Alison stood there in Lou Ferman's office, holding the temperature gauge she'd just been given. 'I don't get it. You're giving me the job just like that?'
'Don't there have to be security checks? Reference checks? Background checks? You don't know anything about me. I could be evil. I could be incompetent. I could be lazy, mad or stupid.'
'Then you're fine for the job.'
'But you don't know my strengths, my weaknesses. You've not even heard my twelve-point plan.'
'Does it include her doing a 'fun' calendar?'
'It might do.'
'And her doing a round of in-school puppet shows?'
'It might do.'
He said, 'You know what the trouble with Betty is? No one likes her. That's why she needs books written about her. And she needs calendars and key rings and T-shirts with her on them. I've told her. “Betty, this is the 21st Century. You're a good-looking girl. You have to do the PR thing.” Does she listen? Course she doesn't. She just threatens to smack me one and keeps on alienating everyone she meets. You, Parko, are quite ugly, you look like a frog, but you're sort of cute. Cute is good for PR. And, if you turn out to be evil, well Betty can always shoot you. That's what we pay her for.'
You could call her a fashion fascist but, in Liz Sanford's opinion, no one under the age of fifty had any business wearing a fedora. That suggested it hadn't belonged to Daniel Robinson or Tom Radcliffe. It was also hard to believe it had lain undisturbed for twelve years, which implied it hadn't belonged to Valentyne Delgado. It was a safe bet it didn't belong to Mrs Hobson, Rachel or Joe, and that made its presence a mystery.
Within minutes she'd found Mrs Hobson's office halfway down the corridor to the left of the stairs. Not bothering to knock, she walked straight in and found the woman tapping away at a computer.
Hobson paid her no heed. So Liz shut the door behind her, headed for the desk and claimed a chair facing her.
'Mrs Hobson,' she said. 'I need a word with you.'
'In that case you'd better sit down hadn't you?'
She already had.
Liz watched her read the computer screen and said, 'What're you doing?'
'I'm currently in the process of ordering a new weather vane. I'm afraid the big chicken that normally tells us which way the wind blows fell off its perch three nights ago and refuses to reclaim it. Fortunately we have the wonder of the interweb. A remarkable device. Sometimes when you're using it, I swear it's like you're talking to the dead.'
'And have you done a lot of that? Talking to the dead?'
'Not since Valentyne's day. He used to like to impress the more gullible young ladies by holding seances. Nothing gets them leaping into your arms with a shriek quite like a manifestation. I don't know why but, for some reason, he had the notion that my presence would make the process more disturbing. As for you, I take it you came here for something?'
'You already have that hat.'
'I know but I don't want it. I was wondering if you know where it came from?'
'Leaving aside the fact that the sentence should have been, "From where it came?" I don't have the foggiest. To my knowledge it's been sitting on Little Daniel's desk for a week or so.'
And you don't know how it got there?'
'I'd assume a visitor brought it, though I've never seen one wearing a hat. It's certainly not Daniel's. He was startlingly devoid of anything that even vaguely resembled style. Valentyne sometimes wore one which he claimed he used to hide his eyes of a beast while roaming the back streets of Bolton. That, however, was burnt with him, in accordance with the terms of his will.'
'And Tom Radcliffe?'
'Never wore a hat.'
'Can I have a list of all the visitors Daniel had while he was here?'
'You could if I had one. Sadly, he didn't seem to trust me and insisted on sneaking them in while I was absent. He seemed to be under the impression that I was part of some conspiracy against him. "You want me out!" he used to declare. "Well this is my house now and you'll never get rid of me!"'
'And did you want him out?'
'Miss Parker, it's not my place to decide who should be in possession of this house. More pertinently, the chicken...'
'What about it?'
'It won't pay for its own replacement. Which poses the question of how you're going to fund the manor's upkeep. Do you have a vast personal fortune you can draw upon to subsidize it?'
'Fat chance. I don't know if you know this but I'm a writer.'
'Mr Rowling did mention something along those lines.'
'I was thinking of making a film here.'
'I'll be doing what Tom did. I'll hire it out to people with more money than sense.'
'You don't approve?' said Liz.
'This house, Miss Parker, was built for a specific purpose, the promulgation of occult activity. It seems a complete waste to use it for purposes that any large country house could be used.'
'You'll refuse to co-operate?'
'I'm employed by this house. I do as I'm told.'
'And those original purposes, did you have an involvement in them?'
'I was hired as an administrator, nothing more.'
'You ask a remarkable number of questions, Miss Parker.'
'That's because I'm researching my film. The more I know about the house, its history and that of those in it the better.'
'In that case, I was running a house in Bath - Charnwith Terrace. If you think Belgium is the dullest place on Earth, let me tell you you've never visited Charnwith Terrace. The couple I worked for, Mr and Mrs Respectable, never a surprise, never a shock; "Oh yes, let's have the Hadleys round for dinner and we can discuss property prices and nursery care provision." The smugness of those people. One more week and I'd have done something I'd have refused to be held responsible for. Fortunately, I saw a vacancy here advertised, and applied. It sounded like much more fun.'
'And you did what for Delgado?'
'A house like this doesn't run itself. If Valentyne wanted a filing cabinet, I got him a filing cabinet. If he wanted the roof repaired, I got him the roof repaired. If he wanted a steel gauntlet, I got him a steel gauntlet.'
'Gauntlet of the type a knight in shining armour would wear.'
'And what did he want one of those for?'
'The ritual of the steel fist.'
'And what did that involve?'
'I think you can imagine.'
'How much of what he got up to did you know about?'
'I knew everything,' said Hobson.
'Rachel says Daniel claimed the house contained a secret.'
'He thought all sorts of silliness. He kept claiming there was a creature at his window every night. Well, I've been here for fifteen years and I've never seen any creature.'
'And it didn't strike you as odd that, after two weeks of him telling you a creature was after him, he died in mysterious circumstances?'
'Where's the mystery? He arrived at the manor shortly after a jaunt abroad. He had a tropical disease. He brought it with him. He died. I wouldn't have minded but, thanks to his death, Joseph, Rachel and I had to be tested to make sure we weren't carrying it too.'
'And were you?'
'And does this house contain a secret?'
'The only secret this house contains is that it doesn't contain a secret.'
Her conversation with Hobson had taken Liz nowhere, so she set off in search of someone more helpful. That meant Rachel who seemed to be as open as Hobson was closed.
When Liz found her, she was in a bare, grey room, arms folded, stood watching a Hotpoint spin.
'What're you doing?' said Liz.
'Watching the washing.'
'Mind if I ask a few things?' Liz whipped out her note pad. 'As research for my next movie?'
'Am I going to be in it?'
'I'm sure we can fit you in as a zombie or a mummy or Screaming Victim Number One.'
'In that case...' Rachel perched herself on a tumble dryer. '...help yourself.'
Liz held her pencil ready to write. 'How long have you worked here?'
'Only since December. Mrs Hobson hired me. Tom Radcliffe was still the owner then. I think she only hired me to get at him.'
'He hated women. The last dogsbody before me, she couldn't take any more. She quit, saying she never wanted to be in the company of that man again. So what does Mrs Hobson do? She goes right out and hires the first woman she interviews.'
'And he took that how?'
'He kept throwing things at me and saying things like, "Women, women, why must I always be surrounded by them!?! They killed my cousin. I'll not have them kill me!"'
'And what did he mean by that?'
'I've no idea.'
Liz found the man called Joe, out round the back of the house and sawing wood.
'What're you doing?' she said.
'Making a coffin,' he said.
'For who?' she said.
'You,' he said.
'Me?' she said.
'You won't be with us for long.' He stopped sawing, looked her up and down, said, 'Five foot eight,' and resumed cutting.
'You don't have much faith in my survival skills do you?'
'If you own this house, you die. Valentyne Delgado didn't survive. Tom Radcliffe didn't survive. Daniel Robinson didn't survive. Why should you?' He went across to collect more wood from a pile by the shed.
The man had a whole array of saws lying around. She picked one up, a fretsaw whose jagged blade she studied. When she'd finished with Joe, she'd be taking it with her and she knew just what to do with it.
Wood collected, Joe returned.
'How long have you worked here?' she said.
He set about marking the latest piece of wood for cutting. 'Since the start. Mrs Hobson hired me. I worked at a house in Derbyshire and she tapped me up.'
'Then you know everything that happened when Delgado was in charge?'
'I know nothing.' He picked up a saw and started cutting the latest plank. 'I'm the handyman. He told me he wanted this hammering, or that sawing, and I did it. That was the beginning and end of my knowing what he did. I'll tell you one thing though. He was working on something.'
'I don't know but towards the end, he'd lock himself away in that study of his and not let anyone see what he was up to.'
'He was killed.'
'Tom Radcliffe seemed to know.'
'Tom Radcliffe was his cousin. Delgado must've told him things.'
'Things only Tom Radcliffe could tell you, and he's dead.'
'And, in this house, at nights, have you ever heard anything?'
'Rattling, creaking, banging; anything that might sound like something trying to get in?'
'Now you're talking like Robinson. He used to claim he was hearing things trying to get in.'
'When you work in this place, you hear all sorts of things, late at night, in your bed.'
'Mrs Hobson gave me the impression she's never heard a thing.'
'She has the knack of not noticing things she chooses not to notice.'
'And it doesn't bother you, living in a house whose owners tend to die in mysterious circumstances?'
'Why should it? I'm never going to own it.'
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