Work in Progress
Unproofed. Unedited. Straight off my machine. It’s a cyberpunk / horror story set in the South West of England and is a direct prequel to the epic novel God Seed. Enjoy!
Start from the beginning: Chapter 1 here
“You must miss him. My grandfather.” Annabelle asked Hiram, who was now standing outside the front door.
David and Robert shuttled their few bags inside whilst the snow white dog, a Siberian Husky, watched with tongue-lolling interest. Anthony was standing beside his sister, regarding Hiram with the kind of dubious suspicion that city people knew how to do best; his bare arms, young and muscular, folded across his chest. The tanned flesh covered in tattoos that resembled black smudges of charcoal but were, so James had been told many times, the war-marks of the best adrenaline junkies on the colonies orbiting Mars.
James had missed part of the conversation. He came back out into the sunlight from the immense hallway inside and paused beside his younger brother; Anthony didn’t spare him a glance. There was no real love between them. Hiram was taking a moment to formulate a response to the question; his weathered face, edged in a frost-white, neatly trimmed beard, creased down one side whilst he mulled it over.
“Well, miss him might be an overstatement. Your grandfather was a proverbial pain in the ass.” Hiram regarded Annabelle seriously for a moment. Then his eyes, sapphire blue and glittering with energy, lit up with an infectious humour. “But I did love the cantankerous, know-it-all. He always liked to rub my face in it, but the man was bloody infallible when it came to helping me with my project.”
Annabelle frowned. James instinctively met her glance. She asked the question: “We’re you working on something together?”
Hiram grimaced and rubbed at the hair covering his jaw. The humour faded out of his eyes and James got the sense there was a much greater sadness in him than he was showing. “Aye. You could say that. Some might call it a lifetime’s work.”
“I had no idea.” Annabelle formulated the appropriate tones of respect and polite interest, but James could see she was itching to get into the house. She still hadn’t seen inside of it. Hiram must have sensed it too. He abruptly pulled himself upright and presented a smile for her.
“I’ll tell you about it another time if you like. But you’ve no doubt had a long journey so I’ll leave you youngsters to explore the place. I imagine you’ve not arrived with anything to eat so I’ve left a few supplies for you in the kitchen. If you need more, I live just yonder there.” He pointed at the broad sweep of moorland that sloped away from the front of the house towards a drop-off. “Built it myself. Nothing as grand as this but I call it home. Feel free to drop by anytime.”
Hiram directed his gaze at James. James looked at him. Something passed between them. He couldn’t say what it was, but in some way, he related to the older man, suspected the older man felt the same way. Hiram smiled: a brief twitch of the lips. James smiled back in similar fashion, a quick nod to acknowledge the moment.
And then he was off. As nimble as a mountain goat, the snow-white Husky trotting eagerly alongside.
“What a strange man.” Annabelle commented dourly, watching Hiram crossing the wild grass towards the ridge. Anthony snorted and darted away inside the house.
James glanced at her and held the look to show he wasn’t impressed.
“What?” She retorted, moving towards the front door, her eyes see-sawing between him and the emerging interior.
“You were rude.”
She guffawed. “I’m a busy lady and besides, he was inside my house. I think that was a little rude.”
He followed her inside. “For an older sister, I’d expect better.”
“Oh for God’s sake.” She shook her head. Irritated, even though he’d been clowning with her. Then her attention became focussed on the size of the hallway; the epic, carved wooden staircase that twisted through ninety degrees to reach the impressively wide balcony that hugged three sides of the open hall above.
The floor was of cut stone, but it retained a rough-hewn quality that suited the feel of the place. Wooden wainscoting, paintings of countryside scenes, tall lamps and wrought-iron candelabras. All very rustic, and yet there was also a very modern feel to the place. Fresh paint in muted tones that had obviously been picked to work together. Potted plants and a variety of highly colourful bric-a-brac, ceramics, glassware, metal objects, cluttered the majority of surfaces and empty spaces. It could have easily been a boutique hotel.
“Oh my.” Annabelle’s eyes were as wide as saucers as her head rotated and then her body followed. “This is fantastic.”
“Bit of a trek for weekend breaks. Are you going to keep it?” James asked, feeling the urge to spark up a cigarette but tamping it down with the knowledge his sister wouldn’t approve. Or allow it.
“I don’t know.” She responded distantly. Dropping her gaze back to ground level she walked through the nearest doorway, which led into a large dinning room.
James nodded to himself and turned away. He scooped up his nylon kit bag and took the staircase, two steps at a time.
* * *
He chose himself a bedroom on the first floor, at the very front of the house overlooking the gravel drive and wild lawn that became moorland. The room was huge. Enjoying the view from one of the large bay windows and a smaller window directly above the entrance porch. Ivy clung to the stone frame. James realised that from this elevated position he could see what lay beyond the ridge at the far end of the sweep of moorland. There was the upper edges of a roof that must have been Hiram Sykes’ place, and beyond that was the ocean. James’s felt his eyebrows shoot up and the features of his face slacken. It was a stunning view and would undoubtedly be even more fantastic for Hiram.
Mental note to pay the old boy a visit and see if he likes a whisky or two, he mused.
His gaze lingered on the ocean. The house was north facing. The sun, arcing down towards the left, made the choppy surface of the water a silvery and bright. James loved ocean views. One of the many things he’d missed and longed for during his tours in Operation Metal Hammer.
James flinched as memories tried to surface. He blinked rapidly and span away. Dumped his bag on the bed and went for a walk around the house.
It took him nearly an hour to explore every room and corridor, where possible. There was a basement, accessed via a door set beneath the first leg of the giant staircase. Stone steps led down to a small antechamber that was packed with the usual clutter of old furniture and stuff that didn’t fit or belong upstairs. There was also a large collection of expensive looking wines. The basement was larger but a stout metal door, set into an internal wall, blocked any further access. The door was secured by a single, heavy-duty mortice lock. Sounding the internal wall with the broken leg of a chair revealed it was solid; plastered and then painted, which had then cracked with age.
James recalled the bunch of keys Hiram had been holding in his hand when he’d first walked out of the house. Interesting.
The rest of the house held no further mystery. Downstairs consisted of a dining room to the west of the hall, a lounge to the east, which itself led into a smaller snug equipped with a very well stocked bar (David and Robert were settling into leather Lazy Boy recliners here). To the south was a huge kitchen and breakfast area, with modern windows allowing in the best of the light that flooded a well tended garden behind. Attached the main building was a more modern wing, on the west side. On the ground floor this wing contained another lounge cum study, a glass walled conservatory and secondary kitchen and utility area; on the first floor there were only two rooms, with a long central passageway striking away from the central hall and staircase. One of the rooms was a very large bedroom that faced onto the back garden. The other was an equally large bedroom with views of the front and with en-suite bathroom, but what was unusual was that you had to walk the entire length of the passage to reach the door. The room then doubled-back, following the line of the passage. James quite liked this quirk. He was sure that if some developer bought the place the first thing they would do would be to knock a hole through the wall and stick a door into it, so people didn’t have to walk so far. But James liked the isolation the distance created.
There was a second floor, built into the mansard hipped roof. Low ceilings and much smaller windows created a haunted house atmosphere. It was very quiet, and as James walked about he noted the dust kicking up into the stray beams of sunlight. All of the bedrooms were entirely bare of carpets and furnishings. Two of them contained some old packing crates and dusty rugs on the floors.
It was when he was descending from the second floor down to the wide balcony surrounding the hall on the first floor that he heard Annabelle shouting and slamming a door. Somewhere down on the ground floor.
“That didn’t take long,” James muttered to himself. No doubt she’d discovered David and Robert thick as thieves in the snug. She probably expected them to be eagerly ensconced with her in the kitchen, discussing…whatever.
James veered along the length of the balcony towards the front of the house and stepped through the door into his bedroom. Then he heard the sound of something cruising rapidly across gravel outside. Going to the window and peering out he saw an expensive sports car, twin seats, convertible (the roof was up), crossing the drive from the entrance to the main road. No tyres as such, just high-performance compressive spindles which locked into a holding position as the vehicle came to a swift stop.
The driver door popped open and a middle-aged man in a smart blue suit climbed out with familiar ease. He reached back inside, leaning across the seat to the passenger side before withdrawing himself carrying a picnic basket and flowers. Slim built, with thinning brown hair trimmed in a way that was uniformly boring and unflattering to the creased, goblin-like face that swivelled back and forth as the man regarded the house. James eased away from the window and made his way downstairs. He heard the doorbell go. He heard Annabelle snapping instructions at David as she strode across the hall to answer it. James got down to the front door within moments of the conversation having started.
The man was still holding onto the basket and flowers, and was saying: “…sympathies for your loss. The whole town was very fond of your grandfather.” Annabelle stepped aside to allow James to fill the space beside her. The visitor regarded James’ speculatively then smiled and offered a hand. “Josh McKenzie.”
James took it without comment. The skin was soft but the fingers were gnarled, like the features of his face: small black beady eyes, a broad, lipless mouth, a ruddy badly weathered complexion. The idea of a goblin didn’t go away.
His sister continued the thread of conversation. “We weren’t close. To be honest, the news of his death came as a complete surprise.”
“The house too, then, I imagine.”
Annabelle cocked her head slightly to one side, her antennae twitching. James had noted the tone of McKenzie’s statement. He took in the clothes and the glossy bodywork of the car behind him. There was lots of money here but there was also a fundamental lack of something important. Character.
“Yes. The house came as a surprise too.” Annabelle answered succinctly and then used her best getting down to business voice. “So what can I do for you Mr McKenzie?”
“Josh.” A rubbery smile and weak attempt to reinforce familiarity. “Well, it’s about the house. My father has had his eye on this place since he first came to Oakfield. I appreciate you’ve probably only just started settling in, but I wanted to put the seed of an idea into your mind – hopefully before you get entirely comfortable.”
“Go on. You want to make an offer?”
“I do. As a surprise for my father. A gift. It would mean the world to me to be able to do this for him and it would be truly remarkable for him. I don’t want to pressure you. As I said, I just wanted to put the idea into your mind. If you have any inclination to sell, then I would be delighted to make an offer.”
Annabelle eased back, turned and looked at James.
James held her gaze for a moment, was entirely non-committal. This was her decision. His sister flexed one eyebrow in the way that she always did when she was unimpressed. Then she looked at the slightly hunched figure of Josh McKenzie. The bright smile that appeared on her face was pure fabrication. “That’s really good to know. Josh. You’ll appreciate that we’ve just arrived. I would like some time to think about it. Get used to the house. See if it has rats. That kind of thing.”
McKenzie picked up on the easy humour, grinned and nodded. “Of course. Absolutely, and I’m really sorry to drop in so soon after you got here but there’s an important date coming up in my dad’s calendar. But I don’t want to pressure you. Look, these are for you.” He handed her the flowers. She took them, admiring them. They were very nice. Then he handed James the basket. “And this is for the family. Please enjoy. Compliments of the McKenzie family.”
The conversation wrapped up after another minute of pleasantries. Josh McKenzie climbed back into his sports car and drove away, compressive spindles blurring into the solid form of wheels, kicking up pieces of gravel as he gently accelerated.
Annabelle withdrew into the hall, late afternoon sunlight painting her in vivid summer colours and turning her hair pure gold. She looked thoughtful. James closed the front door and stepped after her, hefting the weight of the basket in his hand. “Neighbours are friendly.”
“Hmm.” She didn’t sound convinced.
He narrowed his eyes. His sister had a funny way of reading people. He associated it with her love of tarot cards and mystic mumbo jumbo. “Not so sure?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged herself clear of whatever mood had been descending on her. Then handed him the flowers. “Put these in the kitchen along with the basket.”
She ignored the sarcastic tone to his voice. “I’m going to pry David away from that bloody warthog for a few minutes and see if I can get some love back into my marriage.”
James cleared his throat and set off towards the kitchen. “Good luck.”
# # # END CHAPTER # # #
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