I drove carefully down into the village. To my right, half way up what looked like an outcrop of volcanic rock sat a church with lights blazing like a beacon from every window. I wondered just how the faithful managed the treacherous climb because I couldn’t see any obvious road or path. To my left was a harbour filled with a motley collection of boats that sat still on the greasily smooth water. Here and there people had put on lights in their houses, because even this early you needed a warm orange glow to ward off the smother of perpetual night in the freezing dark heart of winter.
My directions were thankfully excellent and for a change I hadn’t gotten lost as I drove along what passed for the main street: a huddle of shuttered shops and bedraggled collection of houses. The place seemed deserted without so much as a stray car to pollute the silence. I pulled over into a parking space just to read the directions over one more time and stuck the interior light on noticing it was snowing heavily. I was supposed to carry straight on and out of the village, up a ubiquitously steep incline and the Harper-Hodges’ house was the first on the left. I caught a movement at the edge of my vision and got an impression of a pale blur being pressed up at the window. I whipped around but only saw a shadowy figure backing away from the car at speed. I peered down the length of the street, but whoever, or whatever it was had disappeared into the snow storm. The street was as before, completely empty, with the only sign of life being the lights from the houses.
It was probably just one of the crazy Deliverance style banjo playing locals, I reassured myself. It never fails to amaze me how being in an unknown place, far from city life, can bring out the terrified bigot in you. I decided I should get to the house pronto and dig in for the long night ahead.
I indicated, although there was no need with no one around, and set off for the house. Where the village ended, the road was again thickly lined with massive trees, so enormous it was hard to see through them even in winter. The thought came unbidden that it was as though they were trying to hide something from prying eyes. Sure enough, the first left was the winding driveway to a Victorian monstrosity set in formal gardens that had been allowed to run wild. No doubt the occupants had better things to do with their time. Reproduction old-fashioned lamps lined the drive and more lights were set on the house itself drawing attention to the sheer scale of the house’s awesome ugliness. There also seemed to be a small wood to one side of the grounds. I’d explore them tomorrow when the weather was better and have a good old poke around.
I was starving and desperate for a drink, so I quickly parked and started to unload the car at the entrance to the monstrosity as I already thought of it. Close up I could see that gargoyle’s had been dotted around the building which looked as though it had been carved from a dark red sandstone and glowed in the winter light like phosphorescent blood.
The snow had stopped and an intense cold had set in. Frost had slimed a possessive, glittering trail over grass and statue, roof tile and path. Wood-smoke mingled with pine and other night scents I couldn’t name. A crow cawed hoarsely from the wood, I paused for a second, enjoying the heady sensation of being away from the enormous simmering bell jar of the city where millions of lives intersected but rarely touched.
I fumbled for the key to the Harper-Hodges’ house and, after bad temperedly dislodging most of the contents of my pocket, even managed to find it.
Lucille had thoughtfully arranged for the central heating to be left on given it was the depths of December and I was profoundly grateful. This made me feel a little guilty about hating her house but it had to be done.
Walking down the narrow hall-way, I began to sweat slightly in my full length fake fur coat. I headed for what I thought was the living room at the back of the house and as I did, the telephone rang, its insistent summons ringing through the empty house. It could only be the client, so I ignored it – the arrangement had been that I’d check in the following day so that’s what I was going to do. There had to be some perks to being a psycho, sorry psychic.
The décor of the house was clearly fighting a running battle with its obvious age, being modern and full of designer type stuff straight from those lifestyle magazines to which I could never imagine anyone seriously aspiring. A cream deep pile carpet made the room difficult to relax in. Why did people choose colours like that? The doomed guest with a tragically full glass of red wine, predestined to spill it over the unspoiled expanse, would have recurring nightmares ever after. The only thing that wouldn’t recur would be the invitation.
The furniture was chrome and white and the overall effect was of being in a dentist’s waiting room. There was no real sense of the person or people that lived here, just a shit load of money. The funny thing was that I couldn’t pick up anything at all about the room’s past, almost as though it had been wiped clean, like the décor. It was such a complete void that I had no sense whatsoever of the history of the place. Now that was a disturbing thought. Give me a room, any room and I could usually sense at least some of the things that had happened in it over the years. The residue of emotions, deeds and lives past was well nigh impossible to get rid of. But not here. I looked around and saw a few framed photos scattered around showing a smiling, bronzed, blond couple looking unnervingly like brother and sister. Must be mine hosts.
The large French windows faced into the garden and I could see a whole battery of yet more lights. The place must be lit up like Blackpool by night. There were so many of them that I began to appreciate that it went beyond the cosmetic or even security. The Harper-Hodges’ were definitely scared of something, the question was, what. I hadn’t really been able to make head or tale of the story of the malign presence. The storm outside had intensified, so it didn’t look like I was going anywhere anytime soon. I spied a fine malt whiskey being held prisoner by a gaggle of crystal tumblers and made straight for it, pouring a hefty belt. No sense in using up my emergency stash when there was no emergency.
Sitting on the uncomfortable white leather sofa, drink teetering precariously on the arm, I waited for whatever the house had to show me. The whiskey was going down well, so much so I’d have to replace it before I left this featureless hell-hole. And that was when it struck me. Every city, town, street, tenement, flat had its own history which left imprints, traces of those who had lived and died there. Mostly those traces were like video re-runs, stories on a loop which only the sensitive could watch. Occasionally however, it was more sinister: genuine hauntings by the vengeful dead, those who by sheer willpower had resisted the natural progression of things because of some wrong, real or imagined. But not in this house.
But there was no commotion in this house. Just a vacuum – and it wasn’t just the natural world that abhorred it. The supernatural wasn’t keen either. You never could tell what might be attracted by such a space. I shivered despite the heat and leaned back, closing my eyes. The ‘phone, which was right beside me on a fussy looking glass table, began to ring. Stretching a languid hand over, I picked up the receiver:
“Rosie” a familiar voice rasped.
“It’s the flamin’ Archbishop of Canterbury, who do you think?”
I couldn’t believe this.
“Who gave you this number Stella?” I said, voice tight with dislike.
“Listen shit-for-brains,” she coughed and there was a hawking and spitting sound, “You know I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire, so I’m only going to say this once”
I was intrigued and disgusted and didn’t know which way I wanted to fall. Stella was a powerful witch, and also one of the most degenerate characters I’d ever had the misfortune to rub shoulders with. She was of indeterminate age, small, blond and looked like a misanthropic pig. Which was just about the size of it really. If there was something unsavoury, foul or downright wicked going on, Stella had a trotter in it. She was also obsessed with what she thought were the finer things in life, and would sacrifice anyone or anything to get her hands on them. We had had innumerable run ins over the years and sad to say we probably knew each other better than a lot of friends. Although come to think of it, she didn’t have any. Ahhh, maybe she was missing me.
“Get on with it, for Christ’s sake” I muttered.
“You’re all heart. And you’re going to love this,” she dragged the moment out to its kicking, screaming limit, and I could just see her in my mind’s eye, lush, blond hair framing a podgy face lascivious with malice.
“Ruby told me you’re in Midnight Falls, but if you don’t get the hell out of Dodge tonight, you’re going to die there.” The words came out in a rush like a bob sleigh whizzing down the north face of K2. She waited, no doubt relishing the prospect of my horror at the thought of an untimely demise. I didn’t give her the benefit of a reaction, thinking she might give me more detail that way and I could find out what the hell she was on about. The lady was nothing if not perverse. But then, why tell me at all?
“Straight up,” she continued chattily, “I’ve been casting the runes for months now and the message is always the same. Although…” she paused clearly thinking about something she didn’t like as much as my long overdue shuffling off of the old mortal coil. That was interesting because Stella didn’t really do thoughtful.
“Midnight Falls has always been a favourite spot for me, there’s lots of juice up there ‘cos the village is cursed. But you knew that, right?” She seemed to be having difficulty containing herself, as though she were about to impart a wonderful surprise.
“I can’t believe you buy into all that cursed crap. Listen to yourself, you sound about three years old.”
She didn’t miss a beat, clearly a woman with a mission, “I’ve heard reports of four different sightings of Black Dogs around that area within the last month.”
That brought me up short because I knew this was bad, the worst. Black Dogs were associated with black magic, sacrifice and portents of death. Genuine sightings were very rare and the unfortunates who’d done the seeing generally didn’t get the chance to see much of anything else.
“But that’s not all,” Get on with it, I thought, refusing to play her stupid game. Just when I was about to put the receiver down, she cracked, caught up in the orgasmic rush of being the bearer of bad news.
“Given the fact that you’ve got all the psychic ability of a teaspoon, you probably haven’t noticed that there’s a spell of forgetting hovering over Midnight Falls. I saw it right away when I consulted the runes. Something big is about to happen there. No idea what it is,” here a raucous gurgle of laughter worthy of the witches in MacBeth,
“But Black Dog sightings mean that there’s heavy duty black magic being performed. And the fact that this just happens to be in and around the place where you’ve decided to do your Mystic Meg routine, ain’t exactly what I’d call good. Actually on second thoughts, I’m being a wee bit previous, it could be very good. Stay where you are my darling and worst of luck to you.”
I laughed along with her, genuinely amused, “And you just thought you’d call me to make sure I knew about my impending doom did you? I didn’t know you cared Stell.”
“I don’t – and don’t call me Stell you little shit, or you’ll be in an even sorrier state than you are now. You’re a pathetic loser Rose. I can’t believe that Ruby rates you, because no one else does. You’re, well know one actually knows what the hell you are. One thing I do know is that you’ll drag Ruby down with you and anyone else stupid enough to get involved with you. But a deal’s a deal and I made Ruby a promise. And I always keep my promises – you know that Rosie.”
That was a thinly veiled threat and I knew how good the vindictive old harridan was at fulfilling them. Some said she was into every kind of dark magic there was, including a few that no one except her knew about. She was quite capable of sending me one of her deadly little surprises one of these long winter nights, just for the hell of it.
But I had to hand it to Ruby. My soft hearted, irresistible friend, to whom even malevolent old monsters held themselves in debt. I wondered though what Ruby could possibly have done to have achieved this sort of honour. I’d better have a firm word with her: she was far too trusting for her own good and Stella was, well, Stella. The thing was though, Stella was right. I wasn’t popular with a lot of the, shall we say, psychic community in Edinburgh. I was seen at best as a loose cannon and at worst as spawn of the devil. That didn’t make the Satanists or black magic brethren take me to their collective bosoms. No, they hated me the most seeing in me a threat to their carefully constructed bullshit beliefs. The fact was, no one knew what I was because no one had had the sort of powers I had. And when people can’t make sense of something, well, you know the script.
Confused and not a little pissed, I hung up on the evil old cow who was still in mid-curse and promptly fell asleep on the infernal sofa. I woke up in the afternoon with a crick in my neck, drink all over the carpet, and the sound of birds intoning a funereal dirge in the uncanny, blue twilight that passed for dusk.
At least the carpet had lost its cherry.