YOU WHO READ this, don't be afraid. Bend over the book carefully till your nose is no more than a half inch from the pages. Inhale. Inhale again. Do you smell coal smoke, and traces of dead bracken and heather, and any other scents a north-cast wind carries on a March day in the northern part of this Island? Do you smell, mixed in with them, a hint of something strange, something unlike any smell you've ever encountered before?
You do? Good. You're probably still safe.
But you who smell nothing but the paper and the binding a whiff of cheesecloth, sizing, glue, printer's ink, the leather of the cover; you, in short, who smell only a book, beware. For you it may already be too late.
IN MY OWN case, I trace the beginnings to an official banquet and a quiet policeman - a Reeve, from the South.
At that time, I was still a student, and worked in my spare time as a sort of apprentice reporter for the City Voice. All my copy had to be submitted to the city-desk editor, whose only axiom was that my stories should be no less dull than the events I reported on. That was easy enough - I covered City Council meetings, as well as its sub-groups, like the Committee on Utilities and Suburban Sewage, or the Committee for Re-carpeting Administration Buildings (CUSS and CRAB I called them in my mind, but not in my reports).
It was at midday on the second Friday of April that year that my apprenticeship took a strange direction. I think I can safely use that expression. I was sitting at my desk at The Voice, staring out the window, as I often did, across the street to the Necropolis (an elegant name for the graveyard here in the Capital). It had long ago dawned on me that few if any of the varied and wonderful stories that appeared daily in The Voice would endure as long as the forgotten names and the forgettable messages sculpted on those gravestones.
At any rate, I was sitting at that desk, on that day, when the phone rang.
"Maxwell? This is Reeve Blair. We met a couple of months ago at the banquet."
I remembered (I used to place great trust in my own memory then) both the banquet - the Civic Awards Banquet - and the man: a tall policeman, a Reeve from the south of the Island. He sat beside me at a corner table, out of the direct line of fire of the corporate speech-makers. He didn't have the air of some policemen, confident in their ability to persuade the weak to reveal themselves. Rather, I thought he might have been a monk, with his stoop, ascetic face, close-cropped greying hair, and quiet southern voice. We chatted for a while, and when I asked him about his profession, he said this:
"Some men join the force because they want to bring justice to the world, to make criminals pay for their crimes. Others, like me, are less interested in crimes than in mysteries. We enlist because we love a mystery. It's the challenge that attracts us."
I said nothing, but I was really quite surprised at such an idea.
"I also believe," the Reeve said, "that there are criminals who aren't so much interested in profiting from crime as in presenting mysteries to resolve"
NOW, AS I heard his voice again on the telephone, I could picture him quite clearly. I remembered the way he spoke - slightly out of the corner of his mouth, so that his lips seemed to make a little noose around his words.
"I want to put a proposal to you," he was saying. "Id like to send you a document to read. After you've read it - if you're willing come and spend a week here in Carrick"
"Yes, Carrick. That's where I'm calling from"
Even then, Carrick was in the news. Or, perhaps I should say, it was in the news for not being in the news. After the first few incidents there, everyone was aware only of the news black-out on the place and the area around it. The police and the military had cordoned Carrick off, and wed heard only turnouts, mutterings about "plague" and "disaster." But no one really knew what was going on, no one really knew the truth (another one of those words that meant so much to me once).
I told the Reeve, certainly, I'd agree to read the document, whatever it was.
"You'll find it very instructive " His voice was soft. "But you must promise not to disclose its contents to anyone else, till I say it's all right "
I agreed to that too. I would have agreed to almost anything for the opportunity of finding out the facts about Carrick.
He said one last thing.
'At the banquet that night, you asked me what was the most unusual case I'd ever dealt with. This is it!'
Funny. I remembered so many things about that night, but not asking him that specific question, the one that changed my life.
LATER ON THE afternoon of Reeve Blair's phone call, the document he'd promised arrived by official courier, and I sat down at my desk and read it. And I read it again and again.
I once heard the Curator of the National Museum talk about the challenge of trying to conjure up some ancient culture on the basis of a few shards of pottery, or of reconstructing some long extinct monster from a fragment of bone, or even a claw. I think I understood that kind of perplexity on the day I read the document from Carrick.
I submit the text of it here, exactly as I received it.
MY NAME is Aiken, Robert Aiken, pharmacist at Carrick. My father, Alexander Aiken, was the pharmacist here before me.
Yesterday, Tuesday the 20th of March, at about three o'clock in the afternoon, I climbed the steep path till I stood on the cold, wet shoulder of the Cairn. The soldier with me was a young man who kept me covered with his rifle. For maybe the thousandth time in my life, I watched the valleys below thickening with fog like the lungs of a slow-breathing monster. To reach Carrick, the fog has to roll over range after range of hills. It wipes out the borders between countries, and the lines between earth, sky, sea, and shore.
Shepherds don't like such days: their sheep melt away like pictures returning to their negatives. And those days are dangerous for strangers on the high moor, with its marshes and sudden deep ponds.
But for me, up there on the Cairn, the wind on my face was like a mother's kiss, even though it was a cold one. For an hour or two, at last, I was away from the afflictions in Carrick town. So I took pleasure in watching the way the fog moved in; till all I could see of Carrick was the steeple of the Church jutting out, as though it were the sword of one of those drowning kings. Nearer, I could still make out a few trees, sparse as tombstones; and the whitewashed cottages of shepherds; and the tangled ropes of streams among the gorse.
Any scraps of colour that still remain at this late stage of the winter were also in the process of evaporating in the fog, like one of those elixirs my father taught me to make. He'd show me how to mix the red borage, the yellow saxifrage, and the black bugloss into swirling colours. Then he'd allow me to add the thyme. Together we'd watch the compound slowly turn grey, grey as certain days on the Cairn.
"It's time to go back down, Aiken," my guard said.
He'd been watching my every move, afraid, no doubt, that I might perpetrate some last, awful deed. He flinched when I suddenly stretched out my arms to hug the faintly scribbled landscape. He had no need to worry; it was my farewell embrace. I knew I'd never stand there again.
TODAY, THURSDAY, I'm sitting by the window of my living room above the Carrick pharmacy where I practise my trade. A late afternoon fog is slinking into the town, I once told the Colonial, Kirk (Kirk, of all people! ) about the legend that, in centuries past, whole villages disappeared in such fogs, and failed to re-materialize after they lifted.
Kirk didn't laugh.
As for Anna, if she were sitting by me now, shed surely disagree with me on this matter of the fog's thickness; she always enjoyed our debates on the weather. For example, I might suggest to her that from my perspective here at the window, the buildings on the other side of the Green were barely managing to remain solid.
"That means this fog's going to he very thick," I might say.
"You're quite wrong, Aiken," she might reply, and point out that certain chimney stacks and certain doorways were still quite visible. She might draw my attention to the clarity of the writing on the sign outside The Stag. And so on.
SADLY, ANNA AND I will never play that game again, or any other of our games. For one simple, unchallengeable reason. The buildings in Carrick still persist, tangible and solid in spite of the fog. But the people of Carrick, Anna among them, are in the process of an irreversible disappearing act.
They are all dead or dying.
AS I LOOK now out of the window, waiting for the great clock of darkness to strike on this March day, I know Carrick will soon be a ghost-town. It is as full of practitioners of the various trades as it used to be in its heyday; except that now they're no longer townspeople, they're strangers.
I'm referring, of course, to the doctors and nurses who descend day and night from the barracks to fuss with the dying. Or to conduct test after test on me to find out why I'm still alive and apparently well. I include in their number the police from the Capital, prowling the town in cruisers the shape of giant black toads. And the platoons of khaki-clad soldiers, daily hammering two-by-fours across the doors and windows of the abandoned buildings.
Though most of the soldiers are young, really only apprentices, unsuited as yet to deal with the calamity that has struck here. A week or two ago, one of them said this tome:
"Don't worry, friend. We're only here to guard against looting. Until everything's settled."
I didn't ask him: would any thief have the nerve to enter such a remote, Such an unlucky place as Carrick?
IN THE DAYS that have passed since he said this, the soldiers have given up the attempt to draw me into conversation. I believe they now look at me in the manner of vipers whose eyes see only the red aura of the prey.
I must admit this reaction doesn't surprise me. Only those who are intimate with crime know that it's the same everywhere; that we who live in these little towns are no more guilty than the rest.
I sometimes think it's not individual human beings but this world we all inhabit that requires the death sentence.
This is an excerpt from The Mysterium, a new novel by Eric McCormack that will be published by Penguin this fall.