A little later, when the cat had curled up to sleep, Will took a cup of coffee and the green leather writing case, and sat on the balcony. There was enough light coming through the window for him to read by, and he wanted to look at the papers.

There weren’t many. As he’d thought, they were letters, written on airmail paper in black ink. These very marks were made by the hand of the man he wanted so much to find; he moved his fingers over and over them, and pressed them to his face, trying to get closer to the essence of his father. Then he started to read.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Wednesday, 19 June 1985

My darling—the usual mixture of efficiency and chaos—all the stores are here but the physicist, a genial dimwit called Nelson, hasn’t made any arrangements for carrying his damn balloons up into the mountains—having to twiddle our thumbs while he scrabbles around for transport. But it means I had a chance to talk to an old boy I met last time, a gold miner called Jake Petersen. Tracked him down to a dingy bar and under the sound of the baseball game on the TV I asked him about the anomaly. He wouldn’t talk there—took me back to his apartment. With the help of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s he talked for a long time—hadn’t seen it himself, but he’d met an Eskimo who had, and this chap said it was a doorway into the spirit world. They’d known about it for centuries; part of the initiation of a medicine man involved going through and bringing back a trophy of some kind—though some never came back. However, old Jake did have a map of the area, and he’d marked on it where his pal had told him the thing was. (Just in case: it’s at 69°02’11” N, 157°12’19” W, on a spur of Lookout Ridge a mile or two north of the Colville River.) We then got on to other Arctic legends—the Norwegian ship that’s been drifting unmanned for sixty years, stuff like that. The archaeologists are a decent crew, keen to get to work, containing their impatience with Nelson and his balloons. None of them has ever heard of the anomaly, and believe me I’m going to keep it like that. My fondest love to you both. Johnny.

Umiat, Alaska

Saturday, 22 June 1985

My darling—so much for what did I call him, a genial dimwit—the physicist Nelson is nothing of the sort, and if I’m not mistaken he’s actually looking for the anomaly himself. The holdup in Fairbanks was orchestrated by him, would you believe? Knowing that the rest of the team wouldn’t want to wait for anything less than an unarguable reason like no transport, he personally sent ahead and canceled the vehicles that had been ordered. I found this out by accident, and I was going to ask him what the hell he was playing at when I overheard him talking on the radio to someone—describing the anomaly, no less, except he didn’t know the location. Later on I bought him a drink, played the bluff soldier, old Arctic hand, “more things in heaven and earth” line. Pretended to tease him with the limitations of science—bet you can’t explain Bigfoot, etc.—watching him closely. Then sprung the anomaly on him—Eskimo legend of a doorway into spirit world—invisible—somewhere near Lookout Ridge, would you believe, where we’re heading for, fancy that. And you know he was jolted rigid. He knew exactly what I meant. I pretended not to notice and went on to witchcraft, told him the Zaire leopard story. So I hope he’s got me down as a superstitious military blockhead. But I’m right, Elaine—he’s for it too. The question is, do I tell him or not? Got to work out what his game is. Fondest love to both—Johnny.

Colville Bar, Alaska

Monday, 24 June 1985

Darling—I won’t get a chance to post another letter for a while—this is the last town before we take to the hills, the Brooks Range. The archaeologists are fizzing to get up there. One chap is convinced he’ll find evidence of much earlier habitation than anyone suspected. I said how much earlier, and why was he convinced. He told me of some narwhal-ivory carvings he’d found on a previous dig—carbon 14–dated to some incredible age, way outside the range of what was previously assumed; anomalous, in fact. Wouldn’t it be strange if they’d come through my anomaly, from some other world? Talking of which, the physicist Nelson is my closest buddy now—kids me along, drops hints to imply that he knows that I know that he knows, etc. And I pretend to be bluff Major Parry, stout fellow in a crisis but not too much between the ears, what. But I know he’s after it. For one thing, although he’s a bona fide academic his funding actually comes from the Ministry of Defense—I know the financial codes they use. And for another his so-called weather balloons are nothing of the sort. I looked in the crate—a radiation suit if ever I’ve seen one. A rum do, my darling. I shall stick to my plan: take the archaeologists to their spot and go off by myself for a few days to look for the anomaly. If I bump into Nelson wandering about on Lookout Ridge, I’ll play it by ear.

Later. A real bit of luck. I met Jake Petersen’s pal the Eskimo, Matt Kigalik. Jake had told me where to find him, but I hadn’t dared to hope he’d be there. He told me the Soviets had been looking for the anomaly too; he’d come across a man earlier this year high up in the range and watched him for a couple of days without being seen, because he guessed what he was doing, and he was right, and the man turned out to be Russian, a spy. He didn’t tell me more than that; I got the impression he bumped him off. But he described the thing to me. It’s like a gap in the air, a sort of window. You look through it and you see another world. But it’s not easy to find because that part of the other world looks just like this—rocks and moss and so forth. It’s on the north side of a small creek fifty paces or so to the west of a tall rock shaped like a standing bear, and the position Jake gave me is not quite right—it’s nearer 12” N than 11.

Wish me luck, my darling. I’ll bring you back a trophy from the spirit world. I love you forever—kiss the boy for me—Johnny.

Will found his head ringing.

His father was describing exactly what he himself had found under the hornbeam trees. He, too, had found a window—he even used the same word for it! So Will must be on the right track. And this knowledge was what the men had been searching for . . . So it was dangerous, too.

Will had been just a baby when that letter was written. Seven years after that had come the morning in the supermarket when he realized his mother was in terrible danger, and he had to protect her; and then slowly in the months that followed came his growing realization that the danger was in her mind, and he had to protect her all the more.

And then, brutally, the revelation that not all the danger had been in her mind after all. There really was someone after her—after these letters, this information.

He had no idea what it meant. But he felt deeply happy that he had something so important to share with his father; that John Parry and his son Will had each, separately, discovered this extraordinary thing. When they met, they could talk about it, and his father would be proud that Will had followed in his footsteps.

The night was quiet and the sea was still. He folded the letters away and fell asleep.

SIX

LIGHTED FLIERS

“Grumman?” said the black-bearded fur trader. “From the Berlin Academy? Reckless. I met him five years back over at the northern end of the Urals. I thought he was dead.”

Sam Cansino, an old acquaintance and a Texan like Lee Scoresby, sat in the naphtha-laden, smoky bar of the Samirsky Hotel and tossed back a shot glass of bitingly cold vodka. He nudged the plate of pickled fish and black bread toward Lee, who took a mouthful and nodded for Sam to tell him more.

“He’d walked into a trap that fool Yakovlev laid,” the fur trader went on, “and cut his leg open to the bone. Instead of using regular medicines, he insisted on using the stuff the bears use—bloodmoss—some kind of lichen, it ain’t a true moss. Anyway, he was lying on a sledge alternately roaring with pain and calling out instructions to his men—they were taking star sights, and they had to get the measurements right or he’d lash them with his tongue, and boy, he had a tongue like barbed wire. A lean man, tough, powerful, curious about everything. You know he was a Tartar, by initiation?”

“You don’t say,” said Lee Scoresby, tipping more vodka into Sam’s glass. His dæmon, Hester, crouched at his elbow on the bar, eyes half-closed as usual, ears flat along her back.

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