Work in Progress
OAKFIELD: When Annabelle Spaulding inherits the house of her estranged grandfather in the remote town of Temple Combe, on the wild coast of Cornwall, she decides to use the visit as a way of bringing her family back together. A chance to heal old wounds. What she doesn’t discover until it is too late is that her grandfather’s death was no accident and that a sinister plot is underway to remove the house from her hands. Oakfield holds the keys to the gate of an Evil that sits beyond the boundaries of the human cosmos.
Djr note: I started this last year. Currently on 46,500 words (Chapter 16). I’ve reworked the original few chapters to accelerate the transition of the characters arrival in the and getting to the house. Hopefully without losing any of the sense of “place”.
This is a rough edit. Straight from the machine. Ignore typos and glitches.
The figure was skeletal thin, a ragged man dressed in loosely fitted robes. Nothing more than torn sacks crudely stitched together. Clothes, as such, were not a normal aspect for its being. It clung to the side of the tall, finger-like stack of rock as an insect might cling to a plant stem… there was an aspect about it that was almost human, but much more that was not. It knew it was an abomination. Something made for the sole purpose of moving amongst human folk. It carried out orders without question, without emotion. It lived to serve.
A crooked smile stretched thin, rubbery lips as it released its grip on the rock and tumbled into the swift, pulling embrace of gravity.
Hello, my name is James Spaudling. I am not dead. But am I alive? Is this really me thinking… or a construct?
James Spaulding twisted his shoulders a few degrees to allow his eyes to scan where he was.
Bodmin Parkway train station. Early afternoon on a golden summer day. Sunlight touched the surrounding countryside and brought the colours alive. England, so green, so beautiful: it was soul-lifting. A dramatic contrast to the drab, dusty, heat-blasted terrain of the past two years.
Two goddamn years…until, they –
Tension folded his brow together. Compressed his face. Hard memories to digest leaving an ugly pained expression.
Thirty-five years old, five foot eight in height, and equipped with a stocky physique that wasn’t as toned, tanned or muscled as it previously had been, once…
Another life, another me…
But he was still in great condition. Like a barely used model recently wheeled out of the shop floor. One careful owner. He had a round face with small hard features, although his eyes, green and almond shaped were large. Women found him attractive. It wasn’t something he dwelled on. It had been a long time since he’d been with anybody. Damage. So much damage.
The tiny station consisted of a small brick building and a footbridge separating two open air platforms. Trees and shrubs hemmed in the access roads on either side. It was Old World. The place hadn’t been updated in decades. He loved it.
If this was a construct, the techs had done a Stirling job of mapping his preferences and comfort nodes from the surviving remains of his consciousness.
Birds were singing, lapping up the warm rays. The air smelled of coal smoke and burnt vanilla – carbon and sweet.
He held his position on the platform as if on stag duty: the stance and the crew-cut now growing out in a blonde fuzz, all hinting at a military background. Technically he was still part of TNT. Currently not on active duty. Extended leave, psychological trauma.
The steam locomotive let out a shrill blast from its whistle. The iron drive wheels span rapidly, slipping on the metal tracks until they caught, then slowly hauled the short length of elegant rolling stock away from the platform. Pistons shunted back and forth. Building up speed. Steam gushed out in great clouds. People watched with childhood smiles.
This wasn’t a construct, he suspected. Because he could remember waking up at four o’clock this morning. And the tense journey from his flat in Crouch End to Paddington Station to meet the small group he’d travelled here with, to this remote edge of Cornwall. Tense because even the simplest things were an ordeal now. Flashbacks. Panic attacks. He wasn’t taking medication like he was supposed to. He knew he was stronger than that.
I’m supposed to be dead.
Yet here he was. It was hard to get used to. Reality, pressing up against his face. The memories of the last battle had been siphoned out of him, analysed for the ComSec reports, processed and recalibrated for minimal psych-impact before being merged back into his personality core. They couldn’t erase the recall: it would mean massive collateral damage to the dispersed memory archive and retrieval system of the human brain. That was lobotomy territory. Waste of a good solider. He was a good a solider, or had been. The Enemy had got a hold of him. They had…
What they did to me. Beyond barbaric.
The memories swam through his subconscious like sharks. That was the issue. Despite the recalibration, some part of him had been utterly damaged by the experience.
Not beyond repair however. I am still here. I am here. I am James Spaulding.
Mental sleight of hand. Skip to a new avenue of thought. His gaze focussed on a dragonfly skitting up and down as it sped along the edge of the platform. Chasing the slowly departing train. He instinctively tried to dial-up the focus on his eyes for a closer look. But they hadn’t replaced his eyes yet. Same with the synaptic bridge and WAM. He was still all human. Fleshy new and squeaky clean. Almost. Weird how much he missed the implants and yet didn’t.
This was the start of a week long holiday. Not that he’d define it exactly as a holiday. More like being placed on the edge of a potential conflict zone. He liked to break situations down into their essential components, identity the points on tension and visualise lines of risk. His mind still had the knack for doing that, even without the bioware.
There were five of them on the trip, including him.
Annabelle Spaulding. His older sister. Forty years old. Psychiatrist specialising in PTSD and combat veterans.
Anthony Spaulding. His younger brother. Twenty-five years old. Drifter and adrenaline junky. Sponge with no money. Doted on by Annabelle.
David Westlake. His sister’s husband of ten years. Forty-five years old. Ex-military commander. Now part of Vigilante Venture group, specialising in conflict investment. Not a good husband to his sister but a good friend to James: and trying to recruit him into Vigilante Venture.
Robert Briggs. Fifty-eight years old. Commercial solicitor, business colleague and close friend of David. Part of Vigilante Venture. His presence on the trip irritates Annabelle, and so by proxy, irritates Anthony.
James considered himself.
James Spaulding. Estranged brother to Anthony and Annabelle. Thirty-five years old. PARC pilot on extended leave of absence; resisting going to work for Vigilante Venture, day-dreaming of moving into some kind of technical engineering field, work in development or repairs… not sure. A bit lost. Head fucked. Struggling to cope…
Whatever, move on.
Lines of tension and potential conflict:
Annabelle and David. Once a happy couple now caught in a viscous spiral of mutual acrimony. Annabelle angry with David about how much time he spent with Vigilante Venture – and Robert Briggs – during the months she spent nursing mother before she died.
Annabelle and Robert Briggs. There was no invitation for him to join the family on the trip. Family trip. Not business trip. Robert Briggs represented everything that is broken about her relationship with David. Anthony will no doubt mirror Annabelle’s irritation, thereby deepening the already frayed atmosphere.
Annabelle and James. Once incredibly close. His leaving to join the military seemed to cause a shift. Sense of abandonment for big sister? Ten years ago she caught him doing something during a brief visit home on leave: she’d never been the same with him since. His absence during father’s illness and death, and again during mother’s illness and death was now the big stick she liked to hit him with.
Observation. Annabelle is nexus of all lines of tension.
Inter-family warfare. Emotions were not his favourite kind of insurgent or rebel. Yet both his Battalion Commander and the Regional UTOC Medical Liaison Officer had both approved the request. The request had come via David. Which in turn had come via Annabelle. David was a former Colonel of UTOC Mineral & Reserves Defence Regiment. MARDR. Nickname Murder. The dark horses of the corporate stable. David could still pull strings. David and James shared a friendship based on mutual suffering: both had suffered emotional and physical damage in war, and both sometimes found themselves at the mercy of Annabelle’s moody determination to have life conform to how she saw it should be. David didn’t want to be here on this trip either, but Annabelle wanted it – and what Annabelle wanted…
David had already left the station area to find a taxi. There wasn’t any parked outside.
The whole event had the feel of a well-orchestrated plot. Annabelle’s big head trip. Her chance to bring the family all together again, under one roof for the first time since the parents died, and a chance to heal the rifts.
For a professional psychoanalyst, his sister had some terrible personal issues bouncing off her padded walls.
James criticised his own negative thinking. It was unfair to say he didn’t want to be here. He did. He wanted reconciliation. He wanted love. He wanted family. He was just scared he was too long gone into the psychological spasm of psychosis and trauma to ever really come back to a semblance of feeling normal.
James rotated his mind away from the entangled cluster of thoughts and emotions. He stared at the retreating train. It was always a good way to cope. To just gaze off into a middle-distance and empty his mind.
The train. A piece of local history. A pricey tourist trap. It was typical of his older sister to blow money on such an extravagant arrival. Privately, he enjoyed seeing the relic of a long-distant era of travel huffing and puffing away from the station. However, his sister could have – should have – hired a van for the trek from London. It would have been simpler, cheaper, quicker, and would provide opportunity for them to carry a few items back. Not her style. No common sense. That was his sister.
He adjusted his negative thinking again: the train was a nice touch. A fun way to arrive. As for carrying items back to London. That depended on whether or not the house they were going to be spending the next week, actually contained anything of interest. Or value. This trip was a recce. A first encounter. If there was value to the place they could always arrange to come back.
Satisfied, he eased a sigh from his chest and squinted up at the sun. It was pleasantly warm. Not the forty-five degrees centigrade plus he’d been living and fighting within as part of Operation Metal Hammer. The soft breeze on his face was nice too. It didn’t carry the stink of burned engine oil or of bodies rotting in the heat.
No gunfire, no crump of concussion blasts, he acknowledged gratefully.
Bodmin. The place clung onto a rural vibe despite the oppressively small and modern buildings huddled along the top of the nearest embankment. It was okay. It was better than a rehabilitation centre in the sticky-heat of the Everglades, north-west of New Tokyo’s divisional headquarters for all UTOCs military units.
An advert emerged from a nearby holo-blister. Some black-haired dude wearing a Wulf armour vest stencilled with the word PRESS, and bristling with camera gear. James sighed and ignored it. The station must have snagged some of his personal details; either from the ticket booking or face-recog. The advert would be tailored to suit what the computers thought they knew about him. He made sure to remain outside of the projection’s audio field; flashy words rolled around the dude like streamers. James caught a few of them: NETWERK ZERO PRESENTS. ADAM KYLE IN ENGLAND. EXCLUSIVE NEW SERIES. MERCENARIES FIGHTING COVERT WARS IN OUR STREETS.
That wasn’t news.
James reached into front breast pocket of his white cotton shirt and extracted a packet of hand-rolled cigarettes. Toxin-free, hydroponic tobacco grown by some old woman just outside Bristol. The no-frills packaging was all recycled card-mash but he’d always loved the name of them: Sunder Smokes. She sold them via the Internet. He always had them shipped to whatever logistics hub was supporting his combat vector. Engagements rarely lasted less than two weeks. Sunder Smokes were always high on his list of priorities. His compatriots often joked about his tobacco habit. Played with the words. Sunder Smokes. Smoke Sunder. Smoke Asunder. Smoke your ass under. Har-bloody-har.
Still, the memory of his lot goofing around, kitted out in their BDUs, webbing, and cradling the military standard weaponry for infantry teams assigned to PARC squads; it made him smile. Until he remembered they were all dead.
A muscle jumped in his cheek, tugged the flesh beneath his eye.
He sighed, flipped open the packet and dragged one out with his teeth. His gaze slid back to the tail end of the train and watched as it vanished from sight. He had that age-old restlessness firing through his nervous system again. Those flesh magicians, with all their molecular hocus-pocus-pokery and genome programs hadn’t managed to massage that out of the new him.
Being a senior cog in one of UTOC’s TNT platoons came with a lot of perks. One of them was that the TNT looked after their people. Elite medical care that went up to and included cognitive renovation. And for a Captain with a triple A-star PARC pilot rating they threw in a whole something extra. A whole new body, replicant version of the original – nothing cheap and unfamiliar to compound the psychological shock of waking up after being dead. Cloned from a mandatory DNA sample. His mind-state recovered from the bruised, bloodied, butchered and petrol-burned remains the Enemy had left behind after the massacre. Elite medical care included a cerebral-codex implant at the base of his skull. Some poor fucker from the clean-up squad would have had to dug the piece of cyberware out of the charred, sinewy, twisted mess of his spinal column in order to start the recovery process.
And here I am today…but is this really me or just a misguided simulation? How does a recorded mind-state work after all? Where the heck is my soul?
Lighting the cigarette with an antique brass-cased zippo, custom rigged to burn bio-fuel, he grinned around the bitter smooth flavour. He picked up his nylon kit bag – the one he’d carried through two tours now – and drifted to the far end of the platform trailing a plume of smoke.
One week together. In some old house Annabelle had inherited from a grandfather nobody really knew. Hadn’t he been living in Frankfurt most of his life? Why the heck did he move all the way out to here? Call it instinct or gentle paranoia but James felt the whole arrangement – the inheritance, the house – was a little strange.
When the five people finally clambered into a taxi with their collection of bags and suitcases, none of them saw the skinny, saggy-fleshed man in the cheap business suit watching them from a sheltered seat by the entrance to the platform. If they had, they might have been disturbed to see the way the man peered out from beneath the wide brim of a large floppy hat, and took careful note of their physical aspects. And they would have been deeply bothered to know the oddly-postured man then got up and walked out, hobbling on spindly legs that seemed to jerk and twitch within the loose fitting trousers, to climb into a waiting car and start to follow the taxi from the small rural train station. 
Temple Combe sat next to the sea, perched 200 metres up, but separated from any view of the water by a steep, densely wooded spur that enclosed it on three sides like a giant letter C. James could only surmise that at some point in the town’s distant past, building it within such a natural enclosure had allowed it to defend itself from seaborne raiding parties crossing the Celtic Sea, Irish Sea and Bristol Channel, all of which were within short sailing of this part of the Cornish coastline. He knew that Atlantic Drive was a small road connecting the main drag to the nearest beach, which wound up and over the mid-section of the C-shaped enclosure. On the other side, the road dropped sharply, precariously down an almost vertical cliff-like descent, to a shallow bay – facing west. James knew this because he’d checked out the topography of Temple Combe via satellite imagery as soon as he’d known where they were going.
From Bodmin the taxi took the A389 north until reaching the A39, which they travelled for some distance before turning off to head north again. The roads at this point dwindled from well-maintained two-lane blacktop with clear markings to a single strip of badly potted tarmac that weaved left and right through a landscape generally hidden from view by the high hedgerows on either side. Not that the taxi driver – a local – took the lack of visibility as any reason to slow down. Everyone in the vehicle became very quiet as they hurtled around a chain of never ending blind bends at speeds that bordered insanity. The only thing that seemed to be stopping anybody from complaining was the sense that there was simply going to be nothing coming the other way. There were no roadside buildings. No developments just out of town. They were literally plunging headlong into the middle (or towards the edge) of nowhere.
They came in from the east, along a low-lying road that climbed sharply to reach the high elevation of the main town. Entering through the open mouth of the C-shaped enclosure of steep sided, sparsely wooded slopes, they passed swiftly along Moritz Parade, cutting across the small town. The narrow road was bordered by a mix of late 18th century cottages with low doorways, stone lintels, and tiny dormer windows poking up from grey-slate roofs that were almost camouflaged by the patterns of green and yellow moss. There was a handful of spacious early 20th century houses with large bay windows, overlooking small gardens that themselves were placed high above the passing road. Everywhere was hemmed in by dry stone walls that looked older than the town itself.
They were moving too quickly for him to get a proper feel for the place but the fleeting impression was isolated wealth. There was a lot of money here wrapped in old paint, weathered wood and lichens.
The house his sister had inherited sat on a separate hill, to the south of the main town, and was one of only two properties situated there. The hill was called Camel Heath, the only road connecting it to Temple Combe proper was a tiny twisting ribbon of tarmac called Rose Brook Lane. It snaked steeply down from Temple Combe to pass through a small collection of cottages and farm buildings, crossed over a broad stream via a humped-back bridge of ancient moss-covered stone, and then immediately began to wind its way up the sides of Camel Heath.
The terrain here was violently convoluted and submerged within dense woodland and foliage. The taxi sped through with abandon, descending into an almost nocturnal gloom where the sun was unable to penetrate the canopy overhead. In some places the sun did manage to filter through, creating pools of light tinged a meadow green. In other places a solitary lance of bright sunlight sliced down into the heavy shadows. The atmosphere was evocative, and impressed the imagination. James visualised dragons flapping wings overhead and medieval knights stalking through the woods below.
At the humpback bridge, James caught flash views of stone gateways leading off into shadows; luxury properties once associated with the shallow river that flowed between the two great hills.
“This is pretty special,” James said to no-one in particular. “It’s not what I was expecting.” Everyone murmured concurring words and sounds. Faces angled to peer out the taxi windows and soak up whatever passed by.
The ascent was a steep, tight curving arc that must have spiralled up around the north and easterly flank of Camel Heath before the road burst out of shadow back into dazzling sunlight.
This would have been a bugger to walk up and down, he mused, thinking about the idea of an elderly relative living out here all on his own. The question came back at him again: why would his estranged grandfather Eustace Spaulding move from a lifetime in Frankfurt to some place like this?
The road began to level out and straighten. To their left the view was almost entirely obscured by a low dry stone wall beyond which was a dense tangle of foliage, but the occasional break in the greenery provided snatched glimpses of the narrow, deep gulley which separated Camel Heath from the elevated bulk the town of Temple Combe sat upon. To their right, shrubbery bordering the road fell back to provide an uninterrupted view of jagged sea cliffs marching away, perpendicular to their direction of travel, defining the western flank of Camel Heath. Below the cliffs, an aquamarine ocean filled the view.
And then as they hurtled on, another dry stone wall abruptly rose up to contain the right side of the road, holding back the broad, gently rising expanse of wind-blasted moorland, which topped Camel Heath and followed the edge of the sea cliffs. Everything about the location seemed dramatic.
They passed one driveway without slowing. James snapped a look and saw the side of a small modern-looking property with a wide ground floor balcony, the whole structure perched precariously close to the cliff edge.
The taxi pressed on at speed. The road beginning to hook right. And then they were passing between two mighty stone gateposts. The rough tarmac became pale limestone gravel; the taxi tyres crunching across it.
Everyone apart from the sullen driver began to make sounds of delight and surprise as they registered the enormous bulk of the property called Oakfield.
The house was incredible. It sat to the left of the gravel drive, facing an expanse of wild grass and the moorland beyond that rolled away down the tumultuous flanks of the hill towards the cliffs. The sea lay some distance beyond, sunlight glinting off the surface. Oakfield was palatial in size and aspect; an impeccably maintained, rectangular block of Cornish stone, the front and sides almost obscured by green ivy dabbed with blood red leaves in places. Double-fronted, the central doorway enjoyed a small stone porch with identical, large, boldly sweeping bay windows on either side.
As the taxi braked to a stop, Annabelle twisted around in the front passenger seat, reached behind and gripped David’s hand. “Oh my God, look at this place.”
Her lengthy unhappiness about the presence of Briggs had evaporated. David was blatantly pleased by the upturn in her mood. Dark haired, tanned, sardonically good-looking like a battle-hardened version of Cary Grant, he held onto her hand and wiggled it back and forth, grinning.
“Looks like it’s worth a bomb,” he told her.
Annabelle guffawed and chucked his hand away, but in good humour. “In your dreams. I’m not selling this place.”
James slid his eyes sideways to observe his younger brother, who he suspected had only agreed to come along on the trip to ensure he got a slice of whatever inheritance was going to be served up. Anthony wasn’t looking too pleased. James grunted, said, “Tough luck old sport.”
Anthony fixed a mildly hostile stare on him.
The taxi doors opened. Everyone spilled out. James squinted in the dazzling light reflecting off the pale gravel and felt the heat wrapping itself around him.
“Wow, it’s seriously warm here.” Anthony commented.
“I would have thought there would have been more of a breeze.” Annabelle ruminated, turning to gaze out across the grass and moorland towards the sea.
“Probably sheltered by surrounding land formations.” David suggested as he went around to the back of the taxi with the driver and took charge of gathering the bags.
James stared at his sister where she stood in profile. Anthony beside her. The two of them looked so alike, he thought. And yet they were so different, as siblings; all three of them.
Whereas James had smooth, rounded features, Annabelle and Anthony had strikingly angular features that caught the sunlight and gathered harsh shadows. They also both had the heavy jaw of their father, Jonas, unlike James who had the gentle, playful jaw and mouth of their mother, Sonoma. It gave both of them a haunted, sullen expression, particularly when they were being nothing more than thoughtful. Annabelle hated people telling her to ‘cheer up’.
They all shared the same green eyes, almond shaped and almost lidless – a hark back to Inuit blood in the depths of the gene pool. They all had naturally light, golden blonde hair, and unlike his short functional fuzz, Annabelle and Anthony both had grown theirs long – although younger brother had updated his with a few streaks of neon-purple K-weave and shaved-down sides that showed off twin rims of neural interface sockets.
He wondered what their parents, Jonas and Sonoma would have made of their three children standing here like this?
Him, not the man he used to be, and suffering the psychological fall out of that fact. His older sister holding onto a grudge that went back ten years and only got worse once their parents had become ill and died. The young brother, baby of the group, twenty-five going on sixteen, with the lack of emotional maturity to match and seemingly only interested in whatever made him happy – whilst at the same time doing nothing to earn money and so constantly sponging off big sis.
James blew out, discharging an upwelling of angry feelings.
He experienced an acute moment of missing his parents. Two life stories that had come to an end – but that were still relevant to him, to his existence and the flavours of who he was.
Jonas Spaulding, son of Eustace, and father to Annabelle, James and Anthony. Died three years ago aged 65, after 10 years of illness through degenerative brain disease. Most of that time James wasn’t around. The final year had been very tough on both Sonoma and Annabelle. Jonas died of total system failure. The funeral was the only time James could really recall ever meeting Eustace. A moody, unhappy-looking old man with grizzled features and snowy white beard; he seemed like a larger-than-life character that was unwilling to come out for that particular performance. Of course, his only son, Jonas, was dead. Perhaps it was grief and regret, but James had not sensed that and James considered himself excellent at perceiving what people thought and felt. Throughout the funeral Eustace had barely said a word to any of them. Even Annabelle – which was why James found the whole inheritance thing strange – and then he had left.
James focussed on the fact Eustace had more or less disowned Jonas as a disappointing failure. Non-academic, and making a living from “sleaze”. What would Eustace have thought about him? It was a poignant question, standing there outside the place where Eustace had lived his final years. Would the house show its disapproval towards him?
Then there was Sonoma, maiden name Coit, family matriarch, and cause of Eustace disowning his son; daughter of a trailer park manager and the winner of a massive television show to find exotic dancers. That was when Sonoma had been 19, and that was also when she met Jonas. They had lived, laughed, loved and hurt together for their entire lives – regardless of Eustace, the estranged father figure. Six months after Jonas died, Sonoma was diagnosed with two primary cancers. She died eighteen months later, a year ago. She had starved to death; her oesophagus blocked by the cancer. She had been 63. She didn’t want to go through expensive surgery to cut out the oesophagus and replace it with a vat grown one, and save her live. The cancers had already spread. Survivability was a low percentage. She had died gracefully, lucid and clear, in the presence of all three of her children. It had been a beautiful death. Eustace never came to her funeral.
And James hadn’t been there when Annabelle had needed him. He had been fighting a war. And he was holding his own grudge for the way she had treated him since walking in on him injecting a post-combat narcotic ten years ago. Her whole attitude towards him had shifted in that moment. As if she no longer saw him as a brave soldier but as somebody who was shabby, worthless, and lost…
This was the crux of all their disagreements, he decided. A self-fulfilling prophecy of recriminations and hurt.
The awareness of the absence of his parents was sudden and intense. It was something that overwhelmed him periodically. A feeling of grief that came in waves.
Annabelle and Anthony both walked towards the tall, wild grass filling the area that could once have been considered a lawn beyond the driveway. James realised that he craved the love and affection of these two people, and yet was determined not to pander for it.
Hoisted by my own arrogance and ego, he considered. Maybe not. There had to be a boundary between winning the affection of somebody and being aware that some people were just not capable of giving it.
James lingered on Anthony. Like Robert Briggs, another fly in the ointment depending on which side of the maternal fence you sat on. Sonoma had always doted on Anthony, and as such, Annabelle did the same. Personally, James wished he could put his own prejudices and judgements aside, but sometimes his kid brother was just a complete dick.
Turning towards the taxi, James went to help David with the bags.
“Looks like you’re moving to Cornwall,” he murmured with wry humour.
“Like hell,” David replied after a quick glance at the driver who just stood watching. “I shouldn’t even be here. London is where the action is.”
“You’re meant to be on holiday.” James said vaguely.
David leant in close, exuding a strong scent of expensive aftershave, “She’ll have to sell it. No choice, really. Not unless she’s thinking about letting the place out but whose going to manage it?”
James shrugged, indifferent. “The town looks big enough. Plenty of people willing to earn some extra cash keeping a place like this clean.”
David knew he was right. He didn’t look pleased.
With all the bags placed by the front door, David paid the driver who climbed back into the taxi without so much as a thank-you or acknowledging their presence.
“Talkative chap.” Briggs commented, his voice as immaculate as his three-piece suite, a series of snapped syllables and crashing consonants.
James grinned. “I thought he’d never shut-up.”
Annabelle looked at him and smiled. Her expression conveyed something he understood: it was good to see him happy. He smiled back.
The taxi trundled off at an almost sedentary pace, leaving a faint cloud of dust from the gravel hanging in the air.
Annabelle got everyone’s attention. Her countenance theatrical. “Right then. Shall we take a look inside?”
Her performance was interrupted –
“Did Eustace have a dog?” Anthony asked abruptly, anxiety in his voice. Everyone followed the line of his fixed gaze. Coming towards them at speed across the moorland was a white dog. At least James assumed it was a dog but the size and snarling ferocity of it made it look more like a wolf.
David and James both marched forward. Both exuded natural confidence. The dog slowed and then stopped a few metres away. Deep back of throat growling. Strands of drool dangled from an open jaw crowded with jagged teeth. It was a stand-off.
But then a noise behind them caught their attention. The sound of the front door unlocking. The dog calmed immediately, trotted to one side and then ran round in an arc to avoid both men. In the porch, visible through the glass panels of the front door, was a short elderly man who projected a lithe, well-lived, well-travelled energy. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in a historical documentary about America in the 1880s. A mass of thick white hair was held back with a string of coloured beads. A faded blue denim shirt with some kind of feathers sticking out of the upper pocket. Unbuttoned halfway down his hairless chest, it revealed an aged but remarkably toned and deeply tanned body. A bright red bandana was tied around his throat. He got the door unlocked and the white dog plunged through to start jumping up and licking at his hands. The old man laughed, slightly embarrassed, as he took a few moments to pampered the excited dog .
“Hi there! Welcome to Oakfield.” He said eventually, speaking enthusiastically, like a television host from some bygone era. His accent had clipped, undulating inflections of old BBC England infused with something else. It was an instantly engaging voice. “Welcome. And I really mean that. The solicitor told me you were coming. I’m Hiram Sykes. I know a lot about you, but I guess you know nothing about me. I was his neighbour. And, for my sins, I was his closest friend.”
Back in the town of Temple Combe, the car that had followed the taxi from Bodmin didn’t go any further. The occupants knew where the taxi was going. Knew the house they were going to be staying at. The car turned off the road onto a short tarmac ramp that took it around and behind one of the large, 1920s houses that sat on the edge of Moritz Parade. The strange-looking man who had observed the family’s arrival at the train station clambered out, appearing clumsy as he moved, but at the same time demonstrating great agility and strength. He hurried into the shade of the house through a back door. Ignored the staff working there and went to the owner’s private study. The owner was out, but the man went to his desk and picked up the receiver of what looked to be an ornate, antiquate piece of electrical equipment. He began to speak immediately into the device. His vocals more of a blur of overlapping buzzing sounds than proper words, every few moments broken up by throaty, bone-like clicks. It wasn’t a language often spoken by humans. In fact, it was barely spoken on Earth at all.
# # # END OF SAMPLE
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