(Unexplained sightings of a strange mountain creature)
They were prone to gossip, the visitors, settled in their snugs, food digested, cask ale in glass, prospect of a bed with an eider down instead of a duvet, they would open up and entertain all manner of nonsense.
Joanne Hyde clung to her pint glass and passed judgement on the southern party of visitors talking and laughing with unselfconscious volume. Talk of Toten Herzen stirred emotions in the way the lee of the fells stirred a strong westerly wind until it became violent enough to flick you off the precipice, and from there you’d become another statistic, another element in the visitor’s gossip. Tonight’s variation veered away from the previous year’s encounter, the Year of the Vampire as the rangers called it in lighter moments. No, tonight’s conversation speculated on the twelfth body.
Joanne struggled with her pint, the Blonde Gimmer growing more bitter with every mouthful. “Why don’t we go over there and tell them it was Ben.”
“That’s a bit sick, isn’t it?” Ross Fairclough, sat with his back to the gossip, allowing his National Park badge to display without threat of being identified.
Joanne had zipped her fleece to the neck, afraid of being dragged into the discussion and primed for inside information. “It’s what they want though, isn’t it? A name, another piece of the puzzle. When Ben walks in next week, or next month, they’ll think he’s come back from the dead. You know, I reckon there’s a hoax to be had in all this. That’s the problem with this place, not enough excitement.”
“Not enough hoaxes. Here, look at this.” Fairclough scrolled though his phone gallery for his favourite video. “Come on, you still haven’t explained how they did it.”
“It’s a special effect, isn’t it.” The video played for thirty seconds, no sound, no high definition production quality. A clumsy capture of a figure hovering one thousand feet above the valley floor of Honister Pass. A figure hanging onto a broomstick.
“That’s not the official video, though.” Fairclough stared at the frozen final frame of the capture and tutted. “Do you reckon it’s her they’ve found?”
“No.”Joanne knew as much as any of the rangers treading the fells with careful footsteps, sensitive to every sound, every trickle of rock fall, every cry of the crows still flinging themselves around the summits. Since the Toten Herzen video the previous November Joanne had noticed a reduction in the amount of litter on the hills, an indication of the Toten Herzen Effect: the abandonment of the Lake District. They came up for the day, the visitors, came up for the day, stayed in their cars and took their empty sandwich wrappers home with them. Apart from one or two fearless explorers and the occasional badly dressed Toten fan, once the initial morbid fascination wore off the fells drained of tourists as quickly as a spring shower.
Fairclough detected Joanne’s attention to the adjacent conversation and listened carefully. One of the visitors read from the free guide book left out in the hotel bedroom. “The number of sightings of this beast continues to grow, but so far the accounts are anecdotal, no one has yet produced a photograph. They’re trying, I’ll give them that,” said the visitor. “What they need is a lake monster, a Loch Ness Monster in Windermere.”
“There’s your hoax,” Fairclough said and fumbled his way to the bar for another pint. When he didn’t come back Joanne went hunting and found him in the car park checking his emails. “There’s another one,” he waved his phone, threatening to deliberately drop it. “You’ll have one too. It’s CCed to all of us.”
All staff involved in the recent rescue exercise in Nethermost Cove should be aware of the possibility of follow-up measures. Please ensure you monitor your inboxes for further messages and prepare for investigative interviews. Failure to comply will result in disciplinary procedures.
In addition you are required to maintain absolute discretion until the ending of the investigation. All discussion will be subject to the Official Secrets Act until notified otherwise. If you have any questions please contact me in person.
Director of Communications and Marketing
“Is that right?” Joanne said. “We weren’t there. No one was there. I’m surprised they’ve let us back on the fells at all.”
If they weren’t on the fells, the rangers, packed into their waterproof layers, burdened with tools and met by airlifted sacks of rocks, they fussed and grumbled in their depots and offices. Until they were subjecting themselves to the worst of the weather, the scalding summer heat and the angry surges of valley-funnelled winds, they would sit around fidgeting and doing their own speculating on why the local Mountain Rescue teams had been excluded from the recovery of bodies, eleven of them, in the days following the Toten Herzen video and its dreadful live performance. Scattered amongst the gullies and ghylls, one by one the mangled remains of men and women had been picked up and bagged and sent back to Bamberg in Germany. Bamberg of all places, no stranger to witchcraft, no stranger to bizarre events and multilingual visitor gossip.
But today Joanne and Fairclough and Boothby and Royal Catherine had tasks to complete and after loading up two Land Rovers clattered away in opposite directions in a cloud of diesel fumes. Joanne and Fairclough were due to meet a team of volunteers near Brotherswater and lead them up towards Raven Crag for a busy afternoon of footpath repair, a lot of sweat, the ever present risk of a hernia (four suffered in the last eighteen months) and a badge of honour known as getting piss wet through.
“Hello,” Fairclough glanced behind him. “Is that Malcolm?”
Joanne had already spotted him, the bumper-hugging car filling the rear view mirror, the man sat forward towards the steering wheel. At the foot of Kirkstone she pulled into the lay-by. The car pulled in behind her.
Malcolm Cumberbatch untangled himself from his seatbelt and walked away to the wall. “I thought I’d find you out today.”
“You following us, Malcolm?” said Fairclough.
“What’s going on?”
“Has anyone spoke to you yet about the body?”
“No,” said Joanne, “well, yeah, sort of.”
“We keep getting emails off Geraint telling us to say nothing. Official Secrets Act and stuff.”
“When are you coming back, Malcolm?” Fairclough’s question was his polite small talk. He knew, all the rangers knew, Malcolm Cumberbatch’s gardening leave had an open-ended duration. Fine if he had a big garden, but he lived in a flat in Kendal with nothing more than a couple of window boxes.
“Haven’t given me a date yet. Do what Geraint tells you.”
“We’ve got no choice.” Joanne grabbed the opportunity for a smoke.
“You have, you have got a choice, but you’ll just stir up the shit even more if you do. Better to leave it alone.” And if anyone knew about consequences it was Malcolm Cumberbatch. He tried to stop the Toten Herzen video, tried to stop them setting up their stages and stacks on four and twenty summits, but they outflanked him, just like they outflanked the Malandanti and left the mouldering bones of eleven witches snagged on the rocks from Skiddaw in the north to Scafell Pike in the middle, Helvellyn and Swirl How for good measure, before Lena Siebert-Neved, the only victim with a name, plunged to her death down the side of Honister Crag. The disciplinary hearing Cumberbatch endured took on the viciousness of a seventeenth century witch trial; anyone would think he had flung the bodies off the fell tops himself.
“We can’t say anything anyway,” said Fairclough. “We know nowt.”
“Just get on with your jobs. There’s some funny folk coming and going.”
“Are you all right, Malcolm,” said Joanne. “You look a bit harassed.”
“I’m not sleeping. The flat’s like a bird sanctuary. Birds flapping at the windows day and night. I think some of them have got in the attic.”
“Didn’t think you had an attic, Malcolm.”
“Top floor. There’s no one living above me. I don’t think there is anyway. Some of them birds must be wearing hob nailed boots.”
“You should have a look,” said Fairclough. Cumberbatch’s expression, pained, revolted, told Fairclough looking was not an option.
“If there’s any jobs going over in Yorkshire, apply for them.” He nodded goodbye and drove away up the pass. Joanne and Fairclough watched his car struggle with the gradient until it vanquished gravity and vanished over the apex of the hill.
“I don’t want to work in Yorkshire,” Joanne said and stubbed her cig out in the tarmac.
The volunteers didn’t show. Fairclough checked his phone and found the email sent thirty minutes earlier – the same time as their blustery encounter with Cumberbatch – four of the six volunteers had gone down with some gastric complaint and the YMCA needed fumigating as a result. Suddenly snatched away from their itinerary Joanne and Fairclough stood, hands on hips, examining the raw untidiness of the fell sides picked and torn by glacial determination, and shared a solitary instinct.
Visit the cove.
“You reckon we should?” Joanne said.
“Nothing else to do if they’re not coming.”
And so they set off towards Patterdale, parked in Grizedale and followed the path to the Hole in the Wall. Ahead of them Striding Edge unfurled its serrated spine and rose from its geological slumber. Along the arête they glanced left and right, both directions the scenes of ugly conclusions to violence. Red Tarn had cleared, the blood of its victims settled in the shingle and mud, percolating into the mountain.
To the left the knobbled bowl of the cove, Nethermost Cove, cupping its mittened hands in disturbing fashion – welcoming, warming, motherly – and all the time harbouring its secret: down there, concealed in the fractures, a memory of death, of a human being tumbling and dropping, bouncing and crashing, disintegrating on the way down to the soft resting place of the cove’s grassy crevices out of view, away from the admiring awestruck gaze of Striding Edge’s tightrope walkers.
Satisfied she was secured against the rocks Joanne waited for answers, but none came, no hint of what had happened or how it was done. The video, Disorientated they called it, included a figure caught out by the light, by the misplaced edge of the precipice, and in the confusing pyrotechnics stepped off into empty space. Four months later they found the remains. . . .
And now another figure appeared.
The mountains belittled every one of their visitors. From a distance men became boys and one struggled up the rim of the cove heading towards the shadows of the ghylls and the rocky deposits. Paths directed walkers into the cove, but evaporated, abandoning the walker to the boggy soil. The figure mooched around the cove in search of something. He could only be in search of clues, remnants or remains.
Every gust of wind across the ridge brought a sharp drop in temperature, the clouds scurried across the cold face of the sun. The cove blinked slowly, hidden by its own shadow. The man trudged in and out of the light, carrying his rucksack and his walking pole and his intent, concentrating on the immediate space around his feet, unaware of his observers perched like birds on the top of the arête.
He didn’t see them and they didn’t see his helper, which scurried out of the base of the ghyll, scampering on two feet, then four, no, two, Joanne wasn’t sure. Too big for a dog, too small for another man, boy, human, “What the fuck’s that?”
“Shit.” Fairbrother’s foot slipped across the gravel, his weight panicked by the sight of the second humanoid figure. Joanne followed him from the south side of the arête to the north and concealment.
“What kind of dog’s that?”
Fairbrother snatched off his glove and rubbed the spring moisture from his eyes. “That’s not a dog. Get a photo of it.”
The figure moved with greater ease, greater efficiency than its human master. Skipping across the smaller rocks, leaping onto bigger boulders, scratching at the scree and dashing off when it found nothing. When something was found it would stop, hold it at arms length and wait for the man to inspect the find, turning it, holding it close to his face and then throwing it down, the rejection firing the figure off into another frenzied hunt.
On full zoom Joanne’s compact camera struggled to frame the figure with any meaningful size, and it moved so quickly. She caught it, but then it was gone. Before it came back she searched for the man, but he too had stepped behind a curtain of rock.
The wind, the exposure, the chill worked against Fairbrother’s attempt to film the activity on his phone. His shaking hands and the distance of subject wouldn’t keep still.
“It’s come back,” Joanne said, face pushed against the rock, hands secured in a notch, she clicked the shutter, the camera flashed. “Fuck.” The figure paused. “Oh, fuck.” She waited. Fairbrother waited, they both waited for the figure to assess its activity, to await further direction from its human master. “We should go.”
Both of them squatted like monkeys and groped their way along the north side of the arête, prompted by the flashing sunlight, equally crazed and nervous, they bobbed their heads above the rock to reassure themselves the figures remained in the cove, remained absorbed by their search.
“Why did it flash?” said Fairbrother.
“It’s on automatic.” They debriefed for a moment when they reached the shoulder of Striding Edge and a safe place to talk. “It’s in shadow, isn’t it.” Joanne found the image, pixillated, indistinct, lacking any explanation or clarity. They agreed to study it on Joanne’s computer at home, enhanced and enlarged, hopeful it was a dog, the weirdest dog in Britain, taught to scramble on its back legs, taught to hold its front paws like human hands. Some chance. The journey back to Joanne’s house took a lifetime.
Her parents were out, the farm quiet, the family sheepdog unwelcome in its unfortunate connection to the figure in the cove. The Beast. “If they’re still staying at the pub we can go back and show them the picture.” Fairbrother waited for Joanne’s computer to wake up.
“Doesn’t surprise me it hasn’t been photographed.”
In with the memory card, up came the viewer and there it was again. Naked and knobbly, its convex spine as bony as its arms and legs, squatting on a rock, alert to the attention, twisting its neck to face the tell-tale flash. Joanne zoomed in: 200%, 300%, 400%. Every zoom revealing more unwanted detail, the stub of a tail, the cloven hooves, the protruding jaw: vague detail, but detailed enough to understand the figure knew they were there. Its reactions as fast as the flash of light that couldn’t have been more than a pin prick of brilliance from the serrated shadows of Striding Edge.
“The smell,” said Fairbrother. He didn’t need to say any more. The smell was not the smell of a working farm, not the antiseptic smell of the sheep dip, or the sweet moisture of the haylage, or the dull pungent odour of manure. The smell of brimstone, sulphur, the smell of the figure in the photograph. Demonic.
An appalling silence smothered the farm. Joanne’s parents would return to an empty building and the long wait for their daughter to come home. And two more rangers would skip work, two more rangers for the visitors to gossip about and the tourists to pass their speculation and theories across pub snugs and restaurant tables, their eager imaginations filling in the gaps, illuminating the shadowy crevices of Lake District tales. Tales of bodies and beasts, of strange accidents and tragedies. Two more names added to statistics, two more ingredients dropped into the mixture of lurid local folklore.