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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-11-01
  • Publisher: Leisure Books
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A divorced father and his young son face an unfathomable terror in their rambling seaside house.


Chapter One

Fortyfoot House

JUST BEFORE DAWN, I WAS WOKEN UP BY A FURTIVE scuffling noise. I lay still, listening. Scuffle. Then again, scuffle-scuffle-scuffle . But then silence.

    In the unfamiliar window, the thin flower-patterned curtains were stirred by the idlest of sea-breezes, and the fringes of the lampshade rippled like the legs of some strange ceiling-suspended centipede. I listened and listened, but all I could hear now was the sea, weary as hell, weary as all hell; and the gossipy whispering of the oak trees.

    Another scuffle; but so faint and quick that it could have been anything. A squirrel in the attic, a house-martin in the eaves.

    I turned over, and buried myself deep in the slippery satin-covered quilt. I never slept well in strange houses. Actually--since Janie had left me, I didn't sleep very well anywhere. I was dog-tired after yesterday's drive from Brighton, and the crossing from Portsmouth, and a whole afternoon spent unpacking and clearing-up.

    Danny had woken up twice in the night, too; thirsty the first time, and frightened the second. He said that he had glimpsed something crossing his bedroom, something hunched-up and dark, but it was only his dressing-gown, hanging over the back of the chair.

    My eyes closed. If only I could sleep. I mean, really sleep , for a night and a day and another night. I dozed, and I dreamed for a long, suspended moment that I was back in Brighton, walking down the sharply-angled suburban streets of Preston Park, between red-bricked Edwardian terraces, under a gray photographic sky. I dreamed that I saw someone scuttling from the steps of my basement flat, someone tall and long-legged, someone who turned round to stare at me once with a pointed white face, and then hurried away. The Long Red-Legged Scissorman , somebody whispered in my ear. He's real !

    I tried to run after him, but somehow he had managed to make his way into the park, behind the high cast-iron railings. Livid green grass; peacocks crying like abused children. All I could do was run parallel to him on the other side of the railings, hoping that he would still be in sight when I eventually came to a gate.

    My breath sounded thunderous. My feet slapped, clownish, on the tarmac path. I saw inflated faces bobbing past me, white balloons with human smiles. I heard a scratching, scuffling noise, too, as if a dog were following close behind me, its claws clicking on the path. I turned around, twisted around in the quilt, and suddenly I was awake and I heard a furious, noisy scuttling, much louder than a squirrel or a bird.

    I struggled free from the quilt and sat up in bed. It had been a hot night and my sheets were wrinkled and soaked. I heard one more faint, hesitant scratch, and then silence.

    I picked up my watch from the nightstand. It wasn't luminous, but there was enough light in the room now to see that it was 5:05. Jesus.

    I shuffled myself out of bed and crossed to the window, tugging back the curtains on their cheap plastic-covered wires.

    The sky was as pale as milk, and behind the oak-trees, the sea surged, milky too. My bedroom had a dormer window, facing south, and from here I could see most of the deceptively downsloping garden, the dilapidated rose arbor, the sundial lawn--then the steps that led down to the fish-pond, and zigzagged between the trees to the garden's back gate.

    From the back gate, Danny had already discovered that it was only a steep, short walk behind a row of snug little cottages with boxes of geraniums on every windowsill, and you were suddenly out on the seafront. Rocks, and scummy surf, and flyblown heaps of brown seaweed, and a cool salty wind that came all the way from France. I had walked down to the beach with him last night, and we had watched the sun set, and talked to a local fisherman who was dragging in plaice and halibut.

    Over on the left of the garden, on the other side of a narrow, overgrown stream, stood a crumbled stone wall, darkly covered with moss. Almost completely hidden by the wall was a crowd of sixty or seventy gravestones--crosses and spires and weeping angels--and a small Gothic chapel with empty windows and a long-collapsed roof.

    According to Mr and Mrs Tennant, the chapel had once served both Fortyfoot House and the village of Bonchurch below, but now the villagers drove to Ventnor to worship if they went anywhere at all; and of course Fortyfoot House had stood empty since the Tennants had sold up their carpet-tile business and moved to Majorca.

    I didn't find the graveyard particularly spooky. It was more sad than anything else, because it had been so neglected. Beyond the chapel roof rose the dark cirrus-cloud outlines of a huge and ancient cedar-tree, one of the largest that I had ever seen, and there was something about that tree that gave the landscape a feeling of exhaustion, and regret, and past times that would never come back. But I suppose it gave a sense of continuity, too.

    There was no color in the garden at this time of the morning, no color in anything. Fortyfoot House looked like the black-and-white photograph of itself that hung in the hallway, dated 1888. In the photograph, a man in a black stovepipe hat and a black tailcoat was standing in the garden; and I could almost have believed that he could reappear now, exactly as he was, colorless, stern, bewhiskered, and look up at me.

    I thought I might as well make myself a cup of coffee. It was no use trying to sleep any longer. The birds were beginning to whistle and fuss, and the darkness was draining from the sky so quickly that I could already see the sagging tennis-nets on the other side of the rose-garden, the lichen-stained greenhouse, and the overgrown strawberry-beds which bordered Fortyfoot House on its western side.

    "I hope, Mr Williams, that you enjoy making order out of total chaos," Mrs Tennant had asked me, looking around the gardens through her small dark sunglasses. She had given me the strong impression that she didn't like Fortyfoot House very much, although she had repeated again and again that she "sorely, sorely missed the old place, don't you know?"

    I eased open my bedroom door so that I wouldn't wake Danny, sleeping next door, and made my way quietly along the narrow upstairs corridor. Everywhere I looked I could see my work cut out for me. The pale green wallpaper was stained with damp; the ceilings were flaking; the windowsills were rotten. The radiators leaked, and their valves were encrusted with limestone. The whole house smelled of neglect.

    I reached the top of the steep, narrow staircase. I was just about to start downstairs when I heard the scuffling again--more of a rush than a scuffle. I hesitated. It sounded as if it had come from the attic. Not from the eaves, which I would have expected if it had been a nesting bird--but from the middle of the attic, almost as if it had been scuttling diagonally across the attic floor.

    Squirrels, I thought. I hated squirrels. They were so blindly destructive, and they ate their young. They had probably taken over the whole attic, and turned it into one stinking great squirrel-warren.

    There was a small door at the side of the landing, wallpapered with the same pale green wallpaper to make it less conspicuous. Mrs Tennant had told me that this was the only access to the attic; and that was why they had stored very little furniture up there.

    I opened up the cheap rusted door-catch, and peered inside. The attic was pitch-dark, and the draft which blew out of it smelled of dry-rot, and imprisoned air. I listened, and I could faintly hear the piddling of a leaky ball-valve in the cistern, and the wind blowing against the roof-tiles; but there was no more scratching.

    Close to the inside of the door I found an old brown plastic lightswitch. I switched it on and off a couple of times, but the bulb must have gone or the switch must have corroded--or maybe the squirrels had gnawed through the wiring. All the same, there was a large mirror on the opposite landing, and there was just about enough early sunlight falling through the landing window for me to be able to prop the mirror up against the banisters, and use the reflected light to illuminate the first few stairs up to the attic. I thought it would probably be a good idea for me to take a quick look around. At least I would have some idea of what I was up against. I hated squirrels, but I preferred squirrels to rats.

    I rucked up the hall carpet so that it would prevent the attic door from closing behind me, and then I cautiously climbed the first three stairs. They were extravagantly steep, and carpeted in nothing but thick brown underfelt, of a kind which I hadn't seen for twenty years. The draft still blew steadily down around me, but it definitely wasn't a fresh draft. It smelled as stale as used breath; as if the attic itself were breathing out .

    I paused for a moment on the fourth stair to listen again; and to allow my eyes to grow accustomed to the gloom. Surprisingly, there were no cracks of light showing through the tiles, which meant that the roof must have stayed reasonably sound. The wan silvery light shining up the stairs from the mirror didn't help very much, but I could make out a few conjectural shapes in the attic. Something that looked like an armchair. Something that looked like a small squat bureau. Then, in the angle between the roof and the attic floor, something that could have been a heap of old clothes; or maybe another odd-shaped piece of furniture covered with a dust-sheet.

    There was definitely dry-rot, I could smell it. But there was another smell, too. A thin, sweetish odor, like domestic gas, or a decaying bird trapped in a chimney. I couldn't decide what it was, but I did decide that I didn't like it. I made up my mind to come up here later with a flashlight, and find out what the hell it was.

    I was just about to go back downstairs when I heard the scuffling again. It was over in the far corner, where the eaves angled low, and the attic was darkest. Up here, it had a heavier, more substantial sound--not light, like a squirrel might have been, or feathery-scratching, like a bird. It was more like a big tomcat, or a very large rat, or even a dog--although how a dog could have climbed up into this attic, I couldn't imagine.

    " Psssssssttt !" I hissed at it, to startle it.

    The scuffling abruptly stopped. Not as if the creature had been frightened, and had made a hurried escape--but as if it had paused to find out what I was going to do next. I listened hard, and for a moment I thought I caught the sound of harsh, high breathing; but it was probably nothing more than the wind.

    " Pssssstttt !" I repeated, vehemently.

    There was no response. I wasn't frightened of the dark; and I wasn't particularly frightened of animals, even rats. I had a friend who caught rats for Islington council, in London, and once he took me miles around the sewers, showing me grease-gray rats swimming in tides of human feces, and after that I don't think I was scared of anything very much. My friend had said, "They gave us a week's training at Chigwell Reservoir so that we can identify a human solid instantly."

    "You need a week's training?" I had asked him, in bewilderment.

    I climbed up the last steep stair and took a single step across the attic floor, peering into the darkness. It took my eyes a long time to grow accustomed to the gloom. On the far side of the attic, I thought I could make out some kind of shape, but I wasn't sure. It wasn't as large as a man. It couldn't have been a man, standing where it was, under the sharply-sloping eaves. But it wasn't a child, either. It was too odd, too bulky for a child. Yet no cat could have stood that tall.

    No, I was just imagining things. It was probably nothing more terrifying than an old fur coat, hanging over a chair. The attic was so dark that my eyes began to play tricks on me, and I saw shapes and shadows moving where no shapes or shadows could have moved. I saw transparent globules floating across my eyeballs, dust or tears or scratches.

    I took one more step. My foot struck against the edge of a hard, rectangular object--a chest or a box. I listened, and softly breathed; and although I had the feeling that there was something in the attic, something watching me, something waiting for me to come closer, I decided that I had probably gone far enough.

    The truth was that I was sure that I could see it. Intensely dark, small and somehow tensed --not moving, waiting for me to move. And I was ashamed of being so sure; because logic told me that the worst it could be was a large rat.

    I wasn't afraid of rats. Or, to be more accurate, I wasn't very afraid of rats. I had tried to read a horror novel about rats once, and it had done nothing but put me happily to sleep. Rats were only animals: and they were more frightened of us than we were of them.

    " Pssstt ," I hissed, much more cautiously. At the same time, I thought I heard it move and scratch.

    " Pssstttt !"

    Still no response. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath; and the attic became dead and airless. I took one step back, then another, reaching behind me for the stair-rail; withdrawing as steadily as I could toward the pale reflected light from the mirror.

    I grasped the rail. It was then that I heard the thing shift and scratch, and start moving. Not away from me. Not wriggling its way down some dark crevice, the way that rats did. But toward me, very slowly, with an indescribable sound like fur and claws but something else, too; something that made me frightened for the first time since I had climbed down that first manhole in Islington.

    " Pssst , go away, shoo!" I ordered it.

    I felt ridiculous. Supposing it were nothing at all? A heap of old rubbish, a pigeon scratching at the roof. And, actually, what could it be, apart from a bird, or a small-sized rodent? A bat? Possibly. But bats aren't dangerous unless they're rabid. And rats (unless they're famished, or critically threatened) are much more interested in their own survival than they are in attacking something that might attack them very much more crushingly in return. They're cowards.

    My back collided with the stair-rail. I was seized by a huge urge to get out of that attic, and fast. As I reached the top stair, however, the carpet which held the door open abruptly unrucked itself, and the door swung silently shut. I heard the catch click; and then I was standing in total darkness.

    I prodded around with my foot, trying to find the next stair. For some odd reason, no matter how far down I stepped, I couldn't find it. The stairwell felt as empty as an elevator-shaft. Even though I was beginning to panic, I couldn't bring myself to step out into nothingness.

    "Danny!" I shouted. "Danny! It's Daddy! I'm up in the attic!"

    I listened. There was no reply. Danny had been as tired as I was, and he could usually sleep through anything. Thunderstorms, music, even his parents screaming at each other.

    "Danny! I'm up in the attic and the door's shut!"

    Again, no reply. I shifted my way around the head of the stairs, clinging tightly to the stair-rail, which was all I had to orientate myself. I tried widening my eyes and straining them as hard as I could, but no light penetrated the attic whatsoever, not even a chink. It was blacker than being buried under the blankets.

    "Danny!" I called, but without much hope of him hearing me. Why the hell couldn't I locate the stairs? I knew they were steep, but surely they weren't that steep? I waved my foot around again, but still I couldn't reach them.

    It was then that I heard that scuffle-scuffle yet again. It was very much closer--so close that I instinctively backed away even further--as far as I could without releasing my grip on the stair-rail.

    "Danny," I said, in a low voice. "Danny, it's Daddy."

    Scuffle .

    My heart was beating in long, slow lurches. My mouth dried out like a sponge on the side of an empty bathtub. For the very first time in my adult life, I didn't know what to do; and I think it was that feeling of complete helplessness that frightened me more than anything else.


    And then a high, tittering sound; like somebody speaking in a foreign language they didn't understand very well. It was incomprehensible. It could have been a human being, speaking in Thai or Burmese. But it could have been the chittering of an excited animal, an animal that smelled blood.

    " Pssssstttt !" I retorted. But the tittering didn't stop. If anything, it became quicker and more excited. It gave me the most appalling feeling, as if I were about to die.

    DANNY. Had I called that? It had either been so soft or so loud that I hadn't been able to hear it. DANNY IT'S DADDY.

    Then something brushed past me in the darkness. It felt hideous and cold and bristly, the size of a ten-year-old child, and heavy , too, an overweight child. It scratched my arm with a quill or a claw, and I yelped out loud, and stumbled, and lost my grip on the stair-rail. I fell backward, hitting my shoulder against a box, but I heard the creature scurry past me, only inches away, with a triumphant, sibilant hiss. Hih-hih-hih-hih-hih !

    I rolled over, bruising my side, and dropped down the stair-well. It was like falling off the edge of a hundred-foot building, in the dark. I may not have been able to find the stairs with my feet, but I found them now. I jarred against the edge of every stair, all the way down to the bottom. Head--shoulder--hip--elbow. By the time I reached the bottom, and my knee burst open the landing door, I felt as if I had been beaten all over with a cricket-bat.

    I was dazzled by reflected sunlight.

    "Oh, Christ!" I exclaimed.

    Danny was standing on the landing in his striped Marks and Spencers pajamas, waiting for me.

    "Daddy!" he said, excitedly. "You fell down!"

    I lay back on the carpet with my feet still tangled halfway up the stairs.

    "It's all right," I reassured him; although I was really saying it to reassure myself. "There weren't any lights, and I tripped."

    "You were calling ," Danny insisted.

    "Yes," I said, climbing on to my feet, and closing the attic door, and quickly latching it. Did I hear any scuffling, just the slightest scratch ?

    "What were you calling for?"

    I looked down at him, then shrugged. "The door closed. I couldn't see."

    "But you were scared."

    "Who said I was scared? I wasn't scared."

    Danny stared at me solemnly. "You were scared."

    I stared at the attic door for longer than I really had to. "No," I said. "It's nothing. It was dark, that's all. I couldn't see."

Copyright © 1992 Graham Masterton. All rights reserved.

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