Grant Stone’s The Last is the second in our SHORTCUTS series of science fiction and fantasy novellas from Aotearoa New Zealand. Grant’s stories have appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Semaphore and have twice won the Sir Julius Vogel Award. He’s also one-third of the Cerberus Writing Band, along with Dan Rabarts and Matthew Sanborn Smith.
Forty years ago, Katherine St. John disappeared – briefly. Thirty years ago, she enacted a disappearance of another sort, stepping not just away from her music career but across the ocean to the other side of the world.
Yesterday, Rachel Mackenzie’s flight touched down in Auckland. She’s travelled to New Zealand to interview the reclusive musician Katherine St. John about her first album in nearly thirty years. But strange things are happening at St. John’s farm and soon Rachel finds herself caught up in something far larger than the world of music.
The Toyota blew a tyre somewhere not far north of Huntly.
Rachel twisted the steering wheel and swore, squeezing the brake and aiming for the side of the road. The car stumbled to a stop in foot-high grass, barely missing a fencepost many degrees from straight.
She was not surprised to learn the rental company had not included a spare tyre. Simon had told her to expect that sort of thing. ‘It’s like travelling back to the seventies, especially when you get out of Auckland. Maybe that’s why she picked it.’
She leaned against the cooling car and listened to the cicadas buzzing their arses off.
Her phone still had a signal, which at this point Rachel was prepared to consider a bona fide miracle. She had already dialled Simon’s number before she remembered it was still three in the morning back in London. She killed the call. Simon couldn’t find his reading glasses on his desk half the time. There was no chance of him finding a mechanic on the other side of the world.
Rachel reached through the window for the map Simon had printed for her. She’d just gone over a short bridge with a long name and it didn’t look too far from there to where Simon had marked an X in blue ballpoint and written KSJ next to it. She grabbed her suitcase from the back and started walking.
The Toyota’s tyres might have been shot but its air conditioning had been top notch. The humidity was jungle-strength. Five minutes walking and she was covered in sweat. Biggest interview of her career and she’d go into it soaked. Figured.
Rachel had been at her desk in Sounding‘s tiny Earl’s Court office when the call had come in. Maria, the receptionist, had looked over the top of her magazine at the ringing phone as if it were an alien. First time it had rung in a month.
‘Who was it?’ Rachel asked once Maria had passed the call through to Simon’s office.
Maria shrugged and mumbled something. She only enunciated on the phone.
Rachel frowned. That couldn’t be right. ‘Sorry? Did you say Katherine St. John?’
Simon burst out of his office so fast he nearly took the door off. ‘You. Pub. Now.’
‘Wait, I don’t – what?’
Simon sipped his pint. He was loving this, being the one with a scoop for the first time in a decade or more, having Rachel hang on his every word.
‘That was Katherine St. John on the phone. She’s about to release a new album and she’s going to give exactly one interview. To us. Or more specifically, to you.’
‘And only you.’
Eleven-year-old Katherine St. John had come to the attention of the public in 1965. She had been camping with her parents on the edge of Bedgebury Forest in Kent when she went missing. The story held the front page for over a week. Black-and-white pictures of St. John’s parents, arms around each other, stricken looks on their faces. Long lines of volunteers marching between the trees, trying to cover every square foot of a forest whose heart had been untroubled since the days of Hadrian. Then, as the days went on, rumours that the police were taking a particular interest in St. John’s father. One telephoto shot of him being led up the stairs to the Maidstone police station for further questioning was published on Monday morning, a thin civil servant with a comb-over and a permanently crooked tie. The Sunday Mirror published a picture of a child’s blue canvas shoe lying beneath a holly bush. In the opinion of the majority of the paper’s readers, the man was clearly guilty, a trial just a formality on his way to the gallows.
A base of operations was established at the campsite, now deserted except for the St. John family’s tent and their grey Hillman Minx, already starting to sink into the mud. On the Monday of the second week of the search, Detective Harlan Smith was eating lunch at his temporary desk in the prefab office when Katherine St. John walked in, looking as unruffled as if she had just been out for a brief stroll. No injuries, no malnutrition. Still wearing both her black leather shoes which, even scuffed and covered with mud, looked nothing like the one on the front page of the Mirror.
The papers printed full-page photos of the newly reunited family under headlines such as MIRACLE CHILD, but could find no more explanation for what had happened than the girl herself. In the few minutes after she reappeared she mentioned that she had been to see the ‘dancing man’. But she was unable to clarify who she had meant and, as the days went on, seemed to recant even that, claiming she had no memory of her time in the forest.
Nobody remembered the lost girl who had been to see the dancing man in 1978, when Katherine St. John’s first album was released. It was a revelation. Her voice rose above her own sparse piano playing, then swooped low. People compared her to Joni Mitchell, to Laura Nyro, but that wasn’t quite it. She more ethereal than her contemporaries, more otherworldly. Nothing about her songs should have worked: the surreal lyrics, the unorthodox keys and time signatures – none of it suggested commercial success. And yet there she was, barely sixteen, topping album charts all over the world. Her time as a lost girl was mentioned, of course, in the initial coverage, but faded away. The music obliterated her history as it propelled her on the way to inevitable superstardom.
St. John’s follow-up album two years later met middling reviews. Punk was on the rise and it seemed that St. John’s unique sound was going to be consigned to the same dustbin of history as Prog Rock. She had never toured, and with the poor reception of her sophomore effort she became even more reclusive.
Rachel couldn’t remember the third album at all. Her own attempt at an English degree was already in flames at that point. She had spiked her hair to look like Siouxsie Sioux and spent every weekend going to see The Damned and The Clash.
‘It’s a wind-up, surely. Every music magazine from here to New York would have got that call.’
Simon’s hands were trembling slightly. Did they always do that? Why hadn’t she noticed before? ‘I don’t think you’re hearing me. That wasn’t St. John’s agent on the phone. That was her.’
There was no gate, just a break in the fence. No mailbox. The number 257 had been scratched into a piece of tin and nailed to the fencepost. Rachel checked the map again and shrugged. This was the place.
The bare dirt driveway ran along a stand of trees before turning right around the side of a shed. One of the suitcase’s tiny wheels had already crumbled from being dragged along the side of the road instead of a smooth airport floor, so she had to carry it. She heard a buzzing as she approached the shed. Then a smell that made her step back.
The corpse of a rabbit was balanced on the top of a fencepost, attended by a cloud of flies. It lay on its back, head lolling towards the ground, one dead eye looking at Rachel. The rabbit’s belly was bloated, the blue mottled skin under its grey fur writhing with maggots.
Rachel backed away, holding a hand over her mouth and nose until she was around the corner of the shed. She leaned over, hands on knees, for a few moments, sucking in lungfuls of fresh air. The grass on the side of the driveway was long and ragged. She could see small patches of green in the middle of the bare dirt. Rachel wondered how long it would take for the grass to claim back the whole driveway.
When she picked up the suitcase again her arms were trembling.