I'll never forgive you!
Olivia woke with a start, alone in the ruined living room. Still no Imogen. Perhaps the loss of Eli had been the push she needed to move on to a happier place, though that thought rang hollow. More likely she'd retreated somewhere more private to grieve over the hole that Olivia had torn in her world, and she would be back any minute, unforgiving and furious with grief.
Olivia decided not to wait there and find out. She called Grace to meet her at the cafe near the railway station, then walked there still nursing aching muscles, worn out but triumphant. She arrived in time to order a full English breakfast, for the first time in years not giving a second thought to whether she was slim enough to deserve such a treat, not caring what the skinny waitress thought. At a sunny window side table she sat back with a cup of strong black coffee, watching the empty train station and the birds picking in the gutters. When her breakfast arrived she tore ravenously into burnt crispy-skinned sausages, salty bacon and rich runny egg, savouring the hot grease and the sharp juice of grilled tomato. Everything was going to go back to normal; everything was going to be okay.
Grace arrived looking anxious and rather windswept, and over the remnants of the late breakfast, Olivia told her story, unburdening herself of a year's worth of secrets in whispers, mindful of the lingering waitress.
Grace rolled her eyes. "You think you're so clever, don't you?"
This wasn't the reaction Olivia had been expecting. Rather sulkily she pushed her plate aside. "I thought you'd be happier."
"Malcolm put you up to this, did he?"
"He didn't put me up to it, I wanted to -"
"What if it hadn't worked?"
Olivia pushed back in her chair, stretching out sore muscles and frowning. She'd given over entire days to fretting about all the possible outcomes, before going ahead with her plan. She'd always known it could go wrong. "I thought it was worth the risk."
Grace shook her head. "I knew you were up to something. It's always the quiet ones, they do say. I wish you'd talked to me."
"You would have talked me out of it."
"I would. I would have told you…" Grace sighed, and leaned close, grasping Olivia's hands. "Do you think nobody ever tried before?"
"Well, I know that all you did was run away," said Olivia, pulling her hands away, rather put out that her victory was so easily dismissed. "Sorry if I didn't find that so easy as you. I have -"
"- responsibilities, I know! Congratulations: you put yourself in horrible danger for the sake of an old house that nobody alive wanted anyway." Grace looked down at her immaculately painted fingernails spread out on the tabletop, arranging her thoughts. "Please never do anything like that again?" She looked up meekly with sad brown puppy dog eyes. "Not all by yourself."
Olivia couldn't help but laugh - when would the need ever arise for her to do something quite like that again? "Never, I promise."
Life rolled unforgivingly forward, and Olivia threw herself into it full tilt: she worked diligently for Mr. Green; she did her best to shore up her shaky new friendships with Polly and Grace; she ate heartily and went out for long walks so that - though she might not shift her extra weight - she could at least remain fit and healthy.
She told herself she'd resume her work on the house at Peter's Cross… Soon.
Malcolm might not share Verity's alleged visions of the supernatural, but he could see how Lockwood House had ensnared her curious butterfly mind. The house was a shell of what it must have been back in its day, now dark and foreboding in the twilight, abandoned. If he'd stumbled across it with no prior idea of what lay inside, he still would have been sorely tempted to stop and circle round, a curious teenage boy in a grown man's body, trying to see where he could gain access at some rotting door or broken window.
The bag slung over his shoulder was getting heavy. Past the creaking gate, he walked up the grassy path to the towering dilapidated mass of the house; to the dark mouth of the front door. The windows were lightless, some of them boarded over, yet he still felt as if someone was watching him from somewhere high up. A dozen ghosts, Verity had said. Not counting the cats.
He tried the front door, rapping the scowling brass doorknocker sharply, pausing impatiently, then knocking again. The lady of the house seemed to be out. That left the ghosts. "Hello?" he called through the letterbox, "I'm a friend of Verity's: I came round for tea a while ago." If there was any presence at the house - if Verity hadn't been playing stupid games with him - they should recognise him. "Only, we seem to have lost touch. I don't know if I said something to upset her, but…" What could he say? He readjusted the heavy bag. "I lent her a couple of books, and they had a sort of sentimental value. I wondered if she might have left them here?"
A chain clinked, a small sound, and the door creaked open cautiously. Malcolm remembered Verity saying a little old lady had lived in the house for years. Imelda, or something like that.
"Thank you," he said aloud to the empty hallway, stepping tentatively inside. It was chilly inside the house - colder than outside, in that way he'd noticed before. He looked around. He'd never seen a ghost, like Verity said she had. He'd been to this house before, where Verity and others had held long conversations with thin air, and even invited him to join in -
Deep in the darkened house, a door slammed and Malcolm flinched. It could have been a sudden gust of wind. He closed the front door carefully, conscious that someone must be close by to have let him in. Taking a torch from his bag he proceeded with caution, not wanting to trip and break his neck on weirdly-placed furniture, dead pot plants or assorted rubbish. It looked like the lady of the house didn't live here anymore.
A tapping sounded from upstairs: faint enough, arrhythmic enough, that it might be nothing more than dispeptic plumbing or wormy timbers settling as the day's warmth leached from the house. When light flooded the hallway, bright as a car coming up behind him on a dark lane, it wasn't so easy to explain away. Faulty wiring? That seemed less likely than the alternative, in this cold and echoing abandoned place.
Look on the bright side, though: no need to waste torch batteries. Shielding eyes that had adjusted to twilight, he walked into the brightness. "Is that you doing that, Imelda? Remember I can't see you like Verity can. Have you got any idea where she might have put those books?"
Darkness dropped over him like a bucket of ice water; the light reappearing a few moments later at the top of the grand staircase. This time the knocking sound was harder to dismiss as the natural vocalisations of a crabby old house. She wanted him to follow. The light at the top of the stairs pulsed rapidly, impatient with him, and he climbed the stairs towards it. Upstairs, a door creaked open, but just before he could reach it, it slammed again. The next door down the hall began to flicker with yellow light. It might have been Morse, Malcolm thought, but he couldn't make any sense of it. The indecipherable firefly signals and slamming doors guided him to the end of a hallway, an unremarkable door that swung open in invitation, though he held back as if it was a crocodile waiting to slam its jaws closed on prey.
There was no light behind that door.
His nerve was failing. He was being led, but not necessarily by the helpful spirit of the little old lady who'd lived here. He had no way of knowing for sure. He stepped forward, switching on his torch and readying himself to catch the waiting door and fight his way out, but it stayed obedient. He tested a foot on the creaking wooden stairs, then another, then turned and looked back down the hall. It would be stupid to come all this way only to run off like a scared child just because -
A snarl behind him made him jump like a scalded cat. Something had slashed the plaster, leaving a deep gouge, fresh dust catching in the torch's beam. Nearby, a shard of glass glinted on the stairs. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. Perhaps he ought to leave. Leaving would either appease or anger whatever had been walking ahead of him, unseen.
Another snarl of tearing plaster, and he looked up to see a clearly drawn arrow, pointing up to a strange little Alice-in-Wonderland door that stood open at the top of the stairs. Malcolm went up, into the cramped triangle of an attic room lined with paper like the nest of some horrible great bird. His torch beam danced across broken glass, sea green and tarnished silver, distorted fragments of a face half-seen and gone in a heartbeat. There were books everywhere, torn to pieces.
Something scraped along the floorboards, pushing out from under the bed; a board game? Malcolm picked up the wooden board, running his fingers over the letters and numbers burned into the dusty surface. Then, steeling his nerves, he rummaged under the bed for the missing planchette, fingers closing on it. He'd used a Ouija board before, trying to contact the spirit world, but each time he'd walked away disappointed. Malcolm wanted to believe - to reach out and be acknowledged by something beyond the veil, something powerful. All he'd ever found was parlour games with two kinds of people: the ones who wanted a result so desperately that they'd fall for anything; and the ones who wanted a laugh at the first person's expense.
He sat on the bed, the board balanced on his knees. He cleared his throat nervously. "You want to talk?" he said to the apparently empty room.
The planchette tumbled from his hand and onto the board, sliding to 'YES'. Under torchlight, it began to spell out a word, and he put his fingers lightly on the planchette, because - although he'd been afraid he might fool himself into talking to nothing - he didn't like watching the thing move apparently of its own accord.
I - M - S - O - R - R - Y
"Sorry for what?" asked Malcolm.
V - E - R - I - T - Y - it spelled out before the movement began to falter. Whatever moved it must be tiring - N - O - T - H - E - R - E
Malcolm nodded. "Nobody knows where she's gone. I wanted to talk to her, so if -"
The planchette jerked across the board: D - E - A - D
It was true, then. He'd get the full story later.
S - O - R - R - Y - F - O - R -
Malcolm clenched his fist on the planchette, holding it still and silencing the unseen communicant. It jerked under his hand like a beetle. "Do you mind if I just sit quiet for a bit?" he said, pushing the board away and burying his head in his hands. "I - I can't -"
He imagined he felt the presence withdraw, give him space, then he set to work clearing the floor of books and papers. There was the circle, his real reason for coming to the house. He took the book from his bag - the book that had been the holy grail he'd been searching for; that had fallen into Verity's lucky hands; that held instructions as clear as a recipe book - and checked Verity's chalkwork against the marked page. That girl might not have been half so clever as she'd thought she was, but she'd copied everything out scrupulously.
The book claimed that the space between this world and the next could only be opened with the blood of a living person, and not just any living person, either. Malcolm examined the book again by torchlight - he couldn't risk missing or forgetting the smallest detail. 'The blood of an innocent child' said the ancient author, and the spider-shit scrawl in the margin said, 'define innocent, define child'. Malcolm couldn't answer Verity's questions. The hospital had gallons of blood but it had been donated by those good civic-minded adults, so that was no use here. Instead, by ingenuity and cunning, Malcolm had acquired a vial of blood from a mousy quiet child at the hospital, who'd cried when having blood drawn for tests, and would no doubt do so again when the sample was found to be missing and the procedure had to be repeated.
He stood outside the circle; he spilled the vial of blood.
The torch flickered and went out.
By the time Malcolm had given up trying to shake or thump it back to life and his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, there was a figure standing there in the circle. They stood still like that, the two of them, for what felt like a very long time before Malcolm remembered the contents of his bag. Still watching the dark figure, he fumbled for candle and matchbox.
The figure stood patient, eyes narrowing at the snake-hiss and flare of the match. It was a djinn of sorts: tall, thin, pale-eyed, old as an empire. It stared at Malcolm, and Malcolm stared back, skirting round the edge of the circle to place the candle in a holder on the dressing table.
He'd done it. He'd always had to keep that bit of scepticism, when he couldn't see what some others could. He could only truly believe what he could see with his own eyes, so he'd told himself not to get his hopes up when Olivia came back to him, reporting her success with the zombie powder. She hadn't seemed the type to make up a story like that: a soft girl lacking the spark and imagination of every habitual liar he'd ever met. She hadn't seemed the type to pick a fight with a supernatural monster, either, but he remembered her in the vampires' den and maybe it wasn't so unlike her. The chances of the zombie powder doing what she'd wanted had been a million to one, he'd thought, but he'd been wrong. Now this thing was here, right in front of him: he'd pulled it back out of exile; rescued it. It couldn't grant wishes as such, but it had other powers, and maybe it could teach an apt pupil.
Malcolm realised he'd been mistaken: that the apparition in the circle wasn't staring at him, but looking over his shoulder. It spoke: "Imogen."
Malcolm turned, as if he could keep the tall figure and the unseen thing in his field of view at once - a doomed effort.
The figure stepped forward, out of the circle.
"Stop there," said Malcolm hastily.
It worked. The figure growled like a dog, deep and quiet.
Malcolm needed to instruct it - he should have thought more about where to begin. Luckily it remained less interested in him and more interested in staring over his shoulder, its expression haunted. Malcolm scuttled for his book, seeking inspiration.
"Don't," said the figure.
Malcolm froze, but the thing was still staring into thin air, pale eyes tracking something. "Who are you talking to?" Malcolm asked, not sure if he wanted the answer.
The book wasn't lying open at the page Malcolm had left it. The page fluttered and turned over, untouched by any human hand. Another page flipped over as if in a breeze.
"What are you doing?" Malcolm demanded, panicked. "Stop doing that!"
The conjured figure, still standing obediently just outside the circle, glared at him. "Not me."
A shard of bright mirror flashed through the stale dead air; a short and messy commotion, and then silence.