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The Paradise Gate

The Zalmoxis Virginia Solution

By Agathos DaimonPublished 3 months ago 40 min read
Rodentia Muscipula

Lake District. May 2019

‘Welcome to The Poppies, folks. Travelling light, are we?’ George asked the couple dripping on his foyer carpet, merged into each other like rivets in steel. He guessed they were mid-forties. Him perhaps a bit older than her, although difficult to tell. ‘If you've more luggage in the car I can bring it up afterwards, once you've checked in. No point in going back out there if you don't have to, is there?’ He flipped open the registration book and offered them a pen.

Falteringly she raised her hand, then glanced at her partner. ‘Err, no, no, that's everything we have,’ she said softly. ‘All we need.’ She flicked a droplet from her forehead.

‘Ah, Americans,’ thought George. ‘And no wedding rings. I wonder...?’

Her partner coughed, clutched her hand and said, ‘Are we sure, darling?’

Dark patches spread about their feet, a portent of the path they were about to tread.

‘Is something wrong? Have you changed your minds?’ George was mildly affronted. ‘We're rated three stars by the Tourist Board you know, and have a 4.9 rating on Trip Advisor...’

‘Yes, we're sure,’ she said to her partner, wearily. ‘We've talked about this. We agreed there's no other option. Besides, it's too late to change our minds now.’ She tenderly touched his bristled jaw then turned back to George. ‘I'm sorry. It's been a long journey and we're really tired. You must think us so rude. We don't doubt your ratings. We are where we need to be.’

And yet, George cogitated, her face belied her.

‘We have a meeting with Dr Charon,’ her partner interjected with an urgent throaty whisper, and whilst craning his neck to peer into rooms nearby he placed a silver sixpence on the desk.

George congratulated himself on his perceptiveness.

‘Ah, I see,’ he replied, snapping shut the register. ‘One moment.’ He removed himself briskly from behind his highly polished desk and promptly went to close the front doors, throwing two black bolts into place with a loud thud. ‘There, that's better.’ He brushed his palms down his Saville Row waistcoat, clicked the heels of his immaculate Berluti shoes and addressed his guests. ‘Dr Charon has reserved the Acheron Suite for your meeting.’

Simultaneously their expressions changed. ‘Oh, we're so relieved,’ they said together. ‘You must be Albert?’

‘Indeed! Now I am sure you'll be eager to get settled and, without wishing to appear discourteous, I must have you out the way before my other guests return from their outing. I sent them to Wray Castle for the day. Best I could do given the weather, but it won't keep them out for much longer. Were you followed do you think?’ George snatched up their still dripping suitcase and marched quickly up the creaking Victorian staircase. ‘And car keys. I'll need those. You've no more need of them. Quickity, quick, folks. Quickity, quick.’

Throwing one last look at the bolted door they hurried along behind him, stirred into furtive action. ‘S, Sam has the keys,’ she shivered.

‘No, we weren't followed. I'm certain of that,’ said Sam, catching up with George on the second landing. ‘We were very careful. Meticulously adhered to every instruction.’

‘Excellent,’ said George stopping abruptly at a ceiling high bookcase, massed with neglected tomes. ‘We're just in here. Marvellous things these cantilevers,’ he pushed on a volume entitled “Effective Problem Solving Strategies for Librarians” and with a small click half of the bookcase swung away before him.

Within lay a modest two room suite, sucked of colour by mist grey light dribbling through a single Gothic window. An air conditioning unit softly pulsed somewhere overhead.

‘I've set a tray for you over on the side, with cold meats, fruit, bread and so forth. There's a flask of hot soup too, yellow split pea, so I hope that's OK? In the cupboard in the corner you'll find a fridge and an assortment of other beverages and snacks.’ George checked to be sure they were paying attention. He didn't have time to repeat himself. His other guests could return at any moment.

‘And in here, is the bedroom with en-suite.’ He flicked on the bedside lights. ‘I know it looks a little daunting but I'm sure you'll be just fine. I've never had any complaints so far. If anything, I'm told it's a great night's sleep. Indeed, sleep to die for!’ He dropped the suitcase onto the luggage rack. ‘Now you've nothing to worry about. It's only for one night. Our friends at Zalmoxis have organised everything. I'll go through it with you in the morning. The suite is fully sound proofed so if you need anything at all, then don't hesitate to call me on this phone.’ He placed a stubby hand on top of the bedside handset. ‘It'll come directly through to my mobile. Please do not leave the suite. If you do, everything will be cancelled. You'll be on your own. Do we understand each other?’

‘Yes, yes, of course. Thank you. This is great. We'll probably just relax and watch a bit of TV. Maybe clean up, eat and hit the sack. Like Mindy said, we're both really tired.’ Sam passed George the car keys, pressing them into his hands gratefully.

‘Albert, what's that gorgeous smell?’ asked Mindy.

‘Oh, that's just one of my hobbies,’ he answered, attempting politely to withdraw. ‘It's from the plant on the sideboard, in the other room. Nepenthes Alata. A sweet-scented little specimen. A pitcher plant. It seems to like it in here and it keeps the rooms smelling pleasant when we can't open the windows, for obvious reasons!’ He gave them a self-deprecating bow, at which point his mobile began to ring. ‘Ah, that's the front doorbell. They must be back. Good night, sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite...’

Left alone, they held each other tightly, listening as the bookcase door sealed them in. They stared at the bed. A heavy, highly polished, four-poster of dark wood dominated the room, hung with maroon brocade and set against a wall of ivy coloured flock wallpaper.

‘What do you think, Sam?’ Mindy queried. ‘It's a bit of a monster, eh?’

‘Sure is,’ said Sam.

* * *

Scarborough. July 2006

As dusk settled in a golden light coruscated the sky, veined with traces of crimson, prismed by the moisture saturated air within Georges glasshouse into a virtual rainbow. A forest of plant pots covered the benches, each one cradling an abundance of vibrant, exotic herbaceous perennials and evergreens. The air sluggish and sticky, thick with the earthy smell of sphagnum peat, counterpointed by scents of sweet vanilla, mint and citrus. Insects hummed softly, bouncing off glass, dancing over splinters of wood, resting on strands of moss, or cautiously exploring the precipice of a peristome or outer lobe. Each a whisker from providing a protein and nitrogen rich food source to the fibrous, dew soaked, organisms painted in scarlet bruises.

The harmonies of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata floated in synchronicity with the atmospheric movements created by George as he moved from bench to bench.

‘There we go, my beauties, that's us for today,’ he tenderly caressed the smooth, slippery glans of the nearest pitcher plant. As Holst's Venus subsumed the last notes of the Sonata, George adjusted his oxygen mask, set aside his tape measure and made some final entries in a small leather-bound notebook. He sighed, infused with a deep sense of satisfaction, before turning solemnly to regard his pride and joy. Sat within a one-meter square wooden planter, poised on its own podium at the very centre of his array, prospered Georges greatest success. “They” had told him it could never be done. “Impossible”, “you'll make yourself a laughingstock.” What would they say now? His peers at the International Carnivorous Plant Association would surely be falling over themselves to offer him the 2007 UK Presidency, once they saw Dee-Dee. She should be ready to show in January. Forget that pushy millennium madam, waving her BSC in Ecology and Environmental Science in your face. Bulldozing her way onto the Committee. Ruddy Lorelei Earnhart-Fox.

A hybrid, some twenty years in development from a propagation programme of his own design, Dee-Dee filled her planter, her robust avocado tinged waxy outer rim curved upwards supported by the wooden side panels. The inner gloss of the plant's basin hidden from view by an interlocking set of four crimson dusted petal lids, their edges interlaced with each other like interlocking fingers and hinged to the rim by a row of spurs beneath. Each the spur supported by a leathery rib. The four petals were crusted with a million tiny follicles, creating a sponge like texture. Tendrils of green shoots sprang from the corners, small pearly beads beginning to form along the stems with the promise of a stunning floral display.

George, thrilled with his results, contemplated his options to accommodate the continued growth of his creation, conscious she'd nearly outgrown her planter. Tempted as he was to reveal his triumph to the Association, jealous protective pride and caution held him back until Dee-Dee had reached the pinnacle of her development. He tapped his oxygen gauge, checking his supply.

‘Time to say nighty night, my love,’ he said stroking the rim. ‘I'll be back tomorrow, once I've changed my tank. Gorgeous as you smell I can't let you send me to sleep again, eh?’ He chuckled to himself, remembering the heady scent which had caused him to feel so feint and fall to his knees the previous month. It had been a fright, but one he'd happily taken as a lesson to be learned; to be wary of the powerful, soporific nature of Dee-Dees aroma. Technically Dee-Dee should be classified as a “Rodentia Muscipula,” although he preferred his own alternative of “Dracularus Datura,” given 'her' love of fresh liver from the local butcher.

Turning off the background music, he tidied away his tools and opened the glasshouse door. A rush of fresh cool air washed over him. Pausing to remove his mask and pick up the small oxygen tank, he was oblivious to a ginger shadow slipping past him.

* * *

At 9.00pm Mrs Perriwinkle was standing at her back door, light from her kitchen framing an elastic shadow splayed across the garden. Pinpricks of diamond light glittered against a sable canvas, with silver leaf trimming the rooftops. An icy breath circulated around her ankles.

‘Kahn, Kahn! Here, Kahn. Come on, Kahn.’ She rattled a bag of kibble and called again.

‘It's no good, Ivan. There's no sign of him. It's not like him not to come back for his dinner. Do you think we should go out and have a quick look, in case he's been hit by a car? You know what some of these lunatics are like, racing up and down these side streets!’ She withdrew into the warmth, her brow creased with worry.

‘Oh, he'll be alright, luv,’ Ivan called from the comfort of his favourite armchair. ‘He'll come back when he's good and ready. Probably found a nest of rats to torment over near that bloody takeaway on Carson Street. Did you see the amount of rubbish out the back of their place yesterday? A disgrace it was. I tell you, if it's still like that tomorrow I'm phoning the Council. Now come 'n' sit down. That programme you wanted to watch is going start any minute...’

‘Do you really think he'll be OK? Mind, he did get himself locked in at number 12 that time, do you remember? Caused Mrs Dodsworth such a fright crawling out from under her eider down.’ She looked out of the window once more, wondering, then said, ‘Do you fancy a cuppa? Be nice to watch it with a cup of tea...’

* * *

Sulphur. There was a distinct smell of sulphur. ‘What on earth...!’ His forest of plants was in disarray, some toppled over on their side, sand grains spilling onto the floor. George looked around; panic-stricken. He examined Dee-Dee but was quickly reassured. In fact, she appeared to have a vibrant energy to her, a fresh glossy sheen to her membrane. Only that smell! He was sure it was coming from Dee-Dee.

George reached for his nitrile gloves, secured his oxygen mask and firmly applied some pressure to the spongy surface of the nearest petal. Gracefully, slowly, it retracted, curling downward like an emerald fist, releasing a fresh assault on his olfactory glands. Cautiously George peered into the viscoelastic digestive soup.

‘Oh my!’ He exclaimed. ‘You must have been especially hungry last night.’

* * *

Lake District. May 2019

Back in the oak panelled foyer George reopened his front door. A steady drizzle obscured his view to the hills and lake beyond. Leaning against the door frame he opened one of the smart apps on his mobile phone, raised the temperature by five degrees and set the air conditioning timer for 'off' at 11pm. 'There you go! Guaranteed to have a great night's sleep, whatever your real names are.' With restless anticipation he switched over to his remote camera app, curious to see how his new guests were settling in.

Mindy and Sam were in the sitting room eating the soup, the subtle change to their environment appeared to have gone unnoticed. Judging by the rumpled covers on the bed they had already tested it for comfort. Satisfied that all was as it should be George made short work of hiding their vehicle in the shabby, overhung, double length garage behind the manor house. His contact, Thomas, would collect the car in the next 24 hours and organise its disposal in an efficient, and mutually lucrative, arrangement which had worked successfully on many occasions already. It would probably be in an Eastern Bloc country by midnight on Saturday.

He had just mounted the entrance steps to return to his desk when tyres crunched on gravel, announcing the return of official residents. 'Showtime!' he told himself. ‘Welcome back, folks! I was beginning to wonder where you had got to. I do hope you've all had a great day, despite this,’ he said, raising his eyes to heaven. 'Oh, the price of maintaining a legitimate front,' he reflected, following them inside. 'Still anything is better than working for that bloody bully, McKenzie. What a long way we've come since.'

‘So, how about some hot chocolate stiffened with a little brandy for good measure, to keep you going before dinner...?’ With resigned aplomb George spent the remainder of the late afternoon and evening catering to the whims of his official guests and advising them on activities for the following day. Time passed swiftly. Before he realised it, his guests were retiring to bed; their heads reeling in a fog of alcohol, bellies stretched to bursting.

By midnight George had finished locking down the house. A dull throb traced its way up and down his spine, cramp spasming in the calf muscle of his left leg.

‘Bugger!’ he cursed, finally collapsing onto his own bed. Lying on his back he checked the camera feed on his phone one last time. Under the canopy of the four-poster the grainy forms of Mindy and Sam lay motionless beneath a single sheet, their bodies rolled together in a deepening hollow in the middle of the bed. George could hear their soft rhythmic breathing. Reassured they were in a deep, almost comatose, sleep he followed suit shortly after.

* * *

September 2002

‘Julian, it's just not right,’ George could feel his cheeks flushing, his blood pressure rising. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

‘I don't give a flying fig what you think, George. Company Charter or otherwise. You are NOT promoting Helen. You'll give the job to David Symonds or you'll not have a job yourself by this time tomorrow.’

McKenzie towered over him, ripping up Georges document detailing the arguments for Helens promotion and promptly threw the pieces at him like so much confetti. In the small confines of his office George felt intimidated. He knew it was exactly what Julian wanted. He resolved to stand firm.

‘How can you preach about the Company Charter and values when you are blatantly ignoring them. Poor Helen has worked so hard to keep the department going, and she's done a sterling job. How's it going to look? Bringing in David, whose barely out of Uni, to be her line manager! It's utterly ridiculous.’ George began to stand.

‘SIT DOWN,’ Julian roared, not caring if his voice carried. He leaned forward until he was barely an inch from Georges face and hissed. ‘Don't ever try to contradict me again or use the Company Charter as the basis for an argument. I wrote the darn thing. I am the Charter. I know it inside out and I will NOT be lectured by you or anyone else on it. Do You Understand...?’

George gulped, looked away nodding, defeated, degraded and in despair.

McKenzie raised himself back to his full height once more, ran his fingers through his mass of silver hair, tugged at the lapels of his designer suit and pressed his lips into a grim line. Reaching into his brown leather briefcase he retrieved a buff file, paused then dropped it for dramatic effect with a slap onto the desk.

‘Your Stat's for this Hotel, George, are crap. Your GP is nine points below budget. Your average room rate is a joke. Your occupancy isn't even on the radar and customer service ratings over the last quarter are in the toilet. This unit should be a doddle. There's no excuse, so! Consider yourself on notice.’ His long fingers snapped off one of the heads of the Venus Fly Trap which George kept on his desk. He held it up next his mouth, puppet like, and continued, ‘Turn this around in four weeks or you're gone. I've plenty of good people queuing up for a property like this, so you'll not be missed.’ The briefcase closed with a ferocious snap. Deliberately Julian tossed the hinged lobes of the Fly Trap at George's face. ‘Maybe you'd be well advised to hang out with your freaky friends here, because you're really no good to me and after this I promise I'll make sure you're no good to anyone else either.’ After a lengthy silence George finally found the courage to look up. McKenzie had gone.

Hands shaking, he gulped some water from a bottle then mopped his brow with a crumpled handkerchief. His breath was ragged, verging on asthmatic. Struggling to regain his composure he straightened his tie and ventured out into the lobby, heading for the cloakrooms. He saw Julian standing at reception talking animatedly to the Reception Manager; lovely, loyal Elaine. She caught his eye, pity embedded in her look. He stumbled into the gents, found a cubicle and vomited.

Two months later he was dismissed for gross incompetence, unable to defend the avalanche of data presented during the hearing and conscious his team were being coached for the betterment of their own careers and job security. He found himself unwilling to compromise their positions for his sake. Bitter and disappointed at the abject humiliation exacted upon him he departed without any farewell from the team. Only lovely, loyal Elaine had the courage to slip him a good luck card.

George soon rallied, taking much comfort in the company of his “freaky friends,” focus on their propagation giving him renewed purpose. A bachelor, George consolidated his assets and acquired a small Bed and Breakfast in a leafy enclave of Scarborough. People generally annoyed him, none more so than customers, but alas it was a trade he understood, and, with good grace, he believed The Hawthorns could provide him a modest income until retirement.

He'd taken the warning from McKenzie, recognising references would be useless and acknowledging his age was likely against him. At least, he rationalised, with his Bed and Breakfast he could choose when he wanted to be open and concentrate his energies on his beloved plants. Who knew, he might even become a Committee Member at the Association?

The Hawthorns proved perfect. A Victorian end of terrace, set over four floors with lengthy garden at the rear, part of which he was able to dedicate to a modest glasshouse, it gave George a sense of contentment. Miles away from his old job, his resentments faded.

* * *

November 2006

Claws of cold bitterness scratched through the streets of Scarborough, raking a russet, olive and rubicund blizzard in its wake, ripped from spent, withered trees. The empty sockets of The Hawthorns scowled at the pedestrians as they struggled to stay upright against hammer blow gusts and traverse the irregular paving slabs rising at their feet like stunted teeth.

The season had thankfully ended. Sand encrusted tourists with their candy floss finger marks and discarded burger boxes of stale grease had receded like the tide. At least until the following year, and he'd have to play nice all over again. George cradled a brandy laden hot chocolate, warming his fingers and waiting for the excruciatingly annoying Lorelei to call him via Skype.

‘Good afternoon George,’ Lorelei's long aquiline nose filled the screen; her high-pitched tones pierced his eardrums like needles through a balloon.

‘Hello, Lorelei. How are things in Milton Keynes?’ he made a deliberate effort to start amiably.

Lorelei fell into focus, sitting in her high-backed executive chair, ‘mmm, yes, everything is good here, thank you. A little raw now we're into Autumn, but the sun is shining. How about with you, up there in Scare-borough?’

He rankled, screwed up his face, and took a sip from his mug, drawing comfort from the alcoholic kick. ‘Oh, you're such a wit, Lorelei. Yes, yes, all good here too. Not bad for a wee town which gets just over 1.5 million British visitors a year. Second only to London - apparently, so perhaps not quite so scary!’

‘Shall we cut to the chase, George? We're both busy, well I am anyway.’ Testily she tapped a freshly sharpened pencil against a note pad. ‘As Vice President this conversation falls to me to have, so please, after all our notable differences, be assured there is nothing personal in this. The Committee all acknowledge you've done some terrific work with the seed bank, especially after your trip in the 90s to Borneo and Sumatra - truly amazing. And, of course, we appreciate some of the early propagation experiments you've reported on. You were positively pioneering with the Vegetative Apomixis and Rhizomes. All of that said we would like you to reconsider your position and withdraw from standing for the UK Presidency. The Association is heading down a different path these days, looking to work in partnership with agencies in the field of medical research. The chemicals and enzymes of these plants offer a critical avenue for advancing both the profile of the genus and enhancing our conservation efforts.’ She reached for her bottled water; pale lips dry, cracked.

‘I'm sorry Lorelei, but I find it a bit hard to swallow - this isn't personal! I've been with the Association for over twenty years, in various capacities. I don't see why I should reconsider my position, just so you can swan in and bask in the glory of our early achievements. You've been with us barely two minutes, but you think you know it all don't you?’ Blood rushed to his neck, his cheeks mottled, chocolate spittle spattered his screen.

‘There's really no need to take that attitude, George. I'm trying to be reasonable. Length of membership has nothing to do with it. Facts are facts. My strategy paper on the future direction of the Association was approved at the last Committee Meeting,’ she held up a hand before he could interrupt. ‘I know you weren't there, but there it is. Nine votes to two, with one abstention. They just feel that as Vice President and author of the strategy I'm best placed to take things forward. If you insist on standing, you'll only muddy the whole process and, to be honest, the Committee don't want you to face any embarrassment. The long and short of it, George, is that many members now regard you as a bit of a crank; obsessed with this Rodentia Muscipula project, a legend of man-eating trees in Madagascar and warning everyone plants are about to turn on humanity as the planet gets hotter. Let's face it, you've become a running joke - and there's still zero evidence of progress with the Rodentia.’ She smirked and shook her head, flicking her shoulder-length hair.

‘You've no idea what you're talking about - as usual. I have a strong circle of support within the membership. You're just worried you'll lose. And I do have evidence, I'm just not ready to share it,’ George set aside his hot chocolate, and leaned forward.

‘Whatever George. I've only your word for it. Without formal evidence lodged with the Association it's a moot point. So, let's talk 'support' shall we. The demographics show that your “circle” makes up 18% of the membership, largely down to non-renewals due to financial circumstances or death. Harsh, maybe, but there it is. As for the balance they only know your name as a committee member, whereas I'm in contact with them every month. You might pick up an additional vote of say 10%, but let's face it, not everyone votes as you might expect. I'm under no illusion, incidentally, the same applies to me but on balance I'm VERY confident how the vote will go.’ She put the end of the pencil between her lips, assessing his response. ‘I don't play, George, unless I know I'm going to win.’

Confounded, he sat pondering his reply. ‘It makes me very sad to know the Association has had its values corrupted to the extent it can be hi-jacked as a vehicle for your own personal advantage. It is clearly not going to be the organisation it once was, so I will have to consider the viability and value of my continued relationship with the ICPA. My post as a Committee member will be up for renewal at the AGM, along with all the other roles, so probably best if I resign, as I clearly have no future role to play.’ His words tasted of bile.

‘Well, that's for you to decide, George,’ she replied breezily. ‘Not necessarily what we were looking for, but of course we respect your choice. I know you'll be missed. And on that note, I think we're done as I've another call in a few minutes. You take care now...bye.’

Repressed rage seared his veins. The nerves behind his eyes throbbed. Globules of chocolate liquid span through the air, spattering random blotches across apple white paintwork, and running in tears down the door. Ceramic shards splintered in a wide arc; half a handle coming to rest with a musical clink inside a tall vintage blue vase.

* * *

August 2010

'For pities sake!' thought George. 'Have people no bloody patience?' Irritated, he threw the bed sheets on the floor and stomped down the six flights of stairs, wiping his brow as he descended. ‘Bloody heat,’ he grumbled to himself, praying for a break in the weather, despite the positive effects on his business and Scarborough as a whole.

The bell rattled three more times. He checked his watch. ‘My eye! It's not even yet. Whoever has their fingers on that doorbell better pray they're not hoping to keep them.' He turned sharply onto the last flight, conscious of his armpits displaying his weight issue and inability to regulate his own body temperature. He spied a fuzzy, tall figure hovering the other side of the door, face pressed against the frosted glass panel. A fist banged the door, shaking the frame. George checked his attitude, enacting a mental adjustment and, breathless from his downward dash, yanked open the door.

Even as he began to speak, his words caught in his throat as, eyes wide, he registered the identity of the person on his doorstep. Someone he had thought never to see again, hadn't seen in over eight years. A tremor rippled through his body.

Dressed in grey slacks sporting a razor-sharp crease, a tailored Hugo Boss white shirt, and gleaming Berluti shoes stood Julian McKenzie, tanned face wrought with exasperation. ‘About bloody time!’ he exploded, whipping off his mirrored sunglasses, grabbing at a large blue holdall and pushing past George. ‘I need to check in now and drop this off with you as I'm buggered if I'm lugging it around in this heat. My people have booked me in for tonight, so I'm leaving this with you.’ He threw it against the wall and clapped his hands. ‘Come on man, get to it. I can't afford to be wasting time.’ He stopped to stare at George, eyes narrowing.

George rallied, reminding himself that McKenzie no longer held leverage over him. ‘I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. These old regency town houses! So many floors! Now then, booked in for tonight you say. Under what name, please?’ He decided to feign ignorance and proceeded to log into his i-pad.

Julian was clicking his fingers, eyes half closed, in deep reflection. ‘George?’ his voice rose in surprised recognition. ‘Not-So-Curious George'? Fernhill House? Bloody hell man! What on earth are you doing here? What are you? The cleaner?’ His pristine teeth flashed.

Looking up from his reservations, George peered at Julian over the rim of his bifocals, resolute. ‘I am indeed the cleaner, Julian. At least for today. My girl has called in sick - so needs must,’ he said shrugging his shoulders. ‘When you own the place, you do what you have to...’ He continued to scroll through his bookings while privately deriving a crumb of pleasure from the look of surprise on his adversary's face.

‘What? You own this place! My God, George. Good for you,’ said Julian, giving him a congratulatory pat on the arm. ‘Mind, this was always about your level. See, I did a good thing. Did you a favour. Set you on the right path. Good to know. Now, how about getting me checked in?’

‘I'm afraid 'your people' haven't booked you in at all, Julian. Not yet anyway, and as it happens, I am fully booked this evening. I'm so sorry...especially when there's not a single room to be had in a forty-mile radius of Scarborough this week. Not even in York.’ He enjoyed knowing Julian was in a fix, watching fury infect his face at the thought his team had either failed him, or George was being difficult and there was nothing he could do about it.

As it was George genuinely had no booking for Julian, nor any available bedrooms. Not one he could let, anyway.

‘You can't be serious! What are you saying? I might have to travel over to Harrogate or Leeds? That's ridiculous. And you have nothing? You're certain? Even in a dump like this?’ His exasperation continued to feed Georges sense of gratification, albeit he rankled at Julian's description of The Hawthorns.

George merely shook his head apologetically, his small pudgy hands folded over his paunch, trying to appear sincere. Julian stepped outside, incandescent. George could hear some poor unfortunate minion being torn to shreds; their incompetence set to haunt them on Julian's return to the office.

‘Sorry, about that George. I don't understand how that's happened. Complete cock up. New PA. Only been with me a couple of months. Doesn't look like she'll make the end of probation.’ His demeanour suddenly switched, facial muscles reassembling into a smile. George had heard plenty about Julian's infamous charisma, particularly from women across the company who he'd attempted to lure into many a liaison, but he'd never seen it in action himself. It amused him to think Julian expected any wheedling would render any assistance.

'And yet.' His thoughts drifted to room 4.

‘Come on George. Surely you know someone; be able to do something to help me out. I'm supposed to be at a meeting in fifteen minutes. We're taking over a Hotel at the top of the town. It's all hush hush at this stage, so I can't afford not to be local . It's too important. It'd only be one night, honest. That's all I need. Come on! For old times' sake! You must have a rabbit you can pull out of the bag.’

It felt good to hear him beg.

‘Actually, Julian. I've had a bit of a thought. You're evidently in quite a fix. Can't promise anything of course, but if you leave it with me until this afternoon, I'll see what I can do. Let me have the number for your PA and I'll sort it out with them. They'll need to pay up front, though. Sorry, but you know how it is. No contract with the old firm, so...,’ he raised his eyebrows expectantly.

‘That'd be awesome, George. Great!’ Julian released a small explosion of breath. ‘Can I leave this with you anyway?’ he asked, pointing at the holdall. ‘How serendipitous is this, eh? That the office sends me here and cocks up my booking. Clearly meant to be, eh? My office number is on there. Speak to Helen and get it sorted.’ He slipped a business card onto the side table. With a jaunty step he headed out, jingling his car keys in his pocket.

'Arrogant son of a bitch!' George reflected, watching him climb into his BMW and drive off at speed. He didn't give a single backward glance. 'Get it sorted, indeed. I'll get you sorted, my friend, once and for all.'

* * *

In room four George had the windows and doors wide open. He busied himself to the perpetual cry of seagulls, relishing the slightly cooler air and gratefully acknowledging the benefits of being at the top of the house. An unassuming room of moderate proportions it looked out over the narrow rear garden towards the glasshouse. It had long been used for storage, until three years earlier when he had faced a dilemma. Dee Dee had outgrown the original podium planter and needed more space. With a degree of planning, and much physical effort on his part, George had managed to relocate Dee Dee to room four during the winter closure. 'She' now occupied a space just shy of two square meters, supported by a solid pine frame, constructed to a height of 46 cm. The lip of Dee Dees basin marginally crested over the edges of the frame, within which she enjoyed a rich mixed bed of sand, soil and sphagnum moss.

‘How do you like the idea of playing Fancy Dress, Dee-Dee?’ Nervous excitement rippled through his body. ‘We're going to have a very special guest tonight and I want you to see if you can make him as comfortable as possible.’ Having already cut a series of elongated perforations along the centre he cast a sheet over the top, careful to hide the flower pod tendrils trailing from the corners which faced the door. The remaining two tendrils he wound decoratively over the reading lights protruding from the wall. Deliberately he placed a low wattage bulb in the ceiling light and another in one of the reading lights. The second reading light he left with a dead bulb.

'After all, you'll be expecting crap standards from me and I wouldn't want to disappoint on this occasion.'

In just over an hour he'd completed Dee Dee's transformation, creating to all intents and purposes, a lettable guest room. On the dresser he placed a trio of plants, the most dominant of which was a Venus Fly Trap which stood tall over the smaller Sundew and Butterwort.

‘Darling, you look absolutely wonderful,’ he declared, satisfied with his handywork. He locked the window shut and pocketed the key. ‘Just the bathroom across the hall to sort and I think we're ready, my lovely.’ He rubbed his hands with excited anticipation.

Helen confirmed the booking, efficiently processing the advance payment via company credit card, and promised faithfully to notify Julian everything was sorted out. She was confident he would be fine having a bathroom across the hall, as it was only for one night.

* * *

Muggy thick air coagulated around George who sat waiting quietly in a pool of soft light in the bay window of his resident's lounge. It was after midnight when beams of light swept the room, followed by the sound of steps being scuffed. George swung the doors open moments before Julian reached for the bell.

‘Ah, George. Good of you to stay up. Sorry it's so late.’ His shirt a maze of wrinkles, he stumbled across the threshold, burped and grabbed at Georges shoulders. Accents of alcohol enveloped them.

‘I'll take those, shall I?’ George said firmly, easing the car keys from Julian's sweaty fingers. ‘Best keep them down here in case it needs moving. They can be funny buggers around here, this close to the esplanade.’ He guided Julian through into the hallway. ‘Not to worry about the time,’ he continued. ‘I'm sure you've had an exhausting day, so I'll just take you straight up, shall I? It's not a palace I'm afraid, but you should be comfortable for tonight at least. I've popped a small fan into the room for you too, what with the heat, along with some iced water. To look at you I suspect it'll not be long before you're fast asleep.’ George swiftly locked and bolted the outer and inner doors, then led Julian up the stairs. ‘Top of the shop, I'm afraid. I hadn't planned on having it as a letting room but looks like you've done me another favour..!’

Julian swayed on the second landing, slurring his words. ‘What can I say, George. I'm just the gift that keeps on giving... Maybe I should be on commission?’

‘Whoops a daisy,’ said George, putting out a steadying hand. ‘Not far now.’

Julian wanted to just sit on the stairs, so it took considerable effort to reach room four. George thought it nothing short of miraculous he'd made it back at all.

‘Ah, that'll do nicely George. Knew you'd come through when I found out you'd moved here. You never did have the balls to refuse me, eh? Can't believe you're still infatuated with these perversions,’ he gestured at the plants. His tongue tumbled over the words, seemingly disconnected from his brain. ‘Right, you can bugger off now. I'll be down for my full English at six.’

‘Good night, Julian. Sleep well. I've no doubt you deserve it,’ replied George politely, pulling the door shut as Julian began to wrestle himself out of his clothes. He reconciled his conscience as he skipped lightly down to his rooms in the basement, Julian having confirmed his earlier suspicions. ‘You enjoy your pyrrhic victory while you can.’

* * *

‘You're most welcome to inspect all the bedrooms, Officer, but they have already been thoroughly cleaned. Besides I have had other guests stay in the meantime, so I'm not sure what good it will do you. It was Monday when he stayed, after all.’ George set a cappuccino down next to the investigating officer, who was busy scribbling notes. ‘So, he never showed up on Tuesday? Goodness me! He was somewhat worse for wear on Monday night, I have to say. Had a drink or two I believe.’ George pinched his nose and grimaced. ‘How he made it back here I'll never know; oh, yes, of course. He got in sometime between midnight and quarter past. I took him straight up.’ George moved seats to avoid the glare of the sun streaming through his windows. ‘He'd booked breakfast for 6, which he had, and he was away by 6.30. His bill had been paid by the company, so it was all very straightforward. I should say, it was a shock to see him again after so long. We'd worked together previously, you see, and it hadn't ended well.’ The information was greeted with more scribbling and a knitted brow. ‘About 8 years ago, maybe more. Anyway, all long since forgotten. Life's too short after all. In fact, we had a bit of a laugh about it because if that hadn't happened, I'd never have ended up with this place and I'm so much happier being my own boss.’ With the cappuccino drained and his offers of further help noted the Officer departed.

The interview lasted about an hour, including a cursory inspection of the letting rooms. All except number 4. George did suggest it, but the officer declined. Possibly because of the smell, which he asserted was due to some broken pipework in one of the bathrooms.

McKenzie's daughter had reported him missing on Wednesday afternoon, having failed to attend his grandson's birthday party the day before. Apparently, Julian was a divorcee with no notable 'other'. His car had been discovered in the early hours of Thursday, parked up at the far end of North Beach. In the boot they had found his holdall, leather briefcase and some work files. A few clothes, fitting the description given to them by his work colleagues from Monday, had been found among the rocky outcrops at the north end, but no sign of car keys or his mobile phone.

The Scarborough News ran an article the following week about a missing man, suspected of drowning after going for a swim in the sea whilst under the influence of alcohol. No 'foul play' suspected. In a follow-up article six weeks later George read with interest the conjecture that Julian had staged his disappearance due to a number of financial irregularities and personal significant debts. The article pointedly highlighted that his body was never recovered, sparking thought in Georges head.

* * *

The Dark Web. An arcane arena. A digital morass of underground opportunities. After weeks of cautious exploration, encryption, anonymous enquiry and three days of nail-biting anticipation a response had finally come in. George's skin basked in the sliver grey light of his liquid crystal display, his bulbous eyes devouring the information laid out in front of him. His heart raced; adrenalin driven at speeds sound might envy.

The Zalmoxis Institute. Guardians to the Paradise Gate for those who wished never to be found. 'Zi' had assessed the data submitted by 'Albert' and confirmed his unique services could be of interest. A new European 'escape line' was being planned, codenamed 'Virginia' after the notorious world war two spy. 'Albert' would be the last node of contact for clients along the 'escape line' for which he would receive an advance of £25,000 into a Swiss bank account for each successful disappearance. An unpaid test case was to be arranged to assess viability. Zi would forward information on all protocols. 'Albert' was forbidden to initiate any further contact, merely to await instruction. The consequences of failing to honour the entirety of the contract need not be explained.

To commit George had only to click the iridescent green symbol, sitting starkly against a midnight milieu.

* * *

April 2015

Heat radiated across the street; a demonic corona shimmering over the rooftops. Red and orange tongues licked at slick black tiles, accompanied by flickering blue rivulets. Fractured glass clung to charred wood; curtains caught in flame like burning flags celebrating columns of boiling, plumbago smoke. A morbid semaphore heralding the death of The Hawthorns.

Wrapped in silver foil blankets, loitering among the puddles beyond the fire engines and cowered beneath umbrellas the former residents craned necks upward in despair. The Fire Chief had George cornered by the community garden fence, running through the guest list; assessing the additional fire risks for his team within; checking layout details.

‘It looks like you've lost the top floor and your roof, I'm afraid, but we've managed to get the rest under control. There'll be quite a bit of smoke damage though. At this stage it looks like a potential electrical fault, but we'll know better in the next 24 hours. Thankfully the buildings on either side are going to be OK. I see you have emergency arrangements for housing your guests, so it might be a good idea to get them placed. We can catch up after that.’ With a sharp nod she turned away.

It had been the right thing to do. ‘Poor Dee-Dee, but I just wouldn't have been able to get her out as she was. At least I have her babies, and we can start again. Thank heavens for 'Zi'. But for them, I could never have managed things.’ He reflected on the last three years. 'A year or so, and we'll be set up with a new life!' He sauntered off to find the Chief Fire Officer with a spring in his step. Zi was right of course. It wasn't wise to stay too long in one place. Not in this line of work.

* * *

May 2019

Ten thousand pounds in cash. Key to a safe deposit box in Mayfair. A photo of an elderly couple standing in front of a red front door, hung with a wreath.

'Stupid,' thought George, as he sorted out Sam and Mindy's belongings. 'They were told not to bring anything that could link them to their old lives.' He carried on emptying the suitcase, clothes spread over the olive-green chesterfield, shoes dropped on the carpet.

A finger of sunlight stabbed its way into the sitting room, spotlighting the Nepenthes Alata sitting on the dresser. The bookcase door and all the windows stood open, fresh air diluting the sulphurous exhalations in the adjacent room. George enjoyed the solitude, the sounds of birdsong beyond the windows. Absorbed by the process of 'erasure', as Zi labelled it, he never heard the doorbell. His mobile phone vibrated in his pocket.

‘Bugger! Who can't read signs?’ Muttering under his breath he hurried out of the suite, quietly shutting the bookcase behind him. He ran a hand over his balding pate, brushed down his waistcoat and hurried down the stairs. ‘Hello,’ he called ahead, ‘Can I help you? I am afraid we're closed at present...’ In the foyer, looking around at the fine art hanging on the walls stood an angular gentleman with freckles and scuffed brown shoes.

‘Good afternoon, Sir. Sorry to trouble you. DI Ganton. North Yorkshire Police. I'm looking for a Mr George Bink.’ He held up his Identity Card. ‘I'm hoping you can help.’

George froze. All that existed in that moment was the ticking of the grandfather clock. ‘Who? George Bink? Don't think I know the name, I'm afraid. Why do you think I can help?’

Ganton didn't flinch. ‘I've got this address from an Elaine Pickersby, an old colleague of Mr Bink. It's the last known address for him. I believe,’ he paused to check his note-book, ‘she wrote to him at this address in August last year. I'm sorry, but you are?’

‘Kenneth. Kenneth Harper. I'm the owner, here at The Poppies. I'm afraid I'm none the wiser, DI Ganton.’ George held his nerve. 'This can only be exploratory. Does he know it'd me? Does he have a description? Would there be more than one copper if he was here to arrest me?' Questions tumbled over each other. ‘Some refreshments perhaps, and you can explain a little more? Maybe Mr Bink stayed here last year. Saying that, I have an excellent memory for names and really don't recall that one.’

DI Ganton ran through the register over coffee, dropping into the conversation that Mr Bink was being sought to assist with their enquiries into the unsolved disappearance of a Mr McKenzie in Scarborough. His car keys and mobile had been discovered in a fat berg recently removed from the town's sewers.


About the Creator

Agathos Daimon

Here at Agathos Daimon we have a collection of unique and quirky fiction / fantasy stories for both adults & children.

We hope you enjoy what you encounter with us. With Love and Best Wishes for your safety,


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