Authors: Robert Ryan
By the same author:
Early One Morning
The Blue Noon
The Last Sunrise
Empire of Sand
Death on the Ice
Dead Man’s Land
The Dead Can Wait
As Tom Neale:
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © Robert Ryan 2015
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.
The right of Robert Ryan to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
HB ISBN: 978-1-47113-506-4
TPB ISBN: 978-1-47113-507-1
EBOOK ISBN: 978-1-47113-509-5
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
And for T. J. and Mike Gostick
During the course of
A Study in Murder
, Major Watson alludes to a story he is writing. For reference, the complete tale – ‘The Girl and the Gold
Watches’ – is printed in the appendix.
Harzgrund POW Camp, Germany
Sometimes, the dead talked too much. It was a babble of voices when they broke through – many tongues, all tripping over each other as they tried to make themselves
heard. Which meant, of course, that none could be understood, not by a small, insignificant conduit still imprisoned in a mortal body. The noise reminded him of the howling Atlantic gale that did
– out of Liverpool, en route to New York – killing all seventy-four aboard, including his father. It was his dad who had first come back to him, when he had just
turned six, to inform his son that he had The Gift and that he could act as an opening to the domain of the dead. But latterly that opening had become clogged and chaotic.
It was, he supposed, due to the sheer volume of the newly parted being released each day. He often imagined the entrance to the afterlife, a long line of silvery souls, stretching into a far
distance, waiting their turn to be admitted. Battalions of them. Many would still be baffled, disoriented, not wanting to accept that they had taken the step over the threshold and would never have
to face the privations and torment of war again. Death, though, once you embraced it, was the ultimate freedom. Of that he was certain. He didn’t pity the dead. Sometimes he envied them.
He found that total isolation from his surroundings improved his chances of a successful contact. So, with the room lit by just one candle, he had taken to wearing a black hood, fashioned by one
of the orderlies from thick silk. Where the man got it heaven alone knew, but the touch of the material on his skin soothed him, helped him relax as the voices jabbered about him, until one
recognized him for what he was – an earthbound friend – and deigned to speak through him.
This evening, sitting around the same table as the medium were three other men, two believers and a sceptic. The latter had been persuaded to part with ten camp marks for the chance to hear from
his brother, killed at the Somme. Whoever made contact, it would be an ordinary person, he knew, one of the faceless masses. Not for him some North American savage king, Peter the Great, Napoleon
or Nefertiti. His dealings were with Everyman, the humble and the hardworking, the soldier and the servant.
He strained to try to make something from the cacophony swirling around in his head. There were snatches of laughter, not in gaiety but with a cruel aspect. He was being mocked, perhaps.
Ridiculed for his feeble attempts to penetrate a world where the living had no place.
He pulled up the hood, opened one eye and glanced down at the table, where the blood was pooling. There was enough for even the hungriest ghost. He reached for the glass of clear liquid before
him, shuddering at the thought of the taste and the burn. It was like drinking paraffin. But it was part of the ritual they had developed.
‘To those on the other side about to make contact, salutations!’
The three men drank. One of them gagged. Then, silence around the table, each man lost in his own thoughts and hopes. The medium pulled the hood down once more.
Then, the smell.
It made his nostrils twitch. It was pungent and far from pleasant. It spoke of caverns deep in the earth, of lava beds and hot gases. It was always the first sign that he was through.
‘Jesus, what’s that stink?’ asked the sceptic.
‘Ssh,’ said one of the others. ‘’Tis the fires of hell.’
There was no hell, no eternal damnation; the dead were most adamant about that. So he had no idea of where the fumes originated. But the fact that even his companions could detect the aroma was
a good sign.
,’ said the voice, causing him to jump a little.
‘You’ll have to speak up,’ he ventured. ‘We are all friends and believers here.’
‘Are you saying you were a pauper? In this life, I mean?’
‘Pennebaker? And what’s your first name, Mr Pennebaker?’
A snort. Yes, a snort of disgust.
He knew immediately that the fellow – for it was clearly a man – had somehow gone back into the eddy of souls, like a twig snatched away from a riverbank, swirling off into the
stream. He asked his fellow voyagers for patience.
.’ It was the same voice, clearer now, as if its owner had stepped in closer. He could almost be at his shoulder, leaning across to pass on a confidence.
Pen and paper
‘You want me to fetch pen and paper?’
They were always close at hand and he felt them pushed towards him by his accomplices. He had experienced automatic writing, but it was not his usual method of communication. He imagined this
man had something to say that he didn’t trust to mere – and often misheard or confused – words.
‘Are you a soldier? A British soldier?’
‘What’s your name?’
Silence. Sometimes that happened. It was as if the old names no longer mattered where they were. Or they had simply forgotten them. He tried another tack.
‘When did you cross over?’
The reply was garbled. He felt a sense of panic that he would lose him again. He took up the stub of a pencil and made sure it was on the top of the first page of the notebook. ‘I have the
He felt warmth flood through him like a fever and was aware that someone, something, had invaded his body. He tried to relax, to let his visitor do as he pleased. He meant him no harm, he knew
that. The spirit world was sometimes playful and mocking but never truly malicious.
His hand twitched of its own accord and he heard a gasp from around the table. He felt the pencil begin to skate across the page, jerkily, the movements like a child’s. The words forming
would doubtless be shaky, but it wasn’t a matter of calligraphy. How often does one get a missive from the dead? he thought. The medium concentrated hard on keeping his breathing steady and
his heart rate down, even though he could feel his excitement rising. Within minutes the scrawl covered five sheets of paper, before coming to an abrupt halt. The noises in his ears died away,
followed by the hum of a loud silence.
No reply. The gate to the realm of the dead had closed for the night.
He waited a few moments, removed the hood and waited for his eyes to adjust to the flicker of thin candlelight before trying to decipher what the spirit had written in his spidery hand. It was a
sequence of apparently random words, not a complete sentence among them, but that wasn’t unusual; the channels to the afterworld took time to work smoothly sometimes. But it was also
unsigned. Who was he, this unknown soldier? Names might not be important over there, but they still mattered on this side of the divide. Ah, well, the medium thought, he would get it from him next
And, although he didn’t yet know it, that name would be the death of him.
It was the rattle of chains and the squeal of unoiled hinges that drew Major John Watson to the window of the infirmary that January morning. The metal gates of the Krefeld II
had swung back and Watson watched a new arrival walk through them, accompanied by the grizzled Feldwebel Krebs. It was unusual for new prisoners to appear at the camp so early
in the year. With the armies on the Western Front hunkered down for the winter, the supply of fresh faces – and therefore up-to-date news of the war and of home – tended to dry up until
the inevitable spring offensives, which always generated a substantial influx of POWs from both sides.