Last Line 2 -

Ring Around the Sun

Ring Around the Sun is book two of Mike and John's story.

The first volume is Last Line.

MI5 agents Marina Griffin and Leo South are made to be together. But their mission’s-end encounter with Ashkeloi gypsies in the Russian forest reveals a terrifying prophecy – a fate that will tear them apart, and re-echo into the lives of their sons, John and Mike.

Thirty years later, a deadly climate shift has opened up a seaway through the Arctic, and nuclear war is imminent as the global superpowers make a grab for the oil reserves suddenly exposed. Like everyone else, Mike and John just want to ride out the storm and protect the people they love, especially their boy Quin.

But love isn’t enough when the stakes are this high, and Mike and John too are in the grip of a destiny they can’t avoid. Summoned from their Glastonbury farmhouse to the office of their ex-boss, James Webb, they discover not only the truth about their heritage but the forces they will have to encounter if the war for the Arctic – and the future of humanity – is to be won.

Excerpt

A night of flames on bitter frost. Michael South, daubed from head to foot in firelight, surveyed the farmhouse gardens and wondered if his party might be getting out of hand.

 

He hadn’t expected such a turn-out. It was the last night of October, but he and John hadn’t billed the event as a Halloween bash. In the Glastonbury countryside there was a movement towards reclaiming the sanctity of that ancient festival, and stripping back the modern veneer of gunpowder plot from Bonfire Night too. Michael, after years of resistance to the Pagan excesses of his hometown, now moved and lived within its tides. This year more than any other it had felt right to answer the shortening days with fire. They hadn’t sent out invitations, just let it be known via Quin and his network of mates that there’d be bonfires and barbecues up at Mike and John’s place tonight. And everyone had come.

 

The kids were tearing round in the firelight. Most of them had dressed up. Quin and his sixth-form college friends were obligingly chasing after them, making sure nobody came to grief. Mike watched in amused approval as Quin—John’s little brother, but part of their lives and their household for so long now they simply saw him as their son—caught a tiny werewolf by its tail at the last instant and swung it away from the blaze.

 

That fire, the great one in the corner of the garden, was climbing too high. Michael turned his attention away from the muted conversation of the group of parents around him. He didn’t need to ignore them completely—could still nod and smile. He extended one hand, palm down, in the direction of the flames.

The fire settled instantly. Mike turned the volume on his friends back up. It might have been only a shift of the breeze, a lessening of the frosty wind that breathed down from the Tor. Andrew, one of Quin’s teachers, was saying something to him, his face shadowed and solemn in the light. “Sorry, Andy. What was that?”

 

“Did you see them burning the effigy of Jacob Powell down in the fields outside town?”

 

Mike nodded. The ugly caricature of the reactionary new US president had been getting hauled into place as he’d returned from his grocery run. “I saw them putting him up. To be fair, they were setting up Anatoly Milyukov in the next field down. With a humiliatingly tiny British PM somewhere between them. It’s just kids.”

 

“No, Mike, it’s not. It’s grown-ups.”

 

Mike looked into his worried face. A handful of the others around him were listening too. Off in other parts of the fields and gardens there was some feverish partying going on, mulled wine leaving the kitchen as fast as he and John could brew it up and take turns to top up the pans. Elsewhere, in groups like this one by the orchard wall, people were huddled, their coat collars pulled up, hats drawn down. “Well,” he said, “best they get it out of their systems like that, maybe.”

 

“Yeah,” said a new voice, tight and bitter. “Because there’s fuck-all else any of us can do, is there?”

 

Mike looked in surprise at Jill Watts, the mother of the werewolf and a couple of other small monsters chasing round the fires. She was a prim Christian soul, an unlikely guest at a party like this. She was clutching a mug of John’s powerful wine, and it wasn’t her first. “Come on, Mike,” she went on, swaying a little. “We all know you and John used to work for some hush-hush political outfit in London. What do you two think about all this? What’s really going to happen?”

 

Mike sighed. Once settled in Somerset, rebuilding the farmhouse and their lives, they hadn’t bothered to conceal their previous employment with Last Line. Nor had they advertised it, but Glasto would always be a small town, its swirling energies sending gossip fast round the cauldron. “It wasn’t political as such,” he said gently. “We dealt with terrorists. And it’s been a while, Jill—years now. We’re retired.”

“Retired?” God, she had had one too many, hadn’t she? Mike watched in alarm while the top half inch of the wine sluiced out of her mug with her gesture. She was laughing, but there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, yeah. You and John and your retirement, which never fucking ages you a day. I hope you’re fucking well enjoying—”

 

“Jill!” Clive Watts emerged from the shadows and put an arm round her. “Shut up, love. What’s the matter with you?”

 

“Nothing. I don’t know.” Suddenly she laid her head on his shoulder, her face crumpling. “But what are we gonna do, Clive? What about the kids?”

 

Clive extracted the mug from her hand. “Home time for us, I reckon.” He tightened his arm round her waist and began to lead her away. “Sorry about that, Mike,” he said over his shoulder. “She’s just upset.”

“No worries. Do you need a lift home?”

 

“No, thanks. I’ve stayed off your Samhain sauce. Car’s just down here.”

 

Mike watched them go. Clive put out his free hand, and the werewolf tumbled out of the crowd of kids around an apple-ducking barrel, followed by a vampire and, incongruously, a miniature Elvis. Mike took a few steps away from the group by the wall. Clive didn’t need to apologise to him for Jill’s distress. He looked at the other women, the other mothers and fathers who had come here tonight to face-paint smiles over their fears, drown them or furtively turn them over in corners. Mike knew why everyone who could attend this party had come here tonight. He knew why every family with kids would make sure they got their fill of bonfires, additives and mindless fun, and when it was over, start preparations for Christmas as soon as they damn well could. A sense of last chances burned in the air, brighter and hotter than fire.

 

A sense of the eve of war.

 

Laughter sailed up out of the crowd, so like John’s that Mike turned to look for him. But it was Quin, who had just plucked a small child bodily out of the water barrel and been drenched in the process. He was reaching for a towel to dry the kid off. Quin was almost out of his teen years, tough and independent. Still, to Mike he was a boy—Mike’s own, as surely as Clive and Jill’s brood belonged to them, or any of the children here belonged to their frightened, angry parents. Mike was just as worried.

 

Just as pissed off. He turned his attention back to the fires, and each of them acquired a sharp new brightness at its heart, a diamond incandescence to match his rage. This time he didn’t bother to halt or question the reaction. What was that poem of James Reeves’? Happy should we live in the interstices // Of a declining age // Even while the impudent masters of decision // Trample and rage... Well, he had tried. He and John had lived down here in the Somerset interstices, deliberately disengaged from the great world, from the masters getting burnt in effigy in the fields outside town. Time to be together, to let their boy grow up, and what for?

He clenched his fists. The fires leapt. Oh, he hadn’t always been a man of peace, had he? He’d carried gun and badge for MI5. He’d walked Sir James Webb’s Last Line.

A cool hand closed round his. A voice, needful and sweet to him as water, said in his ear, “What are you up to, you bloody brooding great Russian?”

 

“Me? Nothing.”

 

“Come with me for a minute, then. Come on.”

 

Mike left his hand in John’s, and let his lover lead him through the scattered crowd and through the gate into the orchard. Their neighbours were used to them—to their relationship, anyway, the twenty-first century having made it even this deep into rural England. Other things about them had just recently started to raise more than an eyebrow. Your retirement, which never ages you a fucking day... Mike pushed the thought aside. John couldn’t deal with it, and just now all Mike wanted was to see and touch and feel him. John could settle his world on its axis again. The bare trees folded their shadows around them. Leaves crunched underfoot, a rich scent of windfall apples and frost rising up. John drew him deeper into the cool dark, and deeper again, and then when they were quite alone, the shouting and firelight fading to nothing, pushed him up against the ancient, mossy wall.

Mike seized him, every part of him he could get. He pulled off the black woolly hat that was John’s one concession to Halloween dressing and ran his fingers through the silky hair beneath. He dropped both hands to John’s backside, then—realising his partner needed no encouragement to thrust and grind against him—took hold of his face instead, cupping it like a chalice. John’s sculpted mouth was on his in an instant. All that time shoulder-to-shoulder in a lonely farmhouse had done nothing to hone down the urgency of their encounters. All that intimacy, all that daily life, and Mike still got hard at one kiss. Could raise the answering signal in John, bright and hot. They tussled briefly, tongue shoving tight against tongue, grip bruising down through layers of jacket and jersey, then just when Mike had caught hold of the top button of his partner’s jeans, one practised thumb ready to pop it free of its hole, John jolted back, breaking their kiss with a pained, laughing moan. “Mikey, no. Not here.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“It’s a kiddies’ party.” John held him at arm’s length, immobilising him. He was leaner than Mike, built on a lighter scale, but his grasp was powerful. Distant scraps of firelight gleamed in his eyes, transmuted into green. “Besides, I want more from you than that tonight. A lot more. You’re going to have to wait.”

 

Mike shivered and smiled. “Quin staying over with his mates, then?”

“Oh, yeah. That sort of night.”

 

“Jesus. I love you. All the more because...”

 

“What?”

 

“Because I know you’re trying to take my mind off things.”

 

“Well, maybe a touch.” John eased his grip, and their stand-off became an embrace. He wrapped his arms around Mike’s neck. “What did you say to upset poor Jill Watts?”

 

“Nothing. She’s just freaked out, like practically everybody else. And they expect me—expect us—to have answers, because of what we used to do.” He drew John close to him, suddenly more anxious to shield him than rip his way into his clothes. “I dunno, love. When I was growing up here, there were a few remnants of CND groups, ban-the-bombers, that kind of thing. But not much. It was like everyone had got used to the threat. Our generation... We were just born into it, weren’t we? The idea of the great deterrent. Nobody thought...”

 

“Nobody thought we’d actually get nuked,” John finished concisely, rattling brief involuntary laughter from him. “God, it’s very eighties, isn’t it?” he went on, pushing his advantage, brushing soft kisses against Mike’s jaw. “A kind of vintage Armageddon.”

 

“You’re not funny. Or... you shouldn’t be, at any rate. What am I supposed to tell people? We’re not part of that racket any more. I don’t have a clue, any more than anybody else. What am I supposed to tell Quin?”

 

“Oh, Quin has ideas of his own.”

 

Did he? Mike hadn’t noticed much sign of dawning political awareness in his bright but live-for-the-moment boy. Before Mike could formulate the question, John’s eyes darkened. “Do you regret it?” he asked softly. “That we’re not out there any more?”

 

Mike studied him. John was good at holding back his shadows. And he took his duties as the co-host of this party seriously, approaching the task with good-natured thoroughness, just as he did everything else. Still, he was the man who had turned down a whole world of action, drama and highly rewarded risk to carve out a path at Mike’s side. To build a home with him and try his hand at love. “No,” Mike said firmly. “No, not for one bloody second.” He stole another kiss, and pressed their brows together. “Anyway, sweetheart, even if we’d still been in harness, I doubt we could’ve stopped World War Three.”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”