Chapter 1

MARK

“You’ve missed her”

“I’m sorry, but you’ve missed her,” said the priest.  “She left a few days ago, as soon as the first group of journalists moved on.”

Mark Stratford looked around at the depressing vista of ruined buildings and ramshackle tents which surrounded him, and swore inwardly.  If it wasn’t for the dog-collar and associated kindly expression of the man facing him, he would have given vent to his feelings very vocally indeed.

For over a week he’d been driving, hitch-hiking (once the jeep he’d initially appropriated had run out of fuel), and trudging on foot around the ravaged countryside of southern India, looking for one particular person.  At last he’d got a lead, confirmed by the reports which had started reaching the international press in the last few days, and had made his way through utter devastation to this isolated camp, only to find out he was too late.

He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of a very crumpled shirt.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, struggling to return the aid-worker’s smile.  “Do you have any idea where she was headed?”

The priest shrugged.  “I wish I knew – I didn’t get a chance to thank her properly.  I suppose she was headed back to the city, and then back to England.  She did mention something about family who would be concerned about her.  And I’m not surprised!  This is no place for a young girl with no training – I was worried from the moment she arrived!”

Mark took a deep breath, battling to hide his disappointment and annoyance.  The news that she was headed back to England was no help.  He’d followed her all the way out here, and the remote location offered him the best chance of – well, it was more favourable to his objective than if she was back on her home turf.

The priest – a middle-aged white man dressed in jeans and a sweat-drenched top, the dog-collar the only indication of his calling – seemed suddenly to take pity on the young traveller standing before him, and put down the box of medical supplies he’d been holding on the ground beside him.

“It must be disappointing for you – I suppose you were hoping for an interview?  It does make a good story, but I’m really not sure people are on the right track.  What paper are you with?  I assume you’re not TV or you’d have a film crew with you.”

“Er, I’m independent,” said Mark.  He was concocting some further comment when the priest stepped forward and made to pick up Mark’s rucksack from where he’d deposited it on the floor.  “It’s okay, I’ll get that, thanks,” Mark said quickly, not wanting the man to notice how heavy the item was.  He’d had to lug quite a lot of pretty specialised equipment around, a fact that hadn’t helped his mood over the last few days.

“Anyway, you must be exhausted,” the priest went on in his friendly fashion.  “You’ll have to stay with us overnight at least.  We can’t offer much in the way of facilities – ” he gestured around him at the emergency camp which was teeming with needy survivors and buzzing insects “– but I can spare you some bottled water and biscuits.  And I suppose you might as well stay in the tent Laura was using.  I’ve tried to keep it empty – in case she should come back, you know.”

“That sounds great, thanks,” said Mark.  He didn’t hold out any hope that the girl would return – it was clear to him, if not to his companion, that she had bolted at the first indication of publicity and was unlikely to reappear.  But maybe there would be some clue left in her tent, something that would help him understand.

“Call me David, by the way,” said the priest, gently steering curious local children out of their path, as they made their way across muddy ground to the allotted tent.  “You can see how bad it is here, but we’ve had so many volunteers come to help us, it cheers my heart.  All sorts of people, from all over the world, giving up their time, and risking danger and illness, after all.  And Laura – well, of course she helped us more than most.  Amazing, truly amazing!”

The tent was small and basic, but at least was unoccupied, and Mark felt so exhausted after the last few days’ dash, that the sight of anything resembling a bed was extremely welcome.  However, he couldn’t forget the task at hand, and so after hoisting his rucksack onto the camp bed, he turned to his host.

“Um – David.  Perhaps you wouldn’t mind speaking to me yourself about what happened?  It would be useful to hear your account.”

“Okay, I don’t see why not,” David nodded.  “But why don’t you have a bit of a rest first.  I’ll come round and see you later – only don’t wander too far away from here.  It’s easy to get lost in this place, believe me.”

The priest left, but a small dark-skinned boy who had been following him lingered, staring at Mark through the tent flap with confused curiosity, until someone shouted at him from outside and then pulled him away.

Mark sat down on the bed Laura had been sleeping in for the previous three weeks, and looked around him at the pale green canvas of the tent walls, and the assortment of stacked crates and empty boxes which had served as furniture.  He ran his hand across the nearest surface, and then over the coarse blanket on the bed, wondering if it had been changed since she had left.

There was no sign remaining that a young girl had stayed here – no photos, no possessions, no feminine influence.  He closed his eyes and tried to feel her presence, tried to imagine that she was here, that he hadn’t been too late.

But the overwhelming experience was of heat, and flies, and the awful subdued sounds from the camp around him – children crying, occasional exclamations of prayer or despair, you couldn’t tell which.  And the distant sound of clattering and shouting and primitive machinery, where pockets of local men and volunteers still worked to clear rubble and search – not for survivors any longer, but for bodies.

After a couple of hours sleep, a scary and depressing trip to the latrine, and with all his bottled water and dry biscuits consumed, he found himself sitting opposite his aid-worker host once more, listening to the story he had travelled so far to hear.

“Well, I’ve been working here for over a year actually,” David explained.  “The local people had worked so hard to rebuild their town after the floods of three years ago, and things were looking good, certainly conditions had improved for most.  That’s what has made this earthquake such a tragedy.  It’s ravaged their spirit, as well as their homes and country.”  He shook his head, a flicker of troubled emotion crossing his face.  “It’s difficult to keep going sometimes, to help them spiritually, I have to say.  But the most important thing at the moment is to help physically, to think practically and try to meet their immediate needs.  And of course it’s all about money and getting the foreign aid through.  There’s a different story here to the one you have in mind, if you wanted to tell it.  Perhaps you could help us?”

Mark was not unsympathetic, but had to admit that he had his own agenda.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m the right person.  And anyway, you’d definitely need the film cameras.  I’m afraid my brief was specifically to find this Laura girl, and focus on her story.”

David sighed.  “Fair enough.  I understand.  Well, she came to us a few weeks ago, turned up with a few other volunteers from various European countries.

“That was only a few days after the quake had happened and there was lots of work to be done helping those who had been rescued, trying to get families back together, setting up what emergency tents we had.  Laura worked really hard, like all the others, and I thought of her as a quiet but dedicated girl, very moved by what she was witnessing, and very eager to help.”

“Of course,” Mark nodded as he listened, trying not to appear too eager for the story to move on.  “And apparently she was quite young – did she say how old she was?”

“Well no,” David replied.  “One doesn’t ask even a young lady her age!  But I’d say early twenties.  She’d been to university – and no, I don’t know which one – so she wasn’t a teenager or anything.  Young but mature.  And quite slight, not very tall, and with short dark hair.  Quite pretty, I suppose, which is probably why the TV crews were so interested in trying to find her.

“Anyway, after just a day or so, something unusual happened.  She came running out of her tent very early in the morning, and insisted on waking Greg, the rescue team leader.  He’s moved out as well now, an American chap, excellent.  Specialist in finding survivors you know, spent a long time in this area as it was the most badly affected, but has gone further North now, where they had the worst of the second tremor.”

Mark made a mental note of this.  Maybe Laura had gone North too – he would have to ask around a bit more widely.

“So apparently she insisted that she knew where someone was buried alive.  An old woman, trapped in the ruins of her own home.  She gave a description of the place, it seems – quite detailed.  Said someone had told her about it in the night, or something.  Greg was sceptical but couldn’t risk not checking, so he sent some men over, and they found this woman, just as Laura had described.  She’d been buried deeper than the heat-seeking equipment could detect, I heard, and could hardly speak, so it was a bit of a mystery how anyone could have known she was there.

“Anyway, no-one thought much more of it, until the following morning, when Laura again insisted they should be looking in an area some way away that hadn’t been checked yet.  I was there and I saw her make the report myself.  A young boy trapped in a stairwell, she said, and when pressed about how she knew about him, she would only say she that she’d spoken to some people, that she had a strong hunch, and that she begged the rescuers to trust her.

“Some of the team didn’t take her seriously, but Greg – well maybe he’d acted on a few hunches in the past and didn’t see the point of not having a look in the place she was suggesting.  It was pretty inaccessible, with all the roads broken or blocked with rubble.  There was no way she could have made it there alone and certainly not at night.  At that point people started to take notice of her.”

“So the trapped boy was there?” asked Mark.

“Oh yes,” David nodded.  “Hurt and scared and not making a sound, so there’s no way anyone could have heard him.  He was so deep in shock when he was pulled out, he could hardly recognise his own mother.  Of course the mother immediately began calling it a miracle, and the story spread through the camp.”

Mark reached for his note-pad and wrote down the word ‘Miracle’.

“And so the rescues continued?”

“Yes, nearly every day for over a week, a dozen people in total – it was quite incredible.  Of course as more time passed, the good news stories became fewer.  It’s amazing really how anyone can survive so long in such awful conditions, but the human body can be incredibly resilient.”

“So this young girl repeatedly guided the rescuers to where people were buried?”

“Yes.”

“And what explanation did she give for her knowledge?”

“Just that she had found out, somehow.”

“Doesn’t sound very convincing.”

“No.  Of course, people were speculating, and then everybody started talking about mysterious powers, and pretty soon the first journalists got wind of it.”

“I’ve seen the headlines – ‘Girl psychic finds earthquake survivors’.”

David sighed.  “I tried to protect her from it – people wouldn’t leave her alone.  But she remained focused on saving lives, God bless her.”

Mark doodled on his notepad, annoyed that he wasn’t finding anything out that he didn’t know already.  He had seen all the press coverage, of course.  Read all the articles, seen all the pictures.  But they hadn’t told him what he needed to know.

“What’s your opinion then?” he asked eventually, careful to keep his voice free from any trace of sarcasm or cynicism.  “Was she psychic?  Telepathic, maybe?  Or was it really a miracle?”

“Well, I don’t know,” David replied thoughtfully.  “She really didn’t want to talk to me or anyone else about it.  But I can only say – God works in mysterious ways.”

Mark thought of the devastation and suffering around him and bit his tongue on an acerbic reply.

“I suppose you’re looking for some sort of proof,” the troubled priest continued.  “I suspect there are people who would want to subject the poor girl to experiments –test her abilities, maybe so they could use them for their own ends.  Or maybe expose her as some sort of fraud, and prove that the whole thing was a hoax.  But at the end of the day, people really have been saved.  Children are alive who would otherwise be corpses in the rubble.  Maybe we shouldn’t ask how or even why.  Maybe we should just accept the facts, as a matter of faith.”

Mark was hardly listening.  Blind faith was not something he could associate with, but neither was it finding proof that he was interested in.  He – and those who had sent him – knew enough already, and had drawn their own conclusions.

‘It’s not evidence I’m after,’ he thought to himself, watching the priest rubbing his hands together in deliberation of miracles.  ‘I just need to know where she is.’

Later that night – after all, keen as he was to get on with his mission, he couldn’t leave immediately, after the journey he’d had to get here – Mark lay in Laura’s bunk, tossing and turning, and plagued by unpleasant dreams.

He dreamed he was trapped under a fallen building.  He could feel the weight of concrete and iron pressing on his chest until he could hardly breathe.  And above him in the dark loomed a presence, a woman’s face.  Inspecting him, curious and threatening.

In the dream, he fought to free himself, but his limbs wouldn’t move.  He could see her though, see her peering at him.  And then she opened her mouth and let out a dreadful wail, a scream deep from her soul.

He pushed and pushed against the rubble, desperate to free himself and get away from her, but to no avail.  She was coming closer, was poised right above him now, and the expression on her face was terrible.

A word.  A weird and horrible word was coming over and over again from her mouth.  He tried to make it out, but couldn’t recognise it, couldn’t hear it properly.

“No!  Stop!” he tried to say, but his lips wouldn’t move.  And the only sound was that dreadful, inhuman word being repeated again and again.

Another scream and he awoke in terror, his body and the camp bed drenched in sweat.  He reached for the lamp, remembered where he was.  Swung his legs onto the floor, trying to regain his composure.

But that was difficult, because he could still hear the screaming and shouting that had permeated his dream, still hear that dreadful word being uttered again and again!

It seemed like the dream hadn’t ended.  What was going on?

He stuck his head out through the entrance to the tent, only to witness a great commotion.  A large dark-skinned woman wrapped in bright red robes was standing shouting in the night, her head thrown back and her face contorted and glistening with tears.  Several other people had gathered around her, some attempting to hold and console her, some just standing mutely and watching, as she ranted and raved.

When she saw his form emerge through the canvas, her eyes flew wide and she screamed even louder, pointing in his direction with her fingers, throwing her arms at him as if in accusation.

Unsure how to react, Mark was saved from his confusion by the priest, who now rushed up and sought to quiet the woman, talking to her in her own language, pushing her away from the tent.

And yet she continued to gesture towards – well, either Mark or the tent in which he had been sleeping, it was impossible to say which.  And she continued to shout and utter the strange word, the word he had heard in his dreams.

“Sorry about this,” David called over his shoulder as he ushered the woman away.  “There are some troubled people here – I’ll take care of it.”

“Father!” Mark heard himself saying, troubled enough himself to use the priest’s title rather than his name.  “What is she saying?  What does that word mean?”

“It’s nothing, don’t worry,” came the reply.  But as Mark turned to head back to his bed, the little boy he had noticed earlier was suddenly there in front of him.  And he was pointing and throwing his arms towards Mark in the same way that the woman in the red robes had done – copying her with a child’s thoughtless parody.

“She say, ‘Evil’,” said the boy.  “Evil!  Evil!  Evil!”

And he pointed once more at Mark, with a long bony finger, before laughing wildly and running away into the night.

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