Read an extract
1957. A secret location somewhere in England. Dawn.
He was far more ruthless and efficient than any weapon man could devise. And there was silence, high above the ground, as he watched patiently, waited to go in for the kill. His prey was down there – a long way down – but his eyes were keen and he was hungry.
The grey feathers of the male hen harrier made him look more like a ghost than a real bird as he drifted eerily against the steely light of the dawn sky. He glided effortlessly, his wings fixed in a shallow V-shape as, with the skill of a true hunter, he stalked his unsuspecting prey, low over the ground, only a few metres above the small rodent that would have run had it only known what was about to happen.
And when the moment came, the rodent barely even had time to whimper.
The hen harrier pounced with lightning speed, his talons carrying his suddenly motionless prey high into the sky. All need for secrecy gone, he let out his distinctive cry, a shrill, repetitive trilling that echoed through the crystal morning air. In response, there came a second cry – a female this time – and as if those two bird calls had been a signal for something, the air was suddenly filled with the kaleidoscope sounds of the dawn chorus. But it was the call of the hen harrier that was most distinctive of all.
The bird came to rest in a patch of tall grass just by a dirt track seldom used by people. Hidden. Protected. Safe from the ravenous eyes of other predators, and the thoughtless, dangerous movements of man.
As he fed, however, his sharp ears became aware of another noise. A strange noise. Not the dawn chorus, but something else: a low-pitched rumble, in the distance, but getting nearer. His head twitched in the direction of the noise, and he appeared for a moment to be listening intently as the sound grew louder. Suddenly the hen harrier grabbed his prey firmly in his talons once more and took again to the skies. By the time the truck passed the grassy patch where he had been, the bird was long gone.
It was a military vehicle – a three-ton general service truck left over from the war. Its army-green paint had started to peel and rust in places, but its wheels were chunky and serviceable and the khaki canopy over the back fully intact. The men who drove in it were not soldiers, however: they wore slightly frayed suits, one dark green, the other brown, with white shirts and thin ties. The man in the passenger seat was young and bespectacled; the driver was older and balding. Both were pale, and neither of them spoke a word to each other. They just looked straight ahead as their bodies shook in time with the movement of the truck over the bumpy road.
‘Easy,’ the younger man said finally as the truck motored over a particularly treacherous patch of ground. ‘Let’s not shake him up any more than we have to.’
His colleague momentarily glanced over his shoulder, as though he might be able to see through the back of the cab and into the canopied trailer behind them. But of course he couldn’t and he just continued to drive in silence, though a little slower now.
Up ahead a small hut came into view. It had been constructed from concrete, and it looked new. Even the metal door – a familiar green colour – seemed to have been recently painted. The truck came to a halt just outside, and as the animal growl of the diesel engine faded to nothing, the ears of the two men were filled with another sound. It was coming from the trailer and it was unmistakable.
It was the sound of a man screaming.
They sat there for a moment, the muffled shouts filling their ears. ‘Please, let me out! Please, don’t do this! You don’t have to do this!’
The younger man breathed in deeply and you could hear his breath shaking.
‘It’s the best thing for him, Lucian,’ his colleague said quietly. ‘The right thing. You do understand that, don’t you? You do agree? If he messes everything up, who knows what they’ll do to him?’
Lucian nodded grimly. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘You won’t get any trouble from me.’
‘Good.’ The older man nodded with satisfaction. ‘We’ll open up first, then get him out.’
Lucian climbed down from the cab and walked with his colleague towards the door. It was a relief to get away from the screaming. What was about to happen was not going to be nice. Not nice at all. But sometimes you had to think of the greater good. Their research was too important to be compromised by one man, even if that man did happen to be his brother. And like his friend had said, it was for his own benefit.
With the metal door unlocked, they walked into the hut.
Inside it was empty – concrete walls, concrete floor. But at the far end, against one of the walls, there was a wooden trap door. The older man unlocked it with a large key, then pulled it up. He disappeared momentarily down a flight of steps, then Lucian saw light flood out of the opening and his friend reappeared. He gave Lucian a determined nod, and the two of them returned to the car.
The screaming had stopped now, and when the older man opened the back of the truck, Lucian could see why. His brother was still there of course, hook-nosed and floppy-haired, his bright green eyes flashing in the darkness and his hands tied tightly behind his back; but now he was cowering in the corner of the truck, clearly terrified by the fact that they had come to a standstill. Lucian looked him straight in the eye.
‘Please,’ his brother whispered, as though all the fight had been knocked out of him. ‘Please don’t do this. I’m your brother.’
Lucian shook his head. This was for his brother’s own good, he told himself yet again.
The older man jumped up into the cab of the truck and roughly tugged at the captive’s arm. Limply, Lucian’s brother stumbled along with him, and when he was thrown from the trailer, he fell to the ground like a puppet with no strings. Lucian and his colleague took one bound arm each and dragged him, whimpering, into the hut and down the stairs.
Lucian had never been down here before, but he knew of its reputation of course. This was where the experiments were done. By the light of the solitary yellow light bulb hanging from the ceiling he could see in the centre of the room a heavy metal chair, bolted firmly to the ground. The walls were covered with locked cabinets, and an empty metal trolley stood by the chair.
The older man roughly untied Lucian’s brother. As if given a new lease of life by the freedom of his wrists, he started flailing uncontrollably, hitting out at his captors as they firmly, forcibly restrained him and pushed him into the chair. Lucian kept him sitting while the other man gagged his mouth.
‘Is that really necessary?’ Lucian asked.
‘I’m afraid so,’ his colleague replied. ‘We’ve had instances where subjects have bit into their tongues. It’s not a pretty sight.’
The gag did not stop the man from starting to scream again, however, and Lucian did his best to ignore the pitiful wails as he watched his colleague make a large rip in the shirt around his brother’s upper arm, then turn and unlock a cupboard on the wall. He brought out a bottle filled with a clear liquid, and a hypodermic needle.
‘Lysergic acid diethylamide,’ he observed shortly, though he needn’t have.
Lucian knew perfectly well what it was.
At the sight of the needle, however, his brother had fallen silent and was now shaking violently.
‘Will he remember anything?’ Lucian asked.
‘Bits and pieces,’ the older man replied. ‘He’ll need a few treatments like this, but at the end of it he’ll be very confused. With hallucinations. Probably for the rest of his life.’
He placed the bottle on the table, opened it, and inserted the syringe.
‘The kind of doses we’re going to give him will be enough to induce frequent psychotic episodes, especially as his mental health is frail at the moment.’ He smiled. ‘The upshot is,’ he added, ‘that nobody’s going to believe a word your brother tells them. They’ll think he’s a lunatic. With a bit of luck, anything he tries to tell them about this place will be laughed off as the ravings of a madman. But I should warn you – the first treatment is always the most traumatic.’
Lucian looked down at his brother, seeing the fear in his eyes. Fear like he had never seen before. ‘It’s best this way,’ he told his brother in a flat tone of voice, before watching what happened next with a kind of grisly fascination.
The metal of the needle glistened in the bright overhead light, and the patient started to hyperventilate as the older man approached him implacably.
He only screamed once, but that scream lasted from the moment the needle slid into his arm until after the clear fluid had been slowly and carefully pumped into his system. Lucian had heard people talk of blood curdling screams before, but had never quite known what the phrase meant. He knew now. His veins turned to ice and his limbs felt heavy on his body.
It’s for his own good, he told himself, as he gazed dispassionately down on the shuddering body of his brother and stared as those piercing green eyes that had watched him ever since he was a child widened suddenly in a ghastly, almost inhuman stare.
The needle was pulled out of the man’s arm, and he screamed again – not for as long this time, but just as loud. Still, Lucian knew that the walls of this place were thick. He doubted anyone would be able to hear the noise his brother was making.
And he was right.
As the sun continued to rise outside the hut, there was nothing to suggest what was going on below ground. Just the usual sound of the dawn chorus, and the ghostly sight of another hen harrier soaring high above the trees.