If she should return now, of course, or even five minutes from now, it would still be all right. The thought that he might never see her again could then be dismissed as a delusion, an absurd over-reaction to an excess of solitude and silence. And from the notion that, at any second, she would return, calling to him as she came down the track, part of his mind could not be dislodged: the orderly, housetrained, rational part. It was only in the chaotic realm of instinct and sensation that a contrary suspicion had taken root, only, as it were, in the part of himself that he did not care to acknowledge.
Besides, Harry had every justification for blaming his anxious state on the position in which he found himself. To spend three-quarters of an hour sitting on a fallen tree trunk halfway up a pine-forested mountainside, whilst the warm glow of the afternoon sun faded towards a dusky chill and silence--absolute, windless, pitiless silence--quarried at the nerves, was enough to test anyone's self-control. He wished now that he had gone with her to the summit, or stayed in the car and listened to the radio. Either way, he really should have known better than to wait where he was.
He stubbed out the fourth cigarette of his vigil and took a deep breath. It was growing cold now in the shadow of the mountain, yet the coastal plain below was still bathed in warm, golden sunlight. Only here, on the thickly conifered slope, or out there, invisible but palpable in the clear, frozen air, could the waning of the day no longer be ignored.
Why had she not returned? She could scarcely be lost, not with the guidebook and
a compass. After all, she had been to Profitis Ilias before, which Harry never had. Nor, if the truth be told, did he ever want to again. Two hours ago, he had been basking in the sun at a terrace table of a psarotaverna
just down the coast, lighting the first cigarette in this packet at the leisurely conclusion of a relishable meal and wondering how jealous the waiter might be of an overweight, middle-aged Englishman for finding such an attractive girl to lunch with him. Now even visualizing the scene was difficult, for Profitis Ilias possessed the power to consign every memory and perception beyond its own domain to half-forgotten remoteness. And Profitis Ilias had been Heather's choice.
"We could drive up there in half an hour from here," she had said. "It's a fantastic place. Deserted, crumbling old villas left over from the Italian occupation. And stupendous views. You must
Harry had felt no such obligation, preferring the decor of a dozen bars he could think of, suitably refracted by a well-filled glass, to any vista of nature, however supposedly breathtaking. Nevertheless, he had raised no objection.
And so they had come, driving up the winding road through the village of Salakos towards the wooded mountaintop, climbing slowly but relentlessly till all other traffic was left behind and only the limitless ranks of pine and fir stood witness to their progress. At first Harry had detected nothing amiss in their growing isolation. It was not until they had reached the hotel that the road served and found it, as expected, closed for the winter, that the character of Profitis Ilias had made itself known.
Silence, he rather thought, was the bedrock of its mood. Silence that had waited for them to climb from the car and slam the doors, then pounced from the very heart of the forest to awe them into whispered exchanges. Silence that the empty hotel and the ruined villas in the woods around seemed merely to magnify, as if abandoned habitations were worse than no habitations at all. And silence, moreover, that even nature respected, for here no wind stirred the trees, no bird sang among the branches, no squirrel scurried along the boughs. On Profitis Ilias, all was still, but all was not at rest.
Two months ago, the hotel would still have been open for the season, the children of its guests playing in the grounds, perhaps even climbing on the very tree trunk where Harry sat. Noise, movement, laughter, company: at other times they might be irritants; now he craved them from the depth of his soul. It was surprising to discover how uncomfortable he found it to be alone. If, that is, he was alone. For he could not help remembering that, when they had first left the car and strolled down to admire the view that the hotel commanded, he had glanced up at the wooden balconies and red-painted shutters that gave the building its stolid, Alpine quality--and seen a figure withdraw abruptly from one of the unshuttered first floor windows. At the time, he had dismissed it as a trick of the light, but now the memory added its weight to all the other anxieties by which he was beset.
Why had she not returned? She had seemed so confident, so reassuringly certain that she would be back before he had had a chance to miss her. It had been a stiff climb from the hotel up the uneven, overgrown path towards the summit, and Heather had set a sharp pace. Out of breath and far from his normal stamping grounds, Harry had been willing enough, in the circumstances, to stop at the point where a fallen tree blocked their route, while she went on to the top. "Take the keys," she had said, "in case you want to go back to the car." Then she had added, noticing his frown: "Don't worry. I'll keep to the path. And I won't be long. It's just that I can't turn back now, can I?" And so saying, she had scrambled up round the tree, smiled back at him once, and then gone on.
Nearly an hour ago, and seemingly a world away, that last smile beckoned to Harry from up the wooded slope. Peace of mind, he reckoned now, had lasted no longer than the first cigarette. Since then, his thoughts had ranged over many subjects, but always they had returned to what in his surroundings adamantly refused to be ignored: silence so total that the ear invented a half-heard chorus of whispering voices in the trees around, silence so complete that his straining senses insisted that somewhere, above or about him, something must be watching him.
Harry looked at his watch. It was nearly four o'clock, which meant there was little more than an hour's daylight left, a meagre, bone-chilling hour at this altitude and time of year. With an effort, he forced his mind to confront a series of practical choices. He could return to the car, in case Heather had done so herself by a different route. Yet, if she had, she would surely have come looking for him by now. He could stay where he was, on the grounds that that was where she would expect to find him. But one glance around reminded him that he could bear to remain there no longer. Or he could follow the path to the top, in case she was in some difficulty or had simply lost track of time. That, he concluded, was really the only choice open to him.
He raised his legs, swivelled round on the tree trunk and dropped down on the higher side. There was the path, still marked by a border of flints, for all the years of its abandonment, curving away ahead of him up the slope. He started along it, feeling at once the relief that action brings after the suspense of indecision.
Soon, the trees began to thin and the summit ridge came into sight. Once it had done so, it struck Harry as ludicrous that he had not insisted on accompanying Heather all the way, for it was neither as far nor as steep as he had supposed. He could not help wondering if she had deliberately encouraged their separation, though why she should have done so he could not imagine. And he was also aware that the thought itself might be a delusion, an investment of her words and actions with meanings they did not bear.
Emerging into a patch of sunlight just short of the ridge, Harry paused to catch his breath. Ahead of him, to the right, a towering red and white radio aerial crowned the summit, with a small building at its base: an army observation post by the look of it, apparently unoccupied. Not that he had any intention of checking the point. Nine years on Rhodes had taught him to give the Greek military a wide berth. But would Heather have been equally cautious? Yes, surely she would. Besides, the path curved away to the left and she had promised she would keep to it.
He walked up onto the ridge and swung round to look back the way he had come. As he did so, the exposed nature of his position conjured up a threat more ominous in its way than the unease which had oppressed him in the forest. He suddenly wondered whether this was what he had been intended to do, whether this was another step closer to the trap that had been prepared for him. Rebuking himself for entertaining such thoughts, he forced his eyes to follow the line of the coast far below where it curved away to the west. That crumpled inlet, he told himself, must be Kamiros Skala, those whale-backed islands out to sea Alymnia and Halki. They were reference points which proved that a reality beyond Profitis Ilias still existed and that he might soon return to it.
But first he had to find Heather. Dismayed by how reluctant he felt to shout her name aloud--an act which the prevailing silence seemed irresistibly to forbid--he began to follow the path, still faithfully bordered with flints, as it twisted along the ridge between outcrops of rock and gnarled, wind-carved cedars. If she had kept to the path, he could not fail to find her. But if she had not. . .
Then he saw it. Snagged on a lower branch of one of the cedars, hanging limp and forlorn in the motionless air. Four equal stripes of pink and white. Cerise and silver, he remembered her correcting him. It was Heather's scarf, the long woollen scarf she had been wearing when she left him by the fallen tree. He could recollect, quite distinctly, seeing her toss one end of it over her shoulder as she disappeared up the slope. And now it was here, where she was not.
Harry pulled the scarf loose, then stood with it clutched in his hands, struggling to comprehend the significance of its discovery. Had she left it there by accident? Had it been blown from her neck as she ran along the path? If so, what had she been running from? He gazed around at the stunted cedars and the harsh white boulders standing up like fangs on the grassy ridge, but they held no other clue, no other token of her fate. By their very emptiness, they defied him.
Looping the scarf round his neck, Harry strode on along the path. It topped a bluff, then swooped down into a dale and up again to a farther peak. A view of the island's interior opened up to the south, bathed in sunlight. Could Heather have become disorientated, he wondered, and gone down the wrong side of the mountain? Pausing to lean against a rock and recover his breath, he considered the point. No, it was inconceivable. The path was clear, the route an easy one to follow. She could only have left it out of choice or dire necessity. And the touch of the scarf against his chin prompted him to fear the latter. He hurried on.
By the time Harry had traversed the dale and ascended to the next peak, the rational part of his mind had reasserted much of its former control. His ignorance of local geography, he reminded himself, was as good as total. Even were it not, he could scarcely search the area single-handed. If Heather had met with a mishap, of whatever kind, the best way to help her would be to raise the alarm in Salakos, and to do so before nightfall. He glanced at his watch. To follow that course, he would have to return to the car at once. Though to leave now seemed premature, leave he clearly must.
But not, his instincts told him, without making one last effort to locate Heather on his own. The obvious method was the one he had, till now, drawn back from, but he knew he could not depart without resorting to it. He must shout her name as loudly as he could, in case she was near enough to hear. From the bluff on which he was standing, his voice would carry well: there was no excuse. Determined to give his nerve no chance to falter, he climbed onto an adjacent rock, took a deep breath and cupped his hands to his mouth. But then, in the second before Heather's name formed on his lips, Profitis Ilias found its own voice with which to strike him dumb.
One long, shrill, unwavering blast on a whistle. It came to Harry's ears from no direction and every direction, from above him and below him, from close at hand and far away. And then it stopped. And Harry's arms dropped slowly to his sides and he began to tremble in every limb and to breathe in rapid, shallow gulps of air. What did it mean? Where had it come from? Was it a signal? A message? A warning? To him or to another?
Suddenly, like a cliff face that is undermined for years by the sea before abruptly subsiding, his self-control disintegrated. He had been manipulated every step of the way. The face at the window, the abandoned scarf, the disembodied whistle: all were part of the trap into which he had been led. Logic and reason were beyond him now, headlong flight his only recourse.
The path began to descend from this point, zig-zagging down the steep, boulder-strewn slope. But Harry did not follow it. Instead he plunged straight down from one bend of the path to the next, stumbling over rocks, scrambling down stretches of loose, shingly earth. The spines of a stout little shrub slashed at his cheek. He skinned his knuckles on a sharp outcrop of flint. But he did not care. All pretence had vanished now. He only wanted to be off the mountain, away from the corroding fear that its air had refined to a pure, unhinging essence.
Bursting through a thicket of bracken and slithering down the flank of a huge, half-buried boulder, Harry suddenly found himself on a wide, earthen track, rutted by the wheels of a heavy vehicle. Forcing his mind to concentrate, he recollected that the road had forked just beyond where they had parked, the left fork signposted to Eleousa, the right leading up blindly into the forest. What he was standing on must surely be that unmarked track. If so, he had only to follow it down to reach the car.
Excerpted from Into the Blue by Robert Goddard. Copyright © 2006 by Robert Goddard. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.