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?'
'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.'
'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-'
'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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