009 Orders From Above: Episode 9 ‘STARdust’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Reverend Hartley Cordwell turned up the volume so the music and words of Linden Lea, one of his favourite Vaughan Williams songs, surged into the small vicarage study and filled the room with beauty. Hartley filled his lungs, opened his chest, and sang along in his rich baritone voice, relishing every word:

Within the woodlands flow’ry gladed / by oak trees mossy root / the shining grass blade timber shaded / now do quiver on the foot

He was sitting at his leather-topped bureau, polishing with a soft, damp cloth the coin Topps had found in the churchyard. It was a very fine piece of work, and as he scraped and buffed the grime away he was getting more and more certain and more and more excited that what he held in his hands was gold. The one side he’d already cleaned was exquisitely patterned with a fantastic bird of paradise perched on a branch of a blossom tree, wings outspread, long tail plumed with curling feathers. Now he was working on the other side.

The dirt on this surface was well ingrained, so he had to use his thumbnail through the cloth to loosen it. Eventually the image emerged of another bird … no … not a bird at all, more like a … yes, it was like a pterodactyl, with a horned head and bat-like wings outstretched, ending in sharp talons. Not a pleasant thing, thought Hartley, singing louder as he turned the coin to polish its smooth edge.

Let other folk make money faster / in the air of dark roomed towns / I do not dread a peevish master / though no man may heed my frowns / for I be free to-

The words abruptly caught in his throat as the coin suddenly started to vibrate, sending a startling sensation swiftly from his thumb to his hand then through his whole arm and into his chest. Hartley cried out and the coin fell, bouncing off his desk and onto the floor. Eyes wide and shaking and flexing his still-tingling hand in an effort to get rid of the pins and needles, Hartley followed its progress as it rolled across the floorboards until it came to rest in front of the filing cabinet.

Gingerly, he rose from his chair and walked the three paces to the cabinet. Hands on hips he stared down at the coin, the gargoyle creature upwards, as still as an inanimate object should be, then bent down and touched it with his fingertip. A low humming sound started to emanate from it as soon as Hartley’s skin made contact and Radio 3 crackled with static which was painful to the ears. Terrified, Hartley dashed to switch the radio off, hardly daring to take his eyes from the gold piece that now seemed to be talking to itself.

It said:

“Heads, I stay.”

in one voice, and at the exact same time, a different, lighter voice said:

“Tails, I stay.”

There was a long silence, then a gentle tingling sound followed by a short silence. Then first voice peevishly exclaimed:

“Damn and blast!”

Hartley stood with his finger still pressed on the off button of his radio. After a few seconds of silence, he carefully lifted his hand and cocked his head. Nothing. He looked around the room, but all was as it had been before.

Before what, exactly?

He lowered himself onto the chair, all the while staring at the golden disc. It lay on the carpet like a … well, like it was an ordinary coin that had fallen from a pocket, not at all like something that hummed and talked and hurt when you touched it.

It clearly was not a valuable artifact, like he had hoped, but a modern and sophisticated device. Some kind of electronic toy perhaps. Yes, that made sense. A toy that when you played with it vibrated and hummed and said ‘heads’ and ‘tails’. Remarkable technology, really.

Disappointed that it wasn’t gold and probably worth very little, he bent to pick it up again. It scorched his fingertips and he snatched his hand back. It started to vibrate again. Fascinated and wondering what else it could do, Hartley waited to see what would happen next. A continuation of the heads and tails game perhaps?

But the coin seemed to grow bigger and bigger and blacker and blacker, until the… the… creature burst from it with an ear-splitting screech, making Hartley yelp in terror and throw his arms over his head in protection.

Like a cat-sized, horn-headed bat it flew around the room, coming so close to Hartley that he felt the breeze from its leathery, rustling wings ruffle his hair. Heart pounding, he grabbed the back of his chair to keep himself from fainting.

At that moment the telephone rang. The noise seemed to distract the creature, and it flew down towards the coin. Hartley watched in disbelief as the creature was sucked back into the coin, feet first.

He let the telephone go through to the answering machine.

*

“Gentlemen, we have a problem.” The Boss regarded his two top agents, one fat, one thin. They stood to attention, hands behinds their backs, their booted feet apart and firmly planted on the deep-pile carpet of his office.

“The DISC has been exposed. This is completely unexpected; we thought there would be time for Nick and Gabe to retrieve and replace it, but somehow the vicar managed to break the protective seal while cleaning it. Fortunately for us, only he has seen it so far, so we need to go in fast and undo the damage.”

“Isn’t Uri on site?” asked the thin man, “Couldn’t he get it back?”

“Yes, he’s there, but he can’t risk doing this in case his position is compromised.”

He pushed an envelope and a burgundy velvet box across the surface of his desk. “Fortunately we have a valid excuse to gain access to the vicar’s house. This is the plan for the DISC’s retrieval and the replacement coin. Sort it out, please, gentlemen, and sort it out now.”

The fat man picked up the box and both men bowed low as they backed out of the office.

*

Hartley’s first thought when the knocker sounded along the hall to where he was still frozen in place in his study, was how he was going to get past the coin to go and answer it. His second thought was to wonder if he was going mad.

Another knock, louder and longer, galvanised him into action. He scooped his leather-bound Bible from the desk drawer and, holding it up in his right hand, he swept the coin up with his left hand and threw it clear across the room and into the open door of the safe. Any other day he would have missed at such a distance.

Two men were on his doorstep, one fat, one thin, wearing blue sweatshirts that carried a gas company logo. The thin man thrust a laminated identity card in front of Hartley’s face.

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but can you confirm that you are Reverend Cordwell and your boiler was recently serviced?”

“Yes, indeed. Is something wrong?”

“I’m afraid, sir, that we’ve been informed by the manufacturer that a faulty part may have been used. We need to check it out and, if necessary, change it. No charge, of course.”

The thin man put his foot on the threshold, “I’m sure you don’t need telling, sir, that gas boiler faults can be deadly.”

Hartley let them in, showing them into the kitchen. “The boiler’s behind that cupboard door. Would you both like a cup of tea?”

The thin man started to say no, but the fat one intervened. “That would be very nice, sir, thank you. Milk and two sugars for us both.”

Hartley set about making a pot of tea, while the thin man removed the cover from his boiler. He hummed and ha-ed for a bit, then said, “Yep, you’ve got one of the faulty valves all right.”

The fat man announced he needed to fetch the replacement part from the van, excused himself, and left the room.

“Well, that’s a relief, I must say.” said Hartley, pouring out the tea. “It’s very good that such a thing can be put right so quickly.”

“Oh, there’s no time wasted when it comes to gas, sir.”

His colleague returned and the two men set to work. Hartley’s telephone rang, and although there was a handset in the kitchen, he didn’t want to take the call there in case it was a private parish matter. He hurried to his study to take it there.

He paused when he saw that the safe was slightly open, for he was certain that he’d closed it. His scalp prickled and, feeling shocked to the core yet again, Hartley spun round to find the two men coming slowly into the study, looking like menacing burglars now instead of cheerful boiler repairmen.  He exclaimed, “You’re not from the gas company! Who are you? How dare you-”

The thin man darted forward and grabbed Hartley, pinning his arms to his sides. He demanded of his colleague in an urgent whisper, “How could you be so careless?”

The fat man, clearly rattled, whispered back, “I wasn’t! The safe mustn’t have locked properly.”

“The Boss is going to be furious. We’ll have to use the Dust, it’s the only way to salvage the situation. Quickly.”

The telephone stopped ringing at last, and Hartley’s answering machine clicked on.

The fat man, looking extremely unhappy now, sprinkled something resembling a shiny blue pepper pot onto a large white handkerchief. When the cloth was clamped over Hartley’s nose and mouth, he was forced to inhale a sweet smell he couldn’t put a name to and the last thing he heard before everything went black was, “I’m so sorry about this, sir, but it’s only STARdust. It creates an alternative reality and is really quite harmless in small doses. You’ll wake up and not remember that any of this happened.”

*

Hartley sat up in bed and opened his eyes to utter darkness. His bedside clock glowed 3 am.

He had a dull headache and a strange, perfumey smell in his nostrils. He sneezed twice. Then again. He had no memory of going to bed. Or of having any dinner before going to bed. He searched his memory and was dismayed not to be able to remember much about the previous day at all. There were fragments, vague foggy images, of what he had done, who he had spoken to, but nothing concrete.

He fought it, but sleep took him back into oblivion, and when he woke up again at his usual time of 6.30, he leapt out of bed full of vitality, his earlier confusion forgotten.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, Hartley settled down in his study. There was one message on his answering machine from yesterday afternoon, which surprised him as he’d been home so how could he have missed it, but it wasn’t of great importance. Once it had been dealt with, Hartley switched on the radio, and set about cleaning the coin that Topps had found with a soft, damp cloth. The grime came off easily and as he buffed away he became more and more certain and more and more excited that the coin was gold. He fetched his Antique & Collectible Coins and Medals from bookshelf and flipped through it until he spotted a picture that very much resembled the coin in his hand, Double Florin from the reign of Edward III. It was exceptionally rare, he read, and could be worth a lot of money. He could barely breathe with excitement, thinking what he could do with the windfall the coin might bring.

He heard the back door open and close, followed by footsteps on the tiled kitchen floor. He smiled at the sounds of the kettle being filled at the tap, then moments later Lorelei popped her pretty head round the door.

“Hello, Uncle. Kettle’s on and I’ve brought some scones and clotted cream.”

“Wonderful,” answered Hartley. “I’ll be right there.” He put the coin back in the safe.

By the time he entered the kitchen, Lorelei had placed a pot of tea, jug of milk, plates, knives and spoons on the table with the scones, and was pulling off the lid of the cream carton.

“Lorelei-”

“Have you got any jam, Uncle?”

“Um, no, only marmalade, I’m afraid. Look, Lorelei, there’s somethi-”

“Oh, marmalade’s no good. Let me have a look in the fridge.” Lorelei crossed the kitchen to the huge, ultra-modern American-style fridge, so out of place in the old-fashioned kitchen with its mismatched drawers and cabinets. She moved a few jars about, muttering, “Ploughman’s relish… pesto … tomato puree … mustard … ah, this’ll do!” She pulled out a jar of cranberry sauce and peered at the label. “This isn’t from Christmas, is it?”

He decided he’d have to wait until she was less distracted to tell her about the coin. “No, no, it’s quite fresh. I like it with ham.”

“Ah, well, it’s sweet so I can’t see why it won’t go with scones and butter too. Tuck in, Uncle, I’ll pour the tea.”

Hartley took a scone. He didn’t think he’d have an appetite after the sausage, eggs and bacon he’d had, but found he was ravenous and devoured one of the scones in short order. He drank some tea, then reached for another scone and liberally coated it with butter and a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “I must say, this makes an excellent substitute for strawberry jam.”

Lorelei was still nibbling at her first scone. She was always popping round with cakes and goodies, but she barely ate any of them herself. Lorelei interrupted his thoughts as she said, “Something’s up, Uncle, I can see it in your aura.”

“My aura? Oh, Lorelei, really!” Hartley frowned as he always did at Lorelei’s new age notions.

“Well it’s true! I can see auras, you know.” She narrowed her eyes and traced the outline of his head, “And yours is most definitely excited. I’m right, aren’t I?”

He grinned. “As it happens, I am rather excited about something, but you don’t need to see auras to know that, Lorelei, I’ve been trying to tell you since I came in here.”

She laughed. “Sorry, Uncle, you have my full attention now. Tell me what it is that has your aura glowing so beautifully?”

She fixed him with her beautiful green eyes, and Hartley decided not to get into one of their debates. They had opposing ideas, and sometimes it was easier to each let the other believe what they believed. “I think the coin that Topps dug up may be gold – and very valuable, if my book is anything to go by.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I do hope you’re right, Uncle, it would please Topps no end, and give you some money for church repairs.”

Hartley replied. “Oh, yes, he would be delighted. Well, I think he would be, I’ve never actually seen him display a happy emotion. Remember those bits of pottery he found last year? He hovered over me while I cleaned them, and then I found a maker’s mark, which clearly said, ‘Made in China’. I couldn’t help laughing, but he just stomped off in a huff.”

Lorelei giggled. “I can just imagine it. Can I see the coin, Uncle?”

“Of course, my dear. Let me fetch it from the safe.”

He returned with it and the book and handed them to Lorelei, holding his breath as she compared the coin to the photograph he pointed to.

“Gosh, yes, it might be. Oh, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? Such a shame there’s only the one, though.”

“Topps explored all around the area where he found it in case it turned out to be a hoard of buried treasure, but this was it. The Heritage Centre will be able to tell us what it is and what it’s worth. When will you be going?”

“Thursday afternoon.” Her eyes gleamed with humour as she held the coin up to the light and said, “Hey, do you think I’ll need an armed guard?”

“Heavens, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were that valuable? We could get something done about the damp in the vestry. Now, how about another cup of tea, is there enough in the pot?”

While Lorelei poured, she asked, “How’s the replacement Topps getting on? He seems very friendly – I saw him outside digging up the rose bed and he called out hello.”

Hartley smiled, “I must say, I rather like him. He plays chess, for a start, and very well at that; I haven’t been able to beat him yet. He has his own set – a beautiful thing of all kinds of wood that he said he’d made himself. And he talks.”

“Ah, well, that’s certainly different to old taciturn Topps.” She sipped her tea. “What’s his name again?”

Hartley chuckled. “Uri. Sounds Russian, doesn’t it? I’ve asked him about himself, but he’s rather adept at not give much away, so I don’t know where he’s from or if he has family other than Topps. He wears these blue-tinted glasses that make it difficult to see his eyes – that makes a person very hard to read, don’t you think, if you can’t see their eyes?”

“I’ll have a close look at his aura – you can’t disguise that, Uncle.”

Hartley ignored her. “But he’s very well read. I was talking about Sunday’s sermon with him last week, and it turns out he knows as much about the Bible as I do. And he has some fascinating ideas on all sorts of subjects – history, science, art. I must say, I’ll miss him when Topps comes back from his holiday.”

“I’m glad it’s worked out, then; I know you were worried about losing Topps even for a short while.” Lorelei glanced at her watch. “Oh no, look at the time! I really must be going. I’ve got someone coming about a pet portrait – an eighteen-foot python, of all things – and I want to get to the shops first.”

“A python? Good heavens, Lorelei, mind you don’t get too close!”

“I’ll make sure it’s been fed before I go anywhere near it! Now then, what about the coin?”

“Just let me wrap it up. Mind you keep it safe, now, it could be worth a lot of money.”

Lorelei looked affronted and Hartley apologised.

She kissed him on the cheek, and he watched her while she walked the short distance to her cottage by the green.

Hartley’s attention was then caught by the arrival of dozens of colourful and noisy birds landing on the beautiful feeders that Uri had brought with him. He’d told Hartley that woodwork was his hobby, and, if the vicar didn’t mind, he’d like to set up a workshop behind Topps’s cottage. Having seen the bird-feeders and the garden bench fashioned from a single piece of burr oak, Hartley had had no hesitation in agreeing.

Uri was still out there, at the bottom of the long garden, his back to the vicarage, digging the borders with a large fork. Birds were cheekily hopping on the newly turned soil, pulling up worms. As if he knew Hartley was looking, he turned and touched his forefinger to the flat cap perched on his thatch of black curly hair. For no reason he could discern, Hartley shivered.

Episode 10: the most expensive coffee in the world

~~~~~

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