Linda Harper came of her own will, even if someone else’s had summoned her. Her daughter wasn’t so willing.
“Couldn’t you have got this stuff posted to you?” Simone Harper asked from the passenger seat, not for the first time.
“It’d cost too much – there’s a lot of heavy papers and books,” Linda explained with fraying patience, as she turned off onto a quiet country lane. “Besides, it was only polite I offered to do the packing myself.”
“No, you offered me to do the packing for you, and that ain’t polite,” Simone huffed. “Especially when you knew Callum was taking me out tonight.”
“You go out with Callum every weekend, and a fair few school nights too,” Linda said with an air of disapproval.
Simone rolled her eyes. “I go to college, not school,” she reminded her mother. “And tonight ain’t just any Saturday night; Cyanide Honeymoon are playing at the Town Hall!”
Linda stifled a chuckle. “Oh, I do apologise for stunting your cultural development.”
Simone wasn’t amused. “Callum’s bought tickets and everything!”
“Well, I’m sure he can find a mate to go with.”
Simone glowered out of the passenger window at the rolling brown fields, freshly harvested. She was Callum’s mate.
“Ah! I think this is the place,” said Linda, relieved.
A tall man stood waiting by an ornate but rusty gate. Linda got out of the car and urged Simone to do likewise.
“You must be Mr Lichfield.”
“Malcolm.” The man nodded. “We’ve met before, Linda, if may call you that. I saw you sometimes when I came to my aunt’s lectures after school.”
“Gosh, yes. Doesn’t time fly.” Linda recalled the bushy-haired teenager who’d earnestly scribbled away in the back row of the lecture theatre. He was in his thirties now, bearded and balding.
“Now I have teenager of my own: Simone.” Linda frowned towards the passenger side, from which her daughter was extracting herself like a zombie clawing its way from the grave. She added, “I’m very sorry about your aunt, Malcolm; she can’t have been that old.”
“She was old enough,” Malcolm said brusquely. “Let me show you to the house.”
The garden path was evidenced only by a thin cleft through a jungle of weeds. Linda followed closely in Malcolm’s wake as he parted the vegetation, but goosegrass latched onto her tights and thorns scratched at her suede jacket all the same. She swallowed as the house’s Victorian Gothic frontage came into view. The window frames were rotting, the glass panes grimy and a few cracked. Her gaze followed the central eave up to its apex, and she shrieked.
A gargoyle was poised above them, weathered but defiant. Acidic rain had whittled its brain to the most primitive faculties, and its lower jaw had fallen away completely, leaving a palate of fangs, goofy in a macabre way.
A sickness swept across Linda’s stomach – regret at having made the journey – but she swiftly scotched it. She’d come to lay demons to rest, be they hewn of stone or otherwise. There were no curses, she told herself. No ghosts, no witches, and certainly no haunted houses.
Only the crows cawed in the aftermath of her scream. She felt embarrassed at losing her cool in this younger man’s presence.
“I’m afraid my aunt let the house slip in her latter years,” was his only response. “You should have seen it twenty years ago. Or maybe you did.”
Linda shook her head. “No, I never visited Professor Lichfield here. In fact, after leaving my course I didn’t see her again.” She made a half-shrug. “I’m baffled, really – that she left her academic articles to me. I was hardly a model student.”
“You must have done something to gain her favour,” the nephew replied. “And besides, who else? My aunt’s so-called friends all abandoned her. Positively petrified of her, they were. If something like… that happens once, it’s a tragedy. Twice, bad luck. But three or four times; that’s a curse in most people’s books. Pity that supposedly learned people fall into such groundless superstition.”
He ended his mini-diatribe with a pointed glare at Linda. “I left my course for personal reasons,” she blurted, the denial betraying her guilt. “I was a single-mother-to-be, wasn’t I?”
At that moment, Simone made her tramping entrance through the weeds. She scowled, catching this indirect reference to herself. The eighteen-year-old was, in terms of facial features, a near carbon copy of her mother – save a slighter chin, a smaller mouth, and amber eyes that had never seen the father she’d inherited them from – but she took every effort to set herself apart. Ripped jeans and a black t-shirt stretched themselves over the girl’s boyish figure. Her hair was shaven back and sides, the remainder dyed jet-black and gelled, so that people often took her, wrongly, to be a lesbian. A nose ring was just the latest object of her mother’s ire.
“Cyanide… Honeymoon.” Malcolm read from the graphic illustration (in every sense) on Simone’s t-shirt. “A film, is it?”
“A grindcore band,” said Simone derisively.
The poor man was none the wiser, so Linda added, “Music. Allegedly.”
“Ah. I don’t think they get played on Radio Two. Anyway…” Malcolm pushed open the front door. The house exhaled its staleness into the fresh autumn air. Stacks of leather-bound books, piles of wilting papers, old furniture in random arrangement stretched as far as dust and darkness permitted Linda to see. She shuddered anew.
Malcolm extended an arm towards the gloom. “It’s yours for the taking, Linda. Every textbook, every artefact, every half-baked scribble. You can leave the key in the letterbox when you’re done. I’m sorry I can’t stay and help you; my wife is laid out with the flu.”
Linda’s heart sank further. Malcolm’s smile was genial, but she fancied he was mocking her with his eyes, enjoying her discomfiture. He wore no wedding ring.
Pull yourself together! It’s just a run-down house and a load of junk, she told herself.
Besides, Linda wouldn’t be alone. She hadn’t endured Simone’s whinging all along the motorway for any reason other than this.
She smiled back at him. “Don’t let us keep you any longer, Malcolm. I hope your wife gets better soon. Simone, go inside and get the lights switched on; I’ll get the packing cases from the car.”
* * *
The day wore on. Simone knuckled down to sorting through the late professor’s junk; she knew she wouldn’t be leaving until she did. She holed herself away in a room filled with display cases, and by the afternoon’s end, found herself grudgingly enjoying the task.
Professor Lichfield’s field of study had been anthropology, which as far as Simone could see, involved trotting the globe collecting other cultures’ tat. Embalmed animal paws, tooth bracelets, fertility figurines with big breasts and pregnant bellies – the cruder and creepier the better, it seemed. Simone bubble-wrapped and packed each object.
One item – an oval pendant – gave her greater pause than the others. Its rim was wrought of intricate if tarnished bronzework, studded with red and green gems and fragments of bone and stone. This surrounded a large central gemstone, black as night yet seeming to sparkle and even glow through its soft facets. The whole thing was suspended on a loop of bark fibres, individually fragile but expertly woven to provide impressive strength.
Standing at the window, Simone held her find up to the low November sun, revealing depths in the black orb that defied her sense of perspective. It felt as if she were peering into a well, in which myriad suns danced upon murky water – unnerving but beautiful.
Casting a furtive glance around the room, Simone slipped the string over her neck. The pendant hung heavily against the belligerent lettering of her t-shirt. She liked it. Although she didn’t go in for the Romantic Goth look per se (she was more leather and chains than rubies and lace), this would be the perfect accessory to wear at gigs.
“Simone? Can you come here a minute?”
Hearing Linda’s voice, Simone hastily tucked the acquisition under her t-shirt. This was her find to keep; her mother was not getting her hands on it. The bronze graced a cool kiss upon Simone’s breastbone. It made her feel accomplished; powerful even.
“Simone, can you hear me? I’m in the kitchen! SIMONE!!”
“COMING!!” roared Simone. She stormed to the kitchen, where her mother was sifting through grimy pots and crockery.
“Ah, there you are. Can you fetch the suitcase from the car before it gets dark?”
“The suitcase?” Simone frowned. “But that’s only got our overnight stuff in it.” Her eyes widened. “You can’t seriously be thinking…?
“Of staying here?” said Linda. “Of course we are. There are two perfectly good bedrooms upstairs.”
Simone screwed her face. “Can’t we stay in a hotel? Or a B&B? Hell, I’d choose a leaky tent over this dump.”
Linda shrugged. “Feel free to do anything of those things if you want to pay for it yourself.”
“Why should I? It’s your sodding inheritance!” Simone fired back. “Though it beats me why you’re bothering to collect. Do you seriously want this mouldy junk?”
“Yes, I do,” said Linda adamantly. “I never finished my studies, and I’d quite like to resume them after all these years raising you.”
“You make it sound like it’s my fault you let some random loser put his dick in you after too many Baccardi Breezers.”
“I never said such a thing. Don’t put words in my mouth.” Linda turned to the sink and clattered saucepans together in pretence of busyness. It was always the same evasion when Simone brought up the subject of her parentage.
“Except that’s not how it happened, is it?” Simone pressed. “You do know who my father is. That bloke knows too. The two of you were being very shifty earlier.” She pulled another of her faces. “It’s not him, is it?”
Linda couldn’t help but laugh at this. “Malcolm Lichfield!? He was just a nerdy kid back then!”
“Then who?” demanded Simone. “Face me when I’m talking to you! Don’t turn your back on me!!”
Linda kept her head down towards the sink. “I told you: it was a one-night stand and I didn’t get his number. I’m very sorry it worked out that way, but there’s nothing–”
“LIAR!!” screamed Simone. Fury bubbled up inside her, and at the same moment the plughole gurgled. A stream of green-brown grime, months’ worth of filthy deposits, spewed up from the sink u-bend. The stuff sprayed over Linda’s expensive flower-print blouse, catching one side of her face. It stank.
“Oh my God, what’s THAT!?” shrieked Linda. “Get me a towel!!” Her quivering hands fumbled at the taps.
Above the sink a wall-mounted shelf collapsed at one end, and a series of blue-print china plates rolled off like pennies in a slot arcade. One crashed centimetres from Linda’s fingers, while another smashed at her feet. A third spun straight for her head and she ducked, throwing herself into a corner. She wrapped her arms over her head, screaming as the porcelain discs were hurled around her.
The last plate landed unbroken in front of Linda, spinning until it clattered to a stop. She shook and gently sobbed in the quiet aftermath, a cowed heap on the floor.
Simone’s jaw hung open at the calamity she’d witnessed, then she chuckled grimly. She became aware of the pendant throbbing against her skin, in symphony with her subsiding anger. Fixing her eyes on the unbroken plate at her mother’s feet, she concentrated her will.
The plate shattered.
* * *
Even a long soak in the bathtub couldn’t fully exorcise the drain stench from Linda’s hair. She emerged from the bathroom to discover that Simone had bagged the spare bedroom, leaving her with the late professor’s abode to sleep in. She pushed open the creaking bedroom door, her eyes flitting warily about her. Faded, chintzy wallpaper; a wardrobe of dark, chunky wood; a worn-looking bed – all harmless on the face of it, but a chilling presence permeated the air. Not the Professor’s ghost – Linda didn’t believe in ghosts, she reminded herself – but something baser, something ancient and animal.
She’d opted to spend the night in the house to confront her apprehensions (and winding up her daughter was a bonus). Now Linda regretted not booking alternative accommodation. The incident in the kitchen had been a bad omen.
No, she insisted to herself, it had been dodgy plumbing and shoddy shelving. To believe anything beyond that didn’t credit her intelligence. It was groundless superstition, just as Malcolm Lichfield had said.
The bed proved more comfortable than its appearance suggested, but Linda lay awake for some time, her eyes tracing the shadows that swaying branches cast on the curtains. It’s all groundless superstition, she repeated to herself, rhythmically, hypnotically. Groundless superstition, groundless superstition, groundless superstition, groundless…
It was a crisp Wednesday morning in spring term, and the air sang with a sickening hum. A couple dozen students had gathered around an electricity pylon that ran adjacent to the campus. Linda, twenty years old, was among them. A few people were vomiting; someone was screaming hysterically. Most were silently transfixed on the grisly sight above them, praying it was a sick but sophisticated prank. The stench told them otherwise.
The figure – for gender could not be discerned of it – had its limbs intricately threaded through the metal lattice of the pylon, as if condemned to be broken on the wheel. Scraps of frazzled clothing and blackened skin flapped in the breeze, giving the appearance of an anti-angel, organs smouldering inside the ribcage. A grey-black skull stared blankly, through hollow, steaming eye-sockets. The jaws had clamped so tightly as to crush the teeth to stumps.
Something contacted and a shower of sparks rained down, inciting a chorus of screams. In a daze Linda turned, and beside her stood Professor Lichfield. She wore a tweed jacket; her green eyes were bright; she carried notes for a lecture she would deliver without batting an eyelid. The thin lips rose in a yellow-toothed grin.
“A fine day, don’t you agree, for a student barbecue!”
Linda screamed, though whether in the past or the present she wasn’t sure. Her eyes snapped open. Her heart was racing and the bedsheets were damp with sweat.
She levered herself onto her elbows, letting the swaying shadows sooth her, getting her breathing under control, adjusting to the dark stillness of the house.
She got up, dressed, and padded out onto the landing. Simone’s soft snores drifted from the spare room. This wasn’t the first time Linda had relived that awful day in her nightmares, though it was the first in a while.
Only in the hours after seeing that charred corpse had she found out it was her boyfriend, Simon. A week later she discovered she was carrying his child. Death by misadventure, the coroner ruled, the result of alcoholic tomfoolery. Simon had been seen in the bar the night previous, drunk and aggrieved. Lichfield had failed him on an assignment and he was vowing to appeal it all the way.
Linda had never bought the coroner’s verdict. If Simon had clambered up there drunk, how could he have ended up facing outwards, his limbs tightly woven through the pylon like a fine piece of wickerwork?
She slipped outside into the chilly night and to her car. Only here, in her own territory, did she feel at ease. She wrapped herself in a blanket and hunkered into the driving seat.
Simon hadn’t been the only one. In Linda’s first weeks at uni there had been a new, fast-track lecturer from Russia, whose name escaped Linda. The plucky young woman had used her maiden lecture to take a wrecking ball to Professor Lichfield’s life’s work, while Lichfield herself sat seething in the front row. That same young woman’s promising career came to a premature end a few days later, between two sliding shelf stacks in the library. The librarian, hearing the slam and the hoarse cries for help, ran to the scene, but the stacks were jammed together, and no heaving could turn the wheel to free them. By the time the fire brigade hacked away the shelves, the young academic had expired. Bones had been broken at every shelf level.
Police put it down to an accident – inexplicable, but an accident nonetheless. No-one else had been present in the room at the time, for they would have had to pass the librarian on their way out. The university’s insurance paid out to the deceased’s family. Naturally, rumours circulated amongst the students, that this was what happened to those who dissed Lichfield. The professor seemed to take a quiet pride in these rumours.
After Simon’s death, Linda had to leave. She feared for her safety, and that of her child. Sure enough, the newspapers brought periodic news of further, bizarre mishaps: a student skewered by a javelin on sports day – not in one place, but two, like a salami contorted around a cocktail stick; an ‘open mic night’ ending in asphyxiation, the mic lodged in a participant’s wind pipe. The university became known in the press as “Carnage College”; admissions plummeted. Linda heard from a friend that Professor Lichfield, though officially blameless, had been ushered into early retirement, banished to her house to write obscure textbooks for the rest of her days.
(The administrator who had forced the retirement subsequently veered off a straight, empty road into a tree.)
Morning was still several hours away. Linda pulled the blanket up to her chin, shut her eyes and tried to find some peace. She made sure the car door was locked and the handbrake on.
* * *
In contrast to her mother’s fitful night, Simone slept like a log. She woke refreshed, with sunlight streaming through the windows. The pendant had stayed around her neck throughout the night, and her first waking action was to pull it from under the covers and peer admiringly into its well of blackness. She vowed never to take it off; it belonged close to her heart.
She bounded down the stairs, calling out for her mother. No answer. She opened the front door and greeted the clear morning, the pendant darkly resplendent in the sunshine. Simone took a selfie and smiled at the result; the bronze perfectly complimented her amber eyes. She posted the photo, commenting, “Cruddy house, sod all to do, but on plus side got me some bling.”
She perused her timeline. The gig! She chided herself for forgetting about it. Callum had indeed taken a male friend with him, who’d posted plenty of snaps, but that wasn’t the only company Simone’s boyfriend had kept.
There, in the midsts of the mosh-pit, was Hannah King, whom Simone had seen eyeing Callum in the past. She was a blonde girl, as mainstream as white bread; she hadn’t gone there to see Cyanide Honeymoon.
Photo after photo confirmed Simone’s fears. Callum and Hannah were touching each other’s arms, heads close together, gazes interlocked as they shared a smile. Heartbreak and anger washed through Simone. It ebbed and flowed from her bosom to the pendant and back again. The great gemstone resonated to her rage.
The weeds rustled. “Ah! The Kraken wakes!” remarked Linda, haggard but resilient, beating her way up the path with a pint bottle of milk. “About time too. Come on, the quicker we finish packing, the quicker we…” Linda broke off and stared. “Where did you get that?”
“Get what? Oh this.” Simone casually fingered the pendant. A few flecks of colour now swirled at the edges of the black abyss. “I, er, bought it at the market, last week.”
“No you didn’t. You found it here in this house, didn’t you?” A chill gripped the mother as she gazed into the gemstone. She didn’t know exactly what she was looking at, but she didn’t like what she saw. “Take it off, Simone. Take it off now!!”
Simone stood her ground. “I’m in a bad mood already, so spare me the crap.”
“Simone, you need to take that thing off.” Linda’s voice trembled. “I’m not getting at you, but–”
“Yes you are!” snapped Simone. Her pulse hammered in her ears, and with it a groaning emanated from somewhere in the heavens. “I spend hours packing up junk for you in this horrid house. I miss out on seeing my fave band, and a blonde bitch steals my boyfriend. And you begrudge me one lousy necklace!?”
“TAKE IT OFF!!” Linda lunged to snatch the pendant. As her fingers closed around the bronze, the coloured flecks jumped to the centre and merged in a dazzling flash. Above her the groaning grew to a yawn. She looked up and the gargoyle was tipping from its perch, its single-jawed grin hurtling towards her. She screamed and leapt back, flattening weeds as she fell onto her backside.
The diving gargoyle landed between Linda’s legs, its jaw piercing the earth mere inches from her abdomen. She gawped at its jagged, skyward-pointing wings.
Simone was less surprised this time, and less shocked, too. She understood what she had done. She stood pityingly over her whimpering mother.
“Let that be your final warning. You don’t mess with this” – she pointed to the pendant – “or with me.”
* * *
Close to the town where the Harpers lived, two thirds the way up a wooded hill, a gravel-strewn ledge served as a small car park. Bounded by forest behind and a cliff-face in front, it offered the most stunning views in the county. In high season it was a honey-pot for ramblers and picnickers. During the year’s lean months, the masses all but forsook the place, and that was how Callum Thomas liked it.
Countless times he’d brought Simone up here in his car. Sometimes they’d made love; other times it had been enough to hold hands and take in the view. They’d spent still winter days looking out over the town and surrounding countryside; crisp nights gazing at the stars.
The present misty evening in late autumn, however, offered little visibility, but as Callum lay on the fully reclined passenger seat, Hannah King’s naked form straddling his own, the car’s interior light gave Callum all the view he could wish for.
Three days had passed since Hannah had seduced Callum at the gig – the gig he had meant to take Simone to – and this was their first time having sex together. Hannah knew the significance of this spot, and she enjoyed occupying Simone’s territory, keen to show Callum what she could do – how she could do it better. She thrust her groin into his with perfect rhythm, caressing his chest.
When, grunting, Callum spent himself, Hannah rolled over into the driving seat. Callum brought his seat upright and the couple grinned breathlessly at each other. He shuffled his boxer shorts up his legs and she smoothed out her hair. The radio came on, announcing the breakdown of peace talks in some distant land.
“Whoops, sorry!” said Hannah. “I must have–”
The horn parped, making them both jump. The headlights snapped on in front of them. The wipers ploughed across the windscreen. The radio retuned itself into deep static.
“What the–?” Callum reached forward and switched off the radio. It came on again, louder.
Hannah giggled. “Looks like our animal magic has rubbed off on your car!”
The horn blared again, continuously this time. The radio became ear-splitting. The interior light went off; Callum swore and scrabbled for the switch. Then, quietly amidst the chaos, the handbrake disengaged. The car rolled forward slightly.
Callum gulped. The sheer, hundred-foot drop loomed large in his thoughts; never mind the low wooden barrier that guarded the edge. “Get out of the car!” He opened his door, frigid air blasting their bare bodies.
“Callum!” shrieked Hannah. “Close that door; it’s freezing!”
“I SAID GET OUT!!” he barked, bailing from the passenger door. Hannah, cross but compliant, snatched her underwear from the dashboard.
The horn and radio shut off. Calmness fell.
“What a load of aggro!” griped Hannah, stumbling around on the gravel, pulling her knickers up her legs. “You need to get the electrics sorted on this shit-bucket!”
“Shhh!” said Callum. “Listen!”
“There’s somebody out there.”
The pair turned their eyes and ears to the trees. Sure enough, steady, crunching footsteps could be heard. From the edge of the forest a silhouetted figure emerged.
Callum recognised its outline. “Simone?”
“Well fancy seeing you two up here,” Simone said coldly. “And very underdressed for the time of year.”
“Simone, look, I’m sorry,” Callum cringed. “I know I should have called you… explained…”
“I’ll explain,” Hannah broke in. She bared her teeth at Simone. “You’re dumped, chuck. Callum’s mine now. Turn around. Go home.”
Simone unbuttoned her coat. The pendant glowed at her chest, casting ghostly light up at her stony face. The gemstone was fissured with blues and greens and violets, and at its centre a stormy red pulsated. The cool bronze transmitted each pulse to Simone’s upper body, synchronising with her jealousy and impassioned rage.
“Light-up jewellery? That’s oh-so tacky,” Hannah sneered. “Turn around, Harper. Turn around or I’ll turn you around.”
Simone didn’t move. Hannah advanced; she meant business, even though her teeth were chattering and her hands fumbled behind her back trying to fasten her bra, which began to slip inexplicably upwards from her chest. Repeatedly she yanked it down, first annoyed, then baffled, and finally alarmed as the undergarment leapt and wrapped itself with brutal strength around her throat.
Hannah’s curses cut to ugly rasps. Her bra straps flew upwards into the air, curling like creepers around a tree branch. Her toes grasped for something – anything – as she was yanked clear of the ground.
Simone nodded with a grim smirk. The pendant’s sparks and flashes rippled through her body. By pure thought, she could reach out, moving and manipulating whatever she focussed on. With cerebral ease she twisted her love-rival’s writhing body, tightening the nylon noose.
“She screws around too much,” Simone remarked blithely, as Hannah revolved through turn after turn.
A horrified Callum ran to the aid of his gargling girlfriend. Simone lifted Hannah from his reach, so that he stumbled to the ground, snatching into thin air. Simone then dropped Hannah in a pendulum swing, causing the girl to knee him in the face. The blundering had an almost comical air about it, but the outcome was deadly; the manoeuvre had broken Hannah’s neck.
Picking himself up, Callum stared at Hannah – the body that minutes ago had been pogoing on top of him in mutual ecstasy, now limp and lifeless. Her head sagged to one side, her eyes glassy and unblinking. Callum spun to face his ex. The gemstone was bloody scarlet now, and bright as a beacon, lighting up Simone in a devilish hue. He bolted to the car.
He almost reached the door, but something unseen winded him in the stomach, threw him over, slammed him hard on his back onto the front of the car. He was spread-eagle on the bonnet, a foot protruding above each headlight, his shoulders, head and arms against the windscreen.
Groaning from the impact, Callum found himself unable to move. He wasn’t paralysed, rather pinned down by an incredible force. His limbs could only judder. He tried to butt the windscreen with the back of his head, desperate for any route of escape. In front of him, the headlights caught only swirling mist, but he could sense the void in all its awfulness.
Simone came to stand beside and slightly in front of the car. She made the vehicle jerk forward. Callum cried out. She laughed. His boxers were patterned with little guitars – a birthday gift from her. She still found them kind of cute. Via the pendant’s ghostly touch, she remotely stroked his thigh. He whimpered, eyes fixed on her.
“Sorry Cal,” she purred. “I loved you. Perhaps I still do. But you know I can’t let you live after what you’ve seen.”
“No no! I won’t tell a soul, I promise! I’ll say I killed her myself! Simone please!! Don’t…!”
As Callum babbled away, Simone blew him a kiss. The car rolled forth, picking up speed, then hit the wooden barrier in a sudden stop. The force that pinned Callum in place evaporated as swiftly as it had arisen, and he whizzed off the bonnet. Simone watched his outstretched form disappear into the fog.
She smiled to hear it; in his final seconds he called her name. His anguished wail got quieter and deeper, until it terminated with a crunching smash. He bounced at least once, she discerned. Then silence prevailed.
* * *
As feeble and ludicrous a defence as it sounded, Simone hadn’t gone up that hill with the intention to kill. She’d wanted to frighten the pair, humiliate them, yes, but the pendant had had designs of its own. While she had mastered its reach over the physical realm, it in return had seized her moral compass.
Towards the bottom of the hill she vomited. She keeled over and cried in the dust. She slung the cursed pendant into the bushes. At home she trembled under the shower for an hour, ignoring her mother’s shouts through the door.
But after a sleepless night Simone slipped out at first light. The urge was irresistible. The pendant drew her back as if on an invisible line. She instinctively knew which bush it waited in; she parted the undergrowth and found it first time. And when restored to its rightful place around her neck, it soothed her racked conscience. Their communion was stronger than ever. Its blackness overspilled into her being, and her soul slipped into its void.
A police car screamed past her on her way home; a dog-walker had made the grim discovery. Soon the town buzzed with the news that Callum Thomas had strangled the life from his new girlfriend, and then taken his own.
There was no suggestion of a third person’s involvement; the police found no other prints or DNA on the bodies or car. They did come to interview Simone, enquiring of “any indication”. She fed them a crock-pot of woe: how Callum had grown increasingly erratic and aggressive, how she’d been forced to split with him, her guilt at not telling anyone about his behaviour… The kindly constable told her she mustn’t blame herself.
Linda wasn’t taken in by the crocodile tears, but didn’t dare confront her daughter. Furtively, she pored over the professor’s books and papers, reading up on the evil eye and on talismans and amulets in general, but she couldn’t find the information she needed; crucial pages had been ripped out.
She phoned Malcolm Lichfield. “I need to meet you at your aunt’s house,” she said. “As soon as possible.”
“Didn’t you take what you wanted when you were there?” said Malcolm irritably. “I’m about to have the place decorated.”
“Listen pal,” Linda hissed down the phone. “If you don’t help me, my house is going to get decorated with my own guts! Please, Malcolm. Can you meet me there this afternoon?”
Malcolm reluctantly agreed. Linda crept past Simone’s room, from which frantic guitar music was blaring. She didn’t announce her departure.
Storm clouds grew blacker by the mile as Linda retraced her journey. Thunder rumbled when she parked outside the professor’s house. She strode, apprehensive but determined, through the weeds to the front door.
Simone’s head cautiously peeped through the back window of the car. Crawling out from the floor space where she’d hidden herself, she kissed the pendant and readied for action. It was too bad her mother had to meddle.
Inside, Linda and Malcolm were assembled in the room of now-empty display cases. He was more agitated about being in this house than she was; no wonder he’d concocted a tale about a wife and the flu.
“I’ve never told Simone the truth about her father,” Linda confessed. “It was too horrific to tell when she was young. She was always an inquisitive child; I knew she’d look things up, see the photos…” She sighed deeply. “I’m aware she’s an adult now, but the longer the lie has gone on, the harder it is to break.”
Malcolm nodded sympathetically. “And I haven’t told you about my father.”
“What about him?”
“He drowned in a lake when I was four.” Malcolm paced up and down between the display cases. “He was a strong swimmer, but his foot got caught in a crevice and held him under. My aunt – his sister – just stood watching at the bank while the bubbles rose; she didn’t know I was there.”
Linda took out her phone and showed Malcolm the photo Simone had posted. “This pendant,” she asked urgently. “Is it something your aunt used to wear?”
Malcolm slowly nodded. “Yes, she did wear something a bit like that. Wore it most of the time, in fact, but always under her clothing. I caught a glimpse of it sometimes. Once I asked her about it and she got very cross and told me–”
“Hey, what’s that noise?!”
What had started as a faint hum built into a jarring rattle. In the glass panes of the display cases, Linda saw reflections juddering. Then one pane cracked; another crazily slammed itself; the wood frames groaned and splintered.
“Let’s get out of here!!” cried Linda, and they ran. The panes blew out in quick succession, as though bombs had been planted behind them. Linda barely felt the flying shards slice her back and arms, noticing only the warm trickles of blood that followed.
They opened the front door to be greeted by Simone and the crimson glare of the pendant. “Hello Mum!” Simone grinned. The gate ripped off its hinges and whizzed towards them. Malcolm slammed the door just in time, and the rusty spikes impaled through it.
“Out the back!!” he shouted.
The kitchen hosted a maelstrom of plates and pans and cutlery, hurtling in all directions. A set of carving knives embedded themselves around the door, as if thrown by a magician. Malcolm screamed as one nailed his hand to the wall. Linda helped him yank his bloody paw free, and they beat a frantic retreat.
They took refuge in the living room, but now the very walls were quaking and cracking. Linda scrambled under a coffee table as plaster disintegrated. Masonry and roofing came battering down.
As the dust cleared, Linda saw that half the building had gone, the other half sliced open like a doll’s house. Of the collapsed side, only the chimney breast remained. This now twisted, clockwise then anticlockwise, and started to lean…
“MALCOLM, LOOK OUT!!” Linda yelled. Malcolm had already seen the danger but was unable to move, his legs crushed under a ceiling beam. The chimney breast hammered his head in between his shoulders, and his concertinaed body didn’t move again.
Relative quiet fell. Choking and spluttering, Linda peered out from under her refuge. The storm had broken and rain pelted the ruins. The surviving half of the house was slowly sagging and crumbling. Amongst the upstairs rooms in the dissected building, Linda recognised the professor’s bedroom, where she had previously slept. Bits of floor fell away, and so did an object that was stashed underneath the bed. It glinted darkly as it dropped, and Linda’s heart caught in her throat.
She played over what Malcolm had said: “My aunt did wear something a bit like that.”
Linda crawled over the debris and laid hands on the treasure. It was another pendant, but double the size of that wielded by Simone. Instead of tarnished bronze, the rim was spotless silver, defying the very dust that caked everything else. And if the gemstone of Simone’s pendant represented a well of blackness, this one was a veritable reservoir.
But of course – the professor would have kept the deluxe model closest at hand.
Linda placed the solid silver chain around her neck. Lightning flashed in the sky. She stood up, feeling exalted amidst the pouring ran.
“Well Mother, you’re proving a tough nut to crack.” Simone stepped around the corner. “But crack you I will.”
The girl nodded to the hefty wardrobe in the bedroom directly above Linda, and it obediently toppled. Linda braced to be bludgeoned, but when the wardrobe was almost upon her it exploded into a hundred pieces, all of which flew clear of her.
Simone frowned. “Okay…”
The girl tried next to slam the bed down onto her mother, but this was shredded in mid-air, a myriad mattress springs spinning harmlessly to the ground.
Linda shook her head derisively. “Let me try.” She fixed her gaze upon a great slab of slate that protruded from the rubble, so large she would have struggled to lift even one end. But with the pendant’s invisible grip, she pulled it out with ease. Soon the slate was horizontal and levitating, equidistant between herself and Simone. It began to turn. Faster and faster it span, as Linda channelled her adrenaline into it, until it became a blur before their eyes.
Simone gulped. “How…?” Her eyes fell on the king-size pendant at her mother’s chest. “Oh crap.”
“Bigger is always better,” said Linda, before firing the spinning slab. Simone ducked, avoiding decapitation by a split second. A cool breeze rushed against her scalp as the slate whizzed by.
Simone took a few faltering steps backward, shaking her head fearfully, then turned and bolted. It was Linda’s turn to bring the house down; a piece of exterior wall pulped the earth at her daughter’s fleeing hells. Simone yelped in pain as a window frame struck her shoulder, but she sprinted on. She dove into Linda’s car and started the engine. A huge chunk of masonry took out the rear windscreen and the back section of roof, but the car pulled away all the same.
Linda scuttled through the ruins towards Malcolm’s car. The keys were presumably on his corpse, but the pendant dealt with the lock. She hit the road.
Simone had taken only a few driving lessons, and was a slow learner, but the car was an automatic and she had little difficulty getting it up to speed. The finer points of the Highway Code did not rank amongst her present concerns. With each glance in the mirror, the vehicle pursuing her loomed larger. Then her own vehicle began to shake and slide. The wheels bounced on the road, jarring her body.
Her car veered of its own accord into the opposing lane. A tractor blared its horn; Simone screwed the steering wheel with all her strength and closed her eyes. Tyres screeched and smoked. She dodged by a whisker but it was a temporary reprieve. Directing events from behind, Linda caused the car’s rear end to swing out. Simone lost control, spinning off the road and careening through crash barriers. Everything tilted forty-five degrees and she was flung against the door.
The wrecked car teetered on the edge of a ravine, its chassis pivoting on a rocky outcrop. A thin line of blood trickled from Simone’s mouth as she surveyed the stark earth far below her – the same fate Callum had met. Her sweet Callum. She realised now she did still love him.
But gravity was not the only way to die. Lightning struck the cliff-side, not one hundred yards away. Rocks cracked and tumbled away, smoking. Simone felt the static crawl up her neck.
Linda got out of her vehicle. The car on the precipice creaked, tilting further towards the abyss. Linda’s maternal instinct twinged at the beseeching expression of the girl inside, but the gemstone at her breast glowed redder by the second.
She needed to decide, and soon, how to take care of her daughter.