Jim looked around. “It’s not a bad little flat,” he said. “It’ll turn a good profit once we’ve tidied it up a bit.”
Steve nodded. “It really just needs a few coats of paint and perhaps new doors on the kitchen cupboards. Everything is pretty sound.”
“She didn’t want to leave,” Jim said thoughtfully. “I mean, she handed over the keys alright, and the place was cleared, but she kept warning me about the cupboard.” He nodded to the cupboard set into the wall, with chipped paint and an ornate chain.
“I’ve got the bolt cutters here,” said Steve. “I’ll get into it in a sec.”
“I’ll nip back to the van and get the camera,” Jim said. “She seemed a sweet old dear, and a little confused, but she may have been playing crafty. There could be structural stuff inside that cupboard and there go our profits.” He glanced over at Steve. “Don’t start without me, we need to document this.”
“I’ll get it opened up,” Steve said. “I’ll get the lamp shining in by the time you’re back. It’s probably where she hid the empty bottles. She was talking about spirits when she left.”
“Or it could be a Ouija board,” Jim said with a shudder. “You know I hate anything like that.” He glanced uneasily at the cupboard. “Back in a tick.”
Steve shook his head as he heard Jim clatter down the stairs. You couldn’t even read your newspaper horoscope around Jim. He hefted the bolt cutters and checked the chain. It was steel but old and the bolt cutters were top of the range. The chain fell apart without much effort.
The cupboard was dark inside, much darker than Steve expected. He pulled out his phone to use the torch and shivered as a cold draught ran through the room. He looked closer and saw a few chalked symbols, faded and barely visible under some dusty leaves, on the base of the cupboard. The stench was stomach churning.
“There’s nothing here, Jim,” Steve called, heading to the windows. He had to get some fresh air into this room. “But we may have a sewer line issue.” He tugged at the window catch. “Have you got some WD40?” The window was jammed, no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. He frowned. They had been fine earlier and there had been nothing in the survey. He could hear Jim on the stairs. He had better get the chalk marks wiped off before he got here, or he would have a fit. “Hang on, Jim, I need a cloth.” Steve strode over to the door, shivering as another blast of icy stench ran over him, and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn’t move. “Jim, the door’s stuck. Give it a push, will you?”
There was a rattle. “I can’t shift it,” Jim said. “Is there a lock?”
Steve peered at the door. “I can’t see anything.”
“I’ll get the toolbox,” Jim called. “Back in a tick.”
The light in the room dimmed. Steve turned around, hit by another icy, stinking draught, but there was nothing over the window and the sun seemed just as bright. He shivered as the room got colder and, as he heard a low, malicious chuckle, he wondered if they would have been better leaving the cupboard alone…
“I’m sorry, darling.” Darren smiled nervously at me. “But it is only twice a year, and it is only from Thursday to Tuesday.”
I took a deep breath. “Of course, I know. Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye, but that’s okay. She’s your mother and we both love you. That’s why I’ve got the day off to get the house all set up for her.”
Darren winced. “I’ll pick her up from the airport. I’ll pick up a takeaway on my way back.”
“Absolutely not.” I said firmly. “I’ll make a lovely casserole and that way it doesn’t matter if you are a little late.”
“Thank you, darling, I do appreciate it.” Darren gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to work.
Pamela, my mother-in-law, did only visit twice a year. She came in the first weekend after the Christmas break and the first weekend in July. It was some awful ritual where a demon was unleashed twice a year. They could make a Nicholas Cage movie out of it. As for the takeaway, I was not falling for that again. Four years ago I had made the mistake of allowing Darren to pick up a pizza on the way back. For the last four years I had been hearing about how a proper wife made her husband meals, no matter what the circumstances.
I slouched into the kitchen. I had never felt less like being a domestic goddess. It was all so humiliating. I was far too particular, according to my friends, and wasted far too much time cleaning. According to Pamela, I was a slattern. Every inch of this house would be scrutinised. Last time I thought I had her. There was no dust on the top of the kitchen cupboards and the walls had been washed down. I had put brand new bedding on her bed and I had dusted behind every stick of furniture. I had had the oven professionally cleaned and steamed the carpets. The old witch had actually taken the drawers out of her dresser and found dust on the inside of the frame. She had been so smug, sitting opposite me in my kitchen, eating my food which I had cooked, while Darren sat between us, twitching.
I looked around my lovely, clean kitchen. Not only would she go over the room like a forensic detective but she would also sigh and complain that it looked too bare. “It’s a shame you don’t have any knickknacks around,” she had said last time. “Of course, not everyone has a flair for decorating. Perhaps it is just as well that you haven’t tried.” She had smiled a wide, fake smile and patted my arm. “I’ll bring you some nice things next time I come. Then you won’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”
The old trout had great taste – for 1972! I knew that she would have a suitcase full of cheap tat when she turned up, and that it would have to be in the same place she left it when she returned six months later – and she would know if the plastic grot had been moved an inch. I swear the old bat had a photographic memory.
I threw together a boeuf bourguignon and put it on slow. I’d already taken out every removable drawer in the house and cleaned behind them. All the carpets, curtains and rugs had been steamed last week. Not only was the bedding in her room new but so was the curtains. I’d cleaned all the lampshades yesterday and dusted all the lightbulbs. I sighed and started to pull out the fridge. Then I paused.
Why was I playing her game? Why was I running round in circles trying to get her to like me when nothing short of a sharp blow to the head would ever make her accept the woman who stole away her baby boy? I’d been doing it wrong for years. If she ran out of things to check I swear she would pull up the floorboards. Okay, if she wanted something different, she could have something different.
By the time Darren’s car pulled into the drive I was finished. I ached with the efforts, and I had had to get a few friends to help out. It had been entirely worth it. I looked around as I heard Darren carefully reversing into the garage. The kitchen was smeared with jam and I had done my best to give a greasy feel by spraying the wall with the oil spray I used in cooking. I had found some kitchen curtains in a skip which were now drooping at the window. I had gone to every friend and neighbour and scrounged the contents of their vacuum cleaners. After some trial I found that a light mist of water helped the dust of a dozen homes cling to walls, sink and bath. I had put a mouse trap at the back of her dresser, just where it would get her if she checked, and I put the contents of four dryer filters under her bed.
The trip to the charity shop had been the most fun. The house was awash with ‘accents’. Our house was now a temple to the worse taste that ever landed on an Oxfam donation table. There was plastic everywhere. I had also got some extremely washed bedding from the charity shop and begged some curtains for Pamela’s room that they were going to send to the rag man and rubbed damp instant coffee granules along the edges for an added artistic touch. I had had fun, and so had my friends. Everyone had got photos.
I turned round as Darren unlocked the door. “Darling, my mother’s plane has been delayed and she has decided not to come until the Christmas break after all…” He stopped as he walked in to the kitchen. There was a long pause. “Darling, would you like a drink?”
I’m working hard on a deadline at the moment, so I thought I’d have a look back at a story I first published back in 2015. I smiled when I re-read it, and I hope you also found it fun. Wishing good health to all.
Fiona watched Steve light the candles ranged across the mantelpiece and then along the windowsill. “It’s Candlemas. What does that mean?”
Steve slotted the lighter back on the shelf. “Candlemas, Imbolc, Feast of Lights. It’s a funny time of year. It’s one of the big festivals, you know. Lady Freydis has her realm lit up like a fairground.” He picked up his glass of wine. “I’ve heard it described as the first day of spring.” He shrugged and looked out at the snow outside. “I suppose you could say that it’s a little glimpse of hope. It’s still dark at breakfast and dinner time, but the nights are getting a minute or two shorter every day. It’s still foul weather, but there are snowdrops out there and the first stirrings of spring are around, like buds and shoots tucked away in the corners. It’s dark, but there’s hope of light. It’s cold, but there’s hope of spring.”
Fiona took her glass and gently touched it to his. “Cheers. It doesn’t feel like it’s getting better.”
Steve shook his head. “But all we can do is hold on to the hope that the darkness will pass. Because without that hope, it’s a very dark place indeed.”
“I told you to stay away from me.” Cana rolled away from him. There was plenty of room in the clearing and the fire was still bright.
“I thought we stayed close when camping in the woods,” Sion said. “To keep warm.”
“It’s past midsummer,” Cana said. “It’s not cold.” She rolled over and looked at the stars peeking through the canopy of leaves overhead. “The fire will keep away wolves and the horses will warn us if anything approaches. Get some sleep. We should reach the castle by noon tomorrow.”
“You won’t come into the castle with me?” Sion asked.
“I’ve been warned about monsters in the castle.” Cana said. “Besides, as you said, I’m just a girl.”
“Tomorrow I go to fight a monster,” Sion said. “This could be my last night on this earth. Won’t you at least make it a little warmer for me.”
“No,” Cana said, shifting her blanket a little further away from him.
“I could come back laden with jewels and gold,” Sion says. “The rumours say that there is treasure beyond counting.”
“And that is why you are going to the castle.” Cana said. “If there was no castle then the villagers could rot under monsters for all you cared.”
Sion laughed. “A man has to make his way in the world,” he said.
“I’m only here because of the steward’s orders,” Cana said. “You could turn back at any time.”
“I received no encouragement from village,” Sion said. “Don’t you fear monsters?”
“We fear them,” Cana said. “And we have learned to recognise them. You are going into this with a black eye because you couldn’t learn to take ‘no’ as an answer and the men of our village are protective.”
“And the women are no fun,” Sion said. “You are sleeping with a knife under your pillow. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Is that why the priest refused to bless me and my weapons?”
“It’s because you wouldn’t confess your sins first,” Cana said. “The whole village heard the argument.”
“Tomorrow I face a blood sucking, immortal creature that has powers that no-one can measure,” Sion said. “Won’t you warm my bedroll, to give me the comfort I need?”
Cana turned back and looked at the greasy, red face, predatory intent clear. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.” She looked coldly into his eyes. “And you’ll never make the castle if you try to force me.”
Sion laughed again. “It’s worth asking, at least.” He placed his sword in the clear ground between them. “There, do you feel safer?”
“The horses will warn of any movement,” Cana said. “Goodnight.”
Cana watched him leave the next morning and then tidied the campsite. Those who tracked the creature in the castle came at all times of year, so she stacked up firewood against the winter. She had lost count of those that she had brought here, seeking their fortune and perhaps fame. There had even been a few that had wanted to serve what they thought lived in the lonely fortress that was a short ride down the path. There were raspberries in the forest, and she picked a good basket full before the shadows lengthened. Then she made up the fire and waited.
She became aware of a presence. “You defeated him?”
Calixtus nodded and joined her near the fire. “To be truthful, he was a careless warrior. And he was avoiding me as he searched for the fabled treasure. I think he would have fed you to me to buy time if he could.”
“And you’re unhurt?” Cana asked.
“I can’t be hurt like you,” Calixtus said softly. “But no, he didn’t land a blow. The black eye didn’t help. Let me guess, he tried to flirt with Maria?”
“He tried more than flirting!” Cana said. “Fortunately for him, her husband reached them before she could do much.”
“How is Maria?” Calixtus asked.
“She’s well.” Cana said. “Rhia has had her baby, it’s a boy and they are calling him Calix, after you.” She frowned. “Father John’s joints are hurting him, I think, though he isn’t saying anything.”
“I’ll call in soon and see what I can do,” Calixtus said. “And I’ll have a look at the mill while I am there.”
Cana smiled. “You know so much. Perhaps you should take an apprentice.” She loosened her tunic.
“Perhaps I should,” Calixtus said. He held up his hand. “I won’t need blood for a while. The would-be warrior gave me plenty and there are many animals in the forest. But thank you.”
Cana shook her head. “You have saved us from so many monsters. Now, sit, share some raspberries and let me tell you all of the news.”
John Farnley, reluctant Lord and Peer, agrees to fly Professor Entwistle and Miss Sylvia Armley on their expedition, for the usual fees. It was planned as a straightforward trip to Sudan searching under the Saharan sky for obscure Nubian pyramids where they would hopefully unearth new archaeological remains.
But first they find a desperate woman, a dying man, and the ominous threat of mercenaries left leaderless after the recent colonial wars, mercenaries who are also interested in the treasures that might be hidden within the pyramids. And what could this have to do with the stories of djinn?
Trapped by an aether storm that left their aether flyer powerless, the companions work desperately to find out the secrets of the pyramids as the threat of the mercenaries grows.
Could this have anything to do with the forbidden knowledge of Hammerhand’s creation? Will the courage of John Farnley, the knowledge of Professor Entwistle, and the sharpshooting skills of Sylvia Armley save them? Or will it be the secret locked in the bronze figures?
“Good afternoon, won’t you sit down?” Lady Clara Farnley indicated a chintz covered chair and turned to the butler. “Please could you bring tea and refreshments.”
Miss Adelia Davenport took a seat and pulled a notebook and pen from her commodious reticule. “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Lady Farnley, especially after your recent loss.”
Clara managed a smile. Her mother had braved the new-fangled telephone and spent several hours explaining to Clara why she would help out the daughter of an old friend with an interview with The Lady magazine. She hadn’t mentioned it to her brother-in-law, the new Lord Farnley, and she wasn’t sure what he would think. “My mother spoke very highly of you.”
Adelia readied her pen. “Your late husband died very suddenly I believe.”
“Yes, it was a great shock.” Lady Clara kept her composure with an effort. The reminders of the loss of her husband still stung.
“How did it happen?” Adelia asked with a blandly enquiring expression.
Clara took a deep breath. That was an incredibly impertinent question, but how to answer? The woman in front of her, barely older than a schoolgirl, had relentlessly pursued this interview and now was demanding inappropriate answers. She was saved as Leighton returned with the tea tray. “Thank you, Leighton.” She watched as Leighton set the tray down on a mahogany side table and poured the tea before leaving. “It was a dreadful shock when my late husband died so unexpectedly. Fortunately my brother-in-law, Lord John Farnley, was able to return home immediately. He was a very successful aether pilot and he flew all over the world.” Clara gently stirred her tea. “He has frequently been out of the range of telegrams, but fortunately our man of business managed to track Lord John down in Munich.” She watched Adelia add two large sugar lumps to her tea. “I believe he was returning from piloting an academic expedition to Greece. Would you like a petit four?”
Adelia made some notes before helping herself to a tiny cake. “You must miss your late husband very much. How did you meet him?”
“I was helping at a village fete in support of missionary work in East Africa.” Clara smiled at the memory. She had been hot, flustered and exasperated when she had dashed towards the tea tent with a box of tea and collided with someone so handsome that it had made her blink. “He takes, that is, he took a great interest in the local charitable causes.” She hadn’t recognised him at first, as she had only seen him at a distance, and had scolded him for being in the way like she would have scolded any ordinary gentleman. “He had the most exquisite manners.” He had insisted on carrying the box of tea for her, saying that a delicate creature should not carry such burdens. “I couldn’t but help have a favourable impression of him.”
Adelia made some notes. “But you were used to moving in the same social circles, I believe.”
Clara kept her face blandly polite with an effort. “Indeed. My late husband had a title and considerable estates. I was the second daughter of a country doctor. In fact, it proves my point about Lord Nicholas’ excellent manners. He never alluded to the differences in our backgrounds.”
“He sounds a perfect gentleman,” Adelia said, scribbling furiously.
“Indeed he was,” Clara said, with a strained smile. She was not going to discuss her dead husband’s flaws.
“And he asked you to marry him?” Adelia said. “You must have been grateful.”
Clara felt a strong urge to dump her earl grey tea over Adelia’s wretched notebook. “I was very much in love with Lord Nicholas. When he was so kind as to propose to me, I did not feel gratitude, I felt loved and adored.” She watched Adelia’s pen race over the page with some misgiving.
“You were not blessed with children,” Adelia said. She looked carefully over Clara’s tightly corseted waist and drew her own conclusions. “So your brother-in-law inherits everything.”
“Lord John inherits the title, yes.” Clara said, refusing to be drawn on any details.
“And what is your role now?” Adelia asked. “What does your future hold?”
“My role will remain the same,” Clara said, “At least for the foreseeable future. It is of greatest importance that a household such as Farnley Grange has strong direction for the household staff. The staff take their tone from the family, as you know. When Lord Nicholas was alive, I was the captain of the domestic ship, the leader of the home and I provided a haven in a hostile world, just as any wife would do, regardless of rank. As Lord John may still be called away on his pilot duties, it is of utmost importance that I continue the direction of the household.”
In the air hung the unsaid words, ‘until Lord John marries’. Adelia made some more notes. “I can see the evidence of Lord John’s travels. Is that vase Chinese?”
“It’s Japanese,” Clara said. She always adored the rich colours and delicate gilding. “It’s Satsuma Ware. I believe Lord John actually received it as a gift in Malaya.”
“And that looks American.” Adelia stared at the richly coloured rug that was thrown so casually over a footstool.”
“It came from Chile, when Lord John had a stayover in Santiago,” Clara said. “It’s very hardwearing, and made from wool from the native alpaca.” She smiled. “I am not merely the one giving direction to the cook and housekeeper as the leader of the household. I am a curator of treasures.”
“Lord John is quite the adventurer, isn’t he?” Adelia said. “He must be grateful to know that he will be coming back to a well-tended home. Are you close?”
The blatant question of whether Lord John would now inherit Clara as a wife along with the lands and title was a little too much for Clara. She stood. “It has been such a pleasure speaking with you, Miss Davenport. It is such a shame that I have so little time to spare under these circumstances. I shall ring for our butler to show you out.”
“Perhaps we could arrange another time?” Adelia said, quickly stuffing her pen and notepad back into her reticule.
“I’ll be in touch,” Clara smiled politely. “Unfortunately I have found myself unexpectedly busy dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s passing. I will certainly let you know the next time I’m in London.”
Adelia managed an answering smile, knowing that Clara was unlikely to return to London for some time. “Thank you for seeing me, Lady Farnley. I look forward to our next interview.”
“As do I,” lied Clara. “Ah, here’s Leighton to show you out.” She waited until she heard the front door shut on Miss Adelia Davenport and then sagged back against the cushions. Now she was alone, she was able to cry.
John ran his hand over the gazetteer. There was a lot less about Sudan than he would expect. He wondered what he was getting into. He poured himself a brandy and soda and read through the half column of text. The book was out of date, as it claimed that the country was still under the control of the Mahdi. Well, Kitchener had done his stuff, the British were now established in Khartoum and it was technically safe to travel. John took another sip of his brandy and soda. One part of the closely typed text struck him: it is estimated that since 1885 more than three-fifths of the population have perished through war, famine and slave-trading. They were headed away from the worst of the troubles, but what would they find? He closed the heavy book and stood, taking his glass in his hand and wandered over the window.
The London fog had fallen again. Thick tendrils wound their way around the streetlamp next to the window and the familiar, stinging smell crept in through the chinks in the casement. It would be good to get away from the damp of London. He peered down at the scurrying figures rushing home. It wasn’t even dinner time and it was already dark and dismal. John pulled the curtains across and went back to his desk.
He didn’t pick up the gazetteer, but instead watched the flames flickering in the hearth. He was going to be paid good money to fly Professor Entwistle out to find ancient Nubian pyramids, and he needed that money. He was getting away from the upheaval and chaos of his inheritance. And he was at least going to get some sun.
John poured himself another brandy and soda. He normally didn’t bother drinking until after dinner, but today had brought yet more bills left by his late brother. When would it end? Yesterday one of his late brother’s mistresses had visited at lunchtime and had screaming hysterics on the doorstep when barred from seeing his late brother’s widow. The journey to Sudan would not only mean sun, payment and possibly gold. It would be a welcome escape.
John looked back at the sparse information in the gazetteer. He felt a cad leaving Clara to deal with any intrusions, although she had dealt with hysterical ladies with greater aplomb than he had ever managed. It wasn’t just that nagging at him, though. Professor Entwistle was talking about the knowledge that could be there. Knowledge of the sort that had sent a monster into the London Mists only a few weeks ago and had led to the death of his brother, among many more.
John pushed aside the last half of his brandy and soda. Would any knowledge found be worth the fees and potential treasure? He wasn’t in a position to judge. He had some aether heaters in the attics and an hour before dinner. He could get them out and give them a quick look over before he needed to get changed. It was much better to stick to the practical. Anything mystical could wait.