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An excerpt from

Time's Fool

Alys Earl

Beside him, Lucy’s head hit the table with a quiet thud. It occurred to Steven this might be some sort of prompt.

“What I mean,” he said, raising his voice to be heard above the pub noise, “is that knowledge is the antithesis of fear.”

Across the table, John stared into his pint with an expression that suggested he’d sooner be elsewhere - but no one cared about John.

“Bring it out in the open and,” Steven blew a raspberry, “and okay, while there’s some evidence that Le Fanu...”

Lucy started to move her head in a slow, rocking motion, sending seismic ripples through John’s beer. Steven snatched up his own glass before her convulsions sent it over the edge of the table. He took a drink. Opposite him, Sophia massaged her temples.

“Where was I?” he said.

“You were shutting up,” Lucy replied, her voice muffled by her hair.

“Le Fanu!” he said.

“Please not Le Fanu,” said Sophia.

“Well, now, there is some evidence Le Fanu was a believer, but we’ll let him off. The fact is, though, the stronger a writer’s conviction that they knew how spiritual manifestations worked, the worse the ghost story.”

“Steven,” said Sophia.

He tipped his glass in her direction and tried to arrange a smile on his face. It was difficult, as he had reached the stage where his flesh felt rubbery and uncooperative, where his fingers seemed to be moving without him instructing them.

“Please shut up, Steven.”

“I will not be censored,” he said, or maybe he shouted it, because a couple at the next table turned, looked at him in a bemused fashion. “No,” he insisted, more quietly, “I shall not have my rights violated in this fashion. Le Fanu is very important.”

“So’s my birthday,” said Sophia.

“And technically, that isn’t until tomorrow.”

“Do you really believe all that?” said John.

Steven tried to trace back over the last few exchanges to establish some context for this, but drew a blank, “All what?”

“All this ghost story bollocks.”

“Well, yes,” said Steven, “yes, I should hope so. I mean, it is sort of central to my dissertation, so I should really try to, shouldn’t I?”

John stared at him as though he was obtuse which, all things considered, was unjust.

“He meant, do you believe in ghosts,” Sophia explained.

“No-one believes in ghosts,” said Steven, and leaned back against the booth, “that was my point.”

Lucy raised her head, grabbed her glass and drained it before resuming a face down position.

“Exactly, so why bother?” said John, “Why would you study something that you know doesn’t exist?” And he had that smirk on his face, the point scoring one.

A flare of sobriety. Steven picked over his words and finally said, “In what context are we taking ‘know’ here, John?”

“Oh, come on,” said John.

“No, no, really. I’m interested.”

“Steven,” Lucy warned.

“No, wait. You’re suggesting that I know ghosts don’t exist?”

“You just said,” John insisted, “you literally just told me that ghosts are a load of crap.”

Steven smiled what he hoped was a pained and disappointed smile. One of his lecturers used a smile like that, and it was utterly crushing. “Don’t believe I did.”

“Sophia, he did, didn’t he? He just said that no-one believed in ghosts.”

“John, it isn’t important,” said Sophia, and she put her hand on his shoulder. The diamond in her ring glinted, bright.

“Yes, I said no-one believed in ghosts,” said Steven, “that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

“Don’t argue semantics,” said John.

“Do you even know what that means?”

“Steven,” said Lucy.

Yes, that probably was going a little far. Humour was advisable. He put on his best Van Helsing hock-German, “I suppose now you do not believe in corporeal transference. No? Nor in materialization. No? Nor in astral bodies...”

“What?”

“He’s quoting,” said Sophia and gave the trace of a smile. Good.

“No? Nor in the reading of thought. No? Nor in hypnotism...” he raised his glass. No-one said anything. “Oh, come on.”

“Charcot has proved that pretty well,” said Lucy, in a monotone.

“What?” said John, again.

“My point,” said Steven, and he brought his arm round in an expansive motion, almost spilling wine down his front, “is that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. That’s all.”

“So you do believe in ghosts.”

“Bollocks, I do. No. I believe in the possibility of ghosts.”

John closed his eyes as though he had truly had enough of the evening, but, as Steven had already observed, no one gave a damn about John.

“Look,” he said, “its faulty thinking to assume that we can answer that question with any certitude. Yes, ghosts are improbable. They are wildly implausible. But, if we pause to consider the humble bumble bee,” he said, or he tried to say that. His mouth would not co-operate.

“The what?” said John.

“A closed mind,” Steven told Sophia and Lucy, “is a tragic thing to see in one so very young.” But that stopped Sophia smiling. She closed both hands around her wineglass and said nothing.

Stop now, part of him warned.

“I’ve not got a closed mind,” said John, “I’m just being realistic. Look, if ghosts were real, science would have...”

“Science?” said Steven, “Which one, John? Biology? Sophia’s the resident expert on that! What’s the view on ghosts, Sophia? Or maybe you wanted to hear from an astrophysicist? Or climateology?” He swigged his wine, smirked, “I dunno. Maybe sports science has a perspective.”

John mouthed God with a hard exhalation of breath. “What I mean is…” he started to say.

“What you mean,” Steven interrupted, “is that you are willing to discount anecdotal evidence on the basis of prejudice before conducting rigorous research.”

“Ha. Says the atheist,” said Lucy.

“Oh, I’m quite willing to entertain the possibility of an omnipotent God,” Steven replied, “I just want fuck all to do with him.”

“Religion,” said Sophia, “yes. That’s a nice, safe topic. Let’s talk about religion instead.”

“No,” said Steven, “no, I’m curious about this. You see, John, my unbelief is sturdy. I will entertain the possibility of every impossible thing. But if you brought me incontrovertible evidence of ghosties or ghoulies, it would not shake me. Real or not, they are too unlikely for me to trouble myself with fearing them,” he raised his hands dismissively. After a moment, he realized that his glass was now above his head. Steven rectified this and took a drink. “You, though,” he wagged his finger at John, “your unbelief is brittle because it’s unreasoning. You refuse even to consider that ghosts exist. You’ll fumble for logical explanation, but some stuff we can’t explain yet. So, the moment ‘science’ fails you,” carefully, Steven put his glass down, then slammed his hands together, “bam, the local spiritualist church has a new recruit.”

For a moment, John looked like he was about to tell him to fuck off, but he seemed to remember the occasion and swallowed the insult. After a minute, and quite calmly, he said, “That’s rubbish.”

“Prove it.”

John took a drink and gave a scornful laugh, “Yeah. How am I supposed to do that?”

“Scientific method,” Steven declared.

“Steven” said Lucy, for the final time that evening, “do shut up.”

“No,” said Steven, “we can do this. It’s Hallowe’en. It’s the perfect time for this.”

“That’s not until next week,” Sophia said.

“Says the girl claiming tonight’s her birthday? Come on. If Christmas starts in early November, you can give me a fortnight for Hallowe’en.”

“After my birthday,” she conceded, “you can have Hallowe’en for as long as you like.”

He nodded consent. “Alright. So. We find a haunted house. We take a shufti. We’ll see who sees a ghost.”

“Steven, you know that isn’t actually scientific method, right?”

“And I have the perfect place in mind,” he said, ignoring the birthday girl.

Lucy and Sophia exchanged a look and were clearly about to drag out that one, particular and unedifying experience from their early adolescence.

“Don’t worry, it’s well inside the city.”

“Not if it’s raining,” said Lucy at the same time that Sophia said, “I’ll kill you if there are nettles.”

They were never going to let him forget that bloody keep. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said.

“You never learn anything.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Which one of us is on line for a first?”

Lucy and Sophia made the kind of hissing noises people make when they’re not sober and are pretending you’ve annoyed them.

“This is a stupid idea,” said John.

“Yes,” said Steven, reasonably, “I’m drunk.”

“Right, okay,” said John in a smug sort of way.

“Okay, what?”

“As in okay, you’re just joking, then.”

“When have I ever passed up an idea just because it’s stupid?”

“He has form,” Lucy explained, “ruined castle form.”

“Oh, you aren’t serious?”

“Why?” said Steven with a wicked smile, “John, are you scared of ghosts?”

#

Hallowe’en. Sophia swung the crowbar and watched Steven and John try to get past the gate. They had argued all the way up the road and hadn’t stopped yet. The precise words were lost to the rush of traffic, but she could capture the low, constant murmur of Steven's sarcasm, punctuated by John's retorts.

She looked back to the road and saw that there was no cadre of police cars rushing towards them, sirens blaring. Hardly surprising.

“Do you think they're going to give up soon?” she asked Lucy.

“Probably,” Lucy's response sounded like autopilot, especially as, after a pause, she added, “God, actually, no, I doubt it.” They stared at the gates, rusty and solid against a thin, October sky. “Hope so though. It's freezing out here.”

Steven took the padlock in his hands and gave it what looked like an ironic tug. Suddenly distinct, his voice came to them, “It appears to be rather locked.”

John shoved him out of the way and pulled on the lock, a lot harder if the clanking noises were anything to go by. As this had no apparent effect, he grabbed the gate, and shook it.

Sophia pushed her free hand into her pocket. Steven had come through on the house, at least. No rain, and hardly a nettle in sight. Better: the diamond panes in the windows caught the light and threw it back gold, the old bricks were dirty red. She had once imagined she would live in a house like this, with all its winding corridors and thick stonework, with the panelling, and the candle sconces, the spiders and the secret passageways. She smiled; places like this were owned by businessmen, old families, or heritage charities. Finding one like this, in Romantic abandonment, complete with overgrown garden and grisly reputation, was more than fortunate. It was a godsend.

She saw John give the gates a sound kick. He called, “Love, I could do with that crowbar.”

She glanced at Lucy. Only Steven had objected to the crowbar, and that had been because it was John's idea. But none of them had expected this little contest of machismo to get quite so far. Lucy shrugged and strode to the rescue, “You having trouble there, boys?”

“Rather predictably, the gate has been locked,” Steven smiled, more superior than the circumstances justified. “John seems to be advocating criminal damage.”

John took a breath that whistled over teeth anyone could see were clenched. “Do you want to get in?”

“Naturally,” Steven looked at his hands and brushed the last traces of rust from them. “I'm simply not inclined to be placed in custody.”

Sophia gave Steven a warning glance and slipped her hands over John's shoulders, feeling him tense, then relax at her touch. She bit down on the surging rage within her and plastered her best friendly look upon her face, cuddling close to her fiancé.

Once, Lucy had described Steven and John's behaviour as the best unwitting double act she had ever seen. Sophia had never noticed any comedy value in it. Besides, Steven's behaviour was never unwitting. “So, can we go home now?” she asked.

“Of course not,” Steven told her, “it all becomes far too interesting.”

As he said that, all John's uncertainty vanished. Great.

“This is ridiculous,” she said.

“You agreed at the time,” Steven said, grinning.

She eyed the chain on the gate, the crowbar and John. She needed to convince him not to use it, not least because she suspected bolt-cutters would be a more effective tool. Lucy appeared to have caught whatever energy was egging Steven on, because she announced, “They should be easy enough to climb.”

Sophia made a despairing whimper.

True to her word, Lucy hauled herself up the wobbling structure. At the top of the gate she paused, then cursed. “Ripped my sodding jeans,” she said, “be careful here, yeah? These spikes are sharp.” Once on the other side, she leapt the few remaining feet, before turning and bowing. “Piece of cake,” she cried, and blew them a kiss.

Refusing to be outdone, John followed her. Sophia watched. It was fine for Lucy, a shade under six foot and built like an Amazon, to say it was no problem, but Sophia was neither tall nor convinced.

Still, they’d done sillier things. Yes, she needed a boost to get started, but Steven obliged, and after that she was more concerned about tearing her clothes than breaking her neck. The only hairy moment was when Steven started to climb before she was fully over, and, safely on the other side, she gave him a look to make him understand it was not appreciated.

John was already striding towards the door, crowbar in hand, but Lucy had waited. As they joined her she bowed again and gestured for them to precede her. “Lay on, McDuff,” she said. The quote was accurate, but perhaps irrelevant.

“What’s it meant to be haunted by?” Sophia asked.

“No,” said Steven, “that’s bad ghost-hunting. Searching out the stories influences your perceptions. Make your testimony unreliable,” he laughed, “besides, everything I did manage to find out was depressingly vague. Place has a bad reputation from, oh, the belle époque, or something. Your average post Victorian spook, I'd guess. War dead and abandoned brides. Anyway, how else was I going to get you two to take a look at it?”

“Sophia!” said Lucy in a falsetto imitation of a child’s voice, “Lucy! There’s a castle! I promise.”

Sophia rubbed her arms at the memory of nettle stings, badly kept footpaths and driving rain. She squeaked along, “It’s on a map.

“And it’s only two kilometres...”

“Okay, I read the key wrong. I have apologised. Often.”

“It’ll be in my best man speech,” Lucy said.

“Change of plan,” said Steven, “Sophia, you’re the best man.”

“Oh, don’t think I’ll let you off.”

They had stopped walking, too busy reprising old roles. “So, what?” Lucy asked, “No-one's lived here since 1914?”

“No idea. Do you girls expect me to do everything? Glad you came, though, right?”

“What’s a spot of breaking and entering between friends?” Sophia said, but Steven had a point. The thin, red bricks were tarred by pollution, but seemed to glow with some inner light. The walls were pitted by time and acidity, the lines of the building delicate. The door itself was scarred and handsome, a huge gothic arch that looked almost like a church door - complete with outsize keyhole. The handle was smoothed by time and use.

John had already tried to open it and given it a further, token shove. Now, he was hefting the crowbar with a look of purpose in his eyes. Steven ignored him. “You know,” he said, tracing his fingers over the worn carvings of the doorjamb, “I think this might almost be an original feature.” Then he raised his voice, but did not spare John a glance as he informed him, “and if you even think about using that damned thing on this woodwork, I'll call the police myself.”

Lucy smirked.

“Right, so how are we meant to get in then?”

Steven tried the handle.

“Yeah, I have actually done that.”

Steven nodded and twisted the handle beyond its initial resistance. It made two, protesting, clunking noises. He set his shoulder to the door and pushed hard. It scraped the floor for a moment, then opened. “Hinges had fallen a little. You don't visit many churches, do you, John?”

He snorted, “Didn't think they'd have you.”

“Architectural interest,” Steven replied, striding into the hall. “Not exactly your field, I suppose.”

Lucy touched Sophia's arm briefly, but she was too busy glaring at John to take much notice. She clenched her teeth. When he tried to put his arm around her a few seconds later she shrugged him off and went into the house.

A moment later, John called in, “Uh- sorry Steve. About that.”

“How kind.”

Oh, perfect.

Then, determined, she took stock of her surroundings. Away from the glow of streetlights that began to patch the night, the inside of the house was dim. The room she stood in was wide, and by the little light that bled through the windows, she could make out the rough shape of a flight of stairs. Dotted about were the pale, shrouded remains of furniture left to rot beneath dustsheets. She shivered and her annoyance seeped away.

When John touched his hand to her shoulder, she jumped. He put his lips close to her ear, “Fucking spooky in here, isn't it?”

She considered telling him exactly what she thought of that kind of prank, but let him put his arms around her and kiss the top of her head before pulling away. Steven and Lucy were clustered by the staircase, looking as if, with reluctance, they had decided against climbing it.

Steven turned, “Well?” he asked, “what do you think?”

“Haunted,” Lucy affirmed. “Can we go home now?” But she made no motion towards the door.

“Do you not want to have a look around, then?”

“You and old buildings, eh?” Lucy gestured, “you coming, Sophia?”

Sophia turned to John who still hung back, the crowbar dangling heavy from his hand. She tried, by glances, to communicate with him, but she could not read his face in the half-light. She considered saying that perhaps it would be best if they all went home. After all, she was the only one with any common sense.

But she did not want to leave. For years now, she had been the quiet one, the sensible one. It was her job to end this. But the only reason she would go now was if she were bored, if she thought there was no point in staying any longer.

And there was a point. In the dust, in the dusk, she felt something within her exhale, uncurl a little. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared up at the shadows that leaned in from the walls. Here, the main road was a distant whisper, accentuating the silence. A frisson crept over her. She thought of graveyards, of old yew trees, of the peace of centuries. She shook her head, but only to feel her hair brush against her neck.

Then, more decisive, she walked over to where Lucy was beginning to try a couple of internal doors. The first was locked or jammed, but the second opened without any particularly ominous creaks. Steven hesitated on the threshold for a moment to get assent from herself and Lucy before turning around to John.

He hung back, increasingly indistinct in the failing light, the crowbar in one hand.

“Well?” Steven asked in an exaggerated tone.

The figure that was John shrugged. “Look...” he said, and Sophia recognised his let's-be-realistic voice.

“Don't tell me you're having second thoughts, John. Not at this late stage.”

“I was just...” he began, and then, “oh, fine. Forget it. Let's look for ghosts.

They trooped into the new room. It was almost dark by now, the sun having sunk over the horizon, but here the quality of the darkness was different; larger windows faced the moon and the lights of the city in the river valley. The walls were panelled, the floor bare tiles. A huge, empty hearth yawned across most of one wall. There was the smell of dust and time and mouse-droppings. Here, too, pieces of furniture were jumbled and huddled against the walls, shrouded in dustsheets. Filling the centre of the room was a table left uncovered save for the tattered lace of cobwebs and deep dust.

Sophia walked over to it and traced her fingers across the surface, then stopped, thinking things like fingerprints. There was an awful lot of furniture for a derelict house. She bit her tongue, not wanting to be the first to call a halt, turning to John for reassurance. But even in the minutes they had been there, it had grown darker, and she could hardly make out his features.

It would only get darker still. She could not see the far end of the room any longer. The shadows lengthened, grew thicker. She could just make out the white, indeterminate shapes of the draped furniture, the darkness looming in from the corners. She noticed that her friends were no longer striding confidently across the floor, that they too were lingering, were quiet.

Their faces were white blurs - they could have been anyone, could have been ghosts themselves.

A car roared past on the road outside, headlights cutting an arc across the sky. She jumped. Once it had passed, the silence became more intense. She told herself to stop being silly, to put on her torch and banish her nervousness, but she had a child's fear of the light marking her out in the darkness, making the blackness around her so intense she would not be able to see what was hiding there.

A primal unease at the dark was clenching her stomach. Her shoulders tensed. She pressed closer to the edge of the table, biting her tongue once more, trying by pain to master her fear. But when John put his arm around her, she nearly screamed. She pressed against him, even though she was annoyed that he might think she needed his support. She squeezed his hand, as if she were reassuring him, not herself.

A creak overhead.

There are sounds old houses make when they settle into themselves, their timbers swelling and shrinking. This was not that kind of sound. This was the sound of wood crying out under sudden, definite pressure, the sound movement and agency. In the silence that followed, Sophia could not hear her heart, certainly she did not breathe. Seconds stretched. Something tightened in her until it was almost painful.

Then came the sound of a foot scuffing old, dusty floors. The sound of a person crossing the rooms above them, then upon the hollow wood of the stairs. It was worse when that steady tread dulled once again, for then it was in the hall, coming inexorably towards them. Sophia drew in breath until her chest was stretched and tight. The footsteps were not the timorous patter of someone who was afraid, not the clamour of someone who had no more right to be there than themselves. They were firm, regular, slow.

Before they reached the door, she straightened her spine.

In to the paler rectangle of the door stepped a slim, long shape. Dark, it was a dark shape, dark clothes and hair, white blur of face. For a moment, they all stood, frozen, unspeaking. A voice said, “Ah. I do apologise. I was not aware that I had visitors,” and it was level, cool and smooth. Utterly unafraid.

Sophia waited for John’s sober apologies, for Lucy’s gift of the gab, but it was her own voice that answered. “We, uh. We thought the house was deserted. We'll leave, if you like.” Then, as though her tongue were her own again, she added, “Sorry.”

The room filled with light. Dazzled, blinded, Sophia waited for the worst.

“There,” said the voice, “ancient circuitry, but it appears to be working.”

She blinked and blinked again, her eyes refusing to adjust.

“Pray, forgive the confusion,” the voice went on. It sounded young; implausibly young, “I have recently inherited this house. My Grandfather's. I was rather curious about the old place.”

“Ah. Yes,” Steven blundered in, far too late, “we, we do apologise. Umm, we, er, came here as a bet,” and he gave an awkward, faux sophisticated laugh, “er, a dare, I suppose. The, er, your house is magnificent. Beautiful. It's just we thought it was abandoned, you see. Derelict, umm, otherwise we wouldn't have...” he seemed to realise how that would sound, and interrupted himself, “The door was unlocked. It was only the gate we, uh. There was a dare about a haunted building, you see and,” another pause, as though the whole debacle had not been his idea, “not that I - we - believe in ghosts of course, but, well, this place has a reputation, I mean, unfounded, I'm sure, but…”

“I'm sorry,” said Lucy, stepping between Steven and the stranger, “he's an idiot. But we are very sorry about all this.”

“No.” It was almost a whisper, almost lost in the traffic sounds, the creaks of an old house settling. “No, please, you are most welcome.”

“Sorry,” Steven said, appearing to get a grip upon himself, “we, we haven't damaged anything, I trust? The door was unlocked.”

She saw him now, the man in the doorway. He was not tall, not so very tall as she had thought. He had a pinched, delicate face and he stood still, very still. With a slow, considered movement, he bowed his head, as though he were hurt or ashamed. “It is of no matter. Please.” After a moment of silence where the room seemed huge and cold and lit too brightly, he came towards her with slow, deliberate steps. “I am called Julian.”

But the words were addressed to John, it was John’s eyes he looked in to, to John that he extended his hand. Sophia stiffened away from her fiancé’s clutching arms so as not to appear a complete wimp.

“I'm delighted to make your acquaintance,” the stranger said, all stiff formality. Keeping things between the boys, are we? Sophia thought, and as they shook hands and John introduced himself, added, upper class twat.

“Sorry about, er…” said John, like the rest of them, unable to stop apologising.

“It is of no import. Please. This house has been empty too long.” Then the stranger turned to her then, with wide dark eyes and utter solemnity. She fought the urge to laugh at him. “And, you, my dear, are... ?”

So she met his gaze fiercely, held out her hand and said, “Sophia.”

His fingers were so cold she almost jumped, but she would not give him that satisfaction. She was about to move her hand briskly, to show how hard she could grip, but stranger held her fingers so very lightly and did not shake her hand. Instead, he bowed, bowed as though he did it without thought, as though it were the simplest thing in the world.

And Sophia could not breathe. Thrown, unsure, embarrassed, she could not move.

Before his lips brushed her knuckles, he seemed to catch himself, to recoil, and he stopped, looked up in to her eyes.

There they stood, his touch not pressing, not painful, his lips an inch from her skin. She looked in to his face and read nothing there, nothing that she could understand. Her skin grew hot and she longed to look away, but she would not allow herself to be the one who dropped her gaze.

Beside her, John shifted, but no one spoke, nobody broke the moment. It could not have been long, could only have been bare seconds. The gulf between each tick of the clock yawned, infinite.

She clenched the muscles in her hand, afraid once more. As though that was his cue, Julian lowered his mouth. And perhaps after all that, she expected something lascivious, something gloating, but it was barely more than the touch of cool lips, so swift as to be impersonal.

Then he straightened and released her, saying, brisk and impersonal, “Greek for wisdom, I believe?”

Sophia stood, still trapped, with no idea how to respond.

“They call me Lucy,” came a call from across the room, and there she stood, her hand thrust out before her expectantly.

“I am charmed, my dear Lucy,” said the stranger, and his voice changed again. No longer strange gravity, not a touch of the arrant toff, but something playful. He repeated the performance with rather more smoothness and élan than he had given her. Of course, Lucy gloried in it, bobbing her head, tossing her mane of hair, looking like less like the cat who had got the cream, than one who’d taken the Sunday joint, and probably the goldfish, too. The atmosphere, if there had been an atmosphere, relaxed. Sophia rubbed her knuckles against the ball of her thumb and watched as Steven said his name and shook the stranger’s hand.

“I am very pleased to meet you, Steven,” Julian said, and did not release his grip.

“Ah. Yes,” Steven said, “I mean, I mean, likewise. And, um, we're very grateful you have been so understanding of... well. You've been terribly kind.”

Julian was still holding Steven’s hand. “It is nothing,” he said, “I trust you will stay a while.”

No-one replied to that, and Sophia hoped they were all sufficiently well brought up not to look at the dust and general dilapidation.

“Please,” the man made a dismissive gesture, finally releasing Steven and seeming to falter again, “as my first guests here. Perhaps a glass of wine?”

Steven seemed about to say something but remembered to shut up before Lucy had to poke him in the ribs. John jostled her towards the door. Sophia scrambled through her brain for a polite response.

The stranger laughed, “Or another night, perhaps. When it is,” and he paused, as though the right word escaped him. Sophia did not suggest, structurally sound. “Cleaner. Please. You are all most welcome.”

“Yes,” Steven replied, “that, that would be lovely. Er, we're sorry that we...”

“Yeah,” Lucy interrupted, “yeah. We should leave you in peace. Umm, thanks for...”

“Please,” the man said, again, “it is nothing. It has been a pleasure. Let me bring you to the gate,” he gave her a sly little smile, “I’m sure I can manage to unlock it for you.”

Sophia winced. She suspected they deserved rather more than that one stab of sarcasm. Still, they made polite noises about not wanting to be any bother, about really, how terribly sorry they were, and how he mustn’t bother, as though it would no imposition on anyone from them to scramble over the gate again. All this, the man ignored. As he slipped the padlock from the chain, he turned and said, low and intense, “I do hope that I might see you again. You are always welcome.”

And in that moment, Sophia knew that he spoke to her, and to her alone. She stood, staring at him, trying to think of something to say, but before she managed it, he said, “Fare you well,” and let them pass.

#

Alone in the chill dark, the creature paced. Rosemary and honey. Honey and rosemary.

An innocent boy, so clever and beautiful and easily over come.

And the woman. The woman who wore a perfume that plunged into him, that drew from him something that should have been long dead. The ghost of it lingered, beneath the chemical scents the others had worn. He could taste her, still, in his mouth. He sucked it from his tongue. Honey. Rosemary.

Blood.

Thirst. He had left it too long, had been to assured. Images flashed in his mind, those bright, young people, skin tearing beneath his kiss, life ripped from some screaming soul, drowning in scents of honey and rosemary. Of blood.

A long shudder ran through him. No. No.

The creature raised hands over his face and tried to think of coldness, of sterility, of peace. He tried to think of hunger and it’s cruel allure, but tonight that would not aid him. Tonight he would kill.