Pulling out his device, he paused to send the Québec fellow a message.
“It’s cosmic” he typed, and got no further.
His foot slipped on the grass, wet with dew. His arms pinwheeled, trying to move backward in time. To before the misstep. To before he arrived. To before he’d decided to come to this God-forsaken place.
His right leg slipped out from under him. Then his left. His hand opened and his iPhone flew away. It went sailing through the air, to be grabbed by the ghouls in the mist. For an instant, Constable Robert Stuart was suspended in midair. Flying.
And then he fell, hitting the ground hard, knocking the wind out of him. Everything became a confusion of images and sensations as he skidded and tumbled and somersaulted down the slope, disoriented and grabbing, grappling for purchase. And finding none in the dew-slick grass.
He hurtled and skidded downward. Where would it end? With a tree? A cliff?
And then, as suddenly as it started, it was over. It took him a moment to realize he was no longer moving. His head swam, his eyes unfocused, his body and brain in two separate places.
Constable Stuart lay still. It was over.
And then the panic. It wasn’t over.
His eyes widened. His mouth widened.
He couldn’t move and he couldn’t breathe. He was paralyzed. The blades of grass, so close to his eyes, were huge. He knew they were the last things he’d see. Trees of grass.
He was about to die. His neck broken. Internal bleeding. He’d die in the gully. Where no one would find him for days. Weeks. And when they did he’d be unrecognizable. He’d seen enough bodies like that, and thought them grotesque. He was about to become grotesque.
They’d hold a state funeral for him, of course. His coffin draped in the Scottish flag. They’d sing “Flower of Scotland,” his grieving widow, his friends and colleagues. Inconsolable, his—
A whoop of air was sucked into his lungs. Expanding them. And then he exhaled. A long, painful moan.
He breathed in. He breathed out. He closed his hands, clutching the grass. The soft, sweet grass. He could move. He could breathe.
Stop the music. Put the funeral on hold. His life wasn’t over yet.
Robert Stuart lay there for a long time, breathing in. Breathing out. Staring up as the ghostly mist burned off into blue sky.
He sat up slowly. Then stood up on shaky new legs. And looked around.
He’d never been here before. This place rumored to exist by its own rules. In its own reality, its own space and time. With the power of life and death. Or death then life. This place that first killed and then resurrected.
Stuart stared at the world he’d tumbled into. A netherworld. An underworld.
A few yards up the hill he spotted his iPhone. Grasping it, he began taking photographs. Trying to capture what he saw. Only in reviewing them later did he realize no photo could really do that.
But those paintings had. Or at least they’d come close. Suddenly those paintings seemed a lot less odd.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Gamache, staring at the computer screen.
After the cryptic first message from Constable Stuart, It’s cosmic, there’d been nothing. Until now.
A strange photograph had just appeared.
“I think it’s taken eighty years to download,” said Jean-Guy.
It certainly looked like the picture had been snapped long ago. It was black and white and shades of gray, and seemed frayed at the edges.
“What is it?” Reine-Marie asked.
Stare as she might, Reine-Marie couldn’t quite make out what she was seeing. And she sure couldn’t see a connection between the information they’d asked for from the officer in Dumfries and this.
Armand had sent pictures of Peter’s paintings to Scotland, suspecting they were indeed landscapes. In hopes the constable would recognize where they were painted.
And in response, Constable Stuart had sent this.
Had he misunderstood the request? Reine-Marie wondered.
Then a finger, Jean-Guy’s finger, lightly touched the screen. There, along the contours of a small hill, snaking in and out of the mist, was a vague checkerboard pattern. It wove along the shape of the ground as though the fabric of the earth had torn, to reveal the black and white checks in the wound.
Reine-Marie felt herself drawn into the image. It looked like a place not quite of this world, and not quite of the next.
She looked away, into Armand’s eyes, and in them she saw a reflection of the otherworldly image on the screen. Then she looked over to Jean-Guy. Both men were staring, transfixed.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jean-Guy whispered.