The path up to the lighthouse was rocky, and almost impossible to navigate in the dark. Charlie Gilroy could hear music – a trumpet, a tenor sax, the piercing, nasal whine of an oboe, and an almost primal drumbeat beneath it all. It wasn't what he'd expected from an island ten miles off the coast, in a part of the country he'd never even imagined visiting -and it sure wasn't what he'd been expecting tonight. Somewhere close by, he heard a woman's laughter, haunting and ethereal.
He stepped up his pace.
The moon was full, the Maine night warm and humid. Charlie paused on the path, set the case holding his alto sax on the ground, and pushed a lock of damp, sandy blonde hair from his brow. The hem of his trousers was muddy. It felt like the night was closing in on him, sounds getting both louder and more muted the farther he went – the way it sounded when he hummed with his ears plugged. Everything was happening inside his head.
"Get a grip, Chaz," he whispered to himself.
His throat was dry. He thought of the drink the boy had given him, just before he'd left the inn not half-an-hour before. My grand-da says you'll need a nip tonight, if you're gonna make it through.
The boy was tiny – no more than five, if that. Dark eyes and a sharp nose, no laughter to his voice. Artie. He'd produced a silver flask, much like the ones Charlie and his pals carried with them, refilling at speakeasies all along the California coast when the law was looking the other way.
He'd drained the flask, Artie looking on. Thank your grand-da for me – that was just what the doctor ordered.
Charlie shook his head, trying to clear it. California seemed so far from here.
He searched his rucksack until he found the cigarette case his father had left him. The music played on, sounding distant and too close and almost underneath him, like a band was playing underwater. His hands shook as he lit a match, drawing a long pull from his cig until the end glowed orange in the night. Inside the cigarette case, he unfolded the note he'd kept with him, even though The Order had said to burn it. The words swam, coming in and out of focus as he read them by the light of the moon.
Charlie Gilroy. You are gifted with Brotherhood. Meet us on the First of July, Year of Our Lord, 1932. Do not use your name. Do not tell a soul. Congratulations. You are Chosen.
On the outside of the envelope were coordinates that he'd spent days looking up, back in Sacramento. He'd finally found the location on one of his grandfather's old charts. Monhegan Island.
His father had told him stories about The Order – said if he waited, lived a good life, followed his path, they'd come to him one day.
And they had.
Behind him in the darkness, a branch snapped. Leaves rustled, somewhere to his left. The music was closing in on him now, the drumbeat louder. The night was alive. He felt the crawl of something small and sure-footed at the back of his neck and jumped, batting away at whatever creature had landed there. His heart was beating so fast he could feel the rhythm, pushing his blood harder. Bass pounded in his ears, so loud that it shut out everything else.
"Is somebody there?" he asked. His voice sounded loud and strange in the night.
The Voice came as a hoarse whisper on the breeze. Charlie whirled, trying to find the speaker. There was no one. He stood still, his breath coming in gasps, his chest rising and falling too fast. He dropped his sax again and clutched his head, trying to make everything slow down.
"Charles Gilroy?" the Voice asked again – this time so close he could feel hot breath on his neck.
He could smell them now – Him: a smell of sweat and salt and liquor, damp earth and tobacco. It wasn't the smell of The Order – even now, in this state, he knew that. The Order smelled like American money and expensive cognac; they smelled like his father, before the crash. He wet his lips. He held still, but the night was spinning around him.
"What do you want?" he finally asked. The words came out slurred; it was the way he sounded after an eight-hour drunk, not after a single turn at a stranger's flask.
"You are Chosen," the voice hissed in his left ear, the smell of the stranger overwhelming now.
Charlie pulled to his right, trying to get away from the Voice, the smell, the feel of someone hovering just out of reach.
Hands caught him as he tripped on something in his path. His saxophone.
"Born August 19, 1902," the Voice continued. "Stanford, class of 1923. Brought here by The Order. You are the Widow's Son."
The words came out hot and wet against his skin. He stretched out his hands, trying to find the source, batting wildly at the empty night. Everything was happening inside his head. The thought made the panic worse, made his breath come harder, made the drumbeat louder.
Was this how it had been for his father, just before? A world locked inside his head, and he with no way to escape?
"I am Charlie Gilroy," he said.
The Voice laughed at him.
The drums grew louder and faster, as though the drummer could sense Charlie's desperation. A fork of heat lightning lit the sky, and an image in white light made him whirl to his right. It wasn't inside his head. It was such a relief that, for just the space of a heartbeat, all Charlie felt was gratitude.
And then, the reality struck. A hooded man stood in the darkness, his features obscured by shadows. The light caught off something in the stranger's hand. Precious seconds passed before Charlie Gilroy recognized it for what it was.
The jagged edge of a knife.