The Prince of This World managed, despite all the odds, to grow up. He thwarted all the wiles of Hell and all the myriad good intentions of Heaven, and became a mechanic in his beloved Lower Tadfield. He’s still not particularly respectable. The Them have moved on and moved away, and he doesn’t really mind. As long as he’s got Dog, and his own personal paradise, nothing really matters.
People don’t usually stop in Lower Tadfield. There isn’t all that much business for a mechanic these days. But somehow the shop has stayed open, even flourished, under his care, and nobody in Lower Tadfield questions it. They can’t recall ever seeing a car drive in or out of Young’s TYRES, AUTOS REPAIRED, OIL CHANGED, but Lower Tadfield is a small town. And the boy, now a man, is one of theirs.
There is, however, a first time for everything. So it happens that, on one particular misty day in April, a sleek, black Jaguar sputters to a halt on the road outside Tadfield.
A Mr. R.P. Tyler is walking his dog down the lane, and sees a young man get out. The man hails him, “You there!”
Sirs, Tyler’s mental letter to the Editor of the Tadfield Advisor begins, I note with dismay the decline of simple etiquette in Modern Society; indeed, when a stranger can find no better way to greet his fellow man than ‘you there,’ there is clearly a fault in…
“Did you hear me?” asks the man. “I’ve got a problem with my car, and I would be very appreciative if you could point me in the direction of an auto mechanic.”
“Yes, I heard you, young man.” R.P. Tyler eyes him appraisingly. “I don’t suppose you can find your way into town on your own, then.”
“Is the mechanic all the way in town?”
…as well when young people these days are so obsessed with their automobiles that they are daunted at the prospect of a brisk walk. Why, in my day… “It is. Just down that road there, about seven minutes. It’s very difficult to miss. There’s a great ugly dog sitting out front that will probably chase you halfway to Scotland before you escape it, bloody nuisance.” And with that, R.P. Tyler walks off, satisfied by the young man’s lack of a proper show of gratitude that Society is, indeed, going to Hell in a hand basket.
Adam Young is sitting outside his body shop when Dog starts barking. This in itself is not an unusual occurrence, but for the most part Dog only barks at rabbits and cats and R.P. Tyler, and as nothing answering to those descriptions is in view, it’s quite unusual. Adam stands, scanning the street for something Dog might be attempting to frighten, but there’s nothing. He sits back down.
Adam jumps. Dog doesn’t.
A man in a suit, perhaps twenty-six, is standing at the door of the shop, looking solemnly at him. “This is the auto mechanic’s, isn’t it?”
Adam, in general, doesn’t trust men in suits. Of the Minions of Hell he’s met, the vast majority have worn suits. This man’s suit is particularly well made. He scowls. “It is, in fact. Did the sign give us away?” He nods to the sign above the door that reads TYRES, AUTOS REPAIRED, OIL CHANGED and feels for Dog’s ear, which is of course just at his hand. He strokes it and looks at the man, whose serene expression is unchanged.
“My car broke down,” the man says, “and some cranky old man with a poodle pointed the way to your shop. I need it towed and repaired, preferably as quickly as possible.”
His story sounds plausible. Lower Tadfield doesn’t have potholes – or indeed anything wrong with the roads besides a lack of them on any maps – and the local wildlife is somehow less suicidal than animals in other places, and would never run out in front of a car, but there are many other things that could have caused an accident. Still, Adam eyes him suspiciously. “What kind of car is it?”
“It’s a 2003 Jaguar coupe. Black.” The man sighs. “It’s difficult to miss. It’s the only one sitting on the road with nobody in it, about two thirds of a mile in that direction.”
“Follow me.” Adam walks into the shop and sits down behind the desk. The chair creaks as he leans back in it, reaches for a form and a pen, and begins to fill it out. “What’s your name, then?”
“Julian Sark. That’s J-U-L-I-A-N.”
“I know how to spell Julian. You’re not French enough to have it spelled with an E.”
Sark shrugs and takes out his wallet, stroking the smooth leather for a moment before taking out his driver’s license and handing across the desk. “Here’s how everything else is spelled.” He sits back in his chair, continuing to finger his wallet. “What’s your name? You don’t have one of those mechanic’s overalls with the nametag embroidered on.”
“They’re ugly.” Adam smiles, and then continues after a pause, “Also, everyone here in Lower Tadfield knows who I am.”
Sark looks like he’s just swallowed something very unpleasant. “Where did you say this was?”
“But that’s not on any map I’ve been able to find,” he says, almost to himself. “I’ve been looking for Lower Tadfield for bloody well three months now, and there’s nothing.”
“We’re on the 1973 Eppingham Press Atlas of Great Britain,” Adam mutters.
Across the desk, Sark’s eyes narrow. “Who did you say you were?”
“I’m Adam Young. I’m also the only mechanic in town, and I’m not going to work on your car until you tell me what you wanted in Lower Tadfield.” Adam doesn’t really need to wait for his reply, though. The sinking feeling in his stomach predicts the answer for him.
So he’s completely unsurprised when Sark, looking a bit dazed, says, “Actually, you.”
“Wait!” Sark calls after him as he walks off. The dog is still sitting outside the front door of the shop, and it looks up at him with an apologetic expression on its face and trots off after its master.
“Bugger this,” he mutters to himself, and sets off after Adam Young at a run. “Mr. Young, wait, please, ” he says as he catches up to them. “It’s not what you think.”
Adam Young turns around, lips pressed in a thin line. “You have no idea what I’m thinking, mate.”
“I was just told to deliver a message. I work freelance, I’m not with MI-5. I don’t care how weird your little town is, and I certainly can’t bring the government here to bust up whatever the hell it is you’re dealing out of that body shop of yours. I’m just here to give you a letter and make sure you read it.”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Adam bites out, reaching down to stroke the dog’s one strange ear.
“I’ve got the letter here,” Sark says gently. “Read it, fix my car, and I’ll be out of here and on to my next piece of business.”
“Fine. Just – fine. Let’s go.” Adam stalks off towards the car, leaving Sark and the dog to follow.
Sark looks down at the dog. “At least you believe me.”
The dog blinks at him, and then turns to trot after his master.
The letter is in the glove compartment of the Jaguar, in a thick manila envelope. Sark’s name is printed on the front of it in red marker, and he rifles through the contents of it before coming up with a smaller envelope, from an obviously fine set of stationary, with Adam’s own name written across the front. The handwriting is different on this one, smaller and spikier, in fine black ink. Mr. Adam Young, Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire, England, it says, barely taking up any space at all on the centre of the envelope.
Sark hands it to Adam, and then leans back against the car to watch as Adam slips his finger under the flap of the envelope, tearing it carefully open, and begins to read the letter inside.
Adam scans the letter, keeping his face blank. The letter is one small page long, all of it written in the same small, spiky handwriting. It takes him about a minute and a half to read through, and when he’s done, he reads it again.
In the end, he’s still not sure what to say, so he looks up at Sark. “Is this some sort of a joke?”
Sark doesn’t look startled. He doesn’t really strike Adam as the type of man who could be startled, especially by a belligerent mechanic wielding two pages of vellum. He does, however, look almost surprised. “I’m sure I don’t know what it is you’re talking about, Mr. Young. Is what a joke?”
“Where should I begin? Well, first of all, let’s start with the part where my father is having a midlife crisis and wants to bloody meet me! Why don’t we start with that?” Adam is yelling, and Sark is just looking more confused.
“That’s not so abnormal, from what I hear. A lot of people have regrets when they reach a certain point in their lives.”
Adam looks at him like he’s stupid. “You obviously don’t know who my father is.”
“You’ve never met him,” Sark points out. “How do you know he’s so bad? Maybe he’s changed?”
“Yeah, you definitely don’t know who he is. Well, you’ll get the chance to meet him yourself someday, I’m sure. Probably sooner, rather than later, seeing as how there’s no way in he… on earth that I’m going to meet him. He wants you to go as well, so you can send my regrets.”
He shoves the letter at Sark’s chest and starts walking away. Dog, however, doesn’t follow. He sits by Sark as he uncrumples the letter and begins to read.
Dear Adam, the letter begins,
I’m sure this will come as a shock to you, and I’m sorry for it. However, I needed to write it, and I’m sure you need to receive it. It’s been twenty-six years since you were born, son, and ten years now since the incident that lost you to me forever. I know I have promised not to see you, promised you that I would leave you to your own devices.
I find myself unable, however, to comply with your wishes. I’ve sent a messenger with this letter, which I hope will find you well and quickly. Meet me with both the letter and the messenger on the 20th of August, at the Wing and Tree pub in Flatley Close. I look forward to seeing you, son. I’ve missed you.
“He goes by many names,” Sark mutters, for no reason at all. Then he breaks into a run after Adam.
In the end, Sark is not quite sure how he manages to convince Adam to go, let alone why. He can feel that it’s important – and in this he is even less sure of himself, because he has been sure of only one thing for most of his life: that the mechanism in his mind driving him forward had been effectively altered by his own father, fucked up along with everything else in his life when his father had sent him to boarding school in an attempt to sweep under the rug the mistakes he’d made with his son. Sark has no experience in a proper relationship between child and father, father and child. He’s got no room whatsoever to talk to Adam about what he should do. But something inside him makes him do it anyway. And in the end, Adam agrees.
Sark postpones a business trip to go to Flatley Close. He’d never heard of the place, but Adam seems to know exactly where it is. And it appears he managed to find Adam just in time – they have a week until August 20th.
They spend it in Lower Tadfield, at the cottage Adam inherited from Mr. Young. Sark and Adam, for all the differences in their lives, find they get along quite well. Sark realises, even if Adam is quite oblivious to it, that they make a striking pair of friends – both tall, with bright blue eyes and curly blond hair, although Adam’s is longish, to the point where the curls tumble over his forehead in a way that is almost cherubic, and Sark’s stick up haphazardly so that, at just the right angle, he almost has horns. Sark is always conscious of appearances, infinitely careful of what he shows to others. Adam has lived in Lower Tadfield all his life, and has never had to be careful. None of the residents of Lower Tadfield see anything but what Adam wants them to see, but in Sark’s world people always notice exactly what they shouldn’t.
And Adam, he is sure, is no exception. Sark puts business first, as a rule – and while he quite enjoys breaking rules in general, his own rules are the one thing he doesn’t dare break. But this is more than business. He’s in that letter as well, chosen by Luc Morningstar – whoever the hell Luc Morningstar is besides Adam’s long-lost father – to keep his son safe and deliver him at the appointed time. He doesn’t understand why, though, and if there’s anything in this world Sark hates more than his own father, it’s leaving his own curiosity unsatisfied.
He’s curious about Adam, as well. Adam is incredibly smart, with a face like a painting, and could be doing any number of things that aren’t pretending to be a mechanic in Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire. It’s just not on, to Sark’s way of thinking. He tries to tell Adam as much, but even before he speaks he realises that Adam is here by choice. Sark can’t figure out why, though, and it’s almost as frustrating as trying to figure out what Adam’s father wants with him.
So, for the week before they’re due to meet up with Luc Morningstar, Sark watches Adam, and wonders.
The week before they’re due to meet up with his father, Adam tries to keep himself busy. The only thing he can find is Sark.
Adam long ago embraced the internet, and particularly Amazon.co.uk, as the work of some genius who desperately wanted him to be happy, and as a result he’s got a collection of spy novels bigger than the complete number of books in the Lower Tadfield Public Library. He watches Sark peruse them, skim through a couple, pointing out the improbabilities and pronouncing a few things to be complete and utter lies. Sark has a strange base of knowledge, different from anyone he’s ever met, and it makes Adam wonder what his life would have been like if he were Mr. Young’s real son – who he would have become, what choices he might have made, who in the great wide world he could have met that might have made him happy.
Adam knows his destiny lies beyond happiness with another person, that the powers that be will never let him find it, but Sark is the first person he’s ever met who has made him wonder. There’s something about him that sparks, that makes something in Adam want to fix it.
He expects the week to fly by, but instead it crawls. He spends what seems like millennia watching Sark read his spy novels, watching the emotions flit across his face in the subtlest of ways. Sark would have been a master poker player – might have been, in another lifetime – but Adam’s talents lie in seeing what others can’t, in doing what others think impossible, and reading Julian Sark seems to be one of those things.
So he reads Sark as Sark reads his way through his collection of spy novels. The time still crawls, but it crawls enjoyably. Sark is quickly becoming Adam’s favourite book.
It takes two days of the time crawling along before Sark starts to question it. Adam has quickly come to realise just how intelligent his suit-wearing new friend really is, and it’s confirmed when Sark says to him during a pause in the DVD they’re watching, “Things here in Lower Tadfield just move more slowly, don’t they?”
“I can’t think what you mean,” Adam lies.
“Well, you’ve never really been out of the Tadfield area, have you? Time here seems different. It’s not a bad thing, really, it’s just a little strange." He smiles briefly. "I’ve dealt with strange before.” Sark flicks the movie back on, leaving Adam to wonder why he feels a little fuzzy after hearing Sark say “I’ve dealt with strange before” and why he isn’t more worried about having his secret revealed.
He doesn’t really want to think about it, though, so he sips his drinking chocolate and continues to half-watch the movie, absently scratching at Dog’s funny ear.
It may seem to take forever, but the day Adam’s been dreading finally arrives. Sark’s car was fixed days ago – it was, Adam claimed, the carburettor – and Adam trudges out to it with all the reluctance of a man going to his doom.
“You’re being dramatic,” Sark says dryly as he revs the engine.
“You still haven’t figured out who my father is, have you?” Adam says. “I’m not being dramatic. If anything, I’m being realistic. This is not going to be good.”
Predictably, once they leave the Tadfield area, the ride to Flatley Close seems to fly by. The town itself is as isolated as Lower Tadfield – although, Adam tells Sark, not nearly as pleasant – but in Herefordshire, two counties over. They take the back roads, winding through farmland and small villages, delaying the inevitable at Adam’s request.
Sark complies. He mutters something about knowing what it’s like and flames to the feet and slows down ever so slightly. Adam doesn’t ask.
In the end, they arrive at the Wing and Tree at four in the afternoon. It begins to rain. Someone, somewhere, is laughing at them both.
There is one person sitting at a booth in the back, smoking a cigarette. He’s wearing a black suit, obviously well made, and a pair of black sunglasses. He sips his drink slowly, and if they could see his eyes they’re sure he’d be watching them while he does it.
It is not, however, Luc Morningstar. Luc Morningstar is sitting with them at a table, a greying, slightly pudgy man who is obviously pushing sixty and has, along with the battle for his waistline, lost any semblance of a fashion sense. His eyes lit up behind wire-rimmed spectacles when they walked in, and he hailed them with a wave and a shout of, “Adam!” And he is currently on his fifth cup of tea.
He regales them with the tale of his journey to Flatley Close – “Fifteen car pileup on the M25, lads, it was absolutely mad!” – and makes small talk about the weather. He looks at Adam with eyes that grow overly bright, and something in his manner makes Sark uncomfortable.
Sark doesn’t like being uncomfortable unless it’s absolutely necessary. “So why did you invite me along, sir? Just… out of curiosity.”
“Curiosity is a valuable and dangerous thing, young Mr. Sark,” Morningstar says with a smile. “It’s a trait I think you and Adam both share. I certainly had my portion of it in my own day. I had a friend – if you’ll permit me to tell a little story? – I had a friend, Mr. Sark, who I loved deeply. He was… he was everything in the world to me. My friend was an artist, who made these creations – they were more than works of art, you see, they were truly creations – and he loved everything he made with a passion, my friend, even more than he loved the making itself. And I, who had no talent for art, was left to watch in wonder. But as I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t understand his process, I also couldn’t understand what it was that made him love all of the artwork he made as much as he did, beyond the beauty found in beholding them.
“My curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him, ‘My friend, what is it about these things that you love so much? Why do you spend all your time and energy making them? They can give you back nothing, why do you love them so much?’
“He took my question into consideration. He really did. But just as I couldn’t understand where he was coming from, he really couldn’t understand where I was coming from. So when he replied, ‘Because they are mine,’ he couldn’t see that his response was one I wouldn’t understand, and when he turned back to his art, he didn’t see that I was hurt by his inability to see what I was really asking: ‘Do you love them more than me?’”
Adam looks pale and sits his drink down on the table with a thump. It makes Sark turn to look at him, concentrate for a moment on wondering what’s causing him such consternation before hearing Morningstar’s story again.
“…equally, I think. I can see it now, but I couldn’t see it then. And when curiosity – simple curiosity, borne out of a desire to truly understand my beloved friend! – turned into bewilderment, bewilderment quickly grew to anger. And my friend and I… we fought. I haven’t seen him since the day I left, swearing never to see him until the world itself ends. And I haven’t.”
Morningstar is looking weary, and his pudgy face seems to sag with the weight of his life. The man has obviously made poor decisions, Sark thinks, and is regretting them, just as Sark had told Adam earlier.
Sark looks at Adam, ready to tell him as much, but Adam is staring into his glass like it holds all the secrets of life. His fingers stroke around the rim, and Adam’s head seems to sink even lower. He clearly does not want to be here.
And then he speaks. “That’s it, then. That’s why you want me here.” He looks up from his drink, pupils dilated unnaturally large. It’s the strangest thing Sark has ever seen, and Sark has seen many, many strange things. A chill moves up Sark’s spine. He stays silent.
“Adam, hear me out,” Morningstar says.
“I’ve stopped you once, old man. I can do it again,” Adam interrupts. “I’m not going to let you destroy everything I love, everything I’ve worked for.”
“You haven’t worked a day in your life and you know it,” snaps Morningstar.
Adam’s mouth narrows and he says, so soft Sark can hardly hear it, “I’ve worked at least one day in my life, father.”
He gets up, pulling Sark up with him. Adam is shaking with anger. “Leave me and the rest of the people on this planet out of your pathetic love life, you bastard. You want him back? Get him back your damned self. He’s the only one that can’t be foresworn. You, on the other hand, seem to go back on your word with every other thing you say. You might as well do it for your own benefit this once.” He nods once at Morningstar, who has sunk back in his chair and seems to be mangling his spectacles instead of looking at his son, and rushes out the door, leaving Sark to follow.
Luc Morningstar finishes his sixth cup of tea and walks over to the booth in the back. He slides in across from the man in the suit and lays his smashed spectacles on the table. “Go get us another cup of tea, would you, Crawly? I don’t have the energy.”
“It’s Crowley, sir,” the man mutters under his breath as he walks toward the bar.
Morningstar’s head is in his hands. He looks like a miserable, ugly, unimportant middle-aged schoolteacher.
The publican says as much to Crowley after setting a pot of tea and a double vodka and lime on the bar. “Had a rough day, has he?” the publican finishes.
“Something like that,” mutters Crowley, tossing back half his drink before taking the pot of tea and his glass back to the booth.
“What I still don’t understand,” Morningstar says as Crowley sits, “is how you figured it out. I’d gone something like four thousand years with nobody any the wiser, and then you figured it out. How did you know?”
“Some of us, sir, fell because evil was easier than good. Some of us fell because evil was more interesting than good. Some of us fell because we tripped. I’m not sure which of those I am, sir, but… I’m the only one of us who has some good in his existence. I’d look like you if I lost it. I’d end the world to get it back, sir, if I lost it.” Crowley drains the rest of his drink and stands. “You know what you have to do, then, sir?”
Morningstar nods. “I’m sure you’ll know one way or the other how it goes. Until then, you’ve got a job to get back to.”
“I was hoping you’d forget, sir, but yes, I do.” Crowley walks to the door of the pub, then pauses. “Good luck, sir.”
“There’s one thing that I can’t figure out,” Sark says, breaking the silence in the car. It’s been a long, completely quiet drive home, and they’re just pulling into Lower Tadfield as night falls.
“Hopefully more than one,” Adam mutters to himself.
“Why did he want me there as well? He could have asked you whatever it was that he asked you on his own.”
It was the logical next question, Adam supposed, but he had been hoping that Sark wouldn’t ask it. “You can’t see it? No, of course you can’t.”
They pull into the drive of Adam’s house, and he briefly contemplates getting out and walking away without answering before he continues, “My father… he knows I have no sympathy for his problem. He created it, he compounded it with too many horrible things to count, and he wants to fix it by destroying… everything. Wipe the slate clean, start over.”
“So? Where do I fit in?”
Adam can’t figure out a way to word it so that it doesn’t sound the way it does in his head. It’s not right, his inner voice cries. You can’t say it like this, you can’t. “My father searched the world for someone who would fit. You were it.”
“I’m sorry, I think that perhaps I still don’t understand,” Sark says carefully. “Fit how?”
“To make me understand his position, my father…” Adam draws a deep breath. “My father had to find someone I’d destroy the world to keep by my side. Someone I’d make the world anew for.”
Sark’s eyes widen briefly before he regains his usually unassailable composure. “And that’s me?”
“The problem, of course,” Adam continues, rushing over the question, “is that you couldn’t find Lower Tadfield. Nobody can find Lower Tadfield, you see. And by the time you came, there was a week to go. I’ve known you a week, Sark, and that… that’s saved the world.”
“You’re not your father,” Sark says quietly. He's staring down at his hands like they can provide the answers to the last piece of this puzzle, the answer that just won't come. It's there, in his mind somewhere, but he can't hold on to it.
Adam laughs. “No, no I’m not. That’s the point. In this pantomime, you’re playing my father, Sark. I’m the artist. He didn’t need someone to find me. He needed to find the one person in the world in whom he saw himself.
“But we, Sark, we’re poor imitations of the real thing. The artist would never have destroyed his creations for my father. And I doubt my father will ever manage to ask forgiveness.”
They sit next to each other in the car for a while, staring at the dashboard. Sark looks up from his hands to stare out the window, then turns.
Adam nods, just barely, and is silent again. The dashboard still holds an inexplicable fascination.
“You’ve still got O through Z to go in my spy novels, haven’t you?” he asks.
Sark smiles, and gets out of the car. “Among other things,” he says, and waits for Adam to open the door.