All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
We stood together once more on top of the earthwork. A hell of a lot had changed. This time Professor Ross, head of department and senior tutor, had his arm round my waist. A whole new perspective on the world. We had worked and travelled together for so long that I knew what he was seeing, just as he would know my own thoughts now—a landscape under different light, slight differences in contour picked out by the lowering sun. Sometimes an ancient foundation, or something as ordinary but telling as fifteenth-century ridge-and-furrow ploughing, would jump into clarity.
I followed the line of the wall I had noticed before. It was clearer now, its eastern boundary thrown into sharper relief. I thought that I could even see a ghost of Jason’s stone-hut circles.
“Yes,” he said, as if I’d spoken the thought. “It’s all there. Come on. Let’s go and have a look.”
I glanced up at him in surprise. “What—from the barricade?”
“No. Up and over it.”
“You’re kidding. Won’t we get shot for trespassing?”
“Would that bother you?”
I considered. We’d done plenty of this before, when Jason’s idea of a boundary had not coincided with that of the landowner. We hadn’t tried it with the army before. But I got a dark thrill out of entering our dragons’ lairs, and Jason knew it. He held out his hand to me. I looked at his broad palm waiting for mine. At his smile—the trace of uncertainty in brown eyes turning fox-coloured in the sunset light, as if his whole happiness depended on my consent. At that moment, I would have followed him straight into hell. I smiled, reaching out. “All right.”
We made short, practised work of the barricade. Jason gave me a leg-up onto the supporting wooden cross post, and once I had my balance there I eased back enough of the wire to let him join me. Then it was his turn to hold back the wire, keeping the barbs carefully free of flesh and clothes. I leapt down on the far side, grabbed a fallen stick of gorse and wedged the gap open, reaching up to help him down. He grinned as he landed beside me, a familiar flash of complicity. Yes, everything was the same and utterly different. He did not let go of my hand. He led me, blinded by sunset light and half-hypnotised, into the forbidden zone.
We were almost within twenty yards of the stone-hut enclosure when we heard the first drone of a Land Rover. We’d been lucky so far, I supposed. Quarter of a mile to the west lay the road which led to the Fellworth military base. Jason drew me to a halt, scanning the horizon. “Damn.”
“Reckon they’ll see us?”
“Maybe not if they haven’t seen us yet. Just keep very still.”
It was a good trick, and one which had worked for us before. The instinct was to crouch, to seek cover, but a stand of trees or even open ground where nothing changed was less likely to draw attention than one where something moved, even briefly. It took a bit of nerve. I waited, not shifting a muscle. Trying to let myself become part of my background, to merge with the earth and the sky. Easier than usual today, I found, immediately beginning to drift. Jason still had hold of my hand. His thumb was circling against my palm, a strong, soothing caress. Irresistibly it made me wonder how his c**k would feel, pushing up inside me…
“So,” I said quietly, not taking my eyes off the ground, “you think dinner with the dean will be a late job tonight?”
I heard him catch his breath. “Well, Malcolm needs his beauty sleep. I’ll remind him of that if I have to. Why?”
“I’ll be in the library for a few hours, but I should be home after eleven.” I was fairly sure I would be finished with my thinking by then. I was pretty much through with it now. I wished I hadn’t halted our second exchange back at the earthwork. I was aching and half-hard again inside my jeans. Come for me, beautiful boy. “If you felt like dropping by…”
He snorted faintly. “That’s right, Daniel. I’ll drop round late at night to the paper-walled flat you share with five other postgrads. We’ll make out on the sofa while they watch TV.”
“Stop,” I choked. I clasped his hand, setting every muscle against the spasm of laughter. “All right. Bad idea.”
“Only in terms of location. I tell you what—I’ll be home after eleven, if you feel like dropping by.”
The sound of the Land Rover was gone. I tried to recall, through clouds of surprise and desire, whether it had faded into distance or stopped, then I lost concentration. I thought about Jason’s beautiful house, where he regularly invited his postgrads for friendly, shop-talking dinners. I’d passed the open door to his bedroom on my way to the bathroom upstairs. He was generous and hospitable, but I didn’t think he made the hour-before-midnight invitations lightly or often. I thought about his wide double bed. “God, Jason. I…”
White light punched across the plain. It was sudden and real as a fist. We both swung round, shielding our eyes. Beneath it, faint in the glare, I made out a pair of headlights. “Christ almighty. What’s that?”
“Our Land Rover, I think. That’s his searchlight. He must have doubled round.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Looks like we’re busted.” His hand closed on my shoulder. “It’ll be okay. Just do as you’re told, and let me do the talking.”
I nodded. He’d taught me that surrender was the best policy when confronted with armed military, either here or abroad. I could see that it was appropriate too. Nine times out of ten we’d have been trespassing, obeying our own code as seekers after knowledge in preference to petty local law. Jason took such issues pretty seriously. In America, he’d told us, he’d been to visit an environmental campaigner called Starhawk, who had coached him in the art of passive resistance and calculated civil disobedience, everything from leaflet drops to lying in such a way that a police horse would step over rather than on you. Lifting his hands, staring boldly into the light, he took a step back in the direction we had come, and I followed him.
Perhaps we’d taken too long about it. The evening air split to the sound of a single gunshot. “F**k!” I gasped, bumping into Jason as he crashed to a halt. “Did he just…”
“Shoot at us? Yes.”
I wasn’t so sure. I thought the sound had reverberated upward, not in our direction. Jason had started moving again—fast this time, in long, ground-eating strides. I ran to catch him up, grabbing at his shirt. “Hang on. I think it was a warning shot. He fired into the air.”
“I don’t care. What place do guns have out here? Daniel, I swear—these people will consume our whole bloody planet, with their wars and their compounds and their lines in the sand, if we don’t…”
I didn’t catch the rest. He tore away from me and set off at a run towards the fence, the lights and the bullets. On the whole, I tended to agree with him. I was dead set against the military too, disgusted with a brinksmanship patriarchy that dealt with the world by rocking it back and forth across a fulcrum of destruction. And my revulsion was a kind of birthright to me, though normally I pressed that dark thought down.
But Jason was going to get himself shot. I belted after him. He could really move, for a man of his size. What the hell was he going to do? “Jason! Jason, slow down.” Running half-blind, seeing scarlet spider-veins in my own retinas from the light, I caught him up a few yards from the fence, grabbed his belt and tried to slow him up. “For God’s sake! They’re gonna fire on you.”
“Too damn right we are,” came a harsh, clipped voice from somewhere up ahead of us. “Freeze, both of you. Hands where I can see them.”
“John Marsh?” Jason demanded. He had stopped at the foot of the barricade and was staring up at the soldier perched on the top of it, his expression fierce and imperious as a profile of a Caesar on a Roman coin. “Is that you, you puppy?”
“Captain Marsh, 3rd Anglian. And I told you to… Oh. My God, it’s Professor Ross, isn’t it?”
“Too damn right it is. I knew your father. I knew you, for that matter, when you were riding about in a pushchair, not a military truck. Put that gun down.”
I squinted up into the light. To my surprise, the tough-looking soldier was doing as he was bidden, lowering an automatic rifle. Turning towards the truck I could now see was parked on the turf beyond the barbed wire, he made a gesture, and the blinding searchlight dimmed. “Stand down!” he barked to unseen comrades. “Situation under my control. Sorry, Prof,” he continued, sounding more human. “But you know the rules. This area’s been heavily mined.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I hope not, if you took a student in with you.”
“This is a colleague. And he knows the risks.”
Pride touched me—and then I lost a breath as if punched. For a moment I couldn’t catch it again. Involuntarily I glanced back the way we’d come. It hit me that those red-and-yellow warning signs were more than boundary markers. I’d grown up, like most local kids, with their message in front of my eyes, limiting the scope of my wandering. The universal symbol for explosion, and an unfortunate stick man flying back from one. Danger from unexploded shell and mortar bombs. It was part of childhood’s wallpaper for me. I’d never taken it seriously, eventually ceased to see it.
That was it. The breath came back. Those signs were like the bogeyman, the threat was enough. Half the wire strung out around this place was for the army’s convenience, not public safety. Jason, who knew so much about this place, would know that. I didn’t know what game he was playing with Marsh, but he would have his reasons.
I straightened my spine. This is a colleague, Jason had said. Coming from a man like him, that was a stunning compliment, and I tried to look professional, like I deserved the title and was clear and calm about the risks as well. Marsh put down a hand to help hoist us back over the fence, and Jason courteously gestured me ahead. I tried not to use Marsh’s help getting up and over the wire. He’d slung his rifle back on its strap over his shoulder, but the proximity of all that death-laden hardware made my stomach heave. Once we were all down on the other side, he turned to us. “Sorry for the warning shot, Prof. Couldn’t be sure of getting your attention otherwise.”
“You could’ve shouted.”
“Would you have listened?” He shook his head, not waiting for a reply. “Here’s the situation, gentlemen. I’ve got a truckload of cadets over there, and I need to make a point to them—and maybe to you too—about peaceful arrest. No matter who’s trespassing.”
Jason shrugged. He glanced at me, his face calm again now, only wryly amused in the headlights. He held out his wrists. “Sorry, Daniel. Go ahead then, soldier.”
I sat handcuffed in the back of the jouncing truck, opposite a row of five grinning squaddies, and I wondered about my afternoon. Beside me, shoulder pressing unhidden against mine, Jason was calmly smiling back at the lads, as if all this was routine to him. Perhaps it was. He spent as much time in the field as he did in the office, and God knew how many lovers he’d laid down among the ruins.
I asked myself if I cared. Today it had been me. Tonight, unless we ended up in the holding cells at Fellworth, it would be me again. A strange euphoria began in me, starting in the pit of my stomach, blossoming outwards into the palms of my hands and down to my groin. I looked at the floor, afraid the excitement would shine from my eyes. I was pretty sure we were entertaining Marsh’s cadets enough as it was.
Jason looked calm and tidy as ever, but I’d let my hair grow over summer, and I’d already surreptitiously picked out one crushed buttercup leaf from it. That, in combination with my grass-stained cut-offs, in which I now just felt half-naked rather than cool, probably shouted less colleague than toy boy.
But if Jason was happy with it, so was I. I resisted the temptation to dip my head down to his shoulder and let the boys think what they liked. I stretched out my foot luxuriantly, tried the grip of the handcuffs as if they’d been velvet-lined and hitched to a bedpost. I’ll be home after eleven, if you feel like dropping by.
“Daniel? You all right?”
Lost in memories of the afternoon and anticipation of the night, it took me a moment to come back. Jason was looking at me in an odd mix of amusement and concern. His shoulder was rubbing against mine with the motion of the Land Rover.
“Fine,” I said, smiling up at him. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, you’re in military custody. Don’t you mind?”
I snorted. Put like that, it did seem odd. But I didn’t, not at all. Suddenly I wanted to prove it to Jason. I wanted to confide in him, give him something for everything he’d given to me. “Listen,” I said. “I don’t love the bloody military. My father worked for them—not as a soldier. In the military lab at Hartcliffe Dean. He wasn’t anything special, just a technician. But he volunteered as a test subject back in the late seventies when they were working on some kind of nerve agent. Something like VX, although we never found out for sure.”
Jason stiffened away from me. After a second, he struggled round a bit to face me. “What?”
“I know. I suppose you’d say he wasn’t the brightest spark, but we were always short of cash, and they’d assured him the tests were harmless.”
“No. Not at all, although no one knew until he and the other volunteers started getting ill years later. Not that anything was proven. He died when he was fifty. I was six.”
Jason stared at me. This was why I usually kept my mouth shut. Nobody ever knew what to say. And Jason seemed more affected than anyone else among the handful of people I’d told. He’d gone pale under his tan.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It was a long time ago. I only mentioned it because… Well, any rings you want to run round this lot, any battles you want fought…I’m your man.”
“Oh God, Daniel,” he said. I frowned. I hadn’t meant to freak him out. He was absolutely grey now, and suddenly looked his age. “Hartcliffe? The seventies?”
“Yes. Seriously—ancient history.” That was godawful, coming from an archaeologist, and I grimaced. “I don’t even remember.”
He stretched his cuffed hands awkwardly towards me. Just as awkwardly, I reached back, only very distantly hearing one of the squaddies break into a laugh. Jason’s fingers laced round mine. And although I hadn’t meant to distress him like this, his look sent shivers through me. I didn’t understand. We’d been so close that afternoon, and yet it was as if he was seeing me properly for the first time. As if I was real to him. He cleared his throat and said roughly, “That must have been hard on your family.”
“Briefly. They’re all gone now.” I squeezed his fingers tight. I wanted to pull us both out of these deep waters now. “I told you—I’m footloose. No ties, no worries. Don’t look so serious. I’m okay.”
Neither of us had noticed that the Land Rover had bounced to a halt. Jason sat very still. I fought the urge to blink, to try and hide from his regard. It wasn’t that I wanted to, but his intense sable stare was almost too much for me. If I was inclined to believe for one instant what I was seeing there, I’d become something to him I couldn’t yet be—something rare and of great value.
“Okay,” he echoed faintly. “Okay. Good.”
No ignoring the soldiers now. I sat up straight and offered them my best haughty look, but they only quieted when Marsh yanked open the rear door. “All right, you lot,” he said. “And you two gentlemen—out, please.”
Well, he had said something about making a point. I wondered distantly, clambering out of the back of the truck, what form it was going to take. Public execution, maybe.
Ah. Very public. The sides of the truck were canvas, and I hadn’t been able to see much out the front. After a while I’d lost my bearings. But Marsh had elected to take us back to the Stonehenge car park, where, as he probably knew perfectly well, Jason had left his Citroën DS that morning. I could see it—the sleek old French model, one of Jason’s few obvious extravagances—in the distance, conspicuous by its quiet glamour in the midst of the carnival parade of beat-up Deux Chevaux and vintage VW bugs and buses that had descended since we’d arrived at dawn. I’d forgotten. It was June the twenty-first. Summer solstice. I glanced back and saw Jason remembering too, looking out across the crowd, breaking into a broad grin as Marsh helped him, still handcuffed, down from the truck.
Mild pandemonium reigned. The car park, and all the meadows around the henge, were dotted with little groups of Wiccans, sun-worshippers, nutcases and the most passionate and genuine advocates of nature-based religion you could ever hope to meet. Campfires were on the blaze, a distinct smell of crisping veggie burgers filling the air. There was enough tie-dye fabric in enough colours to stretch a rainbow to the bloody moon, and, over by the chicken-wire fence that encircled the monument, the usual representatives of opposing Druidical orders were conducting the usual debate amongst themselves and the attendant police and military as to which of them was the real deal and therefore entitled to enter the circle and chant up the sunrise.
A few heads had turned at the arrival of the truck. The army weren’t popular guests around Stonehenge at Solstice—they got the blame for the chicken wire and the limited access—unjustly, because all that was the work of English Heritage—and I heard scattered hoots and jeers rise up as Marsh led Jason and me away from the truck. Marsh, face impassive, shook his head. “Nice welcome.”
“Well, I can’t help but question your presence too,” Jason said, scanning the crowd. He seemed to have recovered himself. “Do these people look as if they need martial law imposed on them?”
“Not at all. A giant butterfly net, I’d say. And I’d rather be home with my missus and kids, Professor Ross, but we’re here by request of the police and the site managers. Crowd control only. Now…” He paused, and reached to unfasten a set of keys from his belt. “Now, gentlemen, if you could just listen for a moment, I have to tell you that you’ve been officially escorted out of a closed military area. The army won’t be pressing charges, since you came with us peaceably, but I’m afraid you’ll find a request for payment of a fine in your post within the next few days. Look, I know where you live, Prof, but I’m going to need to take down your…” another pause, and an amused, assessing glance at me, “…your young colleague’s details.”
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to give them to you, if you’ll just take off his cuffs. Though you might as well charge his fine to the university—that’s where I’ll be charging mine.”
“I’m afraid that’s not the point, sir. We need to keep on record the details of any potential, er, troublemakers.”
I glanced up. The cuffs were chafing my wrist bones now, and I held out both hands, making sure I met Marsh’s eyes. I wasn’t sure about the nature of the trouble he thought I might be likely to cause, but I felt a mischievous impulse to let him wonder.
Then, suddenly, I lost interest. The sun was almost down, heavy bronze clouds piling high on the western horizon, but one last deep gold shaft had made its way through them, casting an unearthly glow on the henge and the eastern arc of its enclosure. Without it, I wouldn’t have noticed the solitary soldier standing guard by the fence. He was young and very pale, as if this crowd-control duty was deadly serious for him. The unexpected light had cast him in ivory. His hair was sable, nearly black, beneath his moss-green beret.
For a moment I thought I was imagining him. Plenty of ghosts here on Salisbury Plain—tiny dark men in deerskins, who vanished off into the long-barrow mounds; and ghosts of soldiers too, victims of friendly fire shootings and tank accidents. But he was real. I could see the furrow of concentration between his shapely, strongly marked brows. I couldn’t work out what it was that caught me about him, what made it hard for me to get the next breath into my lungs. He was, simply, the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on.
Guilt went through me, that I could even glance at another man after the afternoon I’d just spent. But a glance was all it was. If he fascinated me, plainly for him I didn’t exist. He was looking straight through me—through Jason, Marsh and the truck, paying none of us any attention at all.
Not so the crowd. A ripple of laughter had gone through the little groups on the outskirts at the sight of me and Jason being unloaded, holding out our hands for Marsh’s key. “Please don’t do it again, sir,” Marsh was saying. “I know you want access to the land, but there’s proper channels.” He undid Jason’s cuffs, and a few cheers and a patter of applause rose up. Like attracted like, and by the time Marsh turned to me, I realised that half the gathered crowd was watching.
I couldn’t resist. A bright bubble of elation was rising up in my chest. The evening, and the world, was wildly beautiful. Jason Ross was my lover, and my life was before me. The ancient rocks of Stonehenge, old bones of Earth, were calling people back to them—this crowd, now whooping and cheering as Marsh gestured to me to hold out my hands. I raised them so they could see. Marsh rolled his eyes but went with it, unlocking me with a wryly ceremonial gesture. Peripherally I noticed the grave young soldier shift and finally look at me. Yes.
The cuffs fell away. Grinning, I lifted both hands high, extending my fingers in peace signs. I remembered a dance move from my not-so-long-gone clubbing years, and briefly sashayed in the golden, laughter-filled light. My T-shirt rode up. I saw the young trooper’s dark gaze focus. I felt a flare of triumph, then, strangely, a sharp guilt, as if I had disturbed a priest at his prayers.
“That’s right,” Jason said, placing a gentle hand in the small of my back and propelling me off stage towards the car park. “You go ahead and antagonise the people we need to propitiate.”
“What, the clockwork soldiers? That’s rich coming from you, Indiana Jones.”
He snorted faintly. “Fair point. But you nearly started a riot back there, and, well, I don’t want us spending the night in separate cells.”
We had reached the car. I sat on the low, shark-nose bonnet of the DS, suddenly exhausted. We were still within earshot and possibly sight of the crowd around the enclosure, but I didn’t care. When he leaned over me, I reached up and into his deep, shuddering kiss.
“Listen, Daniel,” he said, when it was done. “You’ve had four lovers in your life. I’ve had…even fewer. I don’t do one-night stands. And I couldn’t bear to think of sharing you. I know that’s repressive and old-fashioned. If you think so too, and you don’t turn up tonight, I’ll understand, all right? And we’ll still be friends.” He ran his fingers through my hair, or tried to—smiled when he hit the first tangle and pulled out another crushed leaf. “Either way, beautiful boy, I’ll never forget you. And if you ever need anything…” He paused, the weird shadows flickering round him again, dimming his lights. “If you’re in trouble, or you need help…you come to me. Come to me. Okay?”
The Salisbury Key
- Plus Novel
- February 22, 2011
- 272 Pages
- January 3, 2012
- Romance, Contemporary, Military, GLBT
Daniel Logan is on a lonely quest to find out what drove his lover, a wealthy, respected archaeologist, to take his own life. The answer—the elusive “key” for which Jason was desperately searching—lies somewhere on a dangerous and deadly section of Salisbury Plain.
The only way to gain access, though, is to allow an army explosives expert to help him navigate the bomb-riddled military zone. A man he met once more than three years ago, who is even more serious and enigmatic than before.
Lieutenant Rayne has better things to do than risk his life protecting a scientist on an apparent suicide mission. Like get back to Iraq and prove he will never again miss another roadside bomb. Yet as he helps Dan uncover the truth, an attraction neither man is in the mood for springs up against their will. And stirs up the nervous attention of powerfully placed people—military and academic alike.
First in conflict, then in passion, Rayne and Dan are drawn together in a relationship as rocky and complicated as the ancient land they search. Where every step leads them closer to a terrible legacy written in death…
Harper Fox is one of the authors whose books I always read simply because she is such an excellent writer. She has not failed me, and The Salisbury Key may be my favorite to date. As always, her plotting is meticulous, her characters are layered, and the emotional subtext is rich and intense. As Dan and Rayne discover each other, they also discover themselves. Each of them has the curtains ripped away from both their pasts and their illusions, but they find strength and sustenance in each other. Fox's beautiful language and descriptions create a strong sense of place and tie the physical landscape to the emotional such that nothing is lost and no word is wasted. She engages all the senses--especially smell, which we all know is the strongest sense of all for evoking memories and emotions--to draw you into the world of the story and of the characters. The mystery at the root of the story is carefully unpacked, and there is a gripping twist or two in store for the reader. Fox does an exceptional job of balancing the mystery with the romance, making for one of those books that engages you on every level and that you can't stop reading but sort of hate to see come to an end.