Wham! Daniel Robinson flung the outer doors open and, shotgun in hand, strode out into the drive that led to this his so-called ancestral home. He stopped, and scanned the darkness that surrounded it tonight. His tormentor was out there somewhere and he intended to put a stop to it.
But where was it? It had been there moments earlier. He knew that because he'd seen it, lurking in the gloom, its eyes like twin red stars, gazing up at his room. What it was, he didn't know; a black shape in the night, hunched at his window, trying to get in, each and every evening.
Whatever it was, he knew what it had come for.
And it wouldn't stop until it had fulfilled its murderous duties.
But now he saw it, a movement in the bushes twenty yards to his left.
Gun gripped tighter than ever, gaze not leaving those bushes, he bent down and grabbed a pebble. His aim filled with malice, he flung the stone, hard, at the bushes.
Well fine, my friend, I can wait.
And he did.
He waited, as long moments passed.
And still nothing happened.
'What's the matter?' he shouted. 'Don't like it when your prey comes looking for you?'
And still nothing happened.
Time to flush it out.
He turned his back on it and headed back towards the house.
He heard it, again the rustling from the bushes.
Quickly he turned.
And now it was stood there, in the open, no more than fifteen yards away from him.
And now at last he saw what it was that had appeared at his window each night since he'd moved into this damnable house.
And now he knew that all the shotguns in all the world wouldn't stop it.
'I thought you'd be taller,' he said.
'I am taller,' she said.
'Than what?' he said.
'Than you,' she said.
Jesus! What a way to spend a Friday night. While everyone else in this rotten country was out getting drunk, laid or stabbed, where was Liz Sanford? She was roaming a shut-down amusement park, gun in hand and looking for a creature that probably didn't even exist.
And was she alone?
Why no. She was with a man. She was with Geoff Grayson, the amusement park's head of security. He was the one who'd first reported the creature that probably didn't even exist, and a man who was making it perfectly clear that she didn't live up to his expectations of how a woman in her profession should be.
'And I thought you'd be younger,' he said.
'I'm twenty six,' she said.
'And I thought you'd be blonde.'
You'd think a man would be happy just to have the government's official occult investigator running round after him; but, oh, no, he had to want Femrah, Queen of the Amazons. He'd probably expected her to turn up and wrestle his 'creature' into submission with her bare hands or something. Well no thanks, she'd stick with the Colt 45, thanks very much.
'This isn't a date,' she pointed out.
'I know,' he said.
'It's an investigation into the deadly realms of the paranormal.'
'Then how does how I look matter?'
They were now stood by a whirligig shaped like a giant octopus - which, according to him was the most recent place their quarry'd showed its ugly face.
According to eyewitnesses, it was huge and black and furry, with claws like scythes, fangs like daggers and it could use your head as a basketball any time it felt like it.
'This is where you last saw it?' she said.
He stopped beside her. 'This is the place all right.'
'And you're sure it was real?'
'Too right it was. The thing could've torn a man apart with its bare claws.'
She'd been there for forty five minutes and she'd not seen any monsters; not on the roller coaster, not on the dodgems, not even in the ghost train where, according to all accounts, you could barely move without bumping into them.
But then she saw something.
Something that moved.
She'd only caught a glimpse of it, from the corner of her eye, but it had been there all right, dashing between two rides in the darkness to her left.
She pointed her gun at that darkness. According to the man who'd issued her with it, 'Betty, this thing could blow a monster's head off from halfway across the Channel.' Twelve months into the job and she was still waiting to meet something it actually worked on.
Whatever it was she'd glimpsed, she'd lost track of it.
...a flash of movement to her right.
And instantly her gun was pointed at it.
But now it was gone.
That didn't matter. What mattered was it was drawing closer with each burst of activity. Bit by bit, it was closing in on them.
'Get behind me,' She told Grayson.
She took a step forward. No way was she going to stand there like a dummy, waiting for it to come and get them. Instead, she was going to get it.
That plan lasted all of two seconds. Because, from behind the whirligig, it emerged.
Like it had all the time in the world to deal with these puny interlopers in its kingdom, it stepped out in front of them.
It was black.
It was furry.
And it was huge; seven feet of snarling menace - every single inch of that menace aimed at one person; Elizabeth J Sanford.
It roared at her.
It snarled at her.
...it headed for her.
Grayson took a step back.
She did the opposite. She charged forward and, before it could react, rammed her boot, hard, into its testicles.
With a cry of, 'Christ above!' it doubled over and clutched its groin. Before it could recover, she grabbed its head, pulled it off and, like the mask it was, flung it at the ground.
That was the disguise disposed of, now to deal with the idiot behind it. Without the false head, he was no more than six foot tall, and - doubled over - only half that. She grabbed his ear and twisted it.
He shouted 'Ow!' which suggested she'd got his attention.
She told him, 'You've got ten seconds. What's going on?'
He wasn't going to answer.
She twisted his ear again, and again he called out...
...but, this time, he owned up. 'We heard there was stolen loot from a bank job buried under the park and we thought that if we scared everyone away, we could have it all to ourselves.'
She glared at him. 'Let me get this straight,' she said. 'You decided to scare everyone away from a funfair, by dressing up as a monster, so you could have its buried treasure all to yourselves?'
'And we'd have got away with it if not for - Ow!'
She'd punched him. She grabbed his ear again. 'What's your name?'
'And you live where?'
'147, Sycamore Drive.'
'And what's this?' She waved her gun in his face.
He watched it a moment and said, 'A gun.'
'And did it occur to you that, if I'd thought you were real, I might shoot you with it?'
'He claimed you wouldn't.' He being their mutual friend the security chief. 'He said you were just a woman and, if you saw a monster, you'd run away.'
'Right, the pair of you,' she ordered. 'Listen to this and listen good. If you ever do anything like this again, I'm going to come round to your homes, I'm going to throw you on the floor and I'm going to tear your hearts from your still-breathing chests. Got that?'
'Yes,' they both said.
'Good.' Releasing Hibbert's ear, she flung him away from her. 'Now leave.'
And they did, casting glances back at her as they went, pushing and shoving each other, arguing among themselves about whose fault it was that their brilliantly conceived and original scheme had gone tits up.
Liz watched them till they were gone, then she turned and headed back to her van.
For this she'd driven seventy miles from Sheffield?
'I heard supermarkets are great places to meet men.'
'Then you heard wrong.'
Alison Parker shrugged. Clearly her flatmate wasn't in any better a mood than she'd been at three AM when she'd arrived home from work and slammed shut every door in the flat - then gone and done it all over again to make sure she wasn't the only one in the place denied a good night's sleep. But that was what you had to put up with when you were flatmate to the nation's official occult investigator.
Mid morning found them in the frozen fish section of the local Co-op, Alison with the plastic basket in her hand as Liz searched a freezer for something to put in it.
'Five times,' said Liz, 'five times in the last two months it's happened; people acting out schemes from Scooby Doo. And why Scooby Doo? Why can't it be the X-Files, or Quatermass? At least it'd have a bit more class.'
Alison did the cliché thing of checking her own reflection in a mirrored surface, the shiny metal strip that ran around the freezer's edge. What it was there for was anyone's guess but it was an act she always had her characters perform in her novels - one that Liz was always telling her off for. According to Her Highness; 'Characters already know what they look like, so why do they have to look in a mirror before they can tell the reader?'
Well, Alison's reflection told her one thing. Liz might be the looker in this flat-share relationship but Alison had the intrigue. Why? Because she was the one in black. T-shirt, skirt, lace tights, shoes, eye liner, finger rings, ear rings, nose rings – all black. The hair was purple but that just gave her a hint of the rebel. The truth was that any man who could resist a woman in black was in urgent need of therapy. And maybe people were right and her face did have the look of a frog to it but, as far as she was concerned, that just gave her the power to be cute. And Cute was the greatest super-power of them all. She said, 'According to a book I once read, the criminal mind is notable for neither its class nor its imagination.'
'You can say that again,' said Liz. 'I'm telling you, if I could get my hands on Hannah Barbara-'
'Hannah Barbaira. It's not a woman, it's two men; Mr Hannah and Mr Barbera. Together, they created many of the western world's best loved cartoons - including everyone's favourite atavist Captain Caveman-'
'Whoever they are, I'd like to smash their lights in.'
'Some say the golden age of Scooby Doo's right now,' said Alison. 'After the long, bleak days of the Scrappy Doo years, the show's flourished anew with the ninety minute specials that feature the satirist-foiling master-stroke of the climactic reverse and double twist.'
'What, and you think that's why everyone's gone Scooby Doo on me?'
'I'd say so.'
'And I don't like to teach my grandmother to suck eggs but perhaps in future I should tag along with you.'
'"Occult investigator," no way can that be a one-woman job. I mean, look at this.' Alison took Liz's hand and studied the home-made bandaging the investigator had wrapped around it. The woman might have been a 'doctor' but that was of Demonology. It was definitely not of medicine. 'For all you know it could be broken.'
'It's fine.' Liz snatched her hand back and burned her gaze deeper into the freezer's depths.
'Liz, you have to face reality, the female hand is a delicate thing. It's not designed for punching the friends of Heads of Security. It's designed for sewing and flower arranging and the odd bout of man pleasuring.'
'I feel like Germaine Greer's just walked in.'
'The point is you have a potentially lethal job. What if those men had turned violent?'
'I'd have dropped them.'
'Or if that monster had turned out to be real?'
'I'd have dropped it.'
'You carry on alone if you want, Liz Sanford but, one of these fine nights, you're going to get yourself killed.'
Dust was the enemy of the tidy mind, and Charles Victor Nyman would brook no opposition. Thus he took advantage of a brief lull to give the shop a spring clean. It was Jennings' Antiques, just off the High Street and even he had to admit it had a reputation to maintain. Aiming to raise the place to his own standards, he hummed a little tune to himself as he feather-dusted one of its numerous display cases.
But now he had something else to think about, because, to his right, the bell above the door had tinkled. The shop had a customer.
Nyman looked toward him. The man stood there, rat-faced, early fifties, his thinning hair slicked back by the rain outside. He wore an overcoat whose best years - like its owner's - were clearly behind it, and the air of a man who'd spent more years than was healthy harbouring a secret. Nyman knew his kind all too well; scum, the type who didn't visit such an establishment until circumstances forced him to.
'May I be of assistance?' asked Nyman.
'I have something,' said the man. 'An item I'd like you to look at.'
'Then you'd better let me see it, hadn't you?'
The man closed the door behind him then stood there a moment, clearly reluctant to advance further...
...but Nyman beckoned him with a finger and, at last, his visitor moved toward him.
When he reached Nyman, he glanced around, as though there might be someone spying on them. Tentatively he reached into his coat's inside pocket, and he produced it; a dagger, a foot long, its handle jewelled, its blade glinting in the window's light, its form undulating like that of a serpent.
Nyman held out a hand. At last the man placed the dagger in it and Nyman held it up to study. 'Well well what have we here? Let me guess, you've had this for some while but, thanks to a liquidity crisis, you feel it may be time to part with one of your treasures? Well don't worry. We've all done that in our day and I've always boasted that I give a fair price. In my experience a man who cheats his customers never sees them again. And may I ask how this item came to be yours?'
'It was left to me by my grandfather.'
'And he died?'
'Thirty years ago.'
'In that case he was a gifted man. This dagger can be no more than twelve years old.'
The man made a move to grab it back. 'Maybe I should-'
Nyman moved it beyond his reach. 'Don't worry. I know it's not stolen. How? This.' He tapped his own forehead. 'In here is a memory bank of every valuable item known to have been purloined in the last two hundred years, and an object such as this would feature had it been reported missing. If you don't want me to know how you came by it, that's your prerogative. Possibly it was acquired during an illicit but passionate affair you'd rather your wife knows nothing of, or perhaps it's the source of a long-standing family dispute. I'm not your judge, nor am I your jury. Of course this dagger's youth means it's no antique. Happily, despite public misconception, it is covetability that decides the value of an item, Mr....?'
'...not age and I have a certain contact who'd do anything to get their hands on this.' He popped his eyepiece in place and inspected the handle more closely. 'Hmph.'
'If I don't miss my guess, this line is Tyrillium. That means the dagger's slightly radioactive.' He removed his eyepiece. 'Oh don't worry. A man would have to hold it for a long long time before it did him any harm. In fact, it's so close to perfection that there's only one issue I'm still not clear about.'
Thud, Nyman rammed the dagger into Boizot's forehead. He held it there a moment then yanked it forcefully from the man's skull, and Boizot dropped to the floor, dead.
Nyman gazed down at the man and the large pool of blood rapidly forming around him. 'Oh yes,' said Nyman. 'That answers that question. It's certainly sharp enough.'
He yanked the handkerchief from his breast pocket and calmly wiped the blood from the blade. Wouldn't want it to get stained. That would be a crime.
Taking care not to get blood on his nice new suit, he slipped the handkerchief back into its pocket then yanked a paper bag from the counter beside him. He calmly placed the dagger in it then wrapped the bag around it for purposes of disguise.
Job done, he headed for the door, stepping over the late Mr Boizot - and leaving behind poor Mr Jennings, the real owner of the shop, who lay dead behind the counter.
As he left, the bell above the door tinkled lightly. He stopped to pat dust from it and, as he stepped out into the street, blow him down if the sun wasn't coming out.
Alison Parker always boasted that in ten years of serious writing she'd never once altered one word of a first draft; 'Once the muse grabs me, it all spews out, every word in its place,' she'd claimed upon first meeting Liz. 'Me and Robert E Howard, we have so much in common.'
Sprawled out on the settee, sat watching daytime TV, Liz glanced across at the line of Alison's books on the shelf to her left. Twelve of them. The girl was twenty one. How could anyone aged twenty one have had twelve novels published?
And where was the genius right now? In her room at her typewriter ('Computers kill creativity') and weaving yet more 'magic'.
Liz took another suck on her cigarette. Alison Parker as a flatmate. God alone knew what Frank had been thinking of.
But now the girl wasn't in her bedroom any more, because its door flung open and she stepped out, a camcorder pointed at Liz. 'Say cheese,' she ordered.
'What's that for?'
'It's the camera I'm going to tape you with when I go along on your next mission.'
'What's this obsession you've suddenly got about going along with me? And don't say it's concern for my welfare.'
Alison was clearly going to give her some old flannel, but then, mind made up, she said, 'You want to know why I want to come with you?'
'That's what I've just said.'
'Right! Stay there!' And the girl disappeared back into her room. The door slammed behind her. It stayed shut for a few moments, and then it opened again. Alison reappeared with an object in one hand then strode across to stand over her flatmate. 'This is my latest novel, the one that's due at my publishers in two weeks' time.' She dropped it on Liz's lap. 'Notice anything odd about it?'
Liz picked it up and studied it, front, back and then front again. 'It's a bit thin.'
'Thin? Keira Knightley's thin. This is positively cadaverous.' Alison snatched it back from her, sat beside Liz and read it. 'It's one sentence, a title; She Went in Search of Oblivion. That's it. In the six months since I moved in with you, that's all I've been able to come up with.'
'So I've never had trouble thinking of things to write before. And you know why I can't write?'
Alison said, 'You.'
'No matter what I try to write, I know what I should be writing; The Adventures of Liz Sanford, Occult Investigator. It's fate. I write horror. You live it. You're Holmes. I'm Watson.'
'It's not fate,' Liz pointed out. 'It's Frank. He's the one who lumbered me with you - or didn't it occur to you there was a reason he did that?'
'Exactly. Frank's your landlord. Frank's my uncle. That, my girl, is destiny. When a woman encounters destiny, she should take advantage of it. Except I can't because you won't let me go along and see what you get up to.'
'Use your imagination.'
'I would if you hadn't come along and stuck a dirty great wheel clamp on it.'
'I wish someone'd stick a dirty great wheel clamp on you.'
'Give me one good reason why I can't go along.'
'It's not safe.'
'Give me another.'
'I'm bound by the Official Secrets Act.'
'Give me another.'
'You'll get in the way.'
'So that's all you've got is it? Safety, the law and I'll get in the way?'
Alison was about to say something...
...but didn't get the chance because the doorbell rang.
'Are you going to get that?' said Liz.
'No,' said Alison.
Neither was Liz...
So much for that claim. Liz pulled the front door open - and found herself facing a man with a sharply-cut suit and the patrician air of John Le Mesurier. A polka dot hankie jutted from his breast pocket.
'Yeah?' she said.
'Good morning, my dear, would you happen to be a...' he checked the folded sheet of A4 in his hand, '...Miss Alison Parker?'
'No. I'd happen to be a Dr Elizabeth J Sanford.'
'A doctor?' He raised an eyebrow.
'That's right. Need anything removing?'
'Not just yet thank you but, if you're not Miss Parker, would I be correct in thinking the young lady may be resident here?'
'And might I be allowed to see her?'
'You might - if you tell me who you are.'
He didn't. He just waited for her to invite him in.
So, sighing, she stepped aside to allow him entry.
And on his way in he said, 'What a delightful little place. I don't suppose a cup of tea would be out of the question?'
'Miss Parker, my name's Breen Rowling, and I'm legal representative to one Daniel Robinson.'
Liz handed their mystery visitor the cup of tea she'd reluctantly made for him. He said, 'Thank you, my dear,' and she claimed a seat beside Alison on the settee that directly faced his armchair.
Alison frowned. 'Daniel Robinson? I've never heard of him.'
'You should have,' he told her. 'You met him on a train two weeks ago.'
'What?' she said. 'That man from Cornwall?'
'What man from Cornwall?' said Liz.
'The last time I went to visit my dad in Sunderland, I got talking to a man on the train. He was on his way to check out some hill or other in North Yorkshire.'
Rowling added, 'And whatever you did during that encounter must have impressed him hugely because he's made a small bequeathment in your favour.'
Alison waited for him to go on.
He said, 'I'm afraid Mr Robinson has suffered something of a mishap since then and is currently deceased.'
'Deceased?' she said. 'But he was bouncing with health.'
'Such is life I'm afraid. One moment our candle's burning brightly. The next...' He made a snuffing-out gesture with the fingers of one hand.
'And what killed him?'
'Natural causes apparently. You'd have to ask a doctor, I'm no expert on medical matters.'
'And what's he left her?' said Liz.
Alison stared at him.
Rowling pulled a largish photo from his case, took a glance at it then held it out toward her. The girl took the photo and studied it. It showed a large, gaunt house atop a craggy moor. Both house and moor had all the warmth of a clenched fist.
But it meant plenty to Liz; 'That's Delgado Manor.'
'Where?' said Alison.
'Delgado Manor,' said Liz, 'is the, "Most evil house in Britain." It belonged to the occultist Valentyne Delgado. He had a racket going, conning the well-heeled out of their money in exchange for the "mystic enlightenment" that only he could bring. He died, one night, in mysterious circumstances, lying in a pool of his own blood. And neither murderer nor weapon were ever found.'
'Dr Sanford's quite correct,' said Rowling. 'Delgado Manor was indeed the aforesaid residence but Valentyne's been dead for twelve years and, when Daniel took over, he renamed it, to distance it from a past he found distasteful.'
'But I only met him once,' said Alison. 'Why would he leave it to me?'
'Mine is not to reason why, only to hand out the paperwork.' Rowling took a wad of documents from his case and quickly checked them. 'Now, if you'd just like to sign here...' He handed her a pen and a bunch of papers.
Resting them on her lap, she signed one.
She signed another.
She signed another.
'Dr Sanford, we need your signature as a witness.' He held a document out to her.
She took the Biro from Alison and signed with a distracted scribble. She was more interested in considering the house.
After taking that document back, Rowling signed it too then returned his attention to Alison, 'Now then, this is yours.' He let her retain one of the forms. 'And these are for our records.' He put the other documents in his case. He popped his pen back into his breast pocket, took a set of keys from his case and handed them to Alison. 'These are for you.'
He snapped his case shut, locked it then reached out a hand for Alison to shake.
She shook it.
'Congratulations, Miss Parker. The world's most evil house is now yours.'
The moment their visitor was gone, Alison Parker had flung shut the front door, sprinted into her bedroom and started packing her bags.
Liz, having followed her, stood watching. 'You're not planning on going right now, are you?'
Alison rammed a skirt into her suitcase. 'Are you kidding? That place is straight out of Hound of the Baskervilles. I've got my central character; you - and now I've got my setting.'
Liz climbed into her van, yanked its door shut then pulled her seat belt on. She was parked outside the flat.
And she wasn't alone
Alison was in the seat beside her. Alison watched Liz for a moment then said, 'You know, you don't have to come with me.'
'Someone has to keep an eye on you.'
'You mean,' said Alison, 'that someone has to come with me so she can nosy at, "The most evil house in Britain."'
'It means I know you. You go alone, you're guaranteed to go blundering into danger.'
'You do. You know why? Because, right across your forehead, are written two words.'
'Well, in that case, it's funny how I've managed to stay alive all these year then isn't it?'
Liz started the engine and pulled the van away from the kerb.
Five yards down the road, a man jumped out in front of them. Liz slammed the brakes on, hard, missed him by about three inches then wound down the window.
She leaned out and told him, 'You know, if you want to get killed, it's better if you wait till I hit full speed before jumping out in front of me.'
He headed straight for the window. When he got there, he said, 'Is one of you Alison Parker?'
'Yeah,' said Alison. 'I am.'
'Have you inherited a house?'
'I may have. And I may be on my way there right now.'
'Then thank God I found you. Miss Parker, you can never, ever, go to Delgado Manor.'
'If you do, you'll die.'