Saturday, 31 August 2013

Fatal Inheritance: Chapter Four.

FOUR

Fatal Inheritance by Stephen Walker
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'So how's it going with Liz?'
'Don't even ask.' Alison took another shirt from the open case on her bed, put it on a hanger and hung it neatly in her wardrobe.
It wasn't really her bed - or her wardrobe. They were both her Uncle Frank's and currently occupying his spare room. The man himself was sat behind her, on the bed, by her cases, as she unpacked. He was in his mid-thirties and, in all the time Alison had known him - which was a long, long, time - she'd never once seen him with his laces tied. Today was no exception.
As for how he paid the bills, he managed a small computer supplies shop in Heeley, just outside the city centre and reckoned that it didn't matter what it was, if something was meant to be plugged into something, he could get it for you.
Right now what he'd got for Alison was a spare room in his house by the allotments.
'You've not had another argument?' he said.
'No we've not had another argument.' She yanked another shirt from the case and slipped it on a hanger.
'I don't know what it is with you two. When I fixed you up together, I thought you'd be a perfect fit; one because you're both women, and two because you share an unhealthy interest in the occult.'
'Want to know why we fall out? Look at this.' She retrieved an object from the bottom of case and thrust it at him.
He took it from her; the single sheet of A4 she'd shown Liz in the pub. Reading the title he said, 'What is it?'
'My new novel.'
He studied it front and back. 'Isn't it a little short?'
'That's because of Liz. She Went in Search of Oblivion, a title inspired by my flatmate's blatant death wish.'
'Liz doesn't have a death wish.'
'Yeah, right. That's why she goes off each night in search of darkness.'
'That's how you see it?'
'That's how anyone'd see it. Think about it, Frank; the stuff with her dad, the stuff with ex-husband. It's obvious. She's the only one who can't see it.'
'Or you could just be reading things into it that you want to be there coz you're a writer and you have a natural tendency to dramatize real people.'
'No, Frank, I'm right, she's wrong. That's all there is to it. Either way it makes my point.'
'What point?'
'That to write my book, I need to know my subject, get into her head. To do that I need to know what she gets up to in her work life. And, after six months of cohabitation, do I know what she gets up to in her work life? No. Why? Because she won't take me along on any of her missions. She won't let me sit in the van and watch. She won't let me hide behind a wall and watch. She won't even let me take a telephoto lens and spy on her from half a mile away. And when the mission involves me, when it's my house she's investigating, even then she won't let me get involved.'
'I'm sure she's only trying to protect you.'
'I'm a grown woman. It's for me to decide if I need protecting.' She turned her back on him to put the shirt in the wardrobe.
But that was when something grabbed her left wrist.
It was Frank's hand.
Before she could say anything, he was tugging her toward the door.
'Where're we going?' she said.
'You want to go with Liz?' He dragged her out into the hallway. 'Well this must be your lucky day because I might have just the thing you need.'
*
'I still don't know what you think you're going to find out here,' said Rachel.
Liz didn't know either. She was at the site of Daniel Robinson's death - a downward slope, round one side of the house - searching for clues; anomalous footprints, blood, signs of a scuffle, anything.
She found nothing.
Giving up on that, she gazed down toward the woods that hugged the hill's base. They stopped at the point where the mount began, as though refusing on principle to live on it. She couldn't blame them for that. Only a madman would want to inhabit a place like this.
That thought brought her back to Valentyne Delgado and - through him - to his not-so-lucky heirs. She gazed up at the house's narrow Tudor windows. 'Which one was Daniel's room?'
Rachel pointed to a triptych of windows on the second floor. 'That one there, first on the left.'
'Take me to it.'
*
Daniel Robinson's ex-bedroom was just along the corridor from the stairs. Like most rooms in the place, it was a large, square thing with blank stone walls, its most noticeable feature being the four-poster bed Rachel was sitting on.
'This was Delgado's room,' she said as Liz stood gazing around. 'Because of that, Mrs Hobson insists every owner has to use it. When Daniel moved in, he didn't want it. He wanted one on the west side so he could watch the sheep on the nearest farm. Mrs Hobson planted her hands on his shoulders, fixed him with her gaze and told him, "Young man, this room was good enough for Valentyne Delgado. It's more than good enough for the likes of you."'
'I take it that means I get it too?'
'Fraid so.'
Liz was about to say something when a new voice cut in. 'Oh yes?' it said. 'And who might you be?'
She and Rachel looked toward the door.
And, there, stood a woman in her late forties with the build of a stork and an air that said she could have haughted for England.
'Mrs Hobson,' said Rachel, 'meet our new boss, Miss Alison Parker.'
The woman raised an eyebrow then entered the room as though it and everything within it were hers. 'But of course. Mr Rowling told me about you.' Her gaze strolled all over Liz like it could go wherever the hell it pleased. 'Though he gave the impression you were considerably younger.'
'I'm twenty two.'
'And therefore clearly the victim of a harsh and cruel life. Well?'
'Well what?'
'Let the cat see the milk. Give me a twirl so I can best familiarize myself with you from all angles. I wouldn't want to see you from behind one night, fail to recognize you, mistake you for a criminal and bash you over the head with a steel bar.'
Planting her bony hands on Liz's shoulders, she jerked her round so the investigator's back was to her, lifted the back of Liz's coat, waited a moment then released it.
She jerked Liz round to face her again, parted Liz's coat, took a good look at her front then released the coat. 'Well, you're vaguely attractive I suppose, though irredeemably sluttish. I've no doubt Mr Delgado would have made quick work of you.'
'In what sense?'
'In the sense that, any attractive woman who entered this house invariably left it as his latest conquest.'
'And did you?'
'My relationship with Mr Delgado was purely professional. As for you, given the pertness of your buttocks and the flatness of your chest, I rather think he'd have opted to take you from behind.' And she was gone, the harsh clicking of her heels receding along the adjoining corridor.
Liz watched the doorway through which the woman had just left. 'She's like that with all the owners?'
'She's like that with everyone,' said Rachel. 'She made no secret of the fact that neither of Mr Delgado's successors before you were fit to lick his boots.'
'And neither of them sacked her?'
'To do that they'd've had to find the courage. Besides, Mrs Hobson makes it clear to everyone - owners especially - that she doesn't work for them, she works for the house, and the house alone shall decide her fate.'
'Rachel?'
'Yeah?'
'What's the name of the local paper?'
'The Slydale Eye. Why?'
'No reason.'
*
Once Rachel had gone, Liz had the chance to start weaving webs. She took the phone from the table by the wardrobe, sat on the bed and gave her boss a call.
'Lou?' she said, 'It's Liz. I need a number. The Slydale Eye's advertising department.'
Lou moaned about her calling him at eight o'clock at night, and kept calling her Betty, which she hated, but finally did as he was told. Once she had the number, she called the local paper, whose representative didn't seem to care what time it was.
That done, she hung up the phone just as a man walked in with her cases.
He was a white-haired whippet of a man, in his early fifties, and wearing a donkey jacket over a white shirt. The fact he was carrying her bags suggested he was the 'Joe' who Rachel had mentioned earlier.
He put the cases just inside the doorway then looked across at her. 'So you're the new owner then?'
'That's me.'
'I don't fancy your chances.'

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Friday, 30 August 2013

Fatal Inheritance: Chapter Three

THREE

Fatal Inheritance by Stephen Walker
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There was a bell pull. Liz tugged it then took a step back and looked the place up and down.
Delgado Manor perched on a wind-gouged peak that loomed like a golem over the North Yorkshire village of Hangerton. She wished she could say the house looked more appealing up close than it had in its photo but, if anything, it looked even worse. A few yards to her left stood a flagless pole, a green sports car and a battered old Ford.
As for herself, she'd have liked to claim she looked any better than the house but she couldn't. She was in a long black overcoat that Alison had told her she had to swirl from time to time in order to make herself look mysterious. To make sure she did, the girl had given her a 'Swirl Timetable' to guarantee she performed the feat at intervals suitable for maximum impact. According to that, Liz was due her next swirl in - she checked her watch - three and a half minutes from now.
Call her a woman without mystery but that was one appointment she was going to be giving a miss.
She heard a sound; the clunk of inner doors being opened. Now the outer doors swung open, and she was dealing with a red haired girl in her early twenties. The girl looked out at her and said, 'Can I help you?'
'Yeah,' said Liz. 'I'm here to see my new house.'
'You're Alison Parker?'
'That's me.'
'You'd better come in.'
Liz picked up her bags and did just that. She followed the girl through into the entrance hall, descended its single stone step and took in her surroundings.
The entrance hall was deeper, taller and wider than every room in Liz Sanford's flat put together. On its far side, a grandfather clock had stopped at half-past-three one day and never restarted. Beside it, a full-length mirror let her watch herself and her host. On the wall to the left, a portrait of Valentyne Delgado clutched a globe as though the world was his rightful property, while, to the right, a narrow staircase tied the hall to a second floor landing. An array of arched corridors led away from the hall to who-knew-what?
She raised her sights. No light fittings. At night, the only relief from darkness would come from whatever moon and star light crept in through the stained glass flanking the doors.
Behind her, the redhead shut the doors. 'You can leave your bags where you like. I'll get Joe to take them to your room later.'
'And who's Joe?'
'The handyman-cum-porter type. I'm Rachel by the way.' She extended a hand for Liz to shake. 'Welcome to Delgado Manor.'
Liz shook it. 'You're in charge of the place?'
'You must be joking. I'm just the resident dogsbody - as Mrs Hobson never tires of telling me. Mrs Hobson's in charge, and no one had better forget it - least of all the owner.'
'And Mrs Hobson's?'
'The house manager. She sees to it that everything runs like, "a well-oiled machine."'
'You don't seem surprised by my arrival.'
'The solicitor - Mr Rowling was it? - phoned through and said we should be expecting you. He said you struck him as the type to rush straight up here and, clearly, he was right. He told us about the horror novels too. A job like that, you'll fit right in with this place.'
*
Giving the guided tour, Rachel led Liz down a gloomy corridor whose walls were lined with axes, swords and the heads of slaughtered beasts whose bullet holes no one had ever tried to disguise. 'Up until twelve years ago,' she told Liz, 'this house was the home of a man called Valentyne Delgado. You've heard of him?'
'Can't say I have.'
'According to Mrs Hobson, he was an occultist and a million times the person I'll ever be. He used to invite his rich friends round for get-togethers where they got up to all sorts of debauchery.'
'Were the current staff here back then?'
'Mrs Hobson was - Joe too - though she claimed she never took part in anything. She stayed in the background, "A shadowy presence - as a good servant should be."' Rachel stopped by a door and gripped its handle. 'So, do you want to see every single room in the place, or just the edited highlights?'
*
As instructed, Rachel showed Liz only the main parts of the house; the dining hall, the study where Delgado would record his thoughts on the realm beyond the physical, the kitchen and the conservatory.
As the girl led her visitor along a corridor identical to one they'd just been down, Liz said, 'How does the place pay for itself?'
'When Valentyne Delgado was in charge, he paid for it through his vast personal fortune. His successor - Tom Radcliffe - used to rent it out for seminars and conventions and to the well-heeled. Satan in the Underpass wrote and recorded their Crimson DuClique album here, inspired by its dark and dirty history.'
'The place has a recording studio?'
'Nah. They brought in a temporary thing in a portakabin. I think it was an idea as successful as Spinal Tap's last tour. When Daniel Robinson took over, he stopped all that. He had this idea there was some big secret to the house and he didn't want people clomping around, getting in his way while he looked for it.'
'What was he like? Daniel Robinson.'
'He seemed nice enough. It was hard to tell. He wasn't here long. We didn't know it at the time but it seems he had some illness and it did for him.'
'And does the house harbour a secret?'
'Not that I've ever noticed.'
*
'What do you see?' said Rachel.
'A wall hanging,' said Liz.
'No,' said Rachel. 'You see the gateway to terror.'
Halfway down a corridor, they'd stopped by a hanging tapestry that depicted a knight stabbing a dragon. Rachel gave Liz a conspiratorial look, a quick wink, tapped the side of her nose then eased the hanging aside to reveal a short narrow passageway.
With a beckoning finger, she invited Liz to follow her and they climbed three cramped flights of stairs that led to an open doorway.
They emerged in a large circular chamber at whose centre stood what could only be an altar. Above them, a glass dome gave a clear view of the sky. Liz approached the altar and climbed its six curved steps. At its head stood a black stone spider that looked like it could eat a tank.
'This,' said Rachel, 'was the Ritual Room, where Valentyne used to entertain his guests. According to Mrs Hobson, the idea for its layout came to him in a dream. She says he was always having dreams - well, nightmares really.'
'About what?'
'Nothing that made any sense to anyone except him.' Rachel stood before the statue and looked up at it. 'And this is the man himself.'
Liz watched her.
Rachel said, 'Mrs Hobson reckons he saw himself as a great black spider, sitting at the heart of his web. According to her, he and his friends'd gather here, and the Chosen Vessel - who was a fit young bird eager to be inducted into the Way of the Hand-'
'The...?'
'Don't ask me. The Chosen Vessel, she'd lay on here.' Rachel lay on the altar, her hands either side of her head. 'Like this, stark bollock naked - can I say "bollock" in front of you?'
'You can say what you want.'
'She used to lie here while two Handmaidens of the Light stuck her wrists in these.' She meant the twin leather straps linked to the altar by chains thick enough to hold a horse. 'Then, as they all chanted some rubbish or other, she'd spread 'em for Satan.'
'And did Satan come?'
'Between you and me, I think it was Valentyne Delgado who did all the coming.' She climbed down from the altar and patted her clothing tidy. 'So, where do you want to see next?'
'That's simple enough,' said Liz. 'I want to see where Daniel Robinson died.'

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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Fatal Inheritance: Chapter Two.

TWO

Fatal Inheritance by Stephen Walker
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Alison handed the man a cup of tea then sat beside Liz on the settee. They were back in the flat, their mystery doom-monger in the armchair only recently vacated by the solicitor.
The man took a sip at his tea then put it aside. 'Miss Parker, my name's Carl Seevers and I'm a doctor. I was a friend of the late Daniel Robinson and I have to warn you never to visit that house.'
'Because?'
'Two weeks ago - that'd be just after his encounter with you - Daniel came to me claiming the house was the subject of nocturnal visitations.'
Alison frowned. 'Nocturnal...?'
'According to him, at nights, it was being called upon by a creature.'
'What "creature"?' said Liz.
'He couldn't say. He never got a good look at it but he'd wake in the night to see it at the window; a black shapeless mass with burning red eyes and an aura of purest evil. Whatever it was, it'd hunch there, gazing in at him as though it were probing the manor for a means of entry. I of course dismissed it as a delusion caused by what we in the medical profession know as Sleep-'
'-Paralysis,' said Liz. 'A tendency to wake in the early hours, unable to move and convinced you're in the presence of a being or beings of purest evil.'
'Quite.'
'I take it you were wrong,' said Liz.
'Seemingly so, because, a week ago, he told me that, whatever the thing was, it was only a question of time before it got into the house - and he wasn't going to lie in bed waiting for it. That night, when it arrived, he was going to be ready. He'd be waiting outside, both barrels primed, and he was going to kill it.'
'And?'
'That was the night he died.'
'Except,' said Alison, 'his solicitor claimed he died of natural causes.'
'That depends how you define natural causes,' said Seevers. 'When his body was found, it was just an empty shell. Every single one of his internal organs had been liquefied. It was recorded as a natural death because the coroner didn't know what else to call it.'
'That's all fine,' said Alison, 'but none of it answers the obvious question.'
'Which is?'
'Why did he leave the house to me?'
'Did you tell him who your flatmate was?' asked Liz.
She said, 'Ah.'
Seevers gaze skipped back and forth between the pair of them. 'Ah what?'
So Liz told him what she did for a living.
He said, 'The government has an occult investigator?'
'You'd be amazed what the government has. By leaving the house to my flatmate, he knew he'd attract my attention. Which leaves the obvious question. Why not just call on me in the first place?'
'I might be able to venture a guess,' he said. 'Daniel had this notion that the house contained a secret. From where he got the idea I can only speculate. It might have been down to some comment a relative had made, I'm not sure. At the time I put that too down to delusion. Presumably he didn't want outsiders clomping around the site until after he'd had a chance to fully explore it. He'd only been there a week at this point. He'd recently inherited it from his cousin Tom Radcliffe.'
'And his cousin?' said Alison.
'Had also died.'
'The same way as Daniel?'
'No one knows. Only his head was found. What kind of state his body was in was anyone's guess.'
'And because of his desire not to have official agencies stomping around all over the house,' said Liz, 'Danny boy's gone the same way as his cousin.'
'So it seems.'
'He was no Einstein was he?'
''It does seem that Daniel was somewhat foolish in his actions,' Seevers concurred. 'And that's why, Miss Sanford, you have to agree with me. Bearing in mind what's happened to all previous incumbents of Delgado Manor, there's no way in this world Alison Parker can even visit that place.'
'As a matter of fact, I agree the opposite.'
They both watched her like she'd just declared her love for Hitler.
She didn't care about that. She just rose to her feet. 'It sounds to me like, if there's one thing Alison Parker has to do, it's to claim her inheritance.'
Still seated, Alison clenched her fist and gave a delighted but silent shout of, 'Yes!'
'Dr Sanford,' Seevers protested, 'you can't be serious. Haven't you been listening to me? I've just said that everyone who's ever owned that house has ended up dead.'
'Which is exactly why she should go there. If something kills every owner, I'd have thought the best way to find out what it is is for her to go there and see what tries to slaughter her.'
'And the fact that you're putting her life at risk?'
'Doesn't matter.'
'I wouldn't go that far,' said Alison.
'It doesn't matter,' said Liz, 'because she's not going.'
'What?' Alison jumped to her feet. 'You just said-'
'That Alison Parker's going to Delgado Manor.'
'And, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm Alison Parker.'
'No you're not.'
'No?' She frowned. 'Then who is?'
'I am.'
'Liz,' said Alison, 'you're not me. Even in your best dreams you're not me.'
'No?'
'No.'
'That's funny because suddenly I feel like telling everyone I am.'
*
'So? What? I stay here while you go there and take all the glory that's rightfully mine?'
'That's right.' Liz grabbed a magazine from where it lay slumped across one arm of the settee, opened it and flicked through till she found a mostly white page. She tore it out, discarded the magazine, borrowed a pen from the doctor and scribbled on the page. 'These are my measurements.' Now she took a card from her coat. 'This is my expense account debit card.' She handed it to Alison.
The girl studied it. 'How come they don't let you have a credit card?'
'It's a long story.' Liz neatly folded the page and handed it to her flatmate.
The girl studied the two items she'd just been handed. 'What have these to do with me?'
'This. I want you to go to town and get me the clothes I'd buy if I were you.'
'How many?'
'About a week's worth.
'And why should I?'
'Because if you don't, I won't tell you what I find at the manor and you won't have anything to use in your book.'
'She writes books?' said Seevers.
'Don't even ask,' said Liz.
Alison said, 'And what's to stop me from just going to the house anyway?'
'I am,' said Liz, 'and I've got the weight of Government behind me. That means you're not going, and the Queen agrees with me.'
Alison sighed. She checked the card and paper. 'I'll try Tatyana's Dungeon.'
And, with that, the girl was gone.
Now Frogmella was out of the way, it was time to get rid of Seevers. Liz said, 'Now, I suggest we get you back to wherever it is you came from.'
'The railway station.'
'And, on the way out, I'll tell you all about my exciting adventures.'
*
Out on the street, Liz watched Seevers climb into the taxi she'd ordered, and then speed off up the road. Now he was gone, she pulled out her mobile phone and made a second call. This time to the man who called himself her boss. 'Lou?' she said. 'It's Liz. I need background info. Three people; Tom Radcliffe, Dr Carl Seevers and Daniel Robinson. And while you're at it, I'll need the murder case files for a man called Valentyne Delgado.'
*
'You'll never pass yourself off as me, you know. You're too lanky, your hair's too rough and you've got no curves.'
'I'll take that as a compliment then, shall I?' Liz was sat before Alison's dressing table mirror, a towel around her waist, as her flatmate tried to make her look like her.
Needless to say, the girl was taking forever over it. She'd already done Liz's lips, now she was burying her eyes in enough eye liner to make Shirley Manson balk. Liz looked a complete idiot. Her hair? Too rough? That was the least of her concerns. Thanks to Alison, it was now purple, and, as for the clothes the girl had bought her...
But what could she do? If she wanted to pass herself off as someone, she had to look like her. Sod's law guaranteed that, as soon as he was out the door, Rowling would have phoned Delgado Manor to tell them the deal was done - and it was a safe bet he'd have described the new owner to them.
Of course, there was nothing Liz could do to disguise the fact she was 4 inches too tall. She was just going to have to hope that, as Alison's height was more or less average, he wouldn't have seen fit to mention it.
The girl retrieved a small bottle with some sort of black liquid in it. She removed its lid, which had a brush attached to its underside, planted one hand on Liz's left breast and started painting its nipple black.
'What're you doing?' said Liz.
'You wanted me to make you look like me.'
'You've got black-painted nipples?'
'Of course I have. What if I bump into an unexpected tryst? I want to look my best don't I?'
'And you wonder why I won't take you anywhere with me.'
'Just wait till we fit the nipple rings.'
'What!?!'
'Look. It's simple.' Alison held up what she claimed was a body-piercing gun, though to Liz, it looked more like the harpoon gun from a whaling ship. Her flatmate said, 'I hold it against the area in question, press this trigger and wham, it's straight through and out the other side. Five presses, wham, wham, wham, wham and wham, and you're done.'
'Five? Alison, I don't know where you learned biology but a human being doesn't have five nipples.'
'No but you want all the other piercings don't you?'
'What other piercings?'
'Upstairs, downstairs and in the middle.'
'No.'
'So you're just playing at this. You don't want authenticity.'
'Sod authenticity.'
'It'll improve your sex life.'
'I don't care if it improves my TV reception, I'm not doing it.'
'You had your ears pierced didn't you?'
Liz lifted her hair to show her ears in all their intact glory.
'Want me to pierce them?' said Alison.
'No!'
'Your nostrils?'
'No!'
'You know, this gun cost a fortune. I bought it especially for you. Barry, in the shop said, "Pierce flesh? Al, this thing can shred steel." And do you let me use it? Oh no, you're too busy thinking about yourself, like you always do.'
Liz gave her the look she felt most appropriate; and the girl sighed.
Finally having to admit defeat in her quest to punch holes in her flatmate, Alison put the gun on the dressing table, picked up the lipstick she'd abandoned in order to take the gun from its box, and got back to the clearly less therapeutic job of blacking-up her flatmate's udders. 'I still don't see why I can't come with you.'
'Because it's gonna be a bit of a give-away if two Alison Parkers show up.'
'No but if you don't have to be Liz Sanford, I don't have to be me. I could pretend to be your assistant Maisie and wear sunglasses and say groovy a lot.'
'Why groovy?'
'That's what I'd say if I were an assistant to me.'
'Sometimes I worry about you.'
'Fine. Have it your own way. I'll just stay here and vegetate while you run around having an adventure.'
'You won't be here.'
'No? Then where will I be?'
'Frank's.'
'Why?'
'Because whatever killed the previous owners might come here looking for you. That's why you're going to stay with Frank. Get me a piece of paper.'
Alison yanked a tissue from the box by the mirror.
'Pen,' said Liz.
The girl grabbed an eyebrow pencil and handed her both items.
Liz scribbled a note on the paper. 'While you're at Frank's, don't answer the door to anyone you don't know and, if anything goes wrong, call this number.'
Alison studied the number she'd just been handed. 'What is it?'
'You're better off not knowing, but listen to this and listen good. Under no circumstances call that number unless you're moments away from death and there's absolutely no hope of escape. Got that?
'Got it.'
'To call it otherwise could cause disaster - not just for you but for everyone who's walking the face of this planet. Got that?'
'Got it.' Alison picked up her mobile phone and, consulting the sheet her flatmate had just given her, started to prod its keys.
Liz grabbed the phone from her and jabbed it off with her thumb. 'What're you doing?'
'Calling that number.'
'What did I just tell you?'
'You said don't call it.'
'Then why're you calling it?'
'I didn't think you meant it.'

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Fatal Inheritance: Chapter One.

ONE

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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.
Him.
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.
And?
Nothing.
Nothing happened.
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.
And now?
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.'
'I know.'
'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.
But then...
...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.
He did.
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.
And now...
...it headed for her.
Grayson took a step back.
Liz didn't.
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?'
'Ken Hibbert.'
'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-'
'Barbaira.'
'What?'
'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.'
'Jesus.'
'And I don't like to teach my grandmother to suck eggs but perhaps in future I should tag along with you.'
'I'm sorry?'
'"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....?'
'Boizot.'
'...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.'
'What?'
'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.'
'Which is?'
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?'
'So I've never had trouble thinking of things to write before. And you know why I can't write?'
Liz shrugged.
Alison said, 'You.'
'Me?'
'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?'
Liz shrugged.
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?'
'She might.'
'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.
'His home.'
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.
'...And here.'
She signed another.
'...And here.'
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.'
'Thank 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.'
'Says who?'
'You do. You know why? Because, right across your forehead, are written two words.'
'What words?'
'"Kill me."'
'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.'
'Because?'

'If you do, you'll die.'