'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.'
'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?'
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?'
'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.'
'What's the name of the local paper?'
'The Slydale Eye. Why?'
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?'
'I don't fancy your chances.'
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