The Watcher on the Cliff

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Lucy Rossington squeezed past a natural pillar of granite and through the gap in the rocky face of the cliffside, following the distorted sound of voices with Ben, her young collie, pressing closely on her heels. Behind her, the wind from the sea below was reverberating in the narrow gully. It shook the stunted gorse and hawthorn bushes, blowing a few more crisp autumn leaves off the willow trees beside the stream to whirl madly along with it.

The noise was cut off abruptly as Lucy rounded the outcrop of rock that screened the outer world, wincing as a jagged finger of granite poked her knee through her jeans. She stopped suddenly, Ben bumping into her legs, surprised to find herself in a small cave, dimly lit by dull late morning light filtering through tiny holes and cracks in the walls. Looking quickly around, she realised that it was not actually a cave, only a wide crevice in the gully. It widened at its furthest end and was partly roofed by another slab of granite which had fallen over the top of it, wedging itself against the sides.

As she brushed a strand of chestnut hair away from her small pointed face Lucy's eyes were drawn to the two men at the far end of the crevice. They were quite unaware of her presence as they stood motionless, their own gaze riveted on the figure between them. The torches they held shone directly onto it, creating a blaze of light, but the men stood in deeper gloom, unrecognisable, their backs to the entrance. They said nothing, but one man moved his torch abruptly, running it downwards, stopping the beam again quite suddenly.

Lucy stared disbelievingly at the bony fingers pointing towards her from the centre of the torchlight. She drew in her breath sharply and the light flickered, so that the skeletal hand seemed to move. She threw up an arm to protect her eyes from the torch beam that had swung onto her face, and Ben slipped past her, rushing forwards.

'No, Ben,' she called anxiously, taking an uncertain step after him.

A louder voice overrode hers, 'You damned dog, get down.'

At the sound of it Lucy lowered her arm, peering through the gloom. The collie was squirming excitedly beside the man, whose torch had fallen to the ground, its light bouncing off the rough walls as it rolled. 'Mike,' she exclaimed in relief, recognising the square face under tousled red hair. 'What on earth are you doing here?'

'That's what I should be asking you,' he said crossly, stroking Ben absentmindedly as he stared at her. 'Why on earth do you always take risks, Lucy? You come poking around without any idea of who might be down here. You could have got into serious trouble again.'

Lucy ignored this, moving forward to stand next to the other person, who had swung their torch back to the still figure before them. Lucy's eyes widened as she looked at it, noting how it was seated on a rough throne of piled boulders. This loomed above a sea of dried bracken within a line of jagged rocks that formed a rough oval.

The browned bones of both hands were attached to a skeleton, patchily visible beneath a covering of disintegrating rusty chain mail. One of those hands hung over the arm of its rude seat, and beneath the other, the one that rested on its lap pointing accusingly outward, lay a sword. Her awed gaze moved briefly upwards to where the dark shadows of eye sockets lay behind the narrow nosepiece of a rounded helmet, but it was drawn back to the yellowed teeth that grinned at her threateningly from the skull.

She turned aside to Mike, who had retrieved his torch and was also staring at the figure again. Lucy gestured towards it wordlessly, and he glanced at her, his face expressionless as he shrugged.

'Will there be gold with it?' another voice asked breathlessly. Lucy peered beyond the other torch beam as Ben came back to press against her legs, but could only make out a slight figure that she guessed to be young and male.

'I shouldn't think so,' Mike replied curtly. 'Let's get outside, up into the field. I don't want any more disturbance in here or anywhere nearby.'

Lucy led the way, the collie close behind her, as they squeezed through the narrow entrance, Mike cursing volubly as he barked his ankle. They emerged onto a ledge halfway down the gully in a small isolated world. Burning russet bracken billowed around ranks of gorse bushes, all rimmed by dark clumps of heather with sere brown flowers tipping the wiry branches.

A sky filled with scudding grey clouds pressed down as they wordlessly began picking their way over the springy heather and through the stands of damp bracken towards the field above. Startled rabbits scuttled away into cover and a thwarted kestrel hovering above sheered off. Ben pushed by Lucy, obeying her firm command to leave them although his nose was twitching excitedly as he sniffed around the roots of the nearest gorse bush.

Rather than walk back to the coastal path at the sea end of the gully where a stile gave access to the field, Lucy bent to slip carefully between the slack strands of a barbed wire fence that filled a gap in the drystone wall. Most of the field surface had been carefully cut back and piled in strips beyond the yellow digger that stood motionless above a shallow quarry carved into ledges and pits. A cold wind from the sea blew in their faces, splattering them with drops of rain and whirling Lucy's hair into her eyes. She tucked loose strands under her woollen beret and pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans, hunching her shoulders beneath the thick grey fleece jacket she wore as she stepped into the shelter of the machine and stopped. Ben pottered happily over the edge of the field, glad to be outside again, carefully inspecting the tussocks of grass in the rough turf, while overhead rooks screeched in delight as they rode the gusting air currents.

The men joined her, Mike Shannon's wild red curls standing up untidily around his head as he turned to glower back down the gully. The younger man leaned against the digger, lighting a cigarette as he stared at Mike. He was young, as Lucy had guessed, surely still in his late teens, wiry and dark, his sharp-featured face drawn tight with excitement above his waterproof jacket. And perhaps with the cold, Lucy thought, pulling her beret more firmly over her ears.

'Tell me again,' Mike said, turning round abruptly, 'just how you found it.'

The young man dragged deeply on his cigarette before he spoke. 'We have the rights to dig here,' he said in the soft local burr. 'My family and a few others.' He glanced at Lucy. 'For serpentine, like.' His eyes turned back to Mike, who was shifting impatiently. 'This old pit hasn't been opened since it was worked by hand, and with the jcb we can get further in, between the layers like.' He drew on the cigarette, blowing the smoke out slowly. 'We haven't worked here for a while …'

'How long?' Mike demanded sharply.

The young man shrugged. 'Two weeks, maybe three. I'm not sure. Since the weather was bad. Anyway, I've been busy with my Da in the workshop, and I wanted some air, so soon as the weather was clearing I came on up here.' He looked along the gully. 'I've been working since first light,' he flushed unaccountably, 'and I wanted a break, like, so I went for a stroll and found that gap. I was curious, no more than that, and it was a real shock to find him there.'

'So what did you do then?' Mike asked, a frown growing blackly on his face. 'How many people did you call?'

'None but my Da,' the young man said indignantly. 'I scrambled up to top, to get reception, like, and he said he'd sort it out. Get an archaeologist. Called you, didn't he?' he demanded.

Mike nodded. 'If he's Peter Teague.'

'He is,' the young man asserted. 'And I'm Kevin.'

'Where's your dad, then?' Mike asked. 'Why isn't he here?'

'Why should he be?' Kevin demanded. 'He'll come later. Right now, he'll be having his meal.' Mike snorted disbelievingly and the young man said defensively, 'He was out right early at the oyster fishery. I expect you were still sleeping when he was working. He's on the haul-tow punt and weather's been right bad lately with the wind, like, so he wanted to make the most of today.' He scowled at Mike. 'What's this all about? I've not done nothing wrong. I could've said nothing and left him to lie.'

Mike's expression lightened and he clapped the young man on the shoulder. 'So you could, Kevin. I appreciate the call. It's just odd, though,' he added in a lower voice.

Lucy glanced at him quickly, but Mike went on, 'I'll write down all you've told me, and bring it round for you to sign. We have to keep a full account of how things are found.'

Kevin nodded. 'Fine. D'you want my address then?'

Mike was already searching the pockets of his thick donkey jacket, then of his mud-stained trousers. Lucy tucked a hand into the pocket of her fleece and pulled out a pad and pen. 'Here, use these.'

Mike took them gratefully. 'Thanks, Lucy. Right then, Kevin.'

The young man gave an address in Portharrock, the nearby village, as he pulled off his waterproof. He turned to throw it into the cab of his digger and put his foot on the step, ready to climb in.

'Hang on,' Mike said. 'Where are you going to work with that thing?'

Kevin gestured at the quarry, his face darkening. 'Here, you're not going to stop me, are you?' he demanded belligerently.

Mike chewed at his lip thoughtfully, staring around the landscape, as Lucy called Ben back to her side. 'I'm afraid so,' he said briskly. 'But I don't think it'll be for very long. Is there anywhere else you can work for a couple of days?'

Kevin scowled in disgust. 'Wish I'd said nothing,' he muttered, pulling himself up into the cab.

'Where are you going with that?' Mike shouted.

'I'm not leaving it here,' Kevin yelled. 'My Da would kill me.'

Before Mike could say another word, the young man started the engine and the digger lurched, so that Mike leaped back out of the way. He stood, arms akimbo, watching it jerk across the field into the one beyond, sending a flock of crows whirling into the air with raucous scolding.

'Damn!' Mike exclaimed suddenly. 'I should have asked him where to find the landowner. I was up at the abbey excavation at Ravenstow when the message about this reached me. It's a hell of a drive down, but I didn't want to hang around.' He began to search his pockets again. 'I made a note of the name, but I think I've left the damned paper behind. Some bloke called Rasmussen. I suppose somebody'll know how to get hold of him. It can't be that common a name down here.'

'That's easy,' Lucy said. 'We're staying with him. We got here yesterday and I've just come from his house now.'

Mike stared at her. 'Well, I'll be damned. I wondered why you were here. I assumed you were doing more work on the botanical cliff survey.' His eyes narrowed. 'Who's with you?'

'Hugh,' Lucy replied. 'Why?'

Mike's expression relaxed. 'I wasn't sure whether to expect that brother of yours to come bounding over to explore.'

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