure that was something you asked a man you’d just met. It had never come up as an etiquette issue for me before. Cain reached for an opened soda can and shook it to see if any drink remained, and then dropped his cigarette into the can. It hissed as he turned his head back and smiled at me again, that terrifyingly beautiful smile. My whole body responded to it. I looked away, telling myself to get it together. Where the heck is Jude?
“You can meet them now.”
“Liz and Owen. They’re here. Can you hear them?”
I inclined one ear upwards and listened. A couple of faint creaks and snaps sounded above us.
“Is that them?” When I turned to look at him Cain was nearer than expected, having also leaned in to listen. I took a nervous breath. He smelt as summery and clean as the beach. I scrambled backwards to put more distance between us, and then stood, brushing off my shorts. I crossed my arms over my chest. I’d been in on sessions with Dad’s public speaking coach and knew how defensive that looked but kept them crossed anyway.
“What does that mean?” I asked, jerking my head toward the carving of the words Adsero nos on the wall. Cain glanced up at the writing on the wall above his sofa and shrugged. “Well … I’m going to find Jude.”
I went down the dim corridor, the way I’d seen Jude go. I’d assumed he must be organising drinks or something so it startled me to find him sitting in an empty room. Knees up, ankles crossed in front of him, Jude studied my face momentarily and shot me a grin.
“You meditating or something?” I said. “Come on. I don’t know your friends. Come and introduce me.”
“Okay. Sorry, Frankie.”
Back in the main chamber two new faces turned to look at me with expressions of amazement.
“Francesca Caravaggio,” Cain supplied quickly.
“Frankie,” Jude added. “A friend from school.”
Instantly their faces were bathed in welcoming smiles. “Owen,” said the guy.
“Liz.” She folded her long skirt beneath her as she sank onto a mattress. “Nice to meet you, Frankie.”
Cain stayed on his sofa as they all got settled and I stood where I was, unsure what to do next.
“Sit down, Frankie,” Jude said.
“So, where did Cain find you?” Liz asked.
“Uh … I met him here.”
There was a long silence. “Jude brought you?” Owen said, his face blank.
“But Cain must have asked Jude to bring her,” Liz murmured.
I was puzzled. “How could he? Cain hadn’t even met me till five minutes ago.”
They both went silent and looked at Jude. Liz’s brow had creased. “Did Cain ask you to bring her, Jude?”
He grinned uncertainly. “I decided to bring Frankie. I thought he would think she was okay.”
“Jude!” Owen exclaimed at the same time as Liz wailed, “Jude!”
“It’s okay.” Cain’s voice washed calm over them. “It’s okay. She’s fine.”
I looked from face to face, waiting for an explanation, but none came. Cain distracted me with another of those smiles. The other three settled into their chips and cushions but the silence felt edgy. Sulky. My mind raced, trying to understand what had just happened. How could Jude put me through that? And it was simply humiliating that Cain had granted his approval.
“Jude,” I said. “I think I should go.”
“Please don’t.” Cain’s eyes held mine until I grew warm. I attempted a casual shrug.
“Poker?” Liz offered awkwardly.
“Deal ’em out,” Owen said.
She set up the game and Cain went to fetch more drinks. I sat on the edge of the sofa, watching as Jude brought a candle over to illuminate the card game. “Maybe you should bring a gas or battery lamp for better light.”
Jude laughed but neither of the other two did. It was like I’d missed some important point, or made a faux pas. All three of them looked up to check Cain’s reaction when he came back. Were they checking what he thought of me sitting here? This must be his sofa. I shifted to give him some room, alarmed once again by the way my skin prickled in response to his proximity.
“We like the candles,” he said.
I caught a look of adoration in Liz’s eyes as she glanced his way. Not exactly passion or lust, just adoration. It triggered a tiny flicker of jealousy inside me. I jumped up and paced the chamber, peering up at the ceiling.
“How do we even breathe in here?”
“There are ventilation pipes,” Jude said. “Don’t worry, Frankie. There’s plenty of air.”
“Caravaggio … so your family is Italian?” Liz asked.
I nodded. “Italian heritage, anyway.”
Owen glanced over. “You live in Augur’s Well? Permanently?”
I hoped not. I evaded the question, pretending to be engrossed in an examination of a wall sconce, so Jude offered an explanation on my behalf.
“Frankie’s dad’s a big name author so she normally tours around with him and gets private tutoring. But she’s staying in town with her uncle this year. She wants to finish her senior year at college, isn’t that right, Frankie?”
“Wants is a very strong word,” I said, and regretted it straight away. What was wrong with me? I didn’t need anyone knowing about the conflict with my dad. Especially this peculiar bunch of misfits.
“You’d rather not be in Augur’s Well?” Liz asked.
“No, it’s fine. It’s a nice town.”
Owen hadn’t taken his eyes off me. “Would we know your father’s books? What’s his name?”
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said.
Liz laughed. “I’ll take you, Frankie. I need to go, too.”
It seemed we were obliged to leave the underground chamber altogether so I groped my way through the tunnel again behind Liz, secretly scared of the blackness outside the candlelit room. “This is screwy,” I muttered. “Why don’t you get some lighting set up in here?”
Liz, already halfway up the ladder, gave a ghostly chuckle. It made my hair stand on end. I scrambled after her and when she opened the trapdoor, I felt like I was sucking in air after drowning.
“Off you go.” Liz handed me some tissues and I stared at them dumbly. “Into the trees. No bathrooms out here except open-air ones.”
Lovely. I accepted the tissues and went a short way into the scrubby woods to crouch behind a tree. Liz emerged from behind her own tree a minute later, picking her way back toward the ruin. I paused in the middle of zipping up my shorts to watch her put her head back so the end of her long plait swung in the curve of her spine. Liz stared at the night sky like that, hands on hips, until she lost her balance. She had to whip her head forward to stop herself from falling.
Outside, all of those interactions in the underground chamber felt wrong, somehow. Like a transgression. “Uh, listen, Liz,” I said as I joined her in the clearing. “Do you think you could tell Jude to come up? I’m kind of tired and I’d like to go home.”
“Oh, no, you’ve got to come in and say goodbye,” she began but I shook my head. I did not want to go back down there and subject myself to Cain Aleister’s extraordinary face again.
“Sometimes I freak out in enclosed spaces.” It was a bald-faced lie. “Tell them goodbye for me. Just send Jude up. Please, Liz?”
“Oh … all right.” Liz seemed perturbed by my decision. “Well, take care of yourself, Frankie. I’ll see you again soon, okay?”
She hurried away and, a minute or so later, Jude emerged from the ruin. I felt a confusing mixture of gratification and dismay to see Cain was with him.
“See you round,” I called, hoping that would suffice.
But Cain approached. I stood on the passenger side of Jude’s car, holding onto the handle to quell my trembling while I waited for him to unlock my door.
Cain stopped in front of me. “Will you come back tomorrow night? We’re all going to be here again.”
“Um, maybe.” I jiggled the door handle. “Jude, my door’s locked.”
“Did you like them?” He tipped his head, indicating the ruin.
“Yeah, they seem nice.”
“You will come back, won’t you? Jude said he’ll bring you again.”
I looked at Jude, sitting there behind the steering wheel. Why wouldn’t he unlock my door? “Yeah, I’ll try. Jude, open my door please.”
“Great! I’ll see you tomorrow.” Cain gave me that smile and the last of my composure failed me. I stared, fascinated, as he headed back into the ruin and Jude finally unlocked my door.
Downfall – The Incorruptibles #1 – is out now, exclusive to Amazon. Still available at the release special price of 99c or free on Kindle Unlimited. Click to download on Amazon.