Exiting into the drizzle and wrapped in a waterproof mac that he’d plucked from a hook on the back door, Michael headed towards the orchard. Upon seeing him approach from halfway up a stepladder John called out ‘Would you believe my plums are half an inch smaller on average compared with last year’s yield and almost a whole inch from the year before?’ His tone indicated both annoyance and genuine fascination at this fact.
Not wishing to be subjected to another of John’s pointless meanderings, Michael blurted out ‘Can I have the greenhouse key please John?’
‘Why?’ asked John, who was using a vernier to measure the diameter of any plums within reach.
‘Just need something for my head’ Michael replied, hoping that further elaboration wouldn’t be required. Talking to John could sometimes be a very time consuming activity so it paid not to provide too much detail for him to get hung up on.
‘The medicine cabinet in the kitchen has paracetamol. Why not have a couple of those?’ asked John in an unconcerned fashion.
‘Oh bloody hell John. You know I’m just after something to smoke’ Michael said irritably. ‘Is this because we took the piss out of your marrow recipes or have you got a problem with me being in the greenhouse?’
John lowered his vernier, turned to face Michael and smiled weakly. ‘I was only making a suggestion. If you’re adamant about pursuing that type of relief I’ve got a new concoction you can test run for me. I’d try it myself but I’ve got too much on this afternoon.’
Michael looked at him and said stupidly ‘oh ok, sorry.’
‘But now you mention it’ said John reaching into his pocket ‘you do tend to leave a trail of destruction after you, so if you could make an extra effort to leave it as you found it.’ He pulled out set of keys and threw them to Michael. ‘You’ll find a bag in the apocathery table, third drawer across, two down labelled BB & L. Don’t use it all’ he added with a withering look. ‘I’m sure there are others who would like to sample it too. And please be sure to return those keys to me. Today!’
‘No problem’ said Michael ‘Any idea where you’ll be in half an hour or so?’
‘Probably at the hives’ replied John turning back to his plums.
‘That wouldn’t work for me’ said Michael ‘can’t risk getting stung, I’m allergic remember.’
John huffed. ‘OK, well after I’ve finished with the bees I’ll be down in the grotto harvesting mushrooms so you can give them back to me then.’
Michael nodded and trudged off, through the orchard heading away from the house.
The old rectory’s greenhouse can be found at the centre of a huge hedge maze, if you manage to reach the centre that is. The dense, two metre high hedges, twisting paths and hidden passageways disorientate all who enter. It was relocated into the centre of the maze in the eighties for added protection, after some local kids broke in and stole a number of plants from it, most of which were classified as dangerous and illegal substances by the authorities. Concerned by the theft and the government’s recent “war on drugs” policy, Henry realised that they either had to cease cultivation of all illicit plants or improve the plants security. Since the plants were a vital component of Arcanum activity, stopping was never really an option, so the greenhouse was moved from beside the vegetable patch into the centre of the maze.
It was not long after the relocation process that the moaning began. Those who visited the greenhouse regularly started lobbying for a shortcut to be introduced, since walking the maze inevitably took a long time, especially if you got befuddled and had to retrace your steps, a common occurrence among some of the older members of the house. In the end, a crude underground tunnel was dug linking the centre of the maze to the basement of the old rectory, with padlocked gates at each end. An additional benefit to this tunnel was that it allowed John to increase production of mushrooms, which thrived in its dank darkness.
Michael always found the maze extremely uninviting when it was wet. The slender pathways meant he had difficulty traversing it without disturbing the hedges and sending water cascading down from the branches above. He eventually put the hood of his waterproof mac up after a few icy drops found their way down the back of his neck.
‘Right, left, second right, up the steps, right, left at the fork, follow the swirl around and then turn back on yourself to see a hidden passage through an archway.’ Michael unconsciously made his way through the maze. ‘At the statue of Eros, head in the direction of the arrow and then take the left fork’. Michael was now in the southern corner of the maze. Each corner was quite spacious and housed two large stone benches which faced each other. Positioned between the two benches was a fruit tree, a different type in each corner. In the southern corner it was cherry. Although still producing fruit, quite a lot of the cherries had fallen to the ground and were being slowly consumed by an array of insect life. The solitude of this area created a very calming atmosphere and Michael had sat here for some peace and quiet or to think about things many times. He had no time for that today though since he was on his way to try John’s latest concoction, one of the few perks of his so-called job. ‘Maybe I‘ll spark up in the greenhouse and head back via the tunnel to avoid getting lost in the maze while stoned’ he thought, placing his hand in his pocket to find only a single key on the keyring given to him by John. ‘Damn’ he thought to himself.
It used to be that all the keys were kept together but ever since Humphrey lost the original set, they’d all been kept separate by John, who’d suffered the most during the fiasco that ensued. A number of special plants that he had been cultivating at the time required constant pruning to maintain the quality of their produce but over the next few days while everyone searched high and low for the keys, these plants went untamed. Eventually John felt they needed to be replaced, a costly and time consuming process, given the illicit nature of the plants.
Michael kept walking. He’d walked this way several times a week since he was first inducted into the Arcanum. Unlike some of the others, he preferred to take the above ground route whenever possible. The pungent smell of the mushrooms that grew in the tunnel turned his stomach.
Michael had been living at the old rectory for five years and actively doing hits for the past four. He was placed under the guardianship of Humphrey when he was sixteen at the request of his mother June, Humphrey’s sister. June had no idea quite what hijinks Humphrey and his colleagues got up to at the old rectory but she knew it must be a damn sight better than the trouble Michael was involved in. After all, most of the inhabitants of the old rectory were former vicars and army chaplains. She felt there could be no better selection of role models then those who believed in both god and the importance of structured, regimented living.
Like most unruly teens, Michael’s biggest problem wasn’t a lack of intelligence. He was one of the brightest in his class at both maths and science. It also wasn’t his upbringing, although not having a father around for the majority of his life must have affected him. Michael’s biggest problem was boredom. He went out of his way to seek some form of excitement and before too long, dangerous and illegal activities were the only things that held his interest. He gained quite a following on the internet for starting a game called “For Sale Sign Wars” with his friends, which combined mindless vandalism and online social networks. A user would register on the games website and create a custom profile which included an avatar, a sort of graphical design that could be easily reproduced using spray cans. They would then go out and spray their design onto any for sale signs placed outside houses by estate agents. By spraying your signature tag onto a sign, you marked your territory, similar to how medieval knights would fly their own flag once an enemy castle had been successfully invaded. The aim was to increase the size of your territory by tagging new, untouched for sale signs or by painting over another players tag. Once a successful tag was made, a photo would be uploaded onto the website and the street containing that house became part of that person’s territory.
A bastardised map of the area Michael lived in was slowly being created online, with various streets being claimed by the moderate number of players. The game required both imagination and balls but mostly it required the ability to run away from the police or owners of the house whenever you were spotted. Like most good things however, the heydays of “For Sale Sign Wars” were effectively ended once too many people got involved. The local newspaper got wind of the activity and went around getting quotes from targeted house owners and estate agents, which led to a full 2 page expose on the damage that graffiti covered for sale signs were having on house prices in and around the area. From there it escalated, first onto local TV news and eventually got mentioned on the national news. It was billed as ‘the latest craze in vandalism amongst the countries disillusioned youth.’
Soon most, if not all, teenagers in England were aware of “For Sale Sign Wars” in one form or another, as clone websites started to appear online. This second wave of sites started to actively promote anarchy and chaos, recommending the use of swastika and KKK tag designs in ethnically populated areas, each designed to incite mayhem. Violence quickly ensued and since Michael and his friends ran the original website that spawned it all, it was them who ended up receiving bags of hate mail and getting bricks thrown through their windows.
This was the catalyst for June to pack Michael off to the old rectory with slow and steady Uncle Humph, in order for him to straighten his life out. Of course, life at the big manor house wasn’t all that bad and being part of the Arcanum certainly had its upsides, the first being the kick Michael got out of doing hits, especially successful ones. The second was being the guinea pig for the different plant crosspollinations that John cultivated, and he cultivated lots of these in his continual search for improvement.
Michael arrived at the ornate, Victorian glass building at the centre of the maze and unlocked the door. Damp soil was the first smell to hit him but mingling with this were scents that your everyday gardener would struggle to identify, those of illicit substances which physically only occupied a very small amount of space in the greenhouse but filled the whole area with its sometimes sweet, mostly pungent odour. Michael pushed the door closed as he ventured into the organised chaos before him, unconsciously spreading out his hands as he walked through the abundant foliage, letting his fingers flow over the vibrant green leaves that lined the walkway up to the back section.
‘Ouch’ he exclaimed, as his hand brushed against a spiny cactus hidden beneath the leaves. He retracted it swiftly, knocking over a plant pot in the process which smashed upon impact scattering mud and plant matter everywhere. Michael stopped, looked first at his now bleeding finger and then down at the mess on the floor. He decided he would clean it up on the way out. Keeping his hands to himself for the rest the stroll to the far end of the greenhouse, he finally reached the apocathery table, with its array of different drawers and cubby holes, each one meticulously labelled.
Sitting on a simple wooden chair, Michael began opening drawers at random. He always got a kick from checking out the various special substances John had prepared. He found large blocks of opium resin, dried buttons of peyote cactus flesh, jars of dehydrated mushrooms of varying types and bags of philosopher stone truffles. Finally he opened up a drawer and pulled out a freezer bag with ‘BB + L’ written on it. The bag was half filled with small, dense buds of marijuana. Opening the zip lock, Michael smiled to himself as he savoured the odour. To the unfamiliar nose it could easily have been mistaken for dried dog shit but to Michael, it reminded him of good times. Pulling out one of the buds, he held it close to his eye, looking for the tell-tale sparkles of THC crystal and flecks of colour that typically signifies its potency. Even in the low light of the greenhouse, the bud glistened back like a shoal of tetra fish swimming through a coral reef.
Michael placed the bud into a stone mortar that was sitting on the table, picked up the pestle and started to grind it down. His aim wasn’t to pummel it into a fine powder, just make rolling as easy as possible since he wasn’t as adept at rolling as some of the others like George who’d been smoking rolled up cigarettes pretty much since birth. Michael in contrast had never done anything like that until he joined the Arcanum. Once happy with that the bud was sufficiently ground up he pulled some rizlas from his pocket along with a small pouch of John’s home grown tobacco leaf and started to lay them out. He ripped a piece of the rizla wrapper off to form a roach, applied a layer of tobacco, sprinkled in a good helping of weed and started rolling. He felt quite pleased with the end result. ‘Maybe not as tight as one of George’s, or as straight as one of Humph’s he said to himself, ‘But a good effort nonetheless.’
He felt around for his lighter but it wasn’t there. ‘Bollocks’ he thought as he started pulling out all the items in his pockets. Then he remembered chucking it to George back in the house and not getting it back. ‘Damn! OK, matches, matches, matches...’ he mumbled and started opening drawers again before ‘Ahah!’ His fingers found a small rectangular box in the depths of one of the lowest drawers. It was indeed a box of matches, complete with a picture of a nude woman on one side. He chuckled to himself as he struck a match and lit the joint that was poking out of his mouth. He took a drag and sat back in the chair, looking at the woman on the matchbox. Flipping the box over in his hands, he saw on the other side a handwritten message which said - Elizabeth, Oxford - Saturday 20:00. He took another drag and rotated the matchbox once more, peering at the woman’s face. ‘Elizabeth’s quite hot’ he thought ‘although the packet looks pretty old. She probably died a long time ago.’ Michael started to giggle and it was a long time before he could get his giggle fit under control.
The rough sides of the match box were smooth in places, indicating that a lot of matches had been struck against it. Taking another toke he thought ‘There’s no way the number of matches in here would cause that much wear. John must’ve replenished them a few times. Wonder why he’d do that? Why keep this old box, unless the meeting with Elizabeth in Oxford was particularly memorable.’ As Michael thought these words, they started to slip out of his mouth as well. Not in perfect sentences, more in a disjointed manner that would be incomprehensible to others. Realising that he was talking, Michael looked down at the joint in his hand. It was practically all gone. ‘Bloody hell’ he said to himself ‘didn’t realise I’d smoked it so quickly… Shit!’ Michael dropped the joint as it burnt down to his fingers. It wasn’t until his leg started burning that he realised he must’ve dropped the remnants of the joint on himself. ‘Fuck!’ he yelled again and jumped up out of the chair, but collapsed back down as an immense head rush overcame him. He sat there for a while, panting. ‘Not going at all well this relaxing malarkey’ he said. ‘Guess it’s taking my mind off other things though.’
Whether he said this out loud or just thought it he wasn’t sure, but almost instantly he heard a voice respond. ‘Huh?’
Michael spun his head around in surprise and immediately wished he hadn’t as the beginnings of a headache started to well up inside his skull. Michael closed his eyes until the initial discomfort was gone. When he reopened them, he saw that the greenhouse was empty. ‘What the…’ he started saying but before he could finish, John popped his head out from under one of the tables.
‘You’re not making any sense at all. That stuff’s really gotten on-top of you hasn’t it? Look at your face. You look like you’re about to explode.’
‘What is happening to me’ Michael wanted to say but just a high pitched squeak emanated from his mouth. After a moment his body started to relax. He hadn’t realised that every muscle had unconsciously tensed up. The box of matches fell to the floor with a rattle.
Suddenly a rush of fear ran through him, concerned about what John would say if he saw that Michael had gone through his things. In a rush Michael said ‘This is some powerful stuff John. I’m finding it pretty hard to breathe, let alone think.’
‘Is that right’ said John surveying Michael with a curious tone as he pulled a bee keeping suit out from under a table. ‘I must admit, I’m surprised to see you smoking it in here. I thought you would have retreated back to the house to smoke. Oh well. I’d best carry on. I’ve got some bees waiting for me.’
Before striding through the door he turned, pointed down at the mess on the floor and called out ‘remember to leave this place as you found it. I refuse to clean up after you. I am not your mother.’ And with that, John departed the greenhouse leaving Michael alone with a head that was feeling more and more jelly-like with every passing second. It was unnerving and definitely not the effect he had hoped for.
Michael attempted once again to raise himself out of the chair, this time moving a lot slower. His legs were reluctant to support his weight initially but eventually he felt stable enough to let go of the arms of the chair. Straightening up, he noticed how he was now experiencing chronic pins and needles in his arms, making them completely useless from the shoulder down. The sensation caused another minor giggle fit. Whilst uncontrollably laughing, he stumbled slightly and trod on something which made him lose his footing. He fell, taking a few plants with him but luckily no cacti. The giggling subsided as he pulled himself into a sitting position looking around for what he had stood on. It was the old match box. He picked it up but took a long while doing so, as he still had limited movement in his arms. ‘John would be pissed if he knew I’d been rummaging around in his drawers and had found this’ Michael thought as he stifled another giggle at the obvious innuendo and placed the matchbox in his pocket.
Standing up and walking gingerly back through the greenhouse, he knocked over another small ceramic plant pot, which shattered on the floor. Michael felt a nagging sense of déjà vu but he didn’t stop to review the situation this time. He knew things would only get worse if he tried to clean up so he resided to make his apologies to John and do it later. Michael pushed open the door and stepped out into the drizzle, feeling immediately better. He hadn’t realised how hot and suffocating it was inside the humid atmosphere of the greenhouse. The freshness of the air raised Michael’s spirits considerably. He managed to lock the door without being all fingers and thumbs and took great efforts to place the key back in his pocket. Turning around he stood, looking at the maze, completely dumbfounded.
Michael looked at the left path, then at the right path and then at the left one again. He had absolutely no idea which way to go. He suddenly didn’t feel quite so steady on his feet. The lack of immediate escape caused his airways to constrict as waves of panic started to pulse through his body. ‘Sort yourself out’ he thought as he slapped himself across the face, hard. Taking a gamble, he started forward, deciding to go left and then just allow his mind to wander, hoping his feet would remember the way. At first it seemed like a good idea because he kept arriving at things he recognised, like a statue of Eros. ‘Looks more mossy then I remember’ he thought as he passed it, which made him feel decidedly uneasy. Within ten minutes, he’d stopped recognising anything at all.
Michael was feeling pretty lethargic by the time he’d arrived at a four-way junction, completely lost and with his body objecting to the physical and mental torture being administered by the maze. Cold rain was dripping down his face and into his eyes, obscuring his vision. His legs started to give way and Michael came to earth with a heavy bump. As he sat there and wondered how he’d managed to get into this mess, he looked down at his hands which were now caked in mud and said ‘At least I didn’t go for a shower first.’
‘I know, I can smell you from here’ a voice replied.
‘Who’s that?’ Michael called out, his voice racked with concern.
‘It’s Ethan. I’m sat on a stone bench in the southwest corner waiting for you.’
‘Shit!’ Michael thought. ‘He wants to talk about this morning. He’s planning on kicking me out. He came out here to do it to avoid a scene.’ Fresh waves of panic flooded through his body. ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit’ he thought ‘I’m not ready for this.’
‘I take it Johns latest hybrid, combining the Burning Bush and Lazarus strains of marijuana, is having a detrimental effect on you?’ Ethan asked from elsewhere in the maze as Michael sat, frozen to the spot. ‘You don’t have any trouble in the maze normally. Is something on your mind or is it just the drugs making things a little hazy for you.’
‘Yeah’ replied Michael in a shaky voice ‘a little hazy.’
‘John told me that you were in the greenhouse trying it out so I thought I’d come and find you, have a chat about things, in private, you know.’
Michaels mind was racing. He’d positioned himself with his back against a hedge, head in hands, trying to gain control back. ‘This is it’ he thought ‘brace yourself, here it comes.’
Back on the third floor of the house, George had his head under a sink while Archie stood above him turning the tap on and off. ‘I appreciate you having a look George. It’s been like it for a while and I’ve ignored it as long as I can but recently it’s been disrupting my sleeping patterns with its constant drip, drip, dripping.’
George was barely listening but still managed to run off a number of autopilot words such as ‘Yep’ and ‘Right’ with the occasional ‘I know what you mean.’ He was too busy getting on with the job at hand to listen to old Archie, the resident fusspot and gossip. Sadly, this was Archie’s bedroom so it was unlikely he would leave George alone until the tap was fixed. Then a string of words caught his ear and made him raise his head up, something he soon regretted, as it banged on the underside of the sink.
‘What was that?’ asked George, as he pulled his head from the bowels of Archie’s wash basin and gave it a soothing rub.
‘Just that it’s a bit ominous how Ethan has called an emergency meeting tonight’ said Archie, his head drooping sadly. ‘Usually only happens when there’s bad news. Remember the last?’
‘You mean when Charlie died, yeah I remember.’
Both men were lost in thought. George was thinking about what Michael had confided to him earlier and he supposed that Archie was thinking about Charlie, but he was wrong. Since Archie was the one who had effectively grassed Michael up, he felt wretched. Guilt was surging through him. He was concerned what his good friend Humphrey, Michael’s uncle, would do when he found out Archie was the one who blabbed.
‘Only you and William truly know all the details of what transpired in that coffee shop’ said Ethan, his voice loud but calm as William listened, ‘but I’m pretty sure I can guess how he approached it and I’m sure there was a part of you which felt tempted to sell-out. I know all too when how tempting that kind of argument can be because I hesitated momentarily before saying no to Farthingsworth when he approached me.’
Ethan had Michael’s full attention now.
‘My father and I didn’t always see eye to eye, you see and for a while I moved away from the old rectory. I wanted my own space and to feel in control of my own life for a while. You know what I mean? Well, it didn’t take long before old Farthingsworth came knocking, trying to recruit me but I knew it was the wrong thing to do and told him so. I realised something, you see and I hope you realise it too. Winning is so much more satisfying when the odds are stacked against you. That immense feeling of pleasure that flows through you when you beat guys with helicopters to a hit, when all you have is your determination and wit, is indescribable. You should know, you’ve been in that situation before.’
Ethan paused and then said ‘Look, I know you’re competitive and want to win all the time, that’s your greatest strength, but don’t let it become your greatest flaw too. Winning to beat your competitor is different to winning because you truly believe you have to win. Do you remember Charlie?’ Although the question was asked Ethan didn’t seem to require an answer. ‘Charlie was always more interested in winning then in making a hit for the right reasons. He got seduced by Farthingsworth, with the promise of having all the tools required to win and switched sides. But soon, his victories became hollow and worthless.’ Ethan’s voice became softer. ‘He realised the mistake he’d made in the end though. When he died he left all his money to us, to help finance our efforts against Farthingsworth.’
The emotion had become too much for Ethan and he stopped momentarily.
‘I remember’ Michael chimed in, starting to relax. ‘I didn’t meet the guy but I went to his funeral and I remember having a big meeting afterwards to discuss how to spend the money he’d left us in this will. What was it we agreed to do in the end?’
‘Ah, well now’ said Ethan, ‘it’s all still sitting in the bank because we couldn’t get agreement on how the money should be spent’.
Michael rubbed his eyes. The fog that had clouded his mind was starting to lift. He gazed around him and said ‘Ethan, can you direct me out of here?’
‘Certainly, just turn left and keep walking straight. We need to head back to the house soon anyway, otherwise we’ll miss the meeting.’
Michael did as he was instructed but with renewed panic. There was going to be a meeting? ‘A meeting about what’ he thought as he walked. The path swirled round and ended up leading him to the area where Ethan was stood, picking pears from the tree and dropping them into a small wicker basket. ‘There’s a meeting?’ asked Michael nervously as he entered into the first bit of open space he had encountered in ages, or at least it felt that way.
‘Yes, but we won’t leave for it just yet, there’s something I want to ask you.’
Michael felt another twang of panic flutter around his tummy.
‘I feel it’s time we got some fresh blood in this place, you know, a new perspective, some new ideas. And of all the Arcanum who are currently active, I can’t think of anyone better then you to go out and find our next superstar who, with any luck, will pull us out of our slump and back up to the levels of success we experienced in the past. I want you to go to the Winterbrookes hostel in town, that’s always been a good place for us in the past and see if there’s anyone who you think would inject a bit more energy to this place. I can’t help but notice that the Arcanum is looking more and more like a Home Counties bowls club these days than an exciting and vibrant undercover operation. In short, this place is full of old men. We need some youth here to liven things up and turn our fortunes around. You’re the youngest member and also the most active we have, which means you’d be the ideal role model for any new recruit, so it’s only right that you’re the one who chooses them. What do you think?’
Michael stared at Ethan in a bemused fashion. The long speech and its enthusiastic delivery had taken Michael by surprise. He was expecting to be kicked out, or at least given a long lecture about morals. Never in a million years had he expected that he would be given such a direct involvement in the future of the organisation. ‘Err, I’m not sure what to say. Yeah, it sounds like a good idea, but wouldn’t it be better if you went yourself. I mean, you already know the people at the hostel after all and…’
‘No, it’s got to be you’ said Ethan cutting him short ‘Let’s go tell the others what the plan is and see if we can come up with some ideas on how to spend all that money Charlie left us.’ Ethan led the pair of them out of the damp maze and back towards the house.