Paul pulled up in front of the stone cottage with a sigh of relief. He was a city lad, born and bred, and the country roads had been a challenge. The drive with all the narrow lanes, blind corners and dry stone walls inches away from the car had been harrowing. He got out and stretched. The roads may be a nightmare, but there were compensations. The air was fresh and the only sounds he could hear were birds and sheep, apart from the thumping coming from the cottage window. He knocked politely on the door. “Hello, is that Mike?” he called.
There was a patter of feet and the door flew open. A small brunette, flushed and out of breath, smiled at him. “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Carol.”
“Of course I remember you,” Paul said. “We met at Richard’s house, during the interview.”
Carole grinned. “It’s good to see you. Come on in. I’ll give you a quick look around. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’d love one,” Paul said, relaxing a little. “The drive here was terrifying.”
Carol laughed as she led Paul inside. “You’ll get used to it. Okay, this is the hall…”
Carol showed Paul around the deceptively large cottage. “I was in the middle of giving it a good clean when you knocked. Richard has suggested that I come down here once a week to give it a turn out, depending on how you feel.” She looked around the plain, plastered walls. “It could do with it. The place has been neglected for years. Anyway, once you have had a fire going for a while, it will warm up.” She led him out of the back door. “Firewood is there.” She waved an arm at a well stocked store. “And you can get propane in Hebden Bridge. That’s probably the best place to call in for food, or Halifax, or even Burnley. There isn’t a town close.”
“I’m not used to it being so quiet,” Paul said, looking out the window to the rolling moor. “But I can see me getting used to it.”
“I moved here from London,” Carol said. “It was a real shock to the system. By the way, the electricity can go in bad weather. Follow me and I’ll show you where we keep oil lamps and candles. There are some solar powered lamps as well, on the shelves in the kitchen, but Richard is old fashioned and he likes to make sure that we are all prepared.”
Paul peered at the cupboard under the stairs. “What’s in the safe?”
“Hmm?” Carol looked again. “I’ve no idea. I’ll ask Richard. Anyway, on the subject of being prepared, you can’t always get a signal for mobile phones so we use landlines.” She led Paul across to the large living room. “There’s a list of useful numbers next to the phone. You may want to copy them into your mobile. Mike runs a construction business and Richard works in IT so between them they can sort out most things. I’ve stocked the kitchen with the most obvious things, but there are farm shops around for any extras, and you can always pop in to somewhere like Todmorden or Haworth.”
Paul followed Carol into the kitchen. “I don’t think that there’s a house within miles. I can’t exactly knock on a neighbour’s door to borrow some milk.”
Carol laughed. “Well, we’re just up the hill. I usually have a good stock cupboard.” She frowned. “With more jobs working remotely, a lot of people have been moving up here. I’ve had a few people knock on my door, and there’s one that seems very persistent.” She shook her head and clicked the kettle on. “I’m sure that you’ll be fine. I’ve got tea and coffee in here, and I put a few packets of rice and pasta in the cupboards. I baked some biscuits and cakes for you – I’d like the boxes back, please – and I put a few meals in the freezer.”
Paul stopped for a moment. He wasn’t used to this. “It’s very kind of you,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“It’s not a problem,” Carol said. She handed him a mug and beckoned him outside. A stone bench stood behind the kitchen door, looking over a tiny, unkempt back garden and then across a dry stone wall to the moorland. “No-one has lived here for years.” She frowned. “I think there’s some sort of mystery going on. I don’t know if Mike is planning to convert it to a holiday cottage or something.” She shrugged and took her seat at one end. “All I know is that there is a stack of papers that Mike and Richard want sorting. Oh, I nearly forgot.” Carol waited until Paul was sat next to her and handed over a key ring. “Front door, back door, meter cupboard and these two are the paper room.” She dropped the keys into Paul’s waiting hand. “Richard would like you to keep the paper room locked at all times.” She looked over towards a large house in the distance. “I’ve started keeping the doors locked at Darke Manor,” she said. “I never used to, but since Theo McGuire started prowling around, I’ve not felt as comfortable.”
“I can’t imagine leaving a door unlocked,” Paul said. “I’ve always lived in the city. But I’ll be careful.”
Paul watched her leave and then unloaded the car. He had kept things to a minimum. His exercise equipment, some clothes, toiletries and laptop didn’t take up much space. His books and notebooks had taken up a little more. Paul looked around carefully before opening the boot. When you practice magic in a room in a shared house you learned to be discreet and you learned to work with the bare essentials of tools. It still took up most of the boot, however, and the polished wooden cases that he had commissioned were a contrast to the battered holdalls and supermarket bags that held the rest of his stuff. He really didn’t want anyone to see these. He carried the equipment to one of the spare rooms. He could always hide it back in the car on the days that Carol came cleaning, or perhaps he could shove them in the locked paper room. Paul wondered how much there could be in there. There was bound to be space if he was careful.
Paul took his time. Richard and Mike had been clear. His job was to make sense of a collection of handwritten notebooks and papers, get them in some sort of order and catalogue them so that there was a rough guide to what was there. They seemed very trusting, Paul thought, as he sat on the stone bench and had the protein shake and salad that he had brought with him. There were no guidelines, no timesheet, and no hint that they would even call in regularly. They seemed to think that the job would take a while, and the pay was quite generous, so what was the catch? They hadn’t even asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Paul carefully tidied the remains of his lunch away, grabbed a notebook and, after checking that the front and back doors were locked, opened the so-called paper room. For a long moment he just stood and stared. He hadn’t expected this.
Carol had not been allowed in here, that was obvious. Apart from the generous amounts of dust, there was no hint of cleaning spray hanging in the atmosphere like the rest of the cottage. Instead it was musty and the air felt dead and overstuffed. It was a large room and dozens of side tables were heaped with bundles of papers, notebooks, files, maps and battered books. A couple of generous mahogany bookcases on the far wall spilled over with wedges of more notebooks and papers. The wide window was barred and locked, with dirty net curtains hiding the view and filtering the light. Opposite was a huge map that looked older than Paul, complete with pencil notes and rusty push pins. Someone had brought in a small folding desk and computer chair and, from the drag marks, shoved another box of paper out of the way to set them out. A fresh post-it note was stuck to it. Paul carefully shut the door behind him and went over to the desk. The note read, ‘filing cabinets and filing supplies arriving Monday. Please inform if more needed. R.’
Paul put his tea and notebook down on the table and turned around several times. Where did he start? What was all this stuff? He picked up the nearest notebook and opened it at random. The handwriting was haphazard and the pencil was smudged, but Paul could read the title at the top of the page – Rogue werewolf at Carter’s Farm. He picked up another random book. Attempted demon summoning at Carr End. He strode over to a stack of leather bound books and tried to decipher the titles. His eyes widened as he read Amphitheatrum Sapientae Aeternae, Solius Verae. He’d only ever heard of that as he researched alchemy. He never thought that he would ever hold a copy – it went for thousands online.
Paul sat down carefully in the cheap computer chair and stared around him. What on earth had he found? And what was he supposed to do now?