Copyright © 2012 Alex Beecroft
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Ben bolted out of sleep, halfway to his feet before he realised he was awake. What was that noise! Something was wrong—he could feel it pressing under his breastbone. He thought he’d dreamed of a subterranean groan, felt again the rush of sticky re-breathed air and then the smoke. God! The smoke, pouring through the shattered windows of the train…
But this was his bedroom. Look, there—the alarm clock cast a faint green light on the claret duvet and gold silk coverlet, familiar as closed velvet curtains and his suit trousers hanging on the back of the bathroom door. 3:14 a.m.
His breathing calmed slowly. Was that what had woken him? Just another flashback? Or could there be an intruder downstairs?
Tiptoeing to the wardrobe, he eased open the mirrored door, slipped on his dressing gown and belted it, picking up the cricket bat that nestled among his shoes. The closing door showed him his determined scowl—not very convincing on a face that looked as nervous and skinny as a whippet’s. Licking his lips, weapon raised, he seized the handle of his bedroom door, eased it down.
And the sound came again. All the doors in the house fluttered against their frames, the ground beneath him groaned, tiles on the roof above shifting with a ceramic clatter. A crash in the bathroom as the toothbrush holder fell into the sink. He jumped, crying out in revulsion when the floor shuddered and the carpet rippled beneath his bare feet as if stuffed with snakes.
Earthquake! An earthquake in Bakewell? Home of well dressing and famous for pudding? The sheer ludicrousness of the idea flashed through his mind even as he raced down the stairs. You… What did you do in an earthquake? Stand under a door lintel, wasn’t it?
As he reached the living room, it happened again. He clutched at the back of the sofa while the entire house raised itself into the air and fell jarringly down with an impact that threw him against the wall. Bricks moving beneath his fingers, he pulled himself along the still-drying wallpaper into the hall, flung open the front door.
There was blackness outside—the streetlamps all guttered out—and silence, a silence so profound that the pressure began again inside his throat. It was so much like being buried underground. As he strained his ears for something friendly—a barking dog, a car alarm—a wind drove up from the Wye, filling his ears with whispering.
No stars shone above. But in the neighbour’s windows, he could see something silver reflected, something that moved with liquid grace.
The curve of a horse’s neck traced in quicksilver reflected in a driving mirror. A stamping hoof—drawn out of lines of living frost and spider web—splashed in a puddle. Drops spattered cold over his bare ankles.
Coming up from the river, across the bridge, up the sleeping suburban street they rode, knights and ladies. Glimmering, insubstantial shreds of banners floated above them like icy mist. Harps in their hands, hawks on their fists, and now he could hear the music; it was faint, far away, wrong as the feeling that had driven him out of bed. Alien and beautiful as the moons of Saturn.
He clapped both hands over his mouth, but it was too late. The words were out, full of blood and earth and inappropriate, human coarseness. Their heads turned. He caught a glimpse of armour, shadows and silver, as one of the knights reined in his horse, glided close, bending down.
The creature smelled of cool night air. Its inky gaze raked over Ben from head to toe, like being gently stroked with the leaves of nettles, a million tiny electric shocks. His skin crawled with the prickle of it, ecstatic and unbearable, and he gasped, held on the point of a pin between violent denial and begging it to do more.
Long platinum hair slid forward over a face drawn in strokes of starlight. “Which eye do you see me with?”
“I…” croaked Ben, his mouth desiccated, his lungs labouring. “What? I…”
Something in the garden—something huge, covered in spikes, lifted up the house, foundations and all, and shook it like a child’s toy.
Terror goaded him into action. Lurching back into the hall, Ben slammed the door, locked it, shot the bolts top and bottom, fumbled the chain into its slide and reached for the phone. Nine-nine-nine got him a brisk, polite young woman saying “What service please?”
Outside, crystalline laughter tinkled in the starless night. The walls flexed like a sheet of rubber. “Police please! I…” …think I’m being attacked by fairies.
And everything went quiet. Down the street a burglar alarm brayed into the night. He opened the door a crack to see the streetlamps shining vulgar yellow-orange over a score of double-parked cars. There was, of course, no evidence the creatures he’d seen had ever been there at all. He took a deep breath, decided against setting himself up for a charge of wasting police time, and let it out in surrender. “Never mind.”
“Yes? Was it corporeal, would you say, or etheric?”
Ben rubbed his fingertips over the rough paper and vivid blue ink of the advert in the Yellow Pages. Whatever he had expected from a man who helmed an outfit called The Matlock and District Paranormal Investigation and Defence Agency—MPA for short—this clipped, military baritone was not it.
He’d phoned up in the sheer need to talk to someone who wouldn’t think he was a loony. Hoping, perhaps, for a nice old lady who would invite him round to the shop for a stress-relieving chat about accidental exposure to hallucinogens, and what he could best do to realign his chakras. He didn’t expect to be going over the incident like a mission debriefing with a man whose voice sounded as if it came accompanied by a huge handlebar moustache and a nasty attitude towards what he would undoubtedly call “arse-bandits”.
“Um, ethereal, I suppose. I don’t know, I didn’t…” Perhaps he should have tried to touch? They’d looked as substantial as wisps of mist, but what if they were really solid, capable of fading in and out of the visual range of the human eye? “I’ll, um, next time I’ll do tests.”
“Put the kettle on. I’ll be round in fifteen minutes.”
Oh God! Supernatural attacks and suburban disapproval in the space of a single morning. And he was late for work. He tucked the phone into his shoulder and rearranged the keys hanging in the key cabinet into order of size. Not so that he could more easily find them in the dark, just because it was more pleasing that way. What was he doing, phoning a random bunch of cranks like this anyway? It was a doctor he needed.
“Please, just forget it. I’ll…I expect I was dreaming. I’m sorry to trouble you.”
Putting the phone down Ben wandered into the kitchen. Groggy after a sleepless night, he wiped the table and put out cups and the sugar bowl, opened a packet of biscuits and slid a few onto a plate beside the milk jug. Bright summer sunshine poured into the room, glittering from the gold edges of his dinner service, displayed neatly on the pale oak dresser. The walls gleamed, buttercup yellow, and flecks of silver in the dark granite work surfaces pinged the eye with sparkles. He’d just poured water on the tea leaves and set the pot to steep when the half-expected rat-a-tat-tat came at the door.
Ben sighed. Mr. Matlock Paranormal was certainly living down to his expectations. Ignoring anything he didn’t want to hear? Check. Too manly to use the doorbell? Check.
Straightening his tie, Ben took a deep breath, walked down the hall corridor and opened the door with a touch of defiance. His visitor stood half in the porch’s shadow, half in sunshine, backlit by the strong summer light, and for a moment all Ben could process was tawny gold and earth colours. Then the man stepped forward into the shade—a tall fellow with sandy, spiky blond hair, an air of athleticism, and an open, confident face made quirky by a nose once broken, set slightly askew.
He held out his hand. “Wing Commander Gatrell. Call me Chris.”
It was worse than Ben had imagined. Military and hot. A combination that spelled trouble at the best of times—and this was very much not the best of times.
“How d’you do.” He made sure his handshake was firm and brief. “And, well, what do you do, exactly?”
The Yellow Pages lay open beside the phone. Gatrell nodded at the advert without looking away from Ben. “We do exactly what it says. Investigate and defend against the paranormal.”
“Who’re you going to call: Dambusters?”
Gatrell gave him a startled, piercing look before forcing a chuckle that revealed the beginnings of laughter lines around his eyes. “I hear the Ghostbusters one twice a day on average, but that’s new. Not bad.” He shrugged off his tweed jacket and hung it up on a coat hook without asking, as if he were in his own home. “I should paint it on the car. Give me a hand in with the equipment.”
Doesn’t include “please” in his vocabulary, Ben thought, to distract himself from the sight of the man bending down to bring a Geiger counter and something that looked like a short-wave radio with extra tubes out of the boot of his shabby white Volvo. Suggesting he was a man whose fashion sense had been formed by the Famous Five books, the wing commander wore olive-drab moleskin trousers, his lighter green shirt tucked in and topped with a beige-and-russet knitted tank top.
“Take this.” Gatrell dropped a grey scuffed device into Ben’s hands. “As we’re here, we’ll do the outside first. Walk round the house, tell me if it beeps.”
Ducking his head over the scanner, watching the needle tremble as he passed the yew arch his father had spent so much time clipping, Ben allowed himself a small smile. It was good, after a long night spent terrified to look out of the window, not to be alone any more. He knew himself well enough to realise that if he had really believed last night’s incident was a mere hallucination, he would have called the doctor. The fact that he had not done so meant that, on some level, he believed what he had seen was real. He could bear a little contempt, surely, if it brought with it the flesh-and-blood company of another human being. Particularly one who just might know what to do next.
A noise disturbed his thoughts. In his hands the grey box vibrated, the needle flickered between red and black fast as a snake’s tongue. As he approached the corner of the new extension, the machine’s buzz became a beep and then a shriek.
“Aha.” Gatrell appeared at his shoulder, checked the readings against his own and gave Ben a triumphant grin. “Inside, then.”
Going indoors, they walked carefully together around each room, scanning the walls. Ben’s apprehension returned as Gatrell’s clear, observant gaze took in every detail of his life from the thousands of CDs to the sheet music, perfectly squared up, on its stand.
“You keep it nice.”
Was it a compliment or a hidden jibe? Ben tightened his grip on the whatever-it-was meter and scowled. “I like neat. Don’t expect me to apologise for not being slovenly.”
Gatrell paused in front of the bookshelf full of gay fiction. As he browsed the titles, Ben waited for the inevitable recoil, waited for him to angrily demand the machine back, invent some spurious excuse to walk out the door, leaving Ben to fight the underworld alone. Oh, here it comes. He swallowed hard, bracing himself. But Gatrell just drew a sergeant-majorly fingertip over the top shelf, raised a sandy eyebrow at the complete lack of dust and said, “You’ll make someone a lovely wife.”
Damn you! Ben thought, feeling more bitterly stabbed than the little jibe really merited. Get out of my house.
The retort, Why, Wing Commander, I didn’t know you were interested,formed in his mouth. Before he could say it, Gatrell had opened the door, gone through into the newly built living room, and Ben’s anger and sarcasm was foiled. The moment during which he could say something without making it into a big issue passed in silence, leaving him fragile and resentful and looking for trouble.
As Ben came into the room, Gatrell opened the side panel of the bay window and leaned through, looking out at where Castle Road made a sudden swerve, just outside Ben’s front garden. Closing the window, he turned round and brushed his hands on his trousers. “I believe you.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Was that a cup of tea I saw on the table?”
Bloody hell. Ben stopped himself from clasping his hands together and bowing like a genie. It was all too likely this man would fail to spot the irony in a mocking, Yes, oh master. Instead, he bit his tongue again and brought everything out of the kitchen on a tray. Pouring tea, he offered biscuits and tried not to notice that Gatrell’s stiff upper lip meant that when he smiled his mouth actually turned down at the corners.
Once more, tea and biscuits dragged back civilization from the brink of chaos. Gatrell dipped the HobNob, gestured vaguely with it. “Eighty-nine percent of our calls are from lads who think it’s fun to put on a Halloween costume and try to scare the life out of me.” He engulfed the softening half of biscuit before it dropped, dunked the second with a shrug. “Up to and including coming at me with chainsaws. A further ten percent tend to be cases of drug abuse, drunkenness or merely nerves. You’ll have to forgive me if I’ve become a bit jaded.
“However, we do come across something genuine once in a while, and I think this is one of those occasions. So—I believe you. Your house was attacked by…” he tilted his head to one side, sceptical, “…spirits, you said.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Fairies. It was attacked by fairies, all right.”
Gatrell laughed, but Ben cut off his inevitable remark with “Don’t! Just don’t, okay? I know what it sounds like, and I can take a bloody good guess at what you’re going to say next. So let’s pretend we’ve done that part and move on, all right?”
The colour of the man’s eyes was golden brown, flecked with green. They looked hard and old as nuggets of amber as he said, “Far be it from me to attempt to inject some levity into the situation. As a matter of fact, you’re right. I know better than to laugh at these creatures. And how did they attack you?”
“There was something with them, like a giant. It kept lifting up the house, smashing it back down. I thought it was…”
Ben’s tea slopped from his mug over his fingers. He looked down, surprised, and saw he was shaking. With both hands he eased the cup back onto the tray, stood, meaning to find kitchen roll to mop up the spill, and seized up as he had done last night under the gaze of the elfin knight. Able to watch, to think, but not to move.
They had both trodden in dust from the front garden—pale grey footsteps tracked across the aubergine carpet. The sitting room’s newly papered walls rose to a ceiling to which he had not yet managed to give a second coat of paint. His mandola on its stand in the corner stood serenely upright, its strings twinkling. Around the bowl of flowers that partially hid his parents’ wedding photo, screening off the sight of them in traditional Indian dress, the sideboard was dry—the water hadn’t slopped. Not a single petal had fallen.
Ben caught Gatrell looking at it, sceptically. He closed his eyes, breathed in through his nose—catching a lemony cologne with undertones of sandalwood, an earthy, bright smell that rustled something in the recesses of his mind. “I know… Things look too neat. I can’t explain it. Everything shook. I thought—when I woke up I thought at first it was another bomb.”
“A bomb?” Gatrell rose from his seat in a lithe movement and looked at Ben with those penetrating hazel eyes. His gaze was nothing like that of the elven knight—nothing like it at all, but Ben shivered nevertheless. “When was this?”
“I was in King’s Cross station when it was bombed. I’d been at university in London, but I came back North soon after because I couldn’t do it any more. The underground…I couldn’t.” Black tunnels barely large enough to fit the train within them. All those people, crushed up against him, all screaming, bewildering doors and darkness—arches that opened on flames and the slide, the faint ceramic sliding noise of keystones shifting, dirt trickling down like rain, boulders tipping above his head. His chest burnt with smoke as he tried to hold his breath, suffocating. Train tracks live with lethal voltage as they stumbled through the darkness. Up escalators that shuddered with each step. Thousands of feet of rock above him held up by willpower and the klaxons, everyone screaming and he was going to fall…
And my parents. Oh God, Mum. Dad. They came to visit me and… No!
Disorientated, Ben flailed between past and present. Then flames gave way to roses nodding over the window, Gatrell’s face close enough for Ben to see the faded freckles over the bridge of his nose. Ben recognised that the man’s arms were around him, holding him up, just as they loosened their grip. That sage-green shirt that looked so 1940s, looked like it belonged in a world of winceyette sheets and hot Bovril, was soft to the touch as he clutched it while he got his bearings.
“Get them often?”
Reluctant to try walking all the way to the kitchen just yet, Ben mopped up the spilled tea with his clean handkerchief and clutched the damp fabric like a lifeline. “Not since I moved back up North. I thought they were over. I don’t… I like to think I’m not going mad, but…”
Gatrell picked up the grey device Ben had left beside his cushion and ran a comforting thumb down its pitted surface. “You’re not going mad,” he said kindly. “If you were, we wouldn’t have picked up anything on these.”
“As for the flashbacks, I get them myself. Bloody nuisance, but nothing to be ashamed of. Right then. Our next move is, we relocate to the pub and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I’m sorry?” Ben’s distress escaped him in a quick flap of the hands. “I didn’t call you so that we could socialize. All right, you believe me! I hoped you wouldn’t. I hoped you’d tell me I was imagining it all. I’m really not happy at the thought that there’s something…legendary out there coming to get me. But I fail to see how going down the pub is likely to help.”
The upper lip straightened again as Gatrell oppressed another smile. But the expression passed quickly, straightening into something grimmer. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Step one, get out of this house. Continue this conversation elsewhere.” He passed the machine from one hand to another. “You saw the readings go off the scale. Something is still here, and whether it’s residual energy or a more sentient presence, I’m not willing to risk leaving you here with it.” The smirk lifted the corner of his mouth again—ironic, not at all comforting. “You see, I was trying to find a way of saying that which didn’t involve melodrama.”
Ben gazed with disbelief at the device’s dial, unreadable in the shadow of Gatrell’s fingers. Get out of the house? It was that serious? The relief he’d felt at finding someone who believed him peeled away, revealed how very much more he had desperately wanted to be told he had dreamed it all.
Hair like cobweb under dew. If the creature’s gaze left tracks of static electricity painted on his sensitised skin, what would the trailing slide of each strand of hair be like? Would its lips on his taste like lightning?
Imagining lightning hitting him in the mouth, Ben folded up his damp hanky and rose. Better foolish overreaction than that. “You could have just come out and said it. Would I need a bag?”
“Just give me a moment, I’ll go grab—”
Gatrell brushed his hands against his trousers. “I’ll come with you.”
“I think I can find the way upstairs by myself.”
The smile fell from Gatrell’s face and all the lines tightened. He straightened, parade-ground style. “Mr. Chaudhry, you seem to have got the impression I am playing at this. I’m not. You are under my protection. I will come with you.”
The crawling sensation of having stuck his foot into a trap from which he could not withdraw took the containing cap off his panic and a “F**k that!” escaped almost involuntarily.
“Unless you intend to tell me to leave?”
No! But there was the rub, because everything in Ben leapt in denial at the thought of being abandoned to face either a real threat or his own dreams alone. “Would you? I told you not to come, but you came. Would you go if I asked?”
Silence in the room. Ben’s heart beat hard, the air rasping in his throat as it went down. Beneath the rolled-up cuffs of his sleeves, the sinews in Gatrell’s arms stood out as his fingers twitched. They were, Ben noticed, fine hands, fine arms, it might almost be pleasant to be grabbed and shaken by them.
As Ben’s lizard brain jerked itself back from the distraction, Gatrell too shook himself, shifted his weight and brought something out from the depths of his trouser pocket.
“No, I wouldn’t. I’ve seen these things before. I wouldn’t let anyone face them without backup.” He reached out and dropped into Ben’s hand an iron nail, its sharp point embedded in a wine-bottle cork. “Here, take this. Be as quick as you can.”
The iron, warm in Ben’s palm, felt anachronistic, hard to believe, like something out of the sixteenth century. It brought to mind history lessons, museum trips, witch trials and savagery—it was the kind of thing the superstitious had buried in the walls of their houses to drive off evil spirits. His mood seesawed back from anger to terror at the touch of it. But he wasn’t going to let Gatrell see that, so he pocketed it, ran upstairs, took out a selection of folded underwear, paired socks, a change of shirt and tie, and packed an overnight bag.
Outside the window the sky shone deep sapphire, shading to indigo. No clouds moved across its gemlike expanse. As he dropped cufflinks into their leather case, the matching raps and rattles brought home to him how silent everything else was. No birds sang. The trees of the garden stood as if painted on a glass backdrop, waiting to shatter. He reached out a hand to straighten the bedcovers, and a voice like sliding water murmured in his head.
Ben recoiled from the sheet, clamped his hand around the nail. As if snapped off at the switch, the voice ceased. Ben’s breath caught in his throat with an ah of shock. God! Picking up the bag, he clattered downstairs without zipping it closed, plunged into the living room. Chris was not there. So much for his fine words. Bastard! But racing out again, Ben found him kneeling in the hall, packing up the radio-with-tubes thingy, a frown between his brows and the corners of his mouth scored deep with suppressed emotion.
“Oh God, I’m so screwed.” Ben skidded to a halt as soon as he felt the man’s presence close about him like fortress walls. “It is still here. I just heard it. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
Chris looked up, his lean face bright from the light of the open door, expression open, hands on his knees. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he said quietly. “I wish I knew.”