- New Neighbours; The Watcher; Wrong Place, Wrong Time; Rafferty; Vanilla; Legend
Lettice Haldermeyer was 92 years old and thought nothing in the world could ever surprise her or faze her. She’d lived in the neighbourhood for more than 70 years, brought there by her beloved, much-missed husband, so had seen many changes. When the ‘For Sale’ sign went up in the front garden of Number 28, right opposite her own little home, she wished the Millar family well and waited to see who would be the next occupiers.
The weeks passed. Then months. Summer turned to winter, winter to spring, and the house did not sell.
In the early hours of the morning of Tuesday, 24th May, Lettice opened her curtains to see that the sign was on its side on the lawn, and an unfamiliar car was parked in the driveway. Time to make my Vanilla and Raisin Fudge, she said to herself, and was glad to have a mission that day.
At midmorning Lettice crossed the street. The vehicle, which was unlike any she’d ever seen, was low to the ground, very sleek and of a colour that seemed to change even as you looked at it. Her Arthur had loved cars, so she couldn’t resist a peek in the window. The upholstery was navy blue and looked very plush. She could see no instrumentation on the dashboard, it was like a long, dark mirror. She supposed it all lit up and looked quite normal when the engine was running.
Approaching the front door Lettice hesitated as the curtains were still drawn. Whoever they were had moved in quietly during the night, so maybe they were still sleeping. But she could hear sounds within, metallic banging and some kind of modern, utterly tuneless music with a monotonous beat, so she decided to go ahead and ring the bell.
The door opened a crack. The eye peering out at her was large and bloodshot, so she apologised if she had disturbed them and held up the plate, one of her best bone china ones with delicately painted pansies round the rim.
“I’m Lettice Haltermeyer and I live across the street,” she said. “I just wanted to welcome you to your new home. I hope you like vanilla and raisin fudge?”
The eye stared.
Lettice lowered the plate. “Er, do you speak English?” she said, very slowly.
The eye still stared.
“Well, um, what I’ll do is, I’ll leave the plate on the doorstep here, and when you feel a little less tired, you can, um, help yourselves.”
She backed away, only tearing her gaze from that unmoving, unblinking eye when she was about half way down the drive.
Busy with housework, phone calls and her latest cross stitch project, she tried to put the new neighbours out of her mind, but couldn’t help peeking through the net curtain every half hour to see if they’d taken her welcome gift. By the time she went to bed it was still there, just where she’d left it.
Her sleep was disturbed by strange dreams, and she was startled awake in the early hours by a bright flash of light that illuminated her bedroom and made her eyes smart. Her eardrums throbbed with a strange, low, humming sound, too. She tried to get up so she could investigate, but the next thing she knew it was 7 am, a full half hour past her usual rising time, and her head felt befuddled as she bathed and dressed. Lettice never drank alcohol, but she suspected this is how a hangover felt.
The postman brought her a parcel, and as he walked away with a cheery whistle, she spotted her plate tucked under the spiny shrub that grew beneath her living room window.
Lettice had delivered twelve squares of her famous and much loved vanilla and raisin fudge, and twelve had been returned. All, though, had been nibbled round the edges, leaving small, sticky pieces arranged in a circle in the centre of the plate.
Hmm, thought Lettice.
Sensing she was being watched, Lettuce raised her eyes to Number 28. Two faces grinned at her from an upstairs window. She had to blink a few times because their heads looked decidedly… odd. She was almost certain, too, that each of the four hands waving at her only had three long fingers.
She waggled her own fingers in an answering wave and went back inside to make herself a pot of tea.
Wild-eyed and sweating, the tramp stumbled to his alleyway. Rest, he mumbled, as if reciting a mantra, I need rest. Another paroxysm of coughing felled him before he reached his precious pile of cardboard and old newspapers. On the cold, damp ground he curled his knees to his chest, gasping, shivering, cursing the sickness that ailed him.
From the shadows The Watcher stared at the pathetic figure. Yes. This was the one. He had been observing him for a long time now and knew the man could barely remember his own name, or where he’d come from and how he’d fallen so low.
But The Watcher knew. The Watcher knew everything.
Mike Hardacre, he purred, your family are looking for you. They have riches beyond your wildest dreams.
There was no-one to witness the man in rags thrashing and screaming as his memories were stripped from him without mercy. Only The Watcher heard his final breath, his last heartbeat.
The tramp who had staggered into the alleyway was no more.
The tramp who emerged into the light of the street lamps knew exactly where he needed to go.
His grin was a slow and terrible thing.
WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
The silvery haze surrounding her might just as well have been a solid glass wall, because try as she might she could not push through it. If she could only touch him, make him aware of her. Over and over she called his name, but he couldn’t hear her. She could only watch in despair as he roamed the house, screaming with rage and incomprehension.
He was neglecting himself. His hair was wild, in need of a wash, and he hadn’t shaved in days. Had he even changed his clothes? If only she could tell him that she was sorry. Truly, truly sorry. Maybe then, in time, they could both find peace.
Sometimes she wanted to give in, to leave the mist and walk into the light that constantly beckoned. Joy awaited her on the other side. But she couldn’t leave him. Not yet. Somehow she had to make him understand that he wasn’t to blame.
It had been her mistake to walk out after their argument, her fatal mistake to turn left instead of right.
She’d tried to run, but they’d been faster.
Last time Alex had visited Beth in her office she’d had the well-proportioned, high-ceilinged room with the views over the extensive hospice garden all to herself. Now someone was sharing it with her, someone almost hidden by massive piles of paper and folders on her desk.
Beth waited until the other woman finished the call she was on, then made the introductions. “Alex, this is Rhianna, she’s doing some research for her Masters in hospice and palliative care. Rhianna, you wanted to meet my husband, and here he is!”
He reached to shake her hand, careful not to dislodge any of the papers, and knew instantly that someone was with her. Someone who had passed away quite recently.
Unaware, Rhianna was regarding him with some amusement as she said, “You’re the first psychic medium I’ve ever met, and I’m going to be cheeky enough to ask if I could talk to you some time.” Her cheeks flushed pink and she hurriedly added, “For my research, I mean. You must have a unique take on hospice work.”
Alex grinned. “I’d be happy to talk to you. I have a particular affinity with this place, which Beth has probably explained. We’ll set a date shall we, I-” He was stopped mid-sentence by the whisper of a single word in his mind, but he was reluctant to open a channel to someone in spirit when he didn’t know why they were there, so he hastily pulled his mobile from his pocket and said he had to make a call and would be back.
He strode along the carpeted corridor towards the staircase, intending to head for his favourite bench in the garden where he would be able to concentrate, the one with the view of the amazing water sculpture. But his foot had barely touched the top step when he heard the word again, insistent and much louder this time:
Standing stock still, ignoring the people passing him and casting him strange looks, Alex opened his mind to allow whoever it was to communicate further. He listened for a short while, and retraced his steps.
Both Beth and Rhianna looked up as Alex arrived in the doorway, just as Rhianna was saying that she hoped he hadn’t thought she was angling for a free reading. When she realised he must have heard her, the scarlet rapidly crept upwards from her neck to her forehead and Alex decided it was kinder to ignore her embarrassment.
“Rhianna, who, or what, is Rafferty?”
Her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes widened. Biting her lip to stop it trembling, she eventually managed to compose herself enough to ask why Alex wanted to know.
“I got the word as we were being introduced and I heard it again on my way out just now. It’s a man speaking to me, someone who passed very recently. Is it his surname I’m hearing?”
“It’s a dog. Rafferty’s a dog.”
“I see. And did he belong … wait … yes, the man is telling me his name is Barry, and the dog was his. Look, I can tell you’re shaken by this, are you happy for me to continue?”
Rhianna, blinking furiously, explained that Barry was her uncle, and Beth said, “I’m so sorry, Rhianna, I didn’t know you’d lost someone. Are you OK?”
She offered to give them some privacy but was asked to stay.
Alex took a chair and sat down, hoping to receive clearly whatever Rhianna’s uncle wanted to say, but it seemed he wasn’t going to give any more information about himself. All he did was forcefully convey a picture of a large dog and his feeling of distress about it.
“I’m being shown a very handsome Golden Retriever. Your uncle is very worried about him.”
Rhianna glanced at Beth, who said, “It’s all right. You can trust Alex. You know you’ve told me nothing about your family, so he couldn’t know these things.” She patted Rhianna’s shoulder. “In fact I’ve just realised how very good you are at extracting information from people while giving nothing back about yourself!”
Rhianna dabbed at her tears with a tissue. “I’m sorry. I’ve … I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Can you … heavens, is my uncle really here?” She searched the room, a mixture of disbelief and hope on her face.
Alex explained again that Barry was definitely with them, but seemed solely concerned with Rafferty.
She sighed deeply. “That’s so typical of him. No thought for the rest of us, how we’re all grieving for him; he absolutely doted on that dog.”
“Yes, I’m feeling that, but he’s really telling me nothing. If you could just explain what happened, maybe I can get to the bottom of this.”
Rhianna told him that her uncle had died six months ago. “A motorbike accident. We were all so shocked none of us thought about Rafferty, so he was alone in Barry’s flat for a full day and night before my dad went round there. He was frantic, as you can imagine. We all love Rafferty, so he’s being looked after between us while we find a home for him.”
‘He’s special. I need to be certain he’s taken by someone who will love him as much as I did, someone he’ll be truly happy with.’
“Hmm. I know you can’t hear him, but Barry has just told me he needs reassurance that his dog will go to a good home.”
“Of course he will! Dad would love to keep him, but he has bad hips and can’t give Rafferty the exercise he needs. I’d give him a home if I could, but I’m planning on going to the States for a few months … it’s just not possible.”
‘He’s in her car. I want you to meet him.’
Surprised, Alex asked Rhianna if what Barry had just told him was true. She nodded, explaining that she’d had no choice but to bring the dog with her today.
“I’ve already checked that it’s OK for him to come into the building, but I was going to ask if it’s OK with you, Beth. He’s very well-behaved, he’ll just lie down under my desk once he’s got over the excitement of coming into a new place and meeting new people.”
Beth looked delighted, exclaiming, “Oh, I so love dogs! I don’t mind at all. Why don’t you fetch him, and I’ll make us all some coffee.”
Knowing she was relieved at having an excuse to get away from his revelations, Alex smiled reassurance at Rhianna as she grabbed her keys and hurried away. By the time she came back, a very large Golden Retriever trotting at her heels, Beth had made three mugs of coffee.
“I don’t want him jumping all over you.” She looked down at the dog and firmly ordered, “Rafferty, sit!”
The dog sat, his feathery tail swishing madly on the cord carpet, swinging his handsome head from Rhianna to Alex to Beth and back again. Beth sighed, “Oh, he’s gorgeous! Can I stroke him?” Rafferty leaned into her, making her laugh with the way he squirmed to get her to scratch the best spots on his back. Then his gaze fixed on Alex and he went to him and pressed his wet, black nose into his hands.
Rhianna apologised, “I’m so sorry, he’s getting hair all over you.”
Alex, fondling the velvety ears and the long, soft muzzle, replied, “I don’t mind. I grew up with dogs. My mother always says it isn’t any old ordinary hair they shed, it’s fibres of pure love.”
He could sense Barry’s pleasure as the man said, ‘He likes you.’
‘He’s a lovely dog, Barry. Do you have a message for Rhianna?’
Alex waited for a response but Barry didn’t answer. He glanced down and found himself lost in the softest, darkest brown eyes, so doleful in the golden, furry face. There was a moment of stillness between them, until Rafferty stiffened and stared intently at a spot just past Alex’s right shoulder.
‘He can see me!’
‘Yes, Barry, he can.’
Rafferty barked, a single, deep woof, that echoed off the walls and Rhianna admonished him as she tried to pull him away.
“It’s OK. He can see your uncle. Animals are smart, they can tell the difference between us and those in spirit.”
‘Rafferty is more than smart! I don’t just want a good home found for him, I want him to choose who he goes to.”
Rafferty laid his handsome head once more on Alex’s knee and he found himself transfixed again by that gaze. It was as if the dog was looking deep into his soul. His skin started to prickle as the implications of this meeting slowly dawned on him. He and Beth had only recently started talking about getting a dog. Did Rafferty want to be that dog?
He tore his eyes away and looked at Beth. She grinned back at him, barely suppressing her excitement.
The tatty, much-creased map lay unfurled on the table, held down by a heavy crystal bottle on one side and a slim black tablet on the other. Her grey-green eyes roved across the towns and cities until they alighted on York. Had she been there? She searched her memory. Yes, but it was a long time ago. It would be safe to return.
So who would she be this time?
Allegra Highsmith had been her identity for the past eight years, Samantha Kingsley before that. How about Jade Elliott this time? Or Tamara Tynan, Aurora Montaigne? She tapped the tablet and swiftly entered her choice. Within an hour all the documents were ready and her considerable funds transferred to a new account.
With a contented sigh, she lifted the lid from the bottle and dabbed a tiny drop of vanilla-scented liquid the colour of absinthe onto her tongue.
Packing up was easy. She had no ornaments, no knick-knacks. She left in the night with just the clothes on her back and a small bag carrying the tablet, glass bottle, and a few other things she would need.
But she never made it that far.
A deer leapt in front of her. The brakes locked and the car went into an uncontrollable skid to the edge of the narrow, rain-slicked road. For a tantalising second it hung there, before tipping forward and rolling until halted, wrecked but the right way up, by a stand of trees.
The scent of vanilla brought her back to consciousness. The scent that made husbands sidle up, eyes agleam, and whisper, “You smell wonderful.” The scent that made wives ask, in tones that dripped with jealousy, “Do tell me the name of your perfume.” But she would never tell, never divulge what it was that drove men to lust after her and women to hate her. As long as she kept moving before people started to notice that she showed no signs of aging.
Her head pounded and her ribs hurt badly, quite likely one or two were broken, but she had to find the bag.
It had landed in the footwell, spilling its contents beneath the pedals. She unclipped the belt and pushed the seat back as far as it would go. A razor sharp pain shot through her as she pushed aside her purse, a lipstick, the tablet, a notebook held together with a narrow purple ribbon. She pulled her hand back, spraying blood, furious to see a shard of pearlescent glass lodged in her finger.
One hundred and fifty years she had been taking the elixir that was the colour of absinthe and gave her skin the scent of vanilla. One hundred and fifty years of living and looking like a human of exquisite youth and beauty. There had been enough for another century, maybe more, but a deer, of all things, had put paid to that. There was no more to be had, not on this world.
She searched for the gold-topped dropper, hoping there would be just enough to give her the strength to escape and hide herself away, but she could not find it. She was weakening fast; her face and body were changing. She knew what the rear-view mirror would reflect if she were to look.
Her last action was to use her remaining strength to drive her heel into the tablet until it was smashed to pieces.
Her last thought was sorrow for the rescuers who would struggle to comprehend what they found in the tangled metal, for it wouldn’t be the body of a young, beautiful woman who had been on her way to York.
Maddy pulled her thick mittens off with her teeth, leaving on the fingerless gloves beneath. The cold immediately bit into her fingertips, so she wasted no time jotting down the measurements. The footprints were huge, the stride distance that of a very tall creature with long legs. Couldn’t possibly be human. Besides, what human would walk barefoot in deep snow? Excitement built in her chest as she prepared to take photographs before the coming blizzard reached the area and obliterated the evidence. She grinned at the knowledge of what her discovery would bring: published articles in the best scientific journals, media appearances, hordes of scientists and sightseers coming here hoping for a sighting. Perhaps they would name this spot after her? Well, even if that was a dream too far, she would certainly be famous.
A grunt and a snuffling noise made her glance up and her heart almost stopped. She wanted to cry out, call to the other members of the expedition to come running. But her voice stuck in her throat and she could only stare, awe-struck at the creature in front of her. It was everything she thought it would be and more. So much more. Dry-mouthed, unaware of her numb, trembling hands, she slowly raised the camera. The face before her came into sharp focus as she carefully adjusted the lens, but she did not press the button. A voice whispered inside her mind, not speaking words she could understand, but compelling her all the same to lower the camera. She gazed directly into the eyes of that which had tried to find for so long and the voice carried on speaking, sounding like dry leaves blowing across a pavement. The message was so profound, so … desperate, she felt it with every fibre of her being. Her dream of future expeditions were reflected back at her, but from the creature’s point of view. It and others of its kind would be hunted mercilessly. And if it was caught, what then? They would want to capture one of them, wouldn’t they? Maybe even kill it so they could take it apart, satisfy their insane curiosity with thoughtless cruelty.
She bowed her head to show that she had understood. When she raised her head again the creature disappeared into the swirling snow.
Maddy trudged back to base, ignoring the other members of the team as they called out, asking if she had seen anything. In the warmth of her tent, she deleted all the photographs she’d taken that day and tore the pages from her notebook. Ripping them into tiny shreds, she stuffed them into her pocket. Like a sacrifice, she would give them to the flames of the camp fire.